Wednesday 23 March 2011

Adam does Alpha

By Elaine Pickering

Following my attendance at TAM London in October 2010 I wrote this short piece about one of the talks which I found especially interesting. On reading Patrick's post about his experiences of the Alpha Course I thought it might be a good time to share it here.  

Writer, broadcaster and co-editor of Nature Adam Rutherford gave a highly entertaining talk at TAM about his noble undertaking of a local Alpha Course, a Christian initiative purporting to welcome anyone wanting to explore the faith in a relaxed setting. I wasn't taking notes so the following account comprises my memories of the talk supplemented with snippets gleaned from Rutherford's excellent Guardian Comment is Free series on the experience.

Early in the talk we were shown an Alpha advert which has been displayed everywhere from cinemas to buses and shows a spectacular mountaintop view featuring a hiker, back to us, arms spread wide, standing atop a peak and surveying the scene. His question appears as a caption: "Is this it?" For the target demographic to which Alpha wishes to appeal this is evidently intended to inspire yearning for "something more", but to an audience steeped in science, rationality and critical thinking this was a poster encapsulating The Problem and the hall erupted in incredulous