I had an excellent upbringing - my parents are loving, caring people who never hurt me or denied me any of my basic needs. They are good and honest, but sadly they made the mistake of bringing me up as a Christian, just as they had been. It's not their fault - they are as much a victim as I am, but nonetheless for the first 18 years of my life I was a whole-hearted, do it all for Jesus Christian, thanks to my indoctrination. I liked it too - it's an odd feeling living in such an insular world. It's comforting to know that there's millions of people who you may have never met, but that would arbitrarily side with you because you believe in, roughly, the same thing. It's herd mentality and the shepherd comforts his flock every Sunday between 10:30 and 12, worldwide.
The kind of church that I grew up in is actually surprisingly modern. They are far from being correct but they are the most progressive Christians I know - the pastor of the church says that so long as you believe that Jesus is the son of God, everything else is up for debate - quite refreshing really. This is a fairly recent development though - for the first 24 years that I was there (I'm 27 this year), the church was mostly like any other. Convinced they were following a plan God has "just for them" - and encouraging its members to give more and more of their personal lives, their finances and their time to the cause. It's "their destiny".
It wasn't Richard Dawkins' books that began my journey away from faith, but they were what gave me the confidence I needed to finally put it to one side. I have always been a very scientific person, and I was lucky enough to be brought up in England where evolution and the "Big Bang" theory of the universe is taught mostly without question. So it ended up that in my late teens I had this belief in God but also a solid education in Science - and together they were contradictory. I spent my early twenties both pretending that this obvious contradiction didn't exist whilst also trying to mash them together - maybe God created the universe through evolution and that's what Genesis is telling us? Ideas like this were a long shot and I knew deep down that they were the beginning of the end of my faith.
For everyone who mocks Christians and berates them for their beliefs - I'm asking you to be a little sensitive. They are victims of the biggest lie ever told. From the outside it seems obvious they are wrong, but when you're in it, it' a very different story. We should challenge the beliefs of all religion and the illogical nature of faith, but it's not an easy task to drop something that's been such a big part of ones life for so long. It's not like someone telling you drinking Coke is bad for you, so you just stop doing it - it's more than that. It has become a part of who you are - and the realisation that a big part of you has been false for so long is not a pleasant feeling.
For a Christian, God is - literally - part of your body and "soul". It's like he is the leg you are standing on and to remove it requires an operation. For some this operation is swift - the death of a loved one, witnessing the corruption of the institution first hand - all things like that can cause someone to lose their faith overnight. They are the lucky ones. For those who have come to the conclusion through logic and reason, it's a much longer operation. For me it's been about five years in fact.
It's harder because for those who lose their faith overnight it's often an external factor that has caused it - the priest abuses a child in your church, he has cut off the limb for you. When you come to the realisation yourself, you are the one performing the operation - you are the one chopping your own leg off. As you grind through your leg, sawing back and forth, year upon year, slowly cutting off that which you relied on for support, you are constantly asking yourself if you're doing the right thing. It's a battle against your own mind. If we're delusional when we believe in God then the transition to atheism is the maddening final fever.
Richard Dawkins was not that which first convinced me to pick up the hacksaw, but his writing was what allowed me to keep sawing - especially during the tougher times. Science, critical thinking and good solid reasoning are what help to keep you removing the dead limb of religion from your body. After it's done and the limb has finally gone, an overwhelming sense of relief comes about. I think it's partly because for the first time you're seeing things as they actually are, not how someone has told you they should be, but it's also because after a while you realise that you weren't removing a supporting limb at all - more like an appendix. In the end that which you thought you required turns out to be something you never needed in the first place. This is moment that you feel truly empowered.