I discovered I was an atheist when I was 18 years old, but it would probably be more accurate to say that’s when I discovered other people weren’t atheists.
I grew up in the midwestern USA in the 80’s. Nobody in my family ever mentioned anything about religion when I was a child. It’s not that anyone was against it, they just didn’t bring it up. I was generally aware that many of my friends and acquaintances went to church on a fairly regular basis, but they never mentioned anything about any god in my presence and I assumed that it was just a cultural habit they inherited from their parents, and if their parents didn’t attend they wouldn’t either.
Then, one year, I got invited to Christmas Mass with a good friend. My family always had a Christmas tree and exchanged gifts, but it was a completely secular affair. I’d never actually been in a church as anything other than a tourist looking at architecture, and I thought it would be interesting to see what happens in practice. The fact it was a Catholic service made it ever more interesting.
It was pleasant enough, and at times you could even call it uplifting. Even when I was there, however, I didn’t get the feeling anyone actually believed anything they were singing about, and even the priest seemed more of a philosopher than a theist. It was all exactly the sort of “be nice to each other” messages that I’d expected, and I didn’t hear much of anything that required any particular religious sentiment. There was obviously some readings from a bible that mentioned god and angels, but I took that more like a reading of poetry that was the cultural basis of all the “be nice to each other” songs and speeches. In other words, I managed to get through an entire Christmas Mass as an atheist without feeling out-of-place.
It wasn’t until after services that I started talking to my friend and found she genuinely believed in some kind of supernatural entity. By coincidence, quite a few other friends also started becoming more engaged with religion over the following year, and I discovered they all seemed to have a nonspecific belief that something supernatural is afoot. They were so vague on the details that I wasn’t entirely sure what it was they believed. They clearly had a firm belief in somebody named Jesus and that it was vitally important to believe he existed, but that was about the end of it. It seemed to be mostly that they enjoyed the sense of community they felt when they said and did the proper things, plus it was a security blanket to make them less afraid of death and the randomness of the world.
To this day, I’m still baffled how so many people claim to be Christian but seem to have no understanding of the basis of the religion they profess to embrace. I honestly think that the ranks of atheists are far larger than the statistics suggest. How can someone be religious when they have no understanding of their religious they profess to follow? Many people identify themselves as Jewish and openly treat it as a cultural/ethnic quality that no longer has any religious significance. For many people there’s no conflict in being a Jewish atheist because Jewishness has become a matter of heritage. Many Christians are the same, but they’re afraid to actual use the word “atheist”. With all due respect to folks like PZ and Dawkins, I also think that the increase in open atheism in recent years isn’t because people are actually changing their views, it’s because they’re realizing they never believed in their religion in the first place.