The toy David

Observations on religion

Last summer the American toy company one2believe made the news when Wal-Mart agreed to stock its biblical action figures. The figurines include Jesus and Samson and recite passages of scripture at the push of a button.

Five months on, buoyed by the success of the figures, the company has come up with a new range - Bible Princesses - and is in negotiations with a UK distributor to get the toys on our shelves within a year.

David Socha, the Christian founder of the company, started manufacturing the toys after witnessing a decline in "wholesome" playthings. But their aim is mainly evangelistic, to "help teach children Bible stories and learn about the gospel." The action figures are divided into Spirit Warriors, traditional action figures for older child; Messengers of Faith, a slightly smaller version which come with stories and three to four scriptural recordings at the press of a button, and Tales of Glory, for children as young as three years old "to act out the stories".

Bible Princesses come with "a hidden special message based on the Bible" and will be marketed as an alternative to Barbie.

Christian products that were once tucked away in niche stores in the US Bible Belt are now well established in the mainstream retail sector in the US, accounting for $4.6bn (£2.3bn) a year. And there are signs of an upward trend in Britain.

Norman Nibloe, who runs the Tonbridge Christian Book Centre, reports an increase in sales in the latter part of 2007 on top of the traditional Christmas sales rise.

Online retailer Amazon recently identified Christian literature as an area to develop on its UK site; it already offers a huge selection on the US arm. Many of the best-selling books are brightly coloured reads for children. And although Christian bookshops regularly close, there are new, all-encompassing stores popping up around the country, including The Well in Stourbridge, which has incorporated a Thorntons chocolate concession.

Nonetheless, the prospect of a Bible Barbie and action hero Samson has provoked greater unease in Britain. They may be harmless playthings, but to surreptitiously communicate a religious message via play is disingenuous, say the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society (NSS).

A "Spiritual Stepping Stones" leaflet accompanies the toys, detailing the desired development of a child. Between birth and age two, the leaflet advises: ". . . a child is very susceptible to spiritual influence and instruction". And at ages three to six "seeds of faith that were sown during infancy will continue to grow with responsive parenting and continued spiritual influences that are all focused on the Lord".

Terry Sanderson, NSS president, is not convinced by the wholesome toy approach: "If Barbie is the representation of evil, perhaps they should consider a Jezebel figure with a pack of dogs to eat her?"

But the main difference between the US and British markets for such toys may be in their effectiveness. As Sanderson says of the Bible character dolls: "They would be harmless in Britain; kids here have no idea what they stand for."

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer