In my first grade, my Roman Catholic elementary school hosted a special movie afternoon in the school's gymnasium, featuring "A Land Before Time". With the approach of the movie day, our teachers included special units on dinosaurs.
The Atlas and Encyclopedia set that my dad had bought us at that age included colourful pictures and descriptions of different periods in the Earth's history, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the evolution of humans. My sister and I loved to go through it. So, naturally, I asked my first grade teacher why dinosaurs weren't mentioned in Genesis or the Bible in general, and how it was that the time-lines for dinosaur and human development could match up with the Bible's time-lines, which show man as "man" from the first day of his existence. After rebutting with a string of 'if's', 'but's', and 'that isn't what the Encyclopedia says'', the only satisfying answer she was able to give me was that the Bible was metaphorical, and it's not to be taken literally.
By the time I was in third grade, I couldn't willfully attend regular masses and so I stopped. By the time I was 17, I had read my first excerpts from Nietzsche, and had become an atheist. I cried when I first read The Madman (excerpt at end of this post) because of how frightening it was to see that these ideas were so old but not so widely held. By now, my conviction has only strengthened, particularly due to the influence of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.
Upon professing my atheism one day, an associate of mine remarked that atheism is like all other religions, and based this opinion on the following observations: (1) that atheists congregate to discuss their atheism, and (2) that "everyone must believe in something [supernatural]". The simile is so incomplete that it could have worked, the way it can be argued that a snake is like a fish because they both have scales.
But it doesn't work particularly because of the second condition. It is not true that an atheist, like a theist, needs to believe in something [supernatural]. Very much like my belief in the existence of Santa Claus, I reached a point of no return: the idea had become too ridiculous to entertain as even possibly true.
There is no going back to asserting the potential existence of these fictitious characters after seeing that it is completely unlikely, learning about how these characters have been constructed within an historical and psychological framework, and understanding that to grant each of their existences would permit too much. Why stop at Santa Claus and God? Why not the Flying Spaghetti Monster? The difference is minute.
I would like to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent being that loves us all, I do, but it would have to be at the expense of my rationality. As Nietzsche put it, I have been unhinged from my sun. And as early 20th century existentialists would assert, meaning in life is either an absurd notion or has to and can be found elsewhere than from the existence of a god.
"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."
Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves."
-Excerpt from The Madman, The Gay Science, by Friedrich Nietzsche.