I am an atheist because of my personal experiences. I am not an atheist because I am a rationalist or because I am a student of the sciences. Indeed, the opposite is likely true. I became a rationalist and enthusiastic about science after my scepticism about gods emerged. It was my attempt to find reasons why gods probably don’t exist that led me to logic and empiricism.
I was raised by agnostic parents. As you can imagine they taught me about religion, but did not teach me religion. They taught me about science, but they didn’t teach atheism. I was taught what my parents knew, not what they believed. This gave me the tools to decide whether or not gods exist, without being taught whether or not they exist. You might expect that this would inevitably lead to atheism. However, I did not absorb the rationalism and scientific thinking my parents probably wanted me to have until my teenage years. I did not identify myself as an atheist until I was seventeen years old.
The story of my becoming an atheist starts when I was in primary school. Between being eight and thirteen years of age I got up very early in the morning, before my parents or my brother. Consequently, every morning there was a period of a couple of hours in which I went unsupervised. Early morning television in Australia on channel 10 at that time was the Benny Hinn Show (This Is Your Day), and for some unimaginable reason I watched this instead of whatever else was on television. The consequences of a child of my age watching such dribble unsupervised are easy to imagine, I ate it up. At some time, when I was nine or ten years old I think, I actually attempted to reach out to God/Jesus with faith. From my first year of school until that time I was a victim of bullying, and I prayed for it to stop. As absolutely all the empirical studies on the effects of prayer would predict, absolutely nothing happened. The bullying persisted long enough for me to decide God did not exist in the form of a prayer answering, loving, omnipotent being (and long after). Bullying only really stopped midway through high school, at the same time I was becoming known at my school for not being Christian.
By the time I was fourteen years old I identified myself as non-religious. I only really became aware of this after a girl I sat next to in Society and Environment class tried to evangelise me. The experience seemingly universal amongst atheists of trying to justify their lack of belief in the personal god of whoever they are talking to began for me with this girl, and persisted until high school ended. We used arguments as inane and overused as can be expected for fourteen year olds. My teacher didn’t want to seem like he was ignoring his duty to stop us talking and make us do our work, so he made sure to tell us to stop arguing and get back to work before he pulled up a chair to spectate. I continued to call myself non-religious until a sudden bout of self denial.
When I was fifteen I suddenly got into the philosophy of Spinoza. I became interested in it because Spinoza’s lesser known idea of not expecting anything from life helped me get out of the all too common depression which many teenagers experience. Unfortunately I also took up the idea which his name is usually connected with, pantheism. Pantheism let me feel like the universe was magical and caring while still not believing in deities. It represents one of the most attractive beliefs someone who cannot believe in gods can have. I think of my short time as a pantheist as being a failing of my mind. For a couple of years I avoided the prejudice against atheists and the lack of divine feeling at the expense of better thinking. Just before finishing high school this stopped, and I finally reached what I hope is the conclusion of the evolution of my spiritual beliefs. I started to identify myself as an atheist.
It was the internet which helped me become okay with labelling myself an atheist. Names like Thunderf00t, dprjones, AronRa, Matt Dillahunty, and PZ Myers were to thank for reinforcing my belief that theism is nonsense. Also to blame was how creationists at my high school would use their Christianity to attack science. I think I demonstrated to the people at my high school that I was never going to be ‘saved’ when one of them said to me that science is a tool of Satan. I spent the whole night researching the tangible effects science has had on the world, sent him an email outlying these things science has achieved, and concluded by labelling the removal of science as the most evil and cruel thing any person could possibly do.
Now I am at university studying science. I have been able to surround myself with fellow rationalists and have never been happier. I am constantly reminded of the power of science now that I have access to peer reviewed literature and am given wonderful practicals from the life sciences department. The constant nonsense of the evangelists and creationists at high school is now just a bad memory. Atheism has taken me to a place where I am welcome and happy. I am sure religion has taken the Christians from my high school somewhere which feels the same way for them as well. But I am being taken to a lifetime of learning, while they are taken to a lifetime of blind belief.