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Julia Sweeney: A New Voice for Humanism is Heard at Harvard

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This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

This article was written by Julie Duncan, a student in Harvard's class of 2009 and a member of the Harvard Secular Society.

Atheists may be the most disliked minority in America, but you sure wouldn't have known it from the reaction of the crowd gathered in Harvard's Sanders Theater a couple of months ago. Looking around, I saw over seven hundred people-Harvard students and otherwise-on their feet, clapping and cheering enthusiastically for one of the nation's up-and-coming Humanist voices, Julia Sweeney.

sweeneyA former Saturday Night Live star known for her sense of humor and amiable demeanor, Julia's show Letting Go of God brings to the stage her search for meaning and her eventual decision to become a Humanist. What makes her show so compelling is her unique ability to convey the fear and doubt that everyone experiences on a quest for truth in a way that is friendly and accessible to everyone, even those who have yet to decide exactly what they believe.

Sweeney's performance was the result of months of planning by the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy and the student-run Harvard Secular Society. A committee made up of about eight students from the Secular Society under the guidance of the Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein, worked feverishly to promote the show by flooding the campus with posters touting Sweeney's accomplishments as an actress on SNL and a consultant for Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. In the days leading up to the big night, we even took turns standing in high-traffic areas dressed as Julia's most famous character, the androgynous being "Pat." (This tactic turned quite a few heads!)

Our hard work paid off when the show opened on October 26th to the largest crowd for which Sweeney had ever performed. We were thrilled to see that her message appealed to so many people, and it was very clear that they hadn't come simply for the controversial nature of her act when all seven hundred people leapt excitedly to their feet at the conclusion in the most unanimous standing ovation I've ever witnessed.

Julia stuck around after the show to answer questions and to sign copies of her CD (as well as a photo of me and my two best friends from high school making the "Pat face" at our senior prom...), and we were delighted to find that she really was just as charming and approachable as she seemed onstage.

The Humanist community is certainly lucky to have found such a wonderful advocate in Julia Sweeney. She is kind but not a pushover; she is intelligent but not condescending; she is a normal person but an inspiration to those around her. There's no doubt in my mind that by following her example, by promoting a lifestyle based on reason while keeping our senses of humor about us, we atheists can work our way up to second-most disliked minority in America (at least!) in no time.

This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 16 - Student Voice Part II.

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