Home SECTION A The Search for Meaning

Atheism and Agnosticism


Leaving Certificate Section  A  The Search for Meaning and Values


Part  two The Response to the Quest


Topic 2.2 The tradition of response  


Please note that the following article is background information only on this topic.  It in no way constitutes a sample or exemplary answer on this topic.


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 existenceor 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

By ‘religious anaemia’ he means a distancing from traditional Christian roots due to the lack of pastoral imagination in the Church.  This causes a credibility gap of language whereby the message of the Church can be experienced as a foreign tongue.  Alienation can also happen when religion is equated with moralisms, producing guilt, where the un-evangelised are sacramentalised.  This, of course, results in superficial ritualism where religious observances may occur but their meaning and reason are not known or relevant to the person.  This religious anaemia is also linked to more recent expressions of anger in response to Church scandals, particularly concerning sexual scandals and a general impression of condescending non-listening to human realities.  This pattern creates distrust and distance.  Therefore, religious anaemia is evident when ‘the receiver encounters only the conventional or complacent externals of an institution, and when the communicators of faith fail to imitate St. Paul in the Areopagus, entering initially and respectfully into the culture of the receiver’.  It is suggested that many people in Ireland who profess to be Christian never actually move beyond James Fowler’s ‘stage 3’ of faith development, remaining fixated at the stage of institutional loyalty.  This fragile dependence on institution can easily be shaken by the pressures of the dominant culture.


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’ indifferent 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.



1.1 The contemporary context

give two examples from contemporary culture that illustrate the human search for meaning. Examples may be taken from music, art, literature, or youth culture
provide two examples of each of the following key questions that emerge in contemporary culture: the goal and purpose of life; the meaning of good and evil; the experience of suffering
identify cultural factors in contemporary society that can block the search for meaning
give two examples of the contemporary phenomenon of indifference to the search for meaning.
1.2 The tradition of search
give a brief definition and explanation of the nature and purpose of philosophy in terms of the search for meaning and values
in the case of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle present a summary of two of their main ideas and explain why each idea was important in the development of philosophy
outline the place of the Sophists in the society of ancient Greece and their importance in the development of philosophical thought
on the question of the search for meaning: identify and briefly explain three key moments in the development of philosophical thought from the classical to the contemporary period.


2.1 The language of symbol

explain why symbol emerged in the formulation of responses to the questions of life in each case, give an example of the power of symbolic language on

– individuals

– groups

– societies.

2.2 The tradition of response

outline three myths from ancient cultures which attempt to answer key questions
provide evidence of religious behaviour in ancient societies from each of the following: rites of passage and initiation; rites of burial and sacrifice; sacred art and artefacts
provide evidence of the sense of the sacred in contemporary culture
provide evidence of spirituality in contemporary culture
identify three key people in the humanist tradition. In each case, briefly outline one key idea of their teaching
define and explain atheism and agnosticism
briefly outline two cosmologies of modern science
briefly explain each of the following non-religious responses to the questions of life:

– the secular humanist tradition :– atheism :– agnosticism :– reductionism.




3.1 The gods of the ancients

give two examples of the gods in ancient myths
explain and give two examples of polytheism
describe briefly the emergence of monotheism
explain the concept of God in each of the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

3.2 The concept of revelation

explain the concept of divine revelation
explain the significance of divine revelation in two different religious traditions
show the impact of the concept of divine revelation on religious practice and on the interpretation of religious texts in the two religious traditions
outline the understanding of the transcendent in two religious traditions.

3.3 Naming God, past and present

name and explain three traditional and three contemporary images of God
explain and give an example of each of the following religious interpretations ofcontemporary human experience: the prophetic, the mystical, the holy, the poetic, the aesthetic
outline the traditional proofs of God in the writings of Anselm, Aquinas, and two others.


4.1 Religion as a source of communal values

outline the relationship between the understanding of the transcendent/God and the concept of the person in two religious traditions
give two examples of how these connections determine behavioural norms in religious traditions.

