Presenting Julia Sweeney

By Julia Sweeney

Believing in Santa Claus is sort of like believing in God. If you want to do it, that’s fine. Just don’t ask too many questions.

This is an excerpt of a speech delivered at the 30th annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., on Oct. 12, 2007. 

I want to just talk about the ten top things that I’ve learned about people since I started performing my show, “Letting Go of God.” I’ve been engaged in so many conversations with people. I get so many e-mails. A lot of people, you know, hate me, and are worried about God and all eternity and everything. But mostly I get fantastic letters from people who have gone through a similar experience.

First, I have to say Katha Pollitt is fantastic and I could have listened to her all night. I was laughing when Katha was talking about these virginity rings. What could be hotter for a teenager than sex while you’re wearing a virginity ring? That is the worst idea in the world! Omigod! Didn’t they learn anything from the Catholic girls in uniforms? It’s just so funny that they would think virginity rings would be a good idea and that it would keep teenagers from having sex.

I also think Katha’s really on to something about being culturally isolated in America and how that turns people toward the church. I think that is so potent, that idea, and so true.

But even my mother, who’s a practicing Catholic, is coming around. I’ve noticed you get a big reaction when you say you’re an atheist or that you don’t believe in God–at least from your quasi-religious or going-along-with-it family and friends. They hate you! It’s a big drama. They suddenly get much more religious. Now that it’s been a few years, it’s very interesting. Boy, now they don’t go to church every Sunday anymore.

I’ve really watched that with my mother. She told me about a friend of hers, whose daughter has two young kids, who had to move to some area in Washington state where she didn’t have any family and she has to work. My mother was saying, of course all positively: “And fortunately, there’s this church that takes the kids after school. They pick them up at school and take them to the church and they do homework with them and they feed them a snack and she can come pick them up at 5:15. Isn’t that so wonderful?”

Of course, I was horrified. But as a mother, I understand. Wow, how fantastic would that be if somebody picked your kid up and did homework with them and gave them snacks so that you could be at work? And yet it’s so insidious. Everybody thinks they’re doing such a good thing. I said to my mother, “Oh, you know, that really bothers me. Because I think while they’re doing homework they’re slipping in whatever religion this is.”

And even she didn’t know how to react. She said, “Yeah, but you know, that’s a good thing for her.” That’s true, and I understand it, but I just think that is where we need to turn our attention in the future.

OK. So here’s the ten things that have really come to the forefront for me, talking to so many people about religion.

Number one: People want to be good. People want to sacrifice for the common good. This is just part of our heritage as human beings.

I believe we have evolved to have this feeling. We all know how good it feels to help your neighbor do something or contribute, or make some self-sacrifice to do something. Everybody wants that feeling. This is where religion can sneak right in and hand this feeling over to people. All this good will that we’ve evolved to have can be just sucked up by an organization that is really doing things that are probably not for the greater common good. Yet they can deliver that hit to people of feeling like they’re doing something good.

For example, I just turned 48(!) and I’m still friends with about eight girlfriends in Spokane I’ve known since second grade, who are my age. Six are practicing Catholics, one is at the Universal Church and one converted to Judaism. But all of them do good things with their church, help build women’s shelters. They’re all involved. They all have that feeling.

When I talk to them about religion, they don’t say, “Oh, did I feel good yesterday thinking how Mary was a virgin and conceived Jesus!” They don’t say anything about Catholicism. They talk about the community work that they’ve done. And that’s what they connect with their church. They assign that good feeling to their church.

I just observe that over and over again. That wish to do good seems to be such a universal human trait and I think that religion does ill will with that.

Number two: The second thing I’ve noticed is a code of behavior is often necessary.

Katha kind of touched on this. People need 12-step programs. They need structure. I don’t like the whole higher power of the 12-step program. But just today, I got a letter saying, “I’m a physicist, I’m a scientist, I have 700 degrees and yet I know Jesus is the son of God because my life was a wreck and I couldn’t get out of bed. I accept Jesus as my personal savior and now I do these ten things and the proof is in the pudding. . . .”

