Alasdair MacIntyre once commented that "the Christianity most people disbelieve in is a product of the last three hundred years". Notice that word "disbelieve". Most of my students, though baptised and part of the supposed 46 million Christians in the country (according to my GCSE textbook) have no faith whatsoever, calling themselves "agnostic" (a word that has also become emptied of much of its content).
I want to put the problem in three ways - and it is a problem, because the march of agnosticism seems to continue unrelentingly.
1. The intellectual challenge.
It seems to me that Richard Dawkins has largely won the intellectual debate. God is a delusion to be mocked (read his book - it's funny) and the belief that we were created for a purpose - to be like God and with God - is a profound mistake. We might as well join the church of the flying spaghetti monster, and recite the creed "I believe in God, the Pasta Almighty, and in Jesus Christ, his noodly appendage!".
How many sermons make a serious intellectual defence of the faith? How many sermons are obscure meanderings, how many resemble more the famous sketch from Beyond the Fringe "life is like a sardine tin, there is always something left which you can't get out" (life is like a box of celebration chocolates, which chocolate are you etc etc etc).
We have to recognise that the leading doctrines of the Christian Church are counter-intuitive, or putting it more strongly, are at complete variance to the scientific worldview. Take three for example: the Virgin birth or as one student once put it "Jesus Christ was born by supernatural contraception" - some truth in that - but it's one thing to recite it, another to defend it intellectually. I've never heard a philosophical defence. Take the resurrection - a man rises bodily from the dead. Believable? On what grounds? Or the ascension into heaven. Did Jesus fly up like a space rocket? These things need to be explained, but I fail to hear the explanation and I fail to hear very much which challenges the Dawkins view of things.
Just to point out one flaw in Dawkins' argument. Apparently there is no purpose to human existence, we are just biological mechanisms for survival. But in the same breath we have a biological driving force - to survive. When you analyse this, it's not much different from Aquinas' primary precept, the preservation of life, the telos of human beings. Dawkins contradicts himself. Probably he's closer to Aquinas than anyone realises.
2. The moral challenge.
If you read the New Testament (do you, ever?) what begins to dawn on you is that Jesus Christ was a very unusual, perhaps we might use the term "revolutionary" figure. He didn't appear to accept the tenets and assumptions of his own culture. Lepers were there to be kissed, not shunned. Women who violated the Levitical law were addressed as "daughter", which to me seems to suggest they were in rather than out. He was appalled at the commericalisation of the Temple, the corruption of religion. He worked on the Sabbath when he shouldn't have, and when he said "give to Caesar what is Caesar's" he likely said this with a spitting tone of contempt - it doesn't mean what we often hear from pulpits, pay your taxes but....also go to church. To Jesus Caesar was an evil, idolatrous, oppressive enemy.
If I'm right, then Jesus was a counter-cultural revolutionary. But where is this counter culture today? Which woman will stand up for the rights of women trafficked into prostitution, or those working the streets of our cities. I don't see a Josephine Butler amongst us. Who (apart from Bob Geldoff and Bill Gates) is really addressing the issues of Africa? Indeed, where is the condemnation of that obvious untruth of the Roman Catholic Church "contraception helps the spread of AIDS". The reverse is true, but somehow because it's Africa we let it go.
My argument is fairly simple - Jesus could be alive, but something appears to have killed him.
3. The practical challenge.
By practical I mean church practice. Not just what is preached, which often has no connection with the complexity of modern culture, but the practice of Christianity. It sometimes seems Jesus has become drowned with words, with liturgy overflowing with pronouncements from the front. "The word became flesh and became words again" and the words don't seem to connect - they are too complicated, too nuanced, too like the Archbishop of Canterbury who has a gift for making the simple sound really complicated (and the end result is, I find myself saying, "if you were to translate for a sixteen year old what would that sound like? Well he did call his volume of rather good poems "Silence and Honey Cakes", yes Archbish, that's exactly what I have for tea every day!).
The words of modern liturgy aren't even very poetic; they seem to drown quite often under the weight of a metaphor - God comes like refreshing rain, sparkly dew, pleasant sunshine, but never a Tsunami or an earthquake, because in this world, everything has to be bright and beautiful - and I would rather they played a pop song than many modern hymns. It would be nice if a Charles Wesley would rise to the challenge of this age of non-faith.
Which brings me back to the starting point. Most young people call themselves agnostic. But I don't think this has a lot of content. It's not as though they have thought about an important question and can't make up their mind. No, they really couldn't care either way; it's as if they shrug their shoulders and say, "do Martians exist? I really don't know! And deep down I think it's a rather stupid question!"
There is no intellectual defence of the faith. Our moral heroes are no longer taken from the Christian faith, because on many key issues Christians are silent or saying something rather stupid. And the practice of the faith is much more likely to innoculate people for life, so that their baptism never "takes" and the younger generation worships at the altar of mammon or hops and bops the night away in a nightclub called Rain.
For further mind-stirring thoughts read Terry Eagleton's review of The God Delusion by clicking here .