4.2 Secular sources of communal values

identify three key moments in the emergence of an independent secular value system
show how communal values can be shaped by sources other than religion
describe three different ways in which religions relate to secular culture.

SECTION A The Search for Meaning. The humanist Tradition  
Albert CAMUS 
copy right Irish Times Lara Marlowe

How absurd: the world as Albert Camus saw it

The writer, always his own man, refused to take sides on Algeria and was an anti-Soviet leftist even though it led to a rupture with fellow intellectual Sartre

French author and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) on a terrace outside his Paris office in 1957. Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

French author and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) on a terrace outside his Paris office in 1957. Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mon, Nov 4, 2013, 01:00

First published:Mon, Nov 4, 2013, 01:00

That Camus became one of the finest writers of the 20th century and a Nobel laureate is something of a miracle. The writer was born 100 years ago, on November 7th, in a remote corner of colonial Algeria, where his father was employed as a labourer in a vineyard. When the first World War started, Lucien Camus joined a Zouave infantry regiment. He was killed weeks later, at the Battle of the Marne.

Camus’s mother, Catherine, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, was half-deaf and suffered from a speech impediment. She cleaned houses to support her two sons. The family kept the piece of shrapnel that killed Lucien in a biscuit tin in their two-room flat in Belcourt, a working-class district of Algiers. The flat had no bathroom, heat or plumbing.

His brother worked full time as an errand boy from the age of 14. The same fate would have befallen Albert if his teacher, Louis Germain, had not persuaded Camus’s grandmother to let him try for a scholarship to the lycée. Germain gave Camus two hours of private lessons daily, free of charge. In December 1957 Camus dedicated his Nobel Prize acceptance speech to his former teacher.

Despite extreme hardship, Camus remembered his childhood fondly. “I was born poor and without religion, under a happy sky, feeling harmony, not hostility, in nature. I began not by feeling torn, but in plenitude,” he wrote in 1948.

Camus recounted his childhood in an unfinished autobiographical novel The First Man, which remained unpublished for 34 years after his death in 1960. “For you who could never read this book,” was the handwritten dedication to his illiterate mother.

Three-point plan
Camus planned his oeuvre in three successive stages: the Absurd; Revolt, which he saw as salvation from the Absurd; and Love. Shortly before his death, he said he had completed only a third of his oeuvre. Though he had written extensively on the Absurd and Revolt, he barely broached the subject of Love. The First Man, a moving paean to his silent, long-suffering mother, is all we know of what Camus would have written of love.

In his male friendships, Camus seemed to search for the father he never knew. On the advice of his philosophy professor in Algiers, Jean Grenier, he briefly joined the Algerian communist party. He was expelled after a year, and his subsequent membership of the French communist party lasted scarcely longer. “I’m not cut out for politics, because I’m incapable of wanting or accepting the death of the adversary,” he wrote later.

Yet Camus is often described as the moral conscience of his generation. He never forgot his Spanish blood, and was a lifelong opponent of Franco’s dictatorship. During the second World War, he joined the Combat Resistance group, whose newspaper he edited in Paris.

Camus was one of the first western intellectuals to condemn the American bombing of Hiroshima. In a Combat editorial published on August 8th, 1945, he wrote of “the terrifying perspectives opened up to humanity”. He campaigned against capital punishment. The Nobel committee praised Camus’s “important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times”.

Diagnosed with TB
Camus was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 17, and was heart-broken at having to give up his position as goalkeeper on the University of Algiers football team. He suffered relapses of TB throughout his life.

Camus’s lifelong passion for the theatre began in 1936, when he founded the Théâtre du Travail in Algiers. Two of his four long-term mistresses, Maria Casares and Catherine Sellers, later acted in his plays in Paris. Asked why he wrote and directed theatre, Camus answered: “Simply because a theatre stage is one of the places in the world where I am happy . . . Through the theatre, I escape from what bores me in my profession as a writer.”

