The first reason for me is that church was boring. We had an old, nice man for a pastor who I distinctly remember recycling the same sermon at least three times (“Humble yourself and you will be exalted, exalt yourself and you will be humbled” – clear enough, right? But no, we need a half hour sermon relating this to some crap in the bible). There weren’t any fun activities that were church-related. I hated the boring old hymns and the old geezers I had to stand next to and listen to them sing awfully. My dad once made a joke about communion – “You get a little snack today, kids.” But it was actually a slight motivating factor – the communion bread was tasty. Little did dad know it really was the only thing my brother and I had to look forward to in church at times. Apart from the normal angst at having to get up early, I really hated having to dress up. For what? They say god loves you no matter what, so why the hell do I need to wear a nice sweater to impress him? Oh, it is not about impressing god, it is about impressing everyone else.
I remember a sunday where the ususal reverend couldn’t make it so they had some fire-and-brimstone asshole get up and run the show for a day. He told the men not to “look with lust” on women, for that was adultery. For some reason the phrase stuck with me, and when going through puberty I started noticing breasts on women of all ages, but at the same time feeling ashamed about it. I eventually got over that but it sure was annoying.
The only thing that made church tolerable in high school was the fact that they filmed the services, and I learned how to run the camera. This paid off in college when I easily got a job with the A/V department at minimum wage. Thanks religion!
In late elementary school, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was on PBS. Now that show filled me with awe and wonder, and explained a lot of stuff that church glossed over or ignored. My jaw dropped at the sophisticated animation (for 1980 or so) of polymerase spiraling up some DNA, grabbing nucleotides, and building an exact copy of the split molecule on both sides. So that’s how it works! Awesome! I want to learn more about genetics! There were many other moments on that show that made things clear and inspired me to learn more. I brought it up in science class in 5th grade, “When I was watching Cosmos the other night, they explained that” and all the other students would roll their eyes, because they’d heard that line before.
In 8th grade I actually read almost all of my chemistry textbook over one weekend, again captivated by how the world actually works, with protons and electrons that have opposite charges, and how the charges seek to neutralize each other in chemical reactions. It explained why salt is a cube, why plastic is durable, and why metal conducts electricity, all at once. You never get this in church.
I had a close friend in high school. We were both extreme science nerds, and took three years of Latin as well, just because it was hard. But my friend went the way of creationism in 12th grade, believing the earth was 6000 years old and that Jesus was coming back after the rapture. At one point I went with him to some church where they had a ventriloquist/puppet operator who told christian jokes, bringing on the awkwardness of feeling obligated to laugh. I was still wavering at that point, and may have come close to making the circular connection in my brain that makes christians feel warm and fuzzy all the time, which they call “being saved.”
But later, I didn’t buy any of my friend’s arguments. He said it all came down to your assumptions, which I have heard other creationists retreat towards since that time. I saw him once after graduating high school, I think, and then pretty much didn’t bother tracking him after that. He was the poster boy of a wasted mind to me for two decades.
College was of course eye-opening. I took genetics, biogeography, anatomy, ecology, and evolutionary biology, and started reading Richard Dawkins’s books. I took a lot of anthropology, and I have to say it was more of a distraction than anything, but it did lead to some good times and interesting experiences. I learned about cultural relativism, which is the belief that cultures need to be understood on their own terms and that all are worthy of preservation and respect. I don’t buy that so much any more, given knowledge of people living under Sharia law, for example. But I did learn about archaeology which is about empirical evidence of past events. I worked as an archaeologist (“field tech”) for a few years after college.
I also took some geology in college, although somewhat late in my Junior year. Had there been enough time, I would have changed majors. The field trips taught me to see things in hills and along roads that my eye had glossed over before. The earth was clearly very old for such complexity to be present, no doubt about it, and I had only seen a very small portion of it. I started reading Steven Jay Gould’s books about that time.
I also had a good friend in college that was as nerdy as me and like-minded about a lack of a benevolent or even interactive god. We used call up christian hotlines and harrass the racist/sexist idiots at the other end with questions about morality that they gave extremely bad advice about. My friend asked if it was okay to have a freind that was a muslim who was gay. The answer was no, of course. I used to go off about design flaws in anatomy at them, such as the fact that the esophagus and trachea cross making it easy for humans to choke, to see if they had any sensible reply, and they never did.
Somewhere in early college I learned about Richard Feynman too. It is hard not to agree with that guy.
And I got into Rush – listen to Permanent Waves sometime.
I should mention a lapse into irrationality I had for a few years. This is embarrassing, but I read Whitley Streiber’s ‘Communion’ and its sequels, and I believed a lot of it, and was scared by it to the point that some nights I couldn’t sleep for fear of aliens hiding in the closet. But who do I have to thank for clearing my head of such nonsense? Carl Sagan. I read ‘The Demon-haunted World’ and was cured.
I got to grad school after my stint as a field archaeologist, and majored in geology. It mostly solidified my well-established atheism, through better understanding of the complexity of the geologic record and deep time required for it. Creationists have no adequate answer for the geologic record – they run away from it, or lie about it.
And of course, most recently I’ve been reading Pharyngula.
I saw my creationist friend from high school at the 20-year reunion, and things were amicable enough. I’m a geologist now, and guess what he is – an accountant. No science for him.