As I say in my show, what William James said: “It doesn’t work because it’s true, it’s true because it works.”

Number three: The next thing I’ve noticed is: People want to be in a club.

We evolved and here we are. I’m very glad about my club with you! People need to be in a club. We evolved in groups of small tribes. They say that the average person has about 200 people in their address book because the tribes were around 200 people. That’s about how many people we can keep relationships straight with.

We like to feel affiliated. Obviously, there was an evolutionary advantage to us to have this feeling. I think religion, once again, in the absence of anything else, just swoops in.

In a way, in the last three years, even though I’ve completely rejected religion and I’ve done the show about how I rejected it, I’ve seen what works about religion. I’ve seen the underbelly of the beast. Because it does deliver. It makes people feel good. It gives them a code of behavior. And they’re in a club. And it’s easily identifiable.

I also agree with Katha that these things are changing. I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be part of this group and all of these groups and people saying what they really think. But I also think that religion delivers those basic needs for people who don’t want to think too deeply about it.

I know, no big news to you, but for me, these are the things I’m turning over in my head.

Four: People love to hate.

People feel closer to other people if they have a common person they don’t like. Come on, everybody knows that’s true! And it’s true for us, too.

Religion delivers on that, too! It gives people an instant common enemy, whether it’s Islamic fundamentalists or secularists, that’s immediately there and provided. At Saturday Night Live, we were never closer than when Steven Seagal hosted–because we hated him so much! That was when I actually found out where everyone who was on staff lived in the city. I became close to everyone in our common hatred.

Religion provides that. I understand talking about how much we don’t like religious fundamentalists and they are so worthy of our hatred. But I try not to get too much into that. Because that’s so easy. That’s really delivering easy hits.

Five: The market does not like informed or skeptical citizens.

Advertisers and big companies that are short-term profit driven align themselves, consciously or unconsciously, with religion, because they both have common interests: keeping people needing things and not quite giving them what they need.

I really notice that over and over. To me, one of the creepiest things is this alignment between big business and conservative religion.

Six: I feel that bashing religion is more popular than understanding it, or even standing firm about your point of view without bashing. I think in the long term, understanding it is really the way to win.

Seven: Mostly, people are not introspective.

This has been a really profound realization for me. I was raised in Catholicism. I thought while everyone was praying they were thinking deeply about the hardest questions. Turns out that’s not true. I don’t think they are really thinking about anything. I don’t think–this is sad and maybe cynical–but I don’t think most people are very interested in why they do the things they do, and why they believe the things they believe. I know that makes me sort of a pessimist, but I came to this conclusion through thousands of e-mails and conversations.

Eight: Mostly people feel uncomfortable not knowing an answer.

Uncertainty is highly stressful. It’s undesirable. And religion provides answers. Science provides some answers, and those are often deeply unsettling and deeply humbling in a way that is very unnerving.

For example, to realize the universe doesn’t care about you specifically is a very difficult thing. When I think back to how I loved being a Catholic and I loved the nuns and the whole humility thing, I was kind of, “Oh, that’s so fantastic! I’m so humble, I’m so humble!” What could be more arrogant than thinking that there’s a god out there wondering if you’re performing the five offices of the day? That is arrogance taken to the extreme.

Nine: We’ve evolved our consciousness, I think, to have a great capacity to live in denial about things that make us feel uncomfortable.

I do this about a lot of things. I think we all have to admit that we do this, just not about religion. I stopped and looked at the uncomfortable answers with religion and I decided to go with the evidence. But there is some adaptive advantage to being maybe ridiculously optimistic about things or not really knowing, just going on faith. I think it’s not good, but we have to admit that we all do live in denial to some degree.

And I have a tenth observation. I even wrote this down. This is bad–I should not end on this, I should end on something good!

I wrote: Life is meaningless.

