Faith should offer answers, but not on the way to work
To take something as personal as faith and shove it into the public realm just feels off
A strange thing has started happening on my way to the office. Every day, outside Victoria Station, I’m greeted by two, sometimes three, smartly dressed people, beaming as they hand out colourful literature sporting tropical scenes and posing deep questions such as: “Was Life Created?” or “What Makes a Good Friend?”.
These people have been trained not to approach passers-by: you must go up to them to find out what’s going on. Which is exactly what I did a few days ago, having seen this same set-up at five separate Tube stations in the space of 12 hours.
Priscilla, a good-looking, bright-eyed twentysomething, cheerfully informed me that she was a Jehovah’s Witness. “We've changed tack,” she said, when I asked what had happened to the old door-to-door approach. “We realised no one was at home during the day because they were all out at work, so we’ve taken our message to where they are.”
This new approach blew in from America, and is based on communicating how the Bible can help people deal with daily issues, such as stress. And while the Witnesses are still spreading the word door-to-door, the new technique has been such a success that it is currently being rolled out across 14 cities in Britain and Ireland, including Edinburgh, Leeds, Glasgow, Manchester and Dublin. Of the 136,993 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK, approximately 1,000 have been deployed in London alone – which would explain why I feel as if I see them more than my own family.
The idea of thousands of people voluntarily giving up their time to spread the Good Book’s wisdom certainly ties in with Simon Schama’s latest thesis. “Look at the success of the Alpha evangelicals, how important Christianity has been to the community of West Indians, the huge place of Islam. Britain is becoming a more religious place, not less,” he said recently.
How can this be the case? Census figures have clearly shown that the number of people who describe themselves as Christian is dropping each year. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, even says we are a “post-Christian nation” and that the era of mass worship is now over.
But I believe something else is at play. A recent Telegraph poll found that the majority of Anglicans and Roman Catholics now feel afraid to express their beliefs, partly out of concern over the perceived vulnerability of Christians to abuse or discrimination.
Yet there’s another reason people don’t choose to publicly self-identify as a member of a faith: because their religion is deeply private.
British people do not, as a rule, like the hard sell – whether it’s salesmen cold-calling us to flog some product we haven’t asked for, or Jehovah’s Witnesses waylaying us to spread the Good News. To take something as fundamentally personal as faith and shove it into the public realm just feels off. Perhaps I feel this more strongly because I’m Jewish: just like you’ll never see Quakers on the street preaching, you won’t see rabbis trying to convert people, because our religion teaches that every righteous person will make it into heaven.
But I can’t be the only one who feels that, while religion should offer people answers, it isn’t appropriate – or natural – to force them upon them. Simon Schama may well be right that Britain is a more religious place. But most people don't want to shout about their faith, or declare it on a form – and they certainly don’t want to be confronted with it at the train station before they’ve had their morning coffee.