I just left a few comments on this thread, and it got me thinking a bit about my own religious experiences and deconversion.
Some people have a sudden moment of realization, when it becomes crystal clear that this whole God thing is bollocks. For others it’s more gradual. I’m one of those. Here is a timeline of my religious/irreligious life:
0 – Born.
3 months or so – Baptised.
3 months – 7 years – Am taken to church by my parents and sent to Catholic school at the age of 4. All I really know so far is that I’m super special, God loves me, and he put a special light inside me before I was born. Also that Jesus had to die because people are so bad.
7 years – Get majorly scared about hell. Specifically that my sister is going there for being mean to me, and that I’m going to hell because at that age I was a recreational liar. Start trying to be good, counting the number of times I lie or say bad words. I think I got up to 31 uses of the word “ass” and lost count.
7 – 13 years – Mostly happy Catholicism. I learn more about the weirdnesses of Catholic doctrine, sensibly reject most of it, but sincerely believe in God, Jesus, Mary, the virgin birth, and heaven. Am not so sure about hell.
13 years – Have a religious experience where I feel I am touched by God. This was probably a minor seizure in the part of your brain that, when you have seizures in it, makes you feel like you’re being touched by God. Become more religious but don’t talk about it much, feeling sort of embarassed.
13 – 16 years – Still Catholic. Effects of the seizure/God experience gradually wear off.
16* – 18 years – Doubt more and more. Have long conversations with anyone who’ll listen** about the nature of God and belief. Still think of myself as Catholic but come up with a “sophisticated” concept of God that is almost the same as not believing. (God is a metaphor, God is the sum of all the good in the universe, God is the embodiment of love.) Eventually say to myself, “Oh, fuck it” and give up on the idea.
18 – 23 years – Am now an atheist/agnostic but am generally into woo – psychics, aliens, ghosts, past lives, crystals etc.
23 – present – Lose interest in woo and live a more or less Godless and rational life.
For most of my life as a believer I can’t say that it made me unhappy. However, for most of my life as a believer I was a small child from a happy family. I am not unhappy as an atheist; the process of releasing my beliefs in God was a painful one that I would rather not have gone through, but it’s through now and I feel, now that I think of it, more comfortable in the world than I did when I believed. Once I was old enough to start to think things through, I always felt a tension between enjoying life’s experiences and the inevitable burden of Catholic guilt. It seemed wrong to take pleasure in things when I was so hideously awful that God had to die for me. It didn’t stop me from having fun, but it was a constant jagged edge in my consciousness. Now the only guilt I feel for enjoying myself is when there’s something else I really ought to be doing.
I don’t know if this says more about Christianity or atheism, or about me.
*Oddly enough, this is when we got our first internet connection. I don’t remember running across any atheist content in those early days of the web, but I do remember chatting with some emo kid online who was talking about killing himself. “Nobody loves me,” he said. “Sure someone does” I said. “Who?” I was about to type “God” when I suddenly thought “I can’t say that, that is the stupidest thing EVER to say to someone who feels that way”.
**Though never with priests. The priest I’d really liked from our church left the priesthood to get married when I was about 14, and his replacement as junior priest was odd and very pretentious, like he was perpetually starring in his own personal version of The Bells of St. Mary’s. The senior priest I found too majestic to approach.