I am an atheist because I was only ever a theist due to an emotional bond which had time to fade, and reason did not save it.
My mother is Catholic, and I was raised and confirmed in that tradition. Regardless of my present unbelief, the Church will count me among its ranks until the day I die. (Even if I convinced some priest or bishop to unhappily record my renouncement, I suspect he would not pass on the minus-one to the higher-ups.) As a child, I often quietly spoke to God as if He were a foot away and could hear my every thought. Every time I did this I would wonder if He was really listening, but it was nice to always have someone to talk to.
My father is an atheist, and he told me so a grand total of twice. He kept right out of the religious activities and discussions, but it was always clear that he didn’t buy into any of it. When I considered this at the time, I was worried for him. Thinking back, the mere presence of someone I loved and respected who did not accept religion probably helped a lot when I began to question it.
When I was 11 or 12 I made a rare public show of faith and tried to proselytise a friend of mine, and he immediately hit me with what I later found out is known as the Problem of Evil: why do bad things happen if God is loving and all-powerful? I didn’t know, and after some reading I realised that no one else did either. Sure, there were plenty of answers to the question (God is testing us, Satan is at work, free will is responsible, Original Sin taints us all, everything is ultimately for the good, etc.) but these redundant and sometimes contradictory answers were all coming from authority figures in the same Church. The Church itself obviously didn’t have a clue, or it would have made sure its representatives had a single talking point as a response.
I don’t remember my exact thought processes leading up to it, but I reached another conclusion in the same period. Even if those who start a religion do so completely cynically, in the full knowledge that their central claims were lies, after one generation they would be replaced by the first batch of sincere, devout recruits. In one generation a total fraud would become an honest faith, so what did that say about today’s honest faiths?
Within a week of the initial confrontation, I had gone from trying to defend Church theology to suspecting all organised religion. I still believed in the existence of a God-like figure, though, because I took notice of coincidences large and small which seemed to convey vague messages to me. I used to say that the universe literally had a sense of humour, and therefore there had to be an intelligence behind it. (I later dropped this idea when I realised how commonplace coincidence really is.)
Not much which is relevant happened in the 15-odd years after I settled into this position of agnostic spiritualism. I went from Catholic primary school to a secular private secondary school, then to university and a job. Without a specific emotional drive to worship and seek a relationship with God, I simply did not, and the topic of religion all but left my consciousness for over a decade.
In 2006, I read a short article about Richard Dawkins and the advent of New Atheism. It was the first I’d heard of either, and in fact it was the first time I remembered seeing the word “atheist” in years. The point I took away from the article was that if you do not believe in a god, you are an atheist. I’d always assumed there was a bit more to it, so I asked myself: do I still believe any of the doctrine I learned as a child? Do I still keep an invisible God inside my personal space? The answer was no. I was an atheist, it was that simple.
I still wondered, of course. I’d taken a huge step based on very little material, so I wanted to see if I was missing something obvious. I scoured the Web for arguments and evidence that might show me I was wrong and put me back on the righteous path, and I was thoroughly unimpressed. Would-be apologists (mostly Christian) would bring their best arguments to atheist sites to stump and then convert the denizens, but they had nothing of any power to persuade anyone who wasn’t already convinced. (I’ve since come to suspect that the main purpose of most apologetics is not to convert unbelievers, but to reassure the faithful.)
After a few comments on Ask the Atheist dealing with the cosmological argument and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I was invited by Brian Sapient to write for the site. When his Rational Response Squad went dark a year later, I was left as the sole active contributor, and five years later I’m one of two. I might still receive that one argument or piece of evidence that will show me I’ve been wrong all this time and that there’s a god worthy of belief, but I’m still waiting for it. Meanwhile, I get to dispel all kinds of misconceptions about atheists (foremost being either the idea that they’ve never really considered any apologetic argument, or the claim they’re just believers in denial) and advise young or confused atheists in a Dear Abby kind of way. I do love being able to help people understand, and move forward.