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letting go of god
The first version of Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" that I heard was the 29 minute version that made up the second half of an episode of "This American Life" on the subject of the separation of church and state. Her story is about how finally reading the Bible in adulthood (among other things) caused her to abandon her Catholic faith and ultimately a belief in God all together. About a year later she came out with a recording of a live stage version of the monologue. I liked the version I heard on "This American Life" so much that I pre-ordered a copy of the two-disc set through her website.



In this recording, she recounts exploring a few other faiths after leaving the Catholic Church. She considered Buddhism seriously enough (and was evidently wealthy enough) to travel to China, Tibet and Bhutan, but she is ultimately critical of the religion. On visiting a monastery in Bhutan, she said:
[A]s I got closer, I could see how young some of the monks were... Some boys were as young as seven, the Age Of Reason, but hardly an age where someone could make an informed decision about their life purpose. They would get only a religious education; they would never experience a heterosexual relationship, with its particular joys and sorrows, or a family of their own. Instead of being inspired by them, I wanted to free them.

As I hiked back down, I thought, maybe I have it backwards. Maybe we don't all worship the same God. After all, the Buddhist Gods are so different than the Judeo Christian God. But, we worship them in the same way: we recite prayers, we make sacrifices, we wear special garments, and we use special objects.

From there I went to Thailand where I happened to visit a woman who was taking care of a terribly deformed boy who was an orphan. I said to his caretaker, "It's so good of you to be taking care of this poor boy." She said, "Don't say 'poor boy.' He must have done something terrible in a past life to be born like that."

When I came back to L.A., even though there was still a lot about Buddhism that intrigued me, I had to admit, I was less interested. I kept thinking, "The Buddhism we get in California is all
cleaned up for us."

She is right to condemn the behaviors of some of the Buddhists she met. But is it right to reject a whole system when the unpleasant practices associated with it are in complete opposition to it? The Buddha didn't say that deformities are caused by karma--karma is one among many causes of pain in this life. It is in violation of the monastic code to ordain anyone less than 20 years old. (Unfortunately, Asians get around this by ordaining young boys as "novices".) For what it's worth, monastic ordination is not a lifelong commitment. In Thailand it's common to ordain for a year or even just a few months. And worshipping gods has no place in the Buddha's teachings.

Sweeney added:
And I wondered what enlightenment really meant. I felt pretty good about my level of attachment and detachment to the world. To me, life was not all suffering. In fact, what I mostly felt was a growing sense of outrageous luck.

I realized I wasn't just looking for inner peace so I could be happier or more content with my life. I was trying to figure out why I was born, who God was, and I guess, what the meaning of life was.

The Buddha never said that "life is suffering", although I usually know what people mean to say and I try to avoid pedantic arguments. But here it's worth spelling out that, in Buddhism, life isn't just suffering. If there weren't pleasant things, how would there be attachment and desire? Of course life isn't just suffering to a fortunate and wealthy actress. And if one is exploring Buddhism to find out "who God was" or "what the meaning of life" is, you are going to be disappointed because Buddhism does not answer those questions.

She moved on from Buddhism to wondering whether God was Nature. She became interested enough in the writings of Charles Darwin (and is evidently wealthy enough to) travel to the Galapagos Islands, where she saw Blue-footed Boobies and their adorable, fuzzy babies.


Photo copyright Tom Dempsey.


An unexpected habit of these birds led her to an insight on the nature of life:
Usually the Blue-footed Boobies have just one baby per pregnancy, but every once in awhile they have two. And when they do the stronger sibling usually pecks the brains out of the weaker one.

So we were looking at all of these adorable Blue-footed Booby babies and then we found one pecking the brains out of its weaker sibling. And the naturalist was telling us that this was routine. That now the frigate bird would probably come soon and carry the dead baby off to feed its family. That's the way it went. ... I thought, "Oh. God... is not nature. God is not nature. I mean, nature is floods and famines and earthquakes and viruses and little Blue-footed Booby babies getting their brains pecked out by their stronger sibling. God, I mean, the God I know, the God of love and compassion, that isn't exactly found in nature.

I went back to the boat and clouds formed overhead. And I decided I would just lay in the fetal position on the boat for a while and consider nature. ... [N]ature is utterly amoral. Nature doesn't care about me, or anybody in particular. Nature can be terrifying.

Yes, life is overwhelmingly characterized by suffering and loss. So why is this idea too pessimistic to believe when the Buddha says it--yet "pessimism" has no effect on the accuracy of such a view when implied by Darwin's theory of natural selection? Later in the show, as Sweeney ultimately abandons the ideas of God and afterlife all together, she remarks, contemplating the inevitability of the permanent death of every human being: "Life is cheap... and so precious." Maybe this is the "suffering" described by the Buddha.

The Dhamma doesn't need me to defend it, and I don't want Julia Sweeney to convert to Buddhism. I would just feel better if people rejected Buddhism for what it is, rather than for what it's not.

Since the audio recording was released, a live video recording has been made, but I have not yet seen it.


It sounds like she couldn't really "let go of God." At least, not the liberal American Christian God.

I listened to the audiobook version of that. I enjoyed listening to it and was interested in hearing about how she came from a very strict Catholic upbringing (like I did) to eventually come to a point where she pretty much abandoned God altogether (which I also did, but in a different way). I don't know enough about Buddhism to critique anything she said, though. I enjoy her work as a comedian though, I liked the book she did about when she and her brother had cancer at the same time. I forget the name of it.

I thought you made a good point awhile back about people's insistence that a cruel god can't be the true god. Why can't god be a horrible hateful being that delights in suffering. Why can't god have specifically caused blue footed boobies to have chicks that kill one another?

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