A lot of atheists who were formerly religious can probably recall the moment when they came to that inescapable conclusion that "I guess I am an atheist." Likewise, it also holds true for many people who embrace a particular religious faith that they remember when they made the decision to give their hearst and souls to their beliefs.
Perhaps I am atypical in that I really don't remember the day I realized that I no longer believed in any divine being that watched over us and took a personal notice or interest in our lives. I don't know if it was due to a book or something else I may have read, or that I had been through a life changing experience. Whatever it was is lost in the mists of time. All I remember was that it was the final step in a journey that had seen me abandon Catholicism while still retaining belief in a personal god that I could communicate with, until I realized that there was nobody there and my religious beliefs had all along been just a way to provide myself with a sense of purpose and importance.
What I do remember is that I had become an atheist sometime in the year 1991. That means I have been an atheist for approximately 20 years, or nearly half of my 42 years spent thus far on this Earth, and almost my entire adult life. It has been long enough that I can look back on the past two decades with a long term perspective.
Intellectually, becoming an atheist was a very liberating experience for me. I was no longer under the rule of a watchful deity that expected me to go to church once a week, refrain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent or cared if I masturbated once in a while. I was no longer a slave to an overseer who existed only in my imagination, and I was overjoyed at the realization that I was in charge of my life. I did not have a crisis of morals either. Rejecting Christianity or my own personal religious beliefs that had succeeded it did not make me want to lie, cheat, steal or engage in other terrible things. Instead, giving up religion was like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle.
I would be mistaken though if I were to say that my life was all peaches and cream once I became an atheist. The early 90's were pretty good to me, but during the mid-90's I went through a rough period in my life. For a while, it seemed hard to believe that I would ever get out of the emotional ditch I had landed in. But throughout it all, I never quite lost a dogged optimism that I had the power to make my life better.
By the late 90's, my life improved markedly. I met and married the love of my life, I made a career move that would see me making a good salary, my wife and I purchased a house, and we had two beautiful, healthy children together. I achieved things that only a few years early seemed unattainable.
I did have a serious personal crisis for a few months about six years ago where I feared I would lose everything I cherished. Some people in my place, in a time of extreme personal distress, might have returned to the refuge of religion, and when the crisis inevitably passed, would have seen it as proof that it was all due to them crawling back on their hands and knees to God and seeking divine aid. I, on the other hand, did none of that. From the moment I became an atheist, never at any time where I felt any personal despair did I consider turning to religion for aid and solace. I realized that the only thing I had any control over was how I behaved and things would turn out either well or badly regardless of whether I prayed to a god or not. I passed through my great crisis, never wavering in my atheism, and I emerged wiser and stronger than before.
Looking at my life now, I have to say that I think I have it pretty good and consider myself to be rather fortunate. Of course, my life isn't perfect, and there are some things that I wish could be different or that there are some personal changes I could make. Then again, don't most people feel that way about themselves? Besides, while I may be 42, I still have many years left to look forward to and experiences to have. In the last few years, I have taken up scuba diving and have taken part in a shark feeding dive, and even crazier still, I did a tandem sky dive.
I'm sure there are some theists, Christians in particular, who would say to me "Tommy, sure you may think you have a good life now, but you are missing out on so much by not seeking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and you are turning your back on the chance for eternal life."
But when you live the life of a satisfied atheist, that's the only thing left up their sleeve, isn't it? "You better believe or before you know it you'll be dead and then it will be too late!"
One of my favorite atheist bloggers, The Jolly Nihilist, in his most recent post, wrote:
"Even a staunch atheist such as me—one who, as an evidentialist, has tried to look at the evidence objectively and, in so doing, has had his non-belief repeatedly reaffirmed—is not immune to occasional frightful thoughts of being consigned to an eternity of agonizing punishment in hellfire."
Maybe it is because I have been an atheist for twice as long as Jolly, I never even consider the possibility that I will suffer for an eternity in the afterlife if I die without believing that the creator of a universe filled with billions of galaxies impregnated a virgin teenage girl in the Galilee a couple of thousand years ago. To be honest, I don't know if everything contained in this universe is the product of some divine intelligence. But if it is, then I have the feeling such a being won't be disappointed or upset that I did not believe in its existence or cringe in fear of it. Any being powerful and intelligent to create so much is surely secure enough with itself that it won't be troubled by such trivial things.