First there's the "why". I've never, nor have I ever heard of anybody else, asked somebody, "Why are you a insert faith/belief/religion here. I suppose it could happen if you knew somebody was the sole Buddhist in a sprawling family of Catholics ... that's about the only situation where it might occur to me to inquire. To have a belief system of some kind is accepted without question, especially if it's part of the majority religion of your geographic zone. But say you're an atheist and you ALWAYS get "why?" "Why don't you believe in God?" And if I turn around and say "Why DO you?" ... well, I've discovered that people are evenly split between "Because the Bible says to" and realizing that they really don't have an answer to the question. ***grin*** And it's a rare soul who thinks to give me the totally acceptable answer "Because I do".
The second thing is the decision: "Why did you DECIDE ..." Amazing how it's always assumed that this was a choice. Again, throw the question back and see the bafflement.
Why am I an atheist? I know it wasn't my idea. I was raised in an Anglican family (with a side order of United Church in my father's family ... tradition in my part of rural Ontario was that a man usually joined his wife's church if they didn't belong to the same one before marriage). Three generations of my mother's family painted church interiors for a living. We attended services every Sunday when I was a child, I went to Sunday school ... the whole routine. And around the age of nine, I first realized that I didn't believe in it. It just didn't "work" in my head. The nonbelief likely was there much longer, but this was the moment when I first said it to myself. Acknowledged it and understood it. And I don't know "why". I not likely ever will. I know I casually toss off what my mother said about me suffering from an inability to believe in anything I couldn't hit with a hammer (yes, she DID say that), but the truth is that I don't know the reason. It just is. Just the way many other peoples' faith just "is". They believe and it feels right and it fits. That, IMHO, is all the reason they need and that I need ... justification isn't a requirement.
One thing that may indicate some sort of mental pattern or hardwiring is the fact that, as a child, I never was scared of the dark or thought that there were monsters under the bed. I didn't believe in ghosts or any other supernatural beings. Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy had a short run (hey, there's PROFIT involved in THOSE ones and all children are inherently greedy until it gets "civilized" out of 'em), but those beliefs ended pretty early (the Tooth Fairy got blown, I recall, when I asked for a photograph instead of money and got a small drawing that was recognizably in my mother's style ***chuckle***). So maybe it's just some sort of instinct. Or maybe my mother IS right. :P
I've had some interesting reactions to the ol' atheism label. The nicest one was from the Quebecois, EXTREMELY devout Catholic fiancee (name o' James) of a friend from my college days ... he said he'd never met an atheist like me before. And he said it with a smile and as a compliment. Sadly, all his previous experiences had been with what I now think of as fundamentalist atheists ... the ones that are hostile to any beliefs different from their own. I'm glad he got to learn that we're not all like that. :-))))
Another person told me that it wasn't my not believing in God that disturbed her, but the fact that I didn't believe in any kind of afterlife ... THAT downright freaked her out. That was educational for me ... understanding that for some people, their faith in God wasn't so much a belief in a higher being as a fear of death, of ending. One of the rare people who could actually give me a "why" for themselves.
Plus I've had my share of people who assume that I am what I am because of a lack of religious upbringing ... (if anything, I may have had a tad too MUCH exposure, what with the family business ... how many other people out there have seen a painting of the Last Supper which includes their great-grandfather's self-portrait as a disciple? ***chuckles***)
Some people have expressed the worry that my universe is terribly mundane and humdrum without the "magic" of a god or gods. The reality is that mine may be even more magical; a universe created on purpose is a wondrous thing ... a universe that has evolved all the complexities of life through accident, trial and error, and chaos ... THAT is a wonder indeed. :-)
I decided to post this 'cause I know a couple of the people who read my LJ also live under the atheist banner and I'm feeling curious today about something I don't normally pry into (I consider belief to be a private and personal thing). Is this the way it is/was for you?