The recent Huffington Post survey on religious belief in Britain makes for interesting reading. Now I must admit to being cautious when it comes to public opinion. After all, when Pontius Pilate polled the masses on what he ought to do with Jesus he received the overwhelming verdict: 'Crucify! Crucify!' And of course you don't need to have a PhD in statistical analysis to note problems when more than 60% of those polled say they are not religious at all but 56% consider themselves to be Christian. And I would love to know exactly what, in these confused times, people understand by 'religion' and 'moral'. If you had replaced the word 'religion' with 'spirituality', the results would most certainly have been very different.
Quibbling apart, I have little doubt that the general trends suggested by the poll are authentic. Let me make three observations in response, all of which may be surprising. First, I am delighted that this has given the atheists another opportunity to preach. The 'New Atheists' know exactly what they are against, but it's very difficult to know what they are for. The more they talk, the more evident it is that they have little to say. When it comes to morality, the void at the heart of atheism is terribly exposed; they can praise morals but have no basis for them. They certainly fail to understand the human heart. So when the chief executive of the British Humanist Association tells us that human beings are 'social animals that care for each other and are kind to others because we understand that they are human too' I do wonder what news program he watches.
Second, if you define religion as the formal, public ritualisation of personal faith then, like most Christians, I have to admit to mistrusting it as well. The heart of my spiritual life, and that of other Christians for two thousand years, is a living, personal relationship with the resurrected Christ through his Spirit; everything else is just the wrapping around the gift. And the problem with wrapping is that sometimes it is mistaken for the gift. 'To hell with religion', say the atheists; I'm not far from agreeing with them.
Third, can I encourage Christians to look hard at these results? For far too long in this country we have needed to do nothing to survive because we had the wind behind us. Now, the cultural climate has changed and we need to realise that we are very much in opposition. The wind -- and it may soon be a very chill one -- blows in our faces. There are two responses to such a situation. The first is to turn inwards, to slip into the 'encircle-the-wagons' mode, worship behind closed doors and, in comfortable privacy, bury our beliefs. That may preserve our faith but what will be preserved is not an authentic Christianity. The second response is to accept the challenge, turn outwards and go out boldly to confront our culture. To do that will not be comfortable, but it will be authentic. We Christians in Britain need to be prepared to live more wisely, think more deeply and, just maybe, die more willingly for what we believe.