How does one become an atheist? I was always an atheist. But, Momma made us go to church. And in Texas in the 60's, that meant there was a very good chance that you were gonna be deeply immersed in Southern Baptist fundamentalism. And so I was.
Of course, I had heard of atheists, but they were always referred to in hissing tones, like sssecular humanissst, and were deemed to be about as worthy of understanding and compassion as murderers, communisssts, or yankees (in no particular order). Atheism was synonymous with devil worship and it was well understood that atheists wallow in the most deviant forms of depravity, and are doomed, by a loving God, to suffer unimaginable horror and unspeakable torture for all eternity in the flaming bowels of Hell. The finer points of atheism didn't get a lot of airplay.
Problem was, Momma mighta started me a little late. I was 9 when she decided that my sisters and I needed to read a little Jesus. By then I treasured my weekends and being outside in the trees and grass, and the last place I cared to be on a bright, hot summer Sunday was in a suit in a pew in a baptist church in mortal danger of hell and damnation. Seems that the experiment was doomed by its very nature. But I tried - I tried real hard - to love the Baby Jesus, and to talk to him and to feel his presence and to bask in his love and to revel in the certainty of eternal life in heaven and the prospect of perpetual worship at the savior's knee. As fun as that sounded, I didn't really experience the ecstasy or the certainty that I was led to expect. I would occasionally mumble something about how I believed in Jesus, secretly hoping that saying it aloud would make it true, and hoping that in time it would come to me.
I even got myself baptized. We had one of those guys - probably every baptist church had one - who thought that it was his personal mission to spot the kids who weren't saved yet, walk up to them during the Invitation, and say the magic words that would lead a ready but reluctant young soul to step out and take that long overdue walk up the aisle and accept Jesus as personal savior. Well, one Sunday when I was about 11, he got me. Snuck up on me, embarrassed the shit out of me and made me walk the aisle.
The sermon was over, the Invitation hymn was playing, the preacher was imploring the sinners to acknowledge their wretched existence, abandon their miserable ways, and fall into the loving arms of Jesus. Two minutes till freedom, when suddenly 6'2, 250 pounds of half-Hawaiian deacon loomed darkly on my left.
"...you believe in Jesus, don't you?"
"Then don't you think it's about time that you walked the aisle and accepted him as your personal savior?"
Numb with shock and mortification, I stepped out and walked down to the preacher, stuttered something about accepting Jesus, and got saved. Despite the secret knowledge that I wasn't really on board yet, I went down and reserved myself a permanent place in Heaven. 'Once saved, always saved' is a uniquely baptist thang.
Anyway, I did all the usual baptist stuff - Sunday School and Morning Service, then back later for Training Union and Evening Service. Choir practice and Prayer Meeting on Wednesday. Royal Ambassadors on Monday nights. Vacation Bible School, Revival Meetings, church camps and retreats, Youth For Christ, bible study, lots of youth and choir activities, "visitation" and "witnessing", and incessant proselytizing. Indoctrination by saturation.
There was, however, a monkey wrench already chewing up the gears. It's name was Science. I loved it - couldn't get enough of it. Dinosaurs and fossils? I came home from Boy Scout camp in New Mexico one summer with fifty pounds of fossils in my backpack. Astronomy and Physics? They both showed that we are in a discoverable universe and that all things are ultimately understandable. Math? Turns out to be the language of Science and the key to understanding the Universe
Science, of course, killed the literal bible. If a dinosaur ever existed, then the genesis creation story was necessarily and irrevocably disconnected from reality. If that didn't kill it, the Big Bang did. It was obvious that the ancients - for lack of the proper tools and adequate understanding - made some highly uninformed guesses regarding origins of life, the universe, and, well... everything. We now know that they were completely wrong about almost everything. The church served only to institutionalize uninformed ancient guesswork.
If there was a specific turning point for me - a point at which I could say that my abandonment of religion was irreversible - it was when I heard someone jokingly paraphrase Genesis by saying "Man created God in his own image." It was an epiphany, but one I was primed for. The truth of it was obvious. I was about 16, I think, and at that point, whether I knew it or not, I was done with religion. After that I drifted away from church and finally found a job which required weekend work. Religions tenuous hold on me just sloughed off like a big old scab. I have not been back in a church except for about 4 weddings and a funeral since then.
Although I was done with church, I tried, at least verbally, to accommodate the notion of a supreme being of some sort for a while. I tried to think of "God" as an uninvolved universal overseer who maybe triggered the Big Bang or provided the laws of physics or something. My last attempt to find a palatable definition was merely to think of "God" as the totality of existence - kinduva Zen thang. Those irrational and unnecessary remnants of the xian theosophy are now long and well discarded.
Because of the stigma, and danger, associated with the word, I was reluctant to refer to myself openly as an atheist for a long time. I think I was around 20 or 21 when I finally did. It was many years before I met another person who openly claimed to be an atheist. I eventually found a thriving online community and a wealth of resources - books, history, and philosophy - in support of the atheist view. And I met some wonderful, intelligent, informed and caring people who were of a common mind. This tight knit community was instrumental over the years in helping me form a cohesive, and integrated philosophy and in tying up some loose ends. The internet was like Atheist College.
I am a hard atheist. Just as I am confident that there are no monsters under the bed, I am fully confident that there are none in the sky either. I am fully confident that all religion is no better than a fairy tale and has no more connection to reality than Santa Claus or Superman. I am fully confident that we live in an objective, decipherable universe and need not spend a lot of time divining the whims of a vengeful and unpredictable "god". I am fully confident that the bible is a fantastical collage of allegory and urban legend, written by ignorant and superstitious men with little concept of factuality or the rules of evidence, and compiled by more ignorant, superstitions, mean-spirited men with a vested interest in perpetuating and institutionalizing their meal ticket.
My escape from religion is complete. I consider myself stunningly fortunate that I was able, through a fortuitous confluence of circumstances and events, to arise relatively unscathed from the cacophony of religious blithering which saturate our daily existence, and from the debilitating effects of religious brainwashing which is cruelly and almost universally imposed on defenseless and malleable children. Somehow I got away. Most are not so lucky. Many will be badly and permanently impaired in their reasoning processes. Most will be incapable of considering the possibility that their favored deity is a fable. I think all strong adherents will suffer severe bouts of cognitive dissonance - the smart ones anyway, and the ones not rendered completely incapable of critical skepticism - when they are occasionally confronted with the need to reconcile some religion-induced craziness with the observable reality of existence. Coerced belief makes people mean.
In the end, considering all the time I spent in church, no one can accuse me of being an atheist out of ignorance. Religion? Spent years there. I'm just amazed that grownups believe that crap. I feel cheated that I was put through it and I feel fortunate that I have been able to achieve the crystal realization that gods do not exist - none of 'em. I am appalled that, 150 years after Darwin and 30+ years since humans walked on the moon, it is even an open question.
I've moved beyond most of the bitterness and anger over all the time I had to spend in church, but it still pisses me off that I had to go to church the night the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan.