Since childhood, I had the fear of going to hell pushed down my throat. I was taught about how it is non stop torture and everything unpleasant. I was a devout believer for a long time until about 5 years ago. It took a lot of research and knowledge before I would even play with the idea that God did not exist because not believing in God is the only unforgivable sin and even thinking it was a one way tickett to hell.
I remember the day clearly when I decided to question my faith. It is the strongest memory I have because it was the biggest risk I have ever taken. ( Just in the sense that if I was wrong I was going to hell for all eternity.) I am now comfortably an atheist and I believe the chances for their being a God are very very slim and if there is one, I am 100% confident it is not the Christian God.
Now to the question/problem. Do a lot of people have the issue of fear of hell still? I have read a lot about brain development and how our minds create constructs of the world when we are little, the same time "baby christians" are having hell shoved down their throats. I often feel like I have conflicting software in my head which causes a brain loop that is frustrating to say the least. I think "What if I am wrong and I am going to hell and it is as bad as they said it is?" The old fear creeps up and I experience a mild terror. Then my brain runs through all of the data I have collected about God and comes to the conclusion that it cannot be real and I shouldn't worry about it. I then question if Satan has tricked me in some way, then I dismiss that fear with another thought process involving thinking about the data again. Double checking my answer in a way. Almost every time I discuss anything that deals with God not being real this process happens. It always quickly resolves itself. It is getting better, a lot better, but I wonder if my automated response of the fear of hell will ever go away without having to logically dismiss it.
I have heard that there are actually people who offer therapy for this very thing to people who are not coping with it well. Because of this I get infuriated about religion being taught to young children. Especially the fire and brimstone religious views that I was raised on.
Do others who were devoutly religious at one time experience this same thing? Did it ever go away?
I think you are on the right track. The fact that it's getting easier to dismiss the fear means you are building new (reality-based) thought patterns that will eventually be second nature for you.
In the meantime, maybe it will help to ask yourself what you would do differently if hell was real anyway? Could you actually believe in god? If he's the all-knowing god, he should understand how you came to your current beliefs. And if he is going to punish you for all eternity for being honest, would you be able to worship that god? If he's a god who would reward you for faking belief, would you be able to worship him?
For me, I was a believer for much of my life, but somehow hell never had that much hold on me. It wasn't really emphasized in my church (except for visiting evangelists and certain summer camps). But for me, even if there is a god, I'm perfectly happy to stand before him on judgment day because I know my journey from faith to atheism was through an honest search for truth. And if god is so petty as to punish me for all eternity because his ego needed stroking from little ol' me, well, there's nothing I can do about that. I can't make myself believe and I won't worship such a "god."
You must have some residual belief in God ... I'm not criticizing, mind you. For some, belief in God is not easy to get rid of. Christopher Hitchens had a good thought here - if there is a God, then perhaps that God will appreciate the honesty of your iterated doubts more than the self-serving servility of those who keep their doubts to themselves, while singing his praises ... What would God be other than a monster if he/she/it in any way resembles the Bible's beast of a deity? If God is that monster, well, then, I'll take my chances w/the Devil!
My boyfriend has this same problem and he can't make up his mind what he believes or wants to teach our future children. The other day I impersonated what a mom is supposed to say to young children about Jesus, heaven and hell because I was raised in the church so I know. He immediately was like, "Alright, that's scary. We are are definitely not taking our kids to church." So funny!