Part 2 of a two-part review of the Atheist Film Festival. In Part 1, I reviewed the movie Deliver Us From Evil. I am so thrilled to have been at the first ever Atheist Film Festival, I can't even tell you. I can't wait for next year's.
If I had to choose one book about atheism that I wanted believers to read -- one book to explain to believers what atheism is and perhaps persuade them to reconsider their beliefs -- I don't think it would be a book.
I think it would be this movie, "Letting Go of God."
"Letting Go of God" captures Julia Sweeney's one-woman performance piece about her deconversion from long-standing Catholic faith to atheism. And Sweeney has a very rare, very special knack. She has the ability to express complex and emotionally difficult ideas in an accessible, entertaining, intimately personal way. Rather than simply making an argument for why atheism is more plausible than religious belief, she tells the story of how, in the process of learning more about her faith, she eventually had to let go of it. And she tells this story with poignancy, with kindness, with dramatic tension, and with a powerful dose of hilarious humor.
But Sweeney is more than just a good, funny storyteller. She has an intellectual courage that is enviable: a willingness to rigorously investigate her ideas and beliefs... and to change them or let them go if they don't stand up. When she wanted to explore her Catholic faith in more depth, she didn't just pray a lot or go to church more -- she went to Bible study classes, to actually learn about the religion she'd held since childhood. (The first nail in the coffin of her faith, as it turned out.) When she was considering Buddhism, she didn't just listen to the watered- down Los Angeles version of it -- she went to Tibet. When she was thinking, "God is nature," she didn't just look at pretty trees -- she read Darwin. And when she was getting into New Age quantum woo, she didn't just take Deepak Chopra's word for it -- she took a class in quantum physics. (Leading her to the conclusion, "Deepak Chopra is full of shit!") She is unwilling to accept slippery, vague, or glib answers to the serious questions of life... and she is unwilling to maintain an implausible or untenable belief simply because doing so would be easy or pleasant.
Yet at the same time, Sweeney has a kindness about her, a sympathetic quality that wants more than anything to understand people and connect with them. She doesn't dismiss how powerful religion is in people's lives, and she doesn't trivialize the loss she felt when she finally had to let go of it. She does poke gentle fun at religion's absurdities and inconsistencies (and sometimes not- so- gentle fun -- Exhibit A being the Deepak Chopra section). But it's clearly done from the point of view of an insider, one who has held sincere religious belief and understands what it feels like. (Anyone who thinks people become atheists because religion is too burdensome needs to see this movie, pronto... so they can see how hard Sweeney tried to hold on to her faith, and the crisis and loss she went through when it was slipping away.) She isn't trying to persuade anyone to come around to her atheist point of view (although I suspect that may happen anyway, at least sometimes). She's just trying to tell you what happened with her belief in God, and why she let go of it. And the bulk of her humor turns not on others, but on herself.
And this, I think, is what makes her performance so compelling. More than being a good storyteller, more even than having a rigorous intellectual courage, what makes "Letting Go of God" so powerful is Sweeney's ability to take you inside her mind and her heart. Her deconversion story is exactly that: a story, not a polemic. With intelligence and sympathy, with drama and humor, with unblinking honesty and affectionate kindness, she takes the audience through her experience of letting go of God: not explaining or arguing for her position, but revealing, step by step, the extremely personal process by which she arrived at it.
Which is exactly why I would pick this movie, above any book or article or even blog post, as the piece of atheist thought I would most like believers to see. I have nothing against harsh critiques or mockery of religion: I've criticized and mocked religion at length, and will continue to do so, and will defend it with all my heart. But I also think that Sweeney's gentle, personal, self- deprecating fearlessness about her own loss of faith is likely to get under people's skin, in a way that the sharpest argument in the world might not. And it definitely has the power to get believers to see atheists, not as cowardly libertines, but as good, thoughtful, loving people who take life's big questions seriously.
Now, whenever I give a rave review, I always feel obligated to balance it with some piece of criticism. So here it is:
In some places, the film quality isn't great. There are spots where it's a little grainy. (Unless that was a projection problem. In which case, never mind.)
That's pretty much the downside.
In other words: This movie completely hits it out of the park. I don't know why it's had such a hard time finding distribution: it deserves a wide audience, and it has a broad appeal to both believers and non-. I recommend it to atheists, for all the obvious reasons, and as a great place to get pointers on how to talk with believers about religion. And I passionately recommend it to any and all religious believers who want to understand more about this atheism business: how it happens, and why it happens, and why it means so much to people.
"Letting Go of God" is available on DVD.