Letting go of god emotionally was tougher. After all, much of my identity was tied up in my religious upbringing, and all my family remained religious. I kept quiet about my atheism for awhile and did not publicize my apostasy, but my writings got to be known among my family and relatives and friends and as they started asking me if I was still religious, I told them the truth. The response by them has been very accepting and in fact we have had many good discussions. In some ways, I think it has been a relief to some of them, that their own doubts have been kind of validated since I, once considered one of the most religious people in my extended family, did not believe anymore. A lot of people struggle with containing their doubts, thinking that others don't have them and therefore such doubts must be a sign of their own failings.
The most difficult part of stopping believing in god was also giving up the idea of the after life. My father died just before he reached the age of sixty, nearly thirty years ago, long before my own children were born, and it was nice to think that he could still somehow "see" them from somewhere and that I would meet him again someday. But one has to give up such illusions, attractive though they might be, if one is to hold on to rationality.
MLU: One of the problems atheists face when talking to religious believers is that those of faith often portray atheists as immoral heathens, and are openly hostile. What can non-believers do to promote a more constructive dialogue? Should we even try?
MS: I think we should try to have a constructive dialogue but realize that it is not likely to produce any short-term results. As Jonathan Swift said "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place." The best we can do is plant the seed for the growth of future doubt. But we should not be intimidated by the overwhelming conventional wisdom into not challenging fundamental ideas. It is easy to be seduced into not making waves, just going along all the time, by not criticizing religion. That just gives religion the free pass that it has enjoyed for so long and does not deserve.
On the other hand, one does not have to be obnoxious and object to religion on every possible occasion. I try to differentiate the way I respond depending on whether the discussion is taking place in the public domain or in the private domain.
In the public domain (such as my blog), I have no hesitation in applying reason and logic ruthlessly, though politely of course. People are not forced to read my blog and I have zero power or influence over them. In the private domain (in conversations or in teaching) I tend not to take a hard line, and ignore religion unless someone specially asks me to comment or says something so egregiously offensive that to remain silent would be to be complicit in propagating really awful ideas. I instead encourage people to explore their own ideas and see where it leads them. I do not try to change their views but I am not shy about telling them what I believe (or not believe) and why.
I have learned to avoid trying to convince people to agree with me. This just leads to interminable and repetitive arguments. You cannot force people to change their minds on things they strongly believe. When I have said all that I have to say and listened to what they have said, I politely terminate the discussion. I believe that people change their minds only when they are good and ready to do so, as a result of their own needs and drives. After I have told them what I can, I leave them to dwell further on the ideas or not, depending on their preference.