That is not good ad copy. What can I do about that? People say, “But then life’s meaningless!” Then I go into my song and dance: “But life is meaningful to me! And I have my meaningful life. Just being aware is so meaningful. Blah blah blah.”

And it’s true. I do feel that way. But that is a bitter pill to swallow. I don’t think everyone can swallow that pill. That maybe the universe isn’t so excited about these homo sapiens and has not been looking forward to our appearance all this time! That’s hard to admit.

Finally, I want to say three other things, and then I’ll be done.

The biggest, the greatest harm that religion did for me is that it quelled my natural wonder about the world. I didn’t really wonder about science. When I took chemistry, first of all it was boring the way they presented it and all the guys just wanted to make stink bombs. I didn’t think of it as being like cooking–I mean, I love to cook. If they’d presented it that way I would have been in. But I felt that there was this answer to everything. God gave us the 92 elements, or however many there are! Everyone knows the real answer: It’s God!

I feel so cheated by that. That’s why I wish I could sue the Catholic church. It’s not for whatever those priests were doing, it’s because I didn’t let my natural wondering continue, the thing that makes me the most human, the thing that makes me the most different from other species–my natural desire to know the answer. It cut that off for me. And I just think that is the most heinous thing that religion does.

I have a seven-year-old daughter. We went to the Atheists Alliance convention and I was on this great parenting panel. Everyone was talking about how they read a different myth from the world to their child every night. And I was thinking, “I can barely make dinner! My god, I’m so behind on the myths!”

So I have been trying to throw a myth in here and there. I was telling my daughter recently about Adam and Eve. I thought, OK, let’s just start with the basic stuff. So I was telling her, oh, there’s this story, and it’s about how the world began. It’s not how the world began, but it’s a story. There’s Adam and Eve and then there was this tree of knowledge and God said, “Don’t eat from the tree of knowledge.” Then the snake came to Eve and Eve went to Adam and before you knew it everyone was having apple pie. Then God came and was so mad about it and they had to leave the garden.

So Mulan goes, “Well, how did God know they were eating the fruit?” I said, “Oh, that’s a good question! I can’t remember.”

So just today I looked it up. Actually, it’s very interesting because God comes in and says, “Who was eating the fruit?”

Then Mulan said, “But God knows everything and there’re only two people.”

I love her questions.

Then we got into the thing about the other animals. Could they not eat the apple? Because we have an apple tree in our backyard and sometimes squirrels are eating them. Could no animals eat it? Only the people couldn’t eat it?

So I read that chapter of Genesis again. You know, I’ve gone through my whole story. I just knew vaguely what the Genesis story was. Then I took a bible study class. Then I was horrified by the bible. Then I read comparative religion. The story turns up here and there and everywhere. You can’t turn around without seeing that story somewhere in the world. But I just haven’t looked at it for a few years.

So today I read it again, and it is so beautiful. That story is so obviously about enlightenment. It is so obviously about human beings becoming aware that they’re conscious and they are going to die and that they are naked and that they can do good and bad to each other. Even when God says, “From now on, Adam, you have to eat from the soil, from your crops,” it’s such a beautiful story about us learning how to till the land and farming.

How did that beautiful story get so fucked up!

It’s such a great enlightenment story. It’s about saying goodbye to God. It’s about saying, “I’m eating the apple. And now I take the consequences of eating the apple. I know I’m going to die. And I know that I can do right and wrong. And I know I have to cooperate and have pain in childbirth. I’m aware of it. I’m not an animal that isn’t aware of those things.”

I was just arrested by the beauty of that. So I just wanted to share that.

My last story is about my daughter.

I didn’t know what to do about the Santa Claus thing. I start my show all about how I found out there was no Santa Claus, and how one thing just led to another. So then I became a mother and I really felt uncomfortable about lying to my daughter. I was very in conflict about how to handle Santa Claus because, of course, it’s fun and fantastic and great. I really do believe it’s a secular celebration and it’s part of our culture and I want to participate in that. On the other hand, it involves all this lying, and I really want my daughter to know that I would not lie to her. Maybe if the Nazis were coming and we were running away, under extreme circumstances I would lie, but not about Santa Claus. I just didn’t want to do that!

