I've written about some of this before... I was stationed at Barstow California back in 1993, and my wife and I had gone to visit my family at their apartment in San Diego. During that visit, we had a knock at the door by some Jehovah's Witnesses. (You can read about that here.)
I'm the one who answered the door, and that's how I met a couple and their daughter.
Instead of saying "No thanks" and shutting the door, I instead decided to talk to them. And I realized that they were very passionate about their beliefs - I found it amazing that they would be so passionate over something - that to me - seemed so obviously false.
My life became very busy soon after that. We left the Air Force and moved to Stockton California, where I transitioned to being a civilian and got a job at a security manufacturing company. We also opened our own children's clothing store. Not long after that - about 10 months - we realized that the store wasn't going to make it. I also found out my company was going under. So I found a much better job in Fresno and we moved again. My wife went to school full time, and I started going to school part time as an engineer.
And we got online.
I had used the Internet before the World Wide Web existed - in the days when you used a teletype emulator in order to visit different IP addresses. I had been a member of the GEnie Internet portal in Okinawa, and I had an email address on MILNET even before that. I was active on Usenet.
But HTML changed everything. It made the Internet accessible. And search engines made it searchable. (Go Lycos and Yahoo!)
Before I had tried going to the library to investigate cults, and I'd run into literature that wasn't very useful. Let's face it, the Barstow and Stockton libraries are not that comprehensive. Fresno State's library was better. The Internet led me to discussion groups about cults, where people could recommend better books. I could ask the local libraries to find and bring those books for me. I could order them too.
I spent about 6 months investigating Jehovah's Witnesses, another 3 months or so on the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). And then I confused Christian Science with another group, and found myself investigating Scientology.
I found the level of crazy in Scientology to be fascinating! I joined the Usenet group alt.religion.scientology right after the start of the Scientology vs the Internet "war" when Scientology lawyer Helena Kobrin tried to delete the whole ARS usenet group. I followed the Scientology war up until about 2008, after the arrest of protester Keith Henson.
But even from the beginning I was amazed at the level of dirty tricks used by Scientologists. And that led me to other restrictive cults, such as The Family, Mormon Fundamentalists, Christian Nationalism and Christian Dominionism, the Unification Church, the Children of God, and of course the Branch Davidians and later Heaven's Gate.
I had copies of Steven Hassan's "Combating Cult Mind Control" and Margaret Singer's "Cults in our Midst". And there was a wealth of websites even in the mid to late '90s about destructive cults.
After the Heaven's Gate suicide in 1997, I remember thinking to myself that cults were so destructive. "It's a good thing that MY religion is the Truth!" And then I had a great idea. I'd compare my religion, that of mainline Protestantism, with these other cults - and demonstrate just how true it really was.
It didn't go well for me.
First, original sin is a serious problem. How can an all-knowing being NOT know that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil would be a temptation of Adam and Eve? Next was the issue of sin - if God is perfect, then why did the laws of what was sinful change from the Old Testament to the New Testament? After that I learned about biblical textual criticism, and learned about the problems with the Pericope Adulterae - in that it originally wasn't part of the Gospels! This led me to learn that no one knows who actually authored the Gospels, and that the earliest manuscripts (which are not the originals) came from a generation after the supposed death of Christ.
I brought these issues to my pastor, who told me that I would receive answers in prayer. I spent a lot of time praying, but my doubts became worse.
I followed the example of pastor David Wilkerson, author of "The Cross and the Switchblade" - and followed the teachings of Jesus in Matt 21:21-22 (among other places) that if asked in prayer, with faith, we will receive an answer. I followed Gideon's example in Judges 6:36-40, and asked God for a sign that Christianity - or any religion - was true.
I did this daily, for weeks.
I finally came to the point where I had to admit, the way the Christian church acted was little different than the way most cults acted. They sought intelligent people as members, and then used specious reasoning to explain away problems with teachings. The holy book was deeply flawed. And God (or Jesus) wasn't answering.
I had one more reason to remain a believer in God.
As a Christian I had, on many occasions, experienced The Holy Ghost. I had lost this feeling during my period of doubt, which was actually a point in the favor of me remaining Christian. If I returned to my faith, perhaps I could reclaim the attention of The Holy Spirit.
But by this time, I had learned so much about other religions that I realized that many opposing religious people had similar experiences. I had also learned enough about human psychology to realize that humans were very good at fooling ourselves. I had an idea - maybe I could recreate the Holy Spirit experience through meditation.
I was successful. I could re-experience the Holy Spirit at will. That was the end of my Christianity, sometime around 1998.
I didn't call myself an atheist immediately. Atheism was still mostly "in the closet". There was a discussion forum for atheists on the Secular Web which I stayed away from because its web address was infidels.org - which seemed blasphemous in a scary way. Instead I started reading the discussion forum at James Randi's website, and started calling myself "agnostic".
I learned that my uncle was an atheist, and he asked me why I was "on the fence" - since I was using the word "agnostic" to mean that I didn't know what was true. He pointed me toward what I would later learn is called "implicit" or "weak" atheism.
I started learning about campus non-believer groups, so I first searched for such a group at my university, and when I didn't find one, I started one. Called the CSUF Freethought Society. It was hard going to school, working full time, and keeping the group going, so it fell apart in 2002.
After that, I tried to find a local skeptical / atheist organization to become a part of. I looked around and found the Unitarian Universalists - which didn't fit what I wanted. I also found the Humanists of San Joaquin Valley - who was meeting at the UU church. I had by this time learned that I agreed with Secular Humanism more than I agreed with mainstream Humanism, so this didn't seem like the group I wanted to join.
So again I created a new group. I started a Meetup group for Fresno atheists and other freethinkers in 2002. That gradually evolved into an atheist group, which eventually combined with my friend Richard's skeptics group.
We met together once a month, casually, for several years. Until we decided that we wanted to become more active in the community. So we founded the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics in 2008. And I started blogging in 2006.
Since my deconversion from Christianity, I've been told that I can receive proof of God just through prayer. And I have always taken those suggestions at face value. If you want to pray with me to find God, I'll happily do so. And I'll be as sincere as I know how to be. Honest.
All it will take to change my mind is evidence.