Funnily enough it was reading the bible that really helped me kick religion. That and religious education lessons.
I was born and baptised a Catholic. My parents are pretty staunch. They go to mass every week and we (all their children) all went to Catholic schools.
I suppose I believed in it all myself at first. Certainly when I was at junior school I was an unquestioning believer. However it was during our classes for our first communion and confession that the teacher planted a seed that would eventually make me doubt.
Before we could confess our sins we had to know what sins were. So the concepts of mortal and venial sins were explained to us. Also we learned about the concept of been in a 'state of grace'. There are some quite complicated rules about all this which I won't go into here.
In a nutshell when you die there are four options for you:
If you are a baby and die before you are baptised you'll go to limbo.
If you die in a state of grace you will go straight to heaven.
If you die with a mortal sin on your soul you'll go straight to hell.
Otherwise you'll go to purgatory which is a kind of halfway house before you get to heaven.
Obviously hell is to be avoided and heaven is what to aim for. However the rules for what happens when you get to purgatory are woolly to say the least as far as I remember. Apparently you stay there until enough prayers have been said for you to get you up to heaven.
In retrospect it sounds a bit like one of these talent shows on the telly. I can just see it now. The Angel Gabriel would host proceedings and we'd have a panel of saints acting as the judges ( Saint Paul playing the Simon Cowell role and Saint Peter the nice guy - like Len on Come Dancing) and the final score would be a combination of the judges points and the praying public (remember that any prayers made after the lines close won't be counted but you may still be charged).
Anyway to an impressionable young child (I was about six or seven) it sounded horrendous. Not only that but as I mentioned the rules seemed pretty ambiguous. None of the adults seemed to be able to give me a straight answer about it all. So I decided that the only thing to do was to do some reading up on the subject. What would be the ultimate document that would give me a satisfactory answer? It seemed pretty clear to me that the bible might be just such a document.
So for christmas I asked my parents for a bible. They must have been delighted at what a devout little catholic I was. So in the new year I began to read the bible seriously in an attempt to find the crucial rules that would let me know what I needed to do to get myself to heaven when I died.
However no matter how I scoured the book I could find no references to purgatory. There was some pretty interesting historical stuff, a couple of neat stories and a lot of boring guff about people begetting other people etc. I wasn't too impressed with Saint Paul's letter writing skills either.
I'd like to say that at this point the scales dropped away from my eyes. In reality though I just stopped looking but still retained my belief. It wasn't easy though. I'm not a person who likes to be out of control and that's how it felt - knowing I might die and end up in purgatory and for who knows how long. And to make matters worse I started to build my natural catholic guilt. It was drummed into me that going to mass on Sunday was the highlight of the week (and worse if you missed it for no good reason then it was a mortal sin!) and yet I found it boring and something that I dreaded.
As I entered my teenage years I stopped going to confession. I don't really know why. The first thing you are supposed to say in confession is how long it is since your last confession. So after a while I couldn't face telling the priest how long it had been since the last confession. I had a similar problem with dentists in my twenties and thirties.
At my school religious education was compulsory. So I studied scripture 'o' level. In retrospect this was brilliant. We analysed the three synoptic gospels (that's Matthew, Mark & Luke to you) in a fair amount of detail. Once again I'm not going into detail here but I began to understand that the bible hadn't been put together by the divine guidance of god but instead by a group of mortals. Furthermore the gospels were written long after the death of christ and there were other gospels which were either excluded by the divine inspiration of god or because their story didn't fit what the church required; depending on which view you took.
At this stage I was also listening to punk music, reading all sorts of books and talking with friends. I was starting to see other points of view. It was becoming clear to me that the catholic faith was just one view point on what christianity could be. So shortly after going to sixth form I decided I was a christian but not a catholic. I was sick of the hypocrisy thrown in front of me. Catholics demanding the death penalty when it was clearly stated in the gospel that Jesus didn't believe this; the riches of the church against the poverty around; and the attitude towards contraceptives.
However my time as a generic christian was very short lived. I'd gone too far to turn back. It wasn't just the hypocrisy of the catholics I couldn't stomach it was the bible itself - a random set of stories thrown together and given a spurious context. If that wasn't right then christianity wasn't either. And after all for better or worse catholicsm was the original christian sect.
Its difficult to explain how free I felt when I realised that it was ok to be bored and miserable in mass. That I didn't have to fake feelings at important days such as good Friday and easter Sunday. I could be indifferent and it didn't matter. There was nothing to be guilty about (well nothing religious anyway).
So here I am many (many) years later and I have to tell you that life without any faith is just fine. My belief system is pretty simple. I believe that my brain is like a very fancy but pretty unreliable computer. My soul is the electrical impulses bouncing round in there and ,my personality is a mixture of genetics and my experiences. When I die I cease to exist. And that's all!