I was very uncomfortable so I didn’t tell her about Santa Claus for a really long time. Somehow she got to be three and a half without hearing about Santa, and then it was almost like she was too smart. ‘Cause I was going, “Well, there’s this guy. He’s going to come over when we’re asleep.”

She’s like, “What?!”

And I did not sell it. I was so half-assed: “Yes, he comes when we’re sleeping.”

She goes, “Well, I’m not going to sleep in my bed by myself when there’s somebody coming in the house!”

Then I go, “He leaves presents.”

And she’s like, “Um, how does he get in?”

And I go, “He comes down the chimney.”

And she goes, “WHAT?”

So we put out carrots for the reindeer and cookies. And I went and ate them. Omigod! Then I went in her room and I say, “Santa Claus was here.”

She goes, “I’m not going out there!”

It was horrifying.

So now she’s older. Finally she started picking up on stuff, like the tooth fairy. ‘Cause when we were in Iceland last year at the atheist conference she lost her tooth. We did this big elaborate ritual of putting the Icelandic money under the pillow. And then, I saved her tooth.

So eight months ago, I’m in the living room and Mulan comes in with this little baggie that had her tooth in it and says, “What is this?”

I’m like, “That’s apparently a child’s tooth.”

And she goes, “Uh-huh. Are you the tooth fairy?”

I said, “Yes, I am.”

And she goes, “And who is Santa Claus?!”

So I said, “OK. I’m Santa Claus.”

So it’s out. But then I go, “But don’t tell Coco, don’t start telling kids at school.”

I could see her little head working. She goes, “Well, all those letters I wrote to Santa Claus? So that was just writing them to you!”

And I go, “Yeah, that’s right.”

She goes, “Huh. So I don’t need to write a letter, I can just tell you what I want?”

And I said, “That’s right. And I can just tell you what I want.”

She goes, “Oh. Well, what if I still want to believe in Santa Claus?”

And I go, “Well, you can go ahead. Yeah, you can believe in Santa Claus.”

And she goes, “Well, I think, yeah, I think there is a Santa Claus. And I think if I’m good I get an American Girl doll!”

So it was this whole hilarious thing.

We’re going to Mexico City for Christmas this year. My fiancee, Michael, and I are in the car and Mulan’s in the back and she’s asking all these questions about Mexico. Now it’s triply awkward, because it’s already out, but now we’re kind of half-pretending it’s true.

She goes, “So how does Santa Claus get to Mexico?”

And I go, “He’s magic!”

Then she goes, “Ah, but does he come on Christmas Eve, or does he come on Christmas Day in Mexico?”

And I go, “Mulan, as you know, I’m Santa Claus, so, you know . . . whatever day you pick.”

She goes, “No, no! I believe in Santa Claus!”

I go, “OK.”

She goes, “So, what if they don’t like have a chimney?”

Michael says, “I think believing in Santa Claus is sort of like believing in God. If you want to do it, that’s fine. Just don’t ask too many questions.”

Which I thought was the greatest answer.

Julia Sweeney, an alumna of “Saturday Night Live,” is well-known for her androgynous character, Pat, and her critically acclaimed one-woman monolog, “God Said, ‘Ha!’,” which played on Broadway. Miramax released the film version in 1998, which earned the Golden Space Needle Award for best directing. The comedian and actress consulted on the HBO show, “Sex & the City,” and has been a regular and guest on several TV series. Her movies include “It’s Pat,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Clockstoppers,” “Whatever It Takes,” “Stuart Little” and “Don’t Come Knockin’.” She graduated in economic studies from the University of Washington. Julia’s third monolog, “Letting Go of God,” was Critics’ Choice for the Los Angeles Times.

Freedom From Religion Foundation