First of all, thank you to those who viewed my first post and especially to those who commented. I feel truly gratified that you found value in reading about my experiences and are willing to share your own.
Cognitive Dissonance, "mental discord or inconsistency", is something I experienced regarding my Roman Catholic instruction since at least 12 years old. I can only verify it goes back that far because the first instance I can recall questioning my religion was at my Confirmation. I remember thinking, 'This is a lot of ritual... is this necessary?' and 'am I old enough to reject Satan? I haven't had a chance to try all the cool stuff that God doesn't like.' Which now I understand is exactly why Confirmation is given to pre-teens.
I don't know if this is every Roman Catholic's experience, but I was taught to believe in the 'God of the Gaps', to borrow a term. God was supposed to exist in the mysteries of the world. Whenever there wasn't a clear explanation, God did it. And to a young child, the world is full of mysteries. Miracles were everywhere, therefore, undeniably God was there, too!
Every time I took a science class, the uncomfortable feeling that the Bible wasn't giving straight answers got a bit stronger. I watched a 'Christian Documentary' once that explained how the Noah's flood was caused by the collapse of enormous underground aquifers.* "That's amazing!" I thought at the time. "God created the world in such a way that he could easily flood it later." Something about that didn't make perfect sense to me, but the animations were cool and I didn't think too much more about it.
*This is tremendous bullshit, by the way. After several college courses in geology, structural geology and planetary sciences, I can say that with confidence.
A couple years later, I was a little older and saw another Christian documentary about the story of Moses and the Egyptian plagues. This one had a lot of plausible scientific reasons. For example, a volcano despoiled the Nile and darkened the sky. The frogs fled the nasty water, the beasts got sick and died, the fly population exploded, and the sickness spread more easily among the people. Even the Passover killing of the firstborn was said to be geologic outgassing that smothered people quickly in their sleep. It was a really well put together documentary, and I was impressed.
But by chance, I had also recently heard in my English class of something called Occam's Razor. The documentary was so complete... there really wasn't any 'gap' left to call any of it a 'miracle'. God didn't need an active hand in any of it. So in my perception, God was just walking Moses through a huge Rube Goldberg device he'd been setting up from the dawn of time.
As my education continued to add more knowledge, the gaps shrunk. It turns out we do have an understanding of how the earth was created, where humans came from, animals with cloven feet really are delicious... I tried to place these things into context with the Bible to make them agree, and struggled and struggled. One time I thought I'd solved it. "God is so great," I said, "He could create the universe in 6 days and make it seem super-old." But my theory still had holes. How could Noah's Ark be real? And, why the dinosaur bones? Why did Old Testament dudes have so many wives and concubines but priests today can't marry?
What finally got me to truly examine my faith were the moral questions that Atheists know very well. Why was god such a bastard in the Old Testament? Why did Jesus bring us eternal damnation? Will I be aware of those suffering in hell while I'm in Heaven? If so, will God take away my empathy? Why did the Church do more about hiding a scandal than protecting children?
And finally, the question that got me off the bandwagon. How is eternal damnation ever justified for finite crimes? Isn't that disproportionate to infinity? I did a lot of introspection on this matter; justice is very important to me. But it wasn't during this introspection that I came to the realization that gods aren't real. It was random, though I credit my introspection for preparing my mind for it. I was doing my normal routine and then I just stopped, physically, where I was standing and really believed, "The Roman Catholic god I've believed in my whole life... isn't real. No gods are real."
And I smiled and felt the incredibly joyful silence. The Cognitive Dissonance was gone. Then I knew peace.