In a book titled Atheists, A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers (by Bruce Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer, 2006) the study of atheists in America confirms that most atheists, like most religious people, form their beliefs from their upbringing.
About 30% of the atheists taking part in the study had at least one agnostic or atheist parent and most of the rest had parents who believed in God or maybe even belonged to a particular religion, but didn’t regularly partake in religious activities or emphasize religion in their homes.
Yet a quarter of the participants in the study had come from homes that emphasized religion to a “moderate extent” and more than 10% to an “appreciable extent.” The members of this latter group were dubbed, in the study, as “Amazing Atheists” because despite coming from very religious homes, they rejected their religious training.
How could there be such a complete religious turn around in the group of “Amazing Atheists”?
The authors interviewed 46 “Amazing Atheists” in depth, to determine the cause of their dramatic change. Their conclusion was that the indoctrination didn’t fail completely, but instead worked rather well. The “Amazing Atheists” group overwhelmingly stated they gave up their faith because they could not make themselves believe what they had been taught. They decided that the religious dogma was not true. This adherence to the truth came, ironically, from their strong religious upbringing. As children they had been taught to do the right thing, to be ethical and have integrity. However, when religious questions were not answered to their satisfaction, religion took second place to truth.
The authors stated, “They were trapped...and had no other choice. So as a first cause, their upbringing was not repudiated by their apostasy, but startlingly fulfilled by it.... If they had cared less, if their home religion had not fostered a strong drive for the truth and integrity in them, and if they had not overcome their fear of going it alone, they probably would not have quit it.”
Another factor in this group was intelligence. The members of the “Amazing Atheists” group were quite bright and may have searched for answers through reading and study. When they found flaws in traditional religious teachings, they wanted to decide for themselves rather than accept religious teachings on faith.
In the total study which questioned both religious and non-religious people, almost everyone admitted to having doubts about their own beliefs at some point in their lives. However, most of the religious people who remained religious after a period of doubt, dropped the questions or resolved them in their religion’s favor. Many consulted parents or ministers who, of course, shepherded them back to their religions.
Those with weaker religious backgrounds or those who were both inquisitive and intelligent were more likely to search more widely and their questions may have turned into active doubts.
The authors of the study found that many atheists from non-religious homes admit to having gone through a religious period in their lives, usually starting around age 7 or 8, and this period may have lasted several years. In most cases, non-religious parents don’t preach against religion, but rather expect their children to decide for themselves. Some children, of course, decide to stay in the religion, but many eventually see the flaws their parents saw and leave.
Serious doubts about religion among the “Amazing Atheists” usually emerged in adolescence (median age of 15, but ranging from age 5 to 50.) What triggers these doubts? Most skepticism began over ideas.
More than any one thing, atheists say reading the Bible started them questioning. Some say interest in science or evolution was a trigger. Some mentioned reading books by atheists or freethinkers. Hypocrisy in churchgoers bothered others. A few started doubting religions when they learned there was no Santa Claus. Many doubted reports of religious miracles, bleeding statues or were skeptical of the sincerity of TV evangelists. Most realized that all religions couldn’t be true, so maybe none were. Many were put off by religious intolerance, including homophobia. Many were disturbed by the history of religion, including atrocities committed in the name of God during the Crusades and the Inquisition, and more recently by religious terrorists.
One additional factor was that many were turned off by the Religious Right and its attempts to interfere with government. Thus, by their aggressive tactics and inflexible opinions, instead of attracting more people to their religious beliefs, they actually drove people away from religion.
I grew up in a highly religious home. What triggered my atheism? Probably all of the above to some extent or other. But I have to agree that reading the Bible was the trigger that started my doubt and was the biggest factor in my rejection of religion. Once a little stone fell out of the structure of my parents' beliefs, more cracks formed as I found more and more inconsistencies and impossibilities in religion. Eventually it all crumbled before me.
Please see my post: WHY I AM AN ATHEIST: The Bible - Part 1