I was raised christian, going to church (Methodist) every Sunday. As a child, I believed what I was taught about god, jesus, heaven, and so forth. In my highschool years, was very involved in the church youth group.
I was aware though, that different christians had different beliefs about what was "sinful" and what was not. I wanted to know for sure which behaviors were ok and which weren't. How to know? Reading the bible seemed to be the obvious answer. But in reading the bible, I found ideals that were hard to believe. Like the idea that you shouldn't stand up for yourself. ("If someone strikes you on your cheek, turn to him your other cheek.") The bible says its "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven." And so on. Those things didn't make sense to me. Plus, the bible contains so much contradiction.
How to resolve these issues? At about age 19 or 20, I began to realize that morality is a practical issue. ..That the idea that something is wrong "because it says so in the bible" doesn't make sense. I needed a rational reason why something was wrong. But I still believed in the bible. Its just that I figured that the bible said stealing is wrong because it is; (because it hurts someone). Not the other way around, (that its wrong because the bible says it is). I wasn't really aware of all the ridiculous things in the bible that I laugh at today, like its endorsement of slavery, lack of compassion towards animals, etc. They didn't tend to bring that stuff up a lot in my church. (gee, I wonder why! haha)
But at some point, I became even more aware of the things in the bible that dont make sense. That forced me to stop believing in the bible as the "inerrant word of god". I still figured it was written by good, well-meaning theologians with "insight to god", but I figured that, like the minister of my church, they were still humans, capable of error. Once I got to that point, I was free to question anything and everything that the bible and church taught.
By that time, (my mid to late 20's), my understanding of human nature and psychology started to make a difference too. Growing up, my mother was into psychology. There were always psychology textbooks laying around, and issues of "Psychology Today" magazine. I developed a decent understanding of how people's psychs work. So in my mid twenties, I started to see how religious concepts were suspiciously ideal for meeting human psychological needs. It occurred to me, "Did humans invent these beliefs to soothe themselves?"
For example, I knew that humans have a great emotional need to see the world as a fair and just place. (Thats one reason why an abused child will end up with severe self-esteem problems. It is actually less painful psychologically for them to believe that they are a bad person who deserves the abuse, than to believe that their situation is completely unfair.) And so, when its obvious to people that the world is unfair, that what "goes around" doesn't always "come around", the concept of justice being served in an afterlife is wonderfully soothing. If, say, someone was killed and the murderer goes free, believing that the murderer will end up in hell might be the only way the victim's family can put their rage behind them and live a happy life. I remember realizing, "Even if hell didnt exist, people would invent the concept". How's that for a mid-process snapshot of my transition to disbeliever?!
I began applying more and more critical, analytical thinking to christian beliefs. I wondered, "What if the Romans hadn't believed in capital punishment and jesus had not been executed? What if his visit to earth had ended in old age, dieing of natural causes? Or what if he had been unceremoniously killed by a street thief? That would still be the death of the "son of god", so would the world still be 'saved'?" Questions like that forced me to think about the essence of the concept that jesus' death gives us eternal life/reward. It became obvious very fast that there is nothing logical about the whole thing.
After all, if I said that I used to have a son, but I wanted for forgive my neighbor for something so I let him nail my son to a cross, you'd think I was nuts. But thats the concept that christianity is based on. That god forgave us by sending his son for us to nail to a cross. How ridiculous.
After even more thinking, I realized that man "created" god in man's image, not the other way around. Humans envision a god with human traits like a gender, an offspring, and human emotions like anger, jealousy, and love. Any understanding of how these traits evolved in humans (and other species) makes you realize that the idea of a god with these traits is ridiculous.
When asked if Im an atheist, I reply, "An atheist argues that no god exists. I simply argue that even if a god exists, what good is she?" Indeed, what good is a god who lets a toddler get raped or a puppy get tortured to death? Christians often respond with something about how god gives us "freewill". But "giving others freewill" merely puts a label on someone's refusal to get involved. It doesn't justify their refusal to show compassion.
I was ex-christian by age 32. Im embarrassed that it took me so long.
What a waste that so many people go through life with no clue about what morality really is. Morality is not about fighting to repress your sexual thoughts, or not having a beer. Its not about "being nice". Or about "loving god". Its not about worrying over whether or not Bill Clinton got a little on the side.
No, morality is not some pointless exercise in obsessing over things that dont matter. It's very much a practical issue. Morality is about compassion.
The meaning in my life comes from my connection with nature and the work I do to protect the other species on this planet from humans. I am a member of Zero Population Growth (www.zpg.org), GreenPeace, World Wildlife Fund, and Farm Sanctuary (an organization that works to ensure that animal cruelty laws protect not just domestic animals, but food production animals as well.) I do volunteer ecology work, publish environmental education websites, volunteer at a zoo/rehab facility, and strive to make environmentally responsible decisions in all aspects of my life.
"What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to man. All things are connected" --Chief Seattle
"Our task must be to free ourselves... by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty." -Albert Einstein