I grew up in a household that went to church every Sunday as long as it was convenient (i.e. not traveling or something), but was never taught the fundamentalist view of the Bible. Mixed in over with standard Sunday school classes about Christianity were a few talking about other religions. I got a book from my mom called How Do You Spell God?, promoting a standard pluralist line. My mom also explained the basics of evolution to me, and one time when I heard about the creationist claim that evolution contradicts thermodynamics, she explained to me why this wasn't true (she has a Ph.D. in biochemistry). As I recall, I attempted explaining this to one of my friends when he brought some Kent Hovind videos over. This was in grade school or early middle school, and on at least one occasion my mom made a point of saying in conversation "even my son understands what's wrong with that claim."
As I write this, I am reminded that cartoons had had a major effect on the course of my life. When I was about 12, I was walking throuhg a bookstore and saw a big yellow book with a smiling cartoon character and a word balloon that said, "Apply ancient wisdom to your everyday life!" I have the book in my dorm room with me right now, though I remembered that exact wording without looking at the cover, without having looked at in in years. The book was Philosophy for Dummies by Tom Morris. I'd still recommend it to anyone interested in learning philosophy.
Morris was a theist, but he was honest enought to admit that serious objections have been raised to the arguments for the existence of God. Rather than just reading what he said, however, I came up with objections to the ontological and cosmological arguments that Morris hadn't mentioned (I later learned that my objections were similar to famous ones by Gaulino and Kant, respectively). I don't know why I did this. Perhaps I knew intuitively that if it were so easy, I would have learned these proofs along with my arithmatic tables.
Morris, though, was untroubled by the problems with these arguments, and devoted an entire chapter of his book to promoting Pascal's Wager. He discussed four criticisms of the wager, but missed one that I thought was obvious: he made "the probability of God's existence is .5 or so" one premise of the argument. I could immediately see the contradiction in believing "God exists" and "the probability of God's existing is .5 or so."
Perhaps because Morris acted untroubled by the problems with the various God-arguments, this experience did not cause me to throw away the God-belief that I had grown up taking for granted. This did lay an important foundation, however.
The other way that cartoons influenced my life is that when I was young, I used to go through the newspaper and read every last cartoon. This meant not only reading the comics page, but going to the business page for Dilbert, the sports page for something called "In the Bleachers," and the opinion page for editorial cartoons. The opinion page contained syndicated columns by Mona Charen, and orthodox Jew, and Cal Thomas, a founder of the Moral Majority. They got me well aquainted with the "this is right because God says so" mentality.
The other part of my early encounters with fundamentalism came from the same friend who brought over the Kent Hovind videos when I was in grade school. I remember at a scout camp he horrified the rest of us by saying that Gandhi was burning in hell. Later I would learn that support for this position could be found in the Bible.
The insanity of these positions crystalized on September 11th. I realized that if the view of morality presented by the fundamentalists was correct, bin Laden was not mistaken about any fundamental moral principle, just about what God wanted him to do.
Contrary to what you may be thinking at this point, I didn't become an atheist that day. One half of it isn't so strange: raised in a liberal church, enamored with the idea of Jesus as a great teacher.
The other part is extremely strange in light of the above. I became convinced that if God did not exist, then life was meaningless because there was no moral order. When it came time for confirmation sophomore year, the minister asked why I wanted to be confirmed and I said, "I feel there has to be something," meaning "I would like it if there were something." Such a line of reasoning should have been utterly impossible given the above conclusions about Pascal's Wager and divine morality. I guess I'm not the only one whose fallen into such inconsistencies, though: Philosophy for Dummies attacked Divine Command Theory at one point but later asserted, without argument, that if God does not exist there is "no objective moral order."
This situation didn't last long, though. One weekned that summer I sat down, thought about the fact that I had no good reason to think God exists, realized believing because I wanted to failed for the same reason that Pascal's Wager did, and that was that. There was no immediately identifiable cause for this rethinking, though I like to imagine reading The Screwtape Letters a month previous was at fault. In the book, C. S. Lewis has one of his devil's say:
You see the little rift? "Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason." That's the game.Translated back into human terms: Believe things only because they're true. Once I realize that, I was an atheist.
A minor aftereffect was that I could see things I previously had not been able to. I saw that my reasoning about morality made somewhat less than zero sense. I was able to objectively evaluate the teachings attributed to Jesus, just as I would evaluate anyone else's ideas, and found that, just like most everyone else who has ever said anything, Jesus said good things and bad things. It took getting rid of the "Christian" lable to see this, though. I can see now that, while nowhere near as bad as the belief in Biblical inerrancy, liberal veneration of Jesus makes no sense.
A more important follow-up to this was encountering fundamentalist apologetics: attempts to "prove" that Jesus rose from the dead, Intelligent Design, defenses of the nasty stuff in the Bible. This was simply a random event that sprang from my love of reading. The first two parts briefly impressed me. But I didn't swallow it hook line and sinker. I read, I checked facts. In the case of historical apologetics, I found that major claims were at best misleading. I also read about competing supernatural claims and realized that there are ghost enthusiasts who would laugh at the "evidence" that apologists present. In the case of ID, my respect slowly declined until I finally saw William Dembski endorsing the thermodynamics argument, the argument I learned to refute in grade school(*). I didn't have a lot of respect for ID at that point, but that really killed off what was left.
My response to defenses of Biblical attrocities and eternal damnation was different though. The more apologists tried to defend them, the more horrible they became. I really must thank the apologists for helping me grasp the full horror of orthodox Christianity. They are a major reason I do what I do today.