When reading the blogs of people who have recently become less religious as a result of their atheism, i'm struck by one thing: when people first violate a law of judaism, they all seem to do it in secret. Or rather, it's between them and god. This is probably true of Atheists becuase they don't actually believe in god, and keeping rules when you are alone gets kind of ridiculous if you don't beleive there's a god watching over you.
On the other hand, a friend of mine from college who went on to start the Footsteps organization, said that her first major transgression was calling her grandmother on simchat torah. That seems less alone to me. But (and I've never asked her this myself), I suspect that she's not an atheist; that she's more of an agnostic, and just doesn't believe in the laws of judaism. I could be wrong on that however.
So is my theory true? (and feel free to chime in with your experiences)
It's been 10 years since i took that first step off the derech, but i still remember it clear as day. I was probably around 15 years old, and one shabbat someone had forgotten to put tissues in the bathroom. I had already used the bathroom before noticing this, and at that point my choices were a) don't wipe (ew) or b) tear the toilet paper. I opted for choice b, although that first time I was super careful to tear along the perforation lines so that it wouldn't be THAT bad.
I find a simliarity between this and Lubab no More, who recently talked about turning off an alarm clock on Rosh Hashana as his first "major" transgression. I find two things in common with my experience 1) the secrecy involved- no one else knew he was doing this and 2) the inconvinience factor. He knew that if he didn't turn the alarm off it would go off the next morning and annoy the heck out of him and his wife. When you don't believe in god, and are only practicing judaism to keep up appearences or make other people happy, and no one will find out....well then the next step is starting to transgress when you are alone. The problem is when that leads to not practicing in public, or when you get caught; that's when the social consequences start coming into play.
After that first time tearing the toilet paper it was a slippery slope to just using toilet paper all the time, and not caring about the perforations. I'd say by a month later that was my regular practice on shabbas. However, i'm somewhat joking about the slippery slope thing..because for me, it was a very very slow process, that hasn't really ended yet. There are still so many foods I haven't tried! I refused to try bacon until a few weeks ago, because I was holding on to that last remnent of jewish tradition. Next on the list is lobster I think.