In his novels, plays and essays, he struggled to find meaning in meaninglessness. Though he showed lust for life and a Mediterranean oneness with nature, happiness was an unrelenting quest. “Heroism is accessible,” he wrote. “Happiness is more difficult.”

In 1943, Camus met Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at a rehearsal of Sartre’s play, The Flies. From the Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the three dominated French intellectual life for the following decade.

In his 1951 book The Rebel, Camus denounced the totalitarianism of the Soviet bloc. Sartre was a pro-Soviet communist who labelled anti-communists “dogs”. Sartre commissioned an underling to write a scathing review of The Rebel in Les Temps modernes, the influential magazine he edited. Camus protested in a letter to “Monsieur le Directeur”, to which Sartre replied with his own 19-page epistle. Their rupture was complete. In her 1954 book The Mandarins, de Beauvoir maligned Camus as a repugnant character and collaborationist.

Camus had always maintained that he did not adhere to existentialism, the philosophy invented by Sartre. Asked later if he was a left-wing intellectual, he replied, “I’m not sure of being an intellectual. As for the rest, I am for the left, despite myself and despite the left.”

Also in 1954, Camus’s wife Francine, who suffered terribly from his infidelities, attempted suicide by jumping from a window. In The Fall, perhaps Camus’s finest novel, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a lawyer who has specialised in defending noble causes, recounts his life during a night-time stroll through Amsterdam, whose concentric canals recall the circles of Dante’s hell. Clamence/Camus admits he cannot pass a pretty woman in the street without turning to look at her. He is haunted by the memory of a woman who threw herself from a bridge in Paris, whom he did not try to save.

Algerian politics
During the 1954-1962 Algerian war, Camus refused to chose between the Algerian Arabs, whose rights he had often defended, and his own people, the European pieds noirs.

His calls for non-violence and a federal Algeria where they would live in peace angered both sides. After his Nobel Prize ceremony in Sweden, he was accosted by a young Algerian to whom he said, in a fit of pique, “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice”. The quote was misinterpreted as support for l’Algérie française.

With his Nobel Prize money, Camus bought a house in Lourmarin, Provence, which reminded him of Algeria. On December 28th, 1959, he wrote to his former professor, Jean Grenier that “working conditions for me have always been those of the monastic life: solitude and frugality. Except for frugality, they are contrary to my nature, so much so that work is a violence I do to myself.”

Six days later, Camus decided to drive back to Paris with Michel Gallimard, his publisher’s nephew, in Gallimard’s Facel Vega sports car.

It swerved off the road and crashed into a tree. Camus was killed instantly. Gallimard died five days later. Camus’s unused train ticket was found in his coat pocket. As he had often told friends, to die in a car crash was the height of the Absurd.

The three Absurds: Camus’s great works
Camus defined the absurd as the absence of answers to man’s questions about his own condition. “I draw from the Absurd three consequences,” he wrote, “my revolt, my liberty, my passion.”

Camus wrote The Stranger, Caligula and The Myth of Sisyphus (which he referred to as “the three Absurds”) concurrently in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They encompass the genres – fiction, theatre and essays – which comprise his oeuvre.

The Stranger has been translated into 50 languages, and is Camus’s best-known novel. In it Meursault, a Frenchman in colonial Algiers, is overwhelmed by sunlight on the beach and shoots an Arab. Meursault makes no attempt to explain himself, and jurors convict him more because he failed to weep at his mother’s funeral than because he killed an Arab.

Before his death, Mersault embraces “the benign indifference of the world” and hopes that many spectators will attend his execution “so that I will feel less alone”.

In Camus’s most oft-performed play, the Roman emperor Caligula sinks ever deeper into madness after the death of his sister and lover. The reason for Caligula’s unhappiness: “Men die and they are not happy.”

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus compares mankind to the Greek king condemned by the gods to eternally roll a boulder up the hill, only to have it fall to the bottom. Effort – not suicide – is the appropriate response to the Absurd. “One must believe that Sisyphus is happy,” Camus concludes.