At this very moment, hundreds of missionaries are criss-crossing Britain an effort to change the religious beliefs of the population. They give lectures in halls, deliver leaflets through letterboxes, chat on the doorstep, talk over the airwaves, accost people in the High Street and set up their own TV stations. The result is that an estimated 1,000 people convert to a different faith each week.
The existence of this missionary zeal casts a new light on the state of religion in this country. It is not true that we are an increasingly godless society that has turned its back on religion. There may be a dissatisfaction with some forms of worship, but people still have the big questions - who am I? what is life for? where am I heading? - and are seeking answers wherever they can find them.
Moreover, distinct patterns are emerging. One is the age at which particular faiths attract adherents. Although people can convert at any period during their life, the greatest number converting to Christianity is between 15-20 years (a time of seeking identity); those becoming Muslim are very often 19-26, (a time of looking at a new direction for oneself), and adopting Judaism is most common for those in the 25-35 range (a time of settling down with family).
It also appears that each faith has different 'selling points': Islam is seen as providing a sense of purpose and direction; Buddhism as a path to self-knowledge and inner calm; Christianity as offering personal salvation and eternal life; while Judaism is good at community and camaraderie. Of course, each aspect can be found in all the faiths, but these are perceived as their distinctive characteristics.
Gender attraction is also markedly different: for every male convert to Judaism, there are five females (partly because of the off-putting requirement of circumcision for males, and partly because the children traditionally follow the mother's line, so her status is deemed more important). In Christianity, the ratio is two females for every male (perhaps because being meek and mild is a key message that is more is appealing to women). Islam has an equal ratio of male/female converts and manages to give out an image that is both macho for men and protective for women.
While many converts come from secular backgrounds, others were brought up in a faith they have now rejected, but there are discernible tendencies in those going from one religion to another: Jews are more likely to become Buddhists than any other faith (its concentration on the inner soul appeals to those turned off by an emphasis on rituals, while it lacks the historical baggage of Christianity and Islam). Church of England members often become Muslim, preferring its definite stance on issues compared to CofE wooliness. Catholics tend to opt for Judaism, seeing it as the true roots of their original faith and without the theological problems of the virgin birth and resurrection.
What varies enormously is the route to conversion: for some it the result of being targeted by missionary activity; for others it is because of an unexpected religious experience that takes them by surprise; others have engaged in a long search, attending different places of worship until they feel at home in one of them; others convert because of a partner they marry and whose faith identity they wish to adopt for themselves.
So beneath the surface picture of a gently declining religious life in Britain, there is actually a swirling hubbub of spiritual activity. Religious Britain is like a river that appears to be flowing at a leisurely pace, but in which there is a series of fast undercurrents that suck others in and vie for mastery.Suggest a correction