Modern people are, of course, aware of this ability or - to use more contemporary terminology - are aware of their right to believe or not believe in God. Moreover, modern people hold this ability - this right - to be a natural extension of their freedom and agency.
In theory, moderns rank freedom and agency among the highest of values. I would go as far as to claim that modern people regard freedom and agency as supreme values, around which all other values must be subordinated, organized, and categorized.
The ability to believe in whatever one wants to believe in has - more or less - been the foundation of Western liberal democratic model of civilization for over two centuries. The more liberal and democratic our societies became through time, the more we increased our ability to believe or disbelieve whatever we wanted. As the ability to believe in or not believe in God expanded, belief in God contracted. We are now at the point where hardly any modern person in the West believes in God anymore.
To a greater or lesser degree, traditionalist Christians ascribe this decline in belief wholly to freedom and agency and posit a return to external church authority as the only means through which Christianity and the belief in God can be saved and reinstated. Though the wariness of traditionalists is justified to some extent, their largely negative interpretation of the emergence of increased freedom and agency ignores the positive potential within the expansion of the ability to choose - an expansion of freedom that can be traced all the way back to Christ's mission.
In the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky vividly addresses the expansion of freedom Christ offers and the problem this potential expansion of freedom and agency presents. Speaking through the character of the Ivan Karamazov, who in turn relates the Grand Inquisitor's words to his brother Alyosha, Dostoevsky offers the following insights regarding the importance of freedom and agency in choosing to believe in or not believe in Jesus:
Instead of taking possession of man's freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings forever. Thou didst desire man's free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid, ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.
The first and earliest followers of Jesus consciously accepted the increased freedom Christ offered, but the nature and quality of this increased freedom must be properly understood. Jesus appeared within a system of rigid, ancient law - a system which itself in turn was occupied by a larger, imperial system of rigid, ancient law. Within this reality, Christ's offer of increased freedom and agency provided nothing in the way of comfort, security, or expediency.
To follow Jesus then was to step beyond the ancient religious tradition that had become synonymous with an ancient religious people. To accept Christ's gift of increased freedom and agency then was to move beyond the imperial power that ruled the world. To answer Christ's desire of freely given love was to commit to the freedom and agency to decide what was good and evil, and to do so with a free heart, with only Christ's image as a guide. No external framework or societal mechanisms supported the first believers in Christ. Their decision was wholly based in internal freedom and agency. This expression of Christianity via internal freedom and agency remained in force for some time, but eventually succumbed to the power of Christianity as a structured, external authority.
In Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, the Inquisitor interprets the emergence of external Christianity authority as the only solution to Christ's overestimation of man's ability to freely choose. The Grand Inquisitor's main argument is that man's nature prevents him from living up to Christ's offer; hence, man freely surrenders his freedom to an external authority in exchange for comfort and security. Though the Grand Inquisitor's bleak assessment of Christ's offer in relation to human nature contains some truth, it regards human nature and human consciousness as largely static and incapable of development.
From the perspective of freedom and agency, the externalization of Christianity via church authority was certainly a step backward, but from the perspective of religious consciousness, it cannot be regarded as purely negative or unnecessary. The shift from an internal, freely-willed Christianity to an external, un-freely willed Christianity marks a shift in consciousness in which believers, unable to maintain the force of freedom and agency Christ offered, surrendered their freedom in exchange for a system which decreased personal freedom, but worked to develop the greater good. It is also worth noting that Christianity and the Christian message may not have been sustained had this externalization process not occurred.
In the centuries that followed, being a Christian was the default setting for nearly everyone in the West. One was simply born a Christian and had little choice but to remain a Christian. This in no way implies that the Christians of Christendom were lesser Christians; it merely acknowledges the irrelevance and, in most cases, the impossibility of choice. Eventually, freedom and agency began to resurface, but Christ's offer of increased freedom found its expression mostly in the interpretation or reinterpretation of externalized forms of Christianity, which led to the eventual splintering of Christianity along denominational lines.
The modern era presented man with the opportunity to reject external, institutionalized Christianity altogether. This emerging autonomy presented man with the possibility of returning to a state similar to that of the first and earliest Christians who chose to accept Christ's offer of increased freedom. For the first time in nearly two millennia, man became able to take the image of Christ and decide for himself what is good and what is evil.
However, unlike the first and earliest Christians, modern man is now unencumbered by ancient and rigid religious laws; that is, he is not naturally religious. He is, however, burdened with the modern and rigid laws of materialism and the prevailing zeitgeist of atheism - and it these forces that prevent man from answering Christ's call of increased freedom, as Dr. Charlton points out in his post:
To put the matter differently: adult modern Man does not spontaneously believe in God and the spiritual; because he does not perceive the divine and spiritual realm all around him, as did Men of the past.
Modern men are not spontaneously religious, do not follow tradition - are not socially conditioned into goodness and sociability. Modern man is not 'naturally' good . . .
Modern Man therefore has the ability (and it is an ability) Not to believe in God and the spiritual - and thus for the first time both can and must make the fully free choice to believe-in and to know God, to acknowledge the spiritual, to embrace the Good.
The manifestation of the ability to believe or not to believe in God is a truly striking fact about our modern world. At its core, it is a testament to human freedom and agency - to the autonomous choice that is now fully available to all.
Even more striking, our modern condition places modern people in the exact state in which Christ wants them to be. Moderns are now in the unprecedented position to decide with a free heart what is good and what is evil, and to use this knowledge to freely give their love to Him and to follow Him freely.
But the vast majority of moderns see no truth in Christ, and if they do, they reject it. Rather than embrace a state of increased freedom in which they could be free for God, modern people are intent on remaining in a state where they are free from God.
If there is tragedy to be found in any of this, it is the unacknowledged reality that freedom from God does not lead to increased freedom and agency, but to slavery and, ultimately, damnation.