Atheism may be defined as ‘the conscious rejection of a theistic entity creating and controlling human life and natural phenomena’. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular have seen a rise in atheism as a philosophical alternative Christianity and other religious traditions. The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationalism and the primacy of the scientific understanding of reality, witnessed the emergence of atheism as an alternative discourse as the influence of Christianity began to weaken. Atheism is not just a rejection of the tenets of Christianity but of Islam and other religious traditions also. Contemporary Islam, for example, is now discovering a discourse towards atheism which distinguishes Muslims who no longer practise their religion from those who express disbelief in the central truths of Islam. In some Muslim societies it may be both dangerous and considered a criminal offence to be an atheist if the stance is linked to apostasy (the deliberate disavowal of belief in the orthodox tenets of a religion). Apostasy and punishment have been found in both Christianity and Islam. The Inquisition in Christianity and the fact that apostasy is punishable by death in the Qur’an, are two notorious examples of large scale reactions to people’s declaration of non-belief. In Islam, apostasy is usually applicable to people who leave the faith and join another.
Agnosticism may be defined as ‘the suspension or putting aside of acceptance and rejection of religious belief. Agnostics in general are undecided or unsure whether or not to believe in God. The question of God’s existence remains open.
During a two-day conference in Dublin in 1997 on the changing situation of religion in Irish education, Michael Paul Gallagher delivered a speech on the topic ‘New Forms of Cultural Unbelief’. He spoke of a ‘paradigm shift’ in culture in Ireland in recent years (meaning ‘a whole way of seeing and making sense of things, a cluster of beliefs and values shared by members of a community’). He claims that contemporary cultural change involves a paradigm shift in people’s perception of their lives. ‘Their horizons expand or contract, and hence subtle movements occur within their self-images and in their relationships’. We all possess subtle tools of interpretation, ways of responding to existence, and these ‘lenses of seeing’ are at the heart of cultural change. Unbelief would appear to be a by-product of cultural change. Contemporary atheism in Western societies has evolved from outright militant rejection of God to ‘a more vague distance from religious faith’. If ‘modern’ society was linked to a rational view of the world, an emphasis on the use of reason and logic, control and technology, then our ‘post-modern’ era is a time of scepticism about humanist claims and ‘a mood of unease over any meanings and values’. If atheism suggests a conscious decision to deny God’s existence or a deliberate stance that involves the rejection of the notion of God, then the term ‘unbelief’ suggests less clarity, more confusion and more doubt. It would seem that there are fewer people who are giving an outright rejection to the notion of God, but increasing numbers of people who could be called ‘unbelievers’, not necessarily negating religious faith but sensing it to be unreal. Thus the most common form of unbelief in the West suggested by Gallagher is religious indifference or non-dogmatic agnosticism. ‘Agnosticism can express itself as a more vehement allergy against Church presence in education and public life, and because of the perceived power of the Church, some unbelievers in the fields of communications and education feel called to crusade of total opposition or at least of overt despising of the religious dimension of life’. This more hostile tone may be more common among the over thirties than among the younger generation. The Spanish commentator, Josef Vives says of the younger generation:
At ‘the present moment the question of God remains something irrelevant, or even non-existent for the great majority of people. God is missing but is not missed. This is a genuinely new situation, which never existed before in the world’
This type of unbelief gives rise to an inherited confusion and a sheer puzzlement at religious beliefs and practices with their associated languages and symbolisms. This cultural unbelief is described by Gallagher as ‘an un-dramatic limbo of disinterest and non-belonging’. This religious vacuum is part of a larger picture in Western society, a picture depicting a lack of certainty about values, about institutions and the possibility of finding meaning to our lives. Therefore this unbelief is more passive than chosen, ‘more drifting than militant, and the unbeliever is more a victim of an impoverished or confusing culture than a deliberate rejecter of anything.
Gallagher classifies unbelief into four groupings:
- Religious anaemia
- Secularist marginalisation
- Anchorless spirituality
- Cultural desolation
With regard to ‘secular marginalisation’ Gallagher observes the modern tendency to equate democracy with secular liberalism. In the world of academics and in the media in general the secular culture is particularly strong whereas religion is often ignored of viewed as unimportant. Unlike Italy, newspapers in Ireland lack serious consideration of religion. In Italy, even ‘left-wing’ / ‘liberal’ newspapers regularly review theological books, unlike the Irish situation where a religious book usually only gets media attention if it is linked with controversy. The trend of secular marginalisation involves ‘an arrogance of autonomy, a somewhat adolescent rebellion against what the middle-aged once knew as religion’. This type of unbelief manifests itself through silence and shyness in the fields of reflection and communication.
