Over on the Daylight Atheism boards, (which I thoroughly recommend as a place for anyone regardless of faith to give their opinions on religion a healthy dose of scrutiny) Ebon has put up an open post asking for peoples' stories about their 'deconversion' - i.e. how they came to not believe. Though my particular path did not include some of the struggles with society, family or friends exhibited by some of the other posters, I added my voice to the crowd, and have reproduced it here.
My story is pretty tame, although this topic is one that has encouraged me to look back on an aspect of my past life that I had forgotten about.
I grew up in England, which was/is much more secular than the US, and so I was fortunate to be raised by parents/grandparents who were mostly non-believers themselves, though didn't label themselves as such, (they had some religious artefacts remaining - my mother would say 'don't take the Lord's name in vain' whenever I would say 'oh god' or something, almost as a knee-jerk reaction). By and large, faith played little part in my early formative years.
What little I did have, was found at school and Friday/weekend cub-scouts and reached a peak just before my teens. Prayers and hymns in morning assembly, going to church most Sundays around the age of 10-12 as part of a community gathering, and so on. One cold winters' day, as I was stood outside church waiting to go in, I looked around. I saw the cars on the nearby road driving past without their passengers giving so much as a glance towards the church in respect, and at the rows of terraced houses flanking the perimeter of the church grounds, many with their lights on and snapshot views of their owners keeping warm inside, watching telly instead of coming out to worship.
I initially thought that they were in the wrong, choosing their selfish comfort over what was becoming a weekly pilgrimage of sorts for me; something that was just done. In the days after, my thoughts focused a little more on the subject. I hadn't really separated out the religious aspects of my life from the other things going on, and realised that I was just going to church, and praying and singing hymns at my school without really taking the time to think about what it was people were telling me and getting me to accept without question.
So in private moments I would try to make sense of the situation, and one day just stood in that same place outside church, and asked God to give me a sign that he existed. If a sign of unmistakable clarity showed itself, I would continue with my faith and attempt to strengthen it. If one didn't, I would assume for the moment that God did not exist and I would remain of that mind until I saw evidence for myself to the contrary. Five minutes passed, and I dared myself a little further: I said in a quiet but determined voice to the sky: 'God, I don't think you exist. Prove me wrong and show me that you do.'
And that was the basis for my non-belief. No answer or revelation (or lightening bolt) came, and that gave me the clarity to start dealing with life in a less complicated manner. I began miming to the hymns instead of singing them, I went to church but looked at the people there as receiving emotional comfort from within, not spiritual guidance from without. As I got older and more aware that different religions and faiths and cults existed, I found that looking at them from a psychological viewpoint was far more enlightening - mixtures of traditional habits not easily shaken, a human desire to align oneself with a group for comfort, a need to feel 'in the right' and all the peer pressure that glued it together was more believable for me than any notion of a 'Loving God', especially when you bring into the equation all the ugliness in the world that he supposedly produced, together with all that smiting he likes so much to do.
For several years, this was how it was: generally not believing but not thinking about it too much, until about four years ago when I moved to a neighbouring town that were a little more serious when it came to conviction. As I spent my non-working days getting my new house together (it needed a lot of work) I would have my front door approached by Creationists, Jehovas' Witnesses and Alpha people. Each would start with some general question about the evils in the world to get you onside, followed by various unsubstantiated claims about how a life of faith would sort it all out. I wanted to say 'you're wrong, because...' but I didn't have any argumentative knowledge to back it up.
So I started to look deeper. I wanted to make sure that I was objective in my search; after all, I had based my non-belief so far on a snotty question fired into the air on a cold winter day many years previous. I found sites online, both faith-based and atheist/humanist, and slowly got myself a more proper understanding of what it meant to be a Christian, Muslim, Creationist, Atheist, Humanist, etc. Wherever I looked, the religious side of things seemed to be propped up on assumptions and half-truths, and while I can't say I understood the minutiae of the the opposite arguments, being often waist deep in scientific understanding, they definitely made a lot more sense and helped solidify my view. They certainly struck me as more plausible than the religious sorts, who would often turn back to the bible or some other holy book whenever they were posed a question they had no answer for.
And this is how it is now for me. There was no evangelical bullying or peer-pressure (for which I consider myself extremely fortunate), no coercion to rebel against, just a slow realisation, often from a spectators point of view on other countries and cultures, that faith is a human invention. The term 'Man made God in his own image' rang truest of all the things I have seen and heard.
I consider myself an atheist-agnostic - I am comfortable with my disbelief, but there are still things that have a big question mark for them - such as what triggered the big bang, what caused the first spark of life, and what exists outside the boundaries of the universe, but in the absence of an answer, I just stick a large question mark in its place (it could be the work of some being that may fill the description of 'God' but I will assume the default option that it isn't for now). I hope that some day in my lifetime, we can learn enough to perhaps replace some of those question marks with answers.