‘Anchorless spirituality’ is linked to the post-modern so-called ‘return of the sacred’. Many people today search for meaning in their lives but their search is without an anchor or firm basis. They are ‘sated but unsatisfied’ by the old materialism. They are bored or untouched by their experience of Church. They drift in their searching. The danger is that they fill their spiritual hunger with ancient heresies like gnosticism and pelagianism. Gallagher describes this condition in terms of ‘religious malnutrition’. In what he refers to as a ‘lonely spirituality’ he describes how it results in people being thrown back on their own resources and express their ‘undernourished and suppressed religiousness’ in different ways, which can range from the ‘New Age explorations to more fundamentalist rigidities’.
The fourth type of unbelief Gallagher speaks of is ‘cultural desolation’. He argues that the pressures of the dominant culture can block people at the level of their disposition or readiness for faith. The reason for this is that these cultural pressures ‘kidnap their imagination in trivial ways and therefore leave them un-free for Revelation’. He would like to see a ministry of disposition, an awakening of the deep hungers to which the truth may eventually be seen as the answer. An interesting warning is made by William Barry when he writes that:
the ‘influence of culture on us escapes our consciousness’
and that we need to find out
‘how any of us encultured human beings can become free enough from our culture to be believers’.
Gallagher suggests that education today is invited to become counter-cultural, helping students to identify the de-humanising factors present in lifestyles and assumptions of modern culture. He states that:
‘to survive as believers into the twenty-first century, young people will need to develop skills of Christian critique and of seeing through the deceptions of trhe surrounding culture’… and that being a Christian today means, in a sense, ‘opting for a certain resistance movement, distancing oneself from the diminished life on offer in the dominant images around’.
Cardinal Newman was of the opinion that unbelief is not merely a matter of the intellect but of the heart, and that the main battle ground for faith or unbelief is in the imagination. This is a sentiment echoed by T.S. Eliot when he writes:
‘The trouble of the modern age is not merely the inability to believe certain things about God which our forefathers believed, but the inability to feel towards God and man as they did’.
Thus education needs to promote a firm discernment of the surrounding culture. This creates the foundation not necessarily of mature faith but of cultural agency.
‘Even coming to see that one has a way of seeing involves a shift in consciousness’.
Today we realise that human beings are both shapers and are shaped by the contexts of our self-understanding. If we allow ourselves merely to be shaped by emerging cultural contexts then we run the risk of becoming ‘passive members of a dominant culture’. This means that we assimilate values and disvalues in an unassuming way, and lacking in discernment. If however we realise our potential to also be shapers of contexts of self-understanding, then we are empowered to become agents of culture with the power to make decisions. To get to that destination we need to embrace the skills of critique and discernment.
 Greaves, R: Key Words in Religious Studies, The Continuum International Publishing Group, London, 2006, p7
 Ibid; p7
 Ibid; p7
 Ibid; p2
 Gallagher, M.P, ‘New Forms of Cultural Unbelief’, in Hogan, P. and Williams, K. ‘The Future of Religion in Irish Education’, Veritas, Dublin 1997 pp19-20
 Ibid; p20
 Ibid; p20
 Ibid; p20
 Ibid; p21
 Vives, J, ‘Dios en el crepusculo del siglo XX’, Razon y Fe, Mayo 1991, p468
 Gallagher, M.P, ‘New Forms of Cultural Unbelief’, in Hogan, P. and Williams, K. ‘The Future of Religion in Irish Education’, Veritas, Dublin 1997 p21
 Ibid; p21
 Ibid; p22
 Ibid; p23
 Ibid; p24
 Ibid; p24
 Ibid; p24
 Barry, W. ‘U.S Culture and Contemporary Spirituality’, Review for Religious, Vol. 54, January –February 1995, p7
 Gallagher, M.P, ‘New Forms of Cultural Unbelief’, in Hogan, P. and Williams, K. ‘The Future of Religion in Irish Education’, Veritas, Dublin 1997 p25
 Newman, J.H. ‘Grammar of Assent’, Longman, London 1991, pp92-93
 Eliot, T.S. ‘On Poetry and Poets’, Faber & Faber, London 1957, p25
 Warren, M. ‘Communications and Cultural Analysis’, Bergin &Garvey, Westport, Connecticut 1992, p108
 Gallagher, M.P, ‘New Forms of Cultural Unbelief’, in Hogan, P. and Williams, K. ‘The Future of Religion in Irish Education’, Veritas, Dublin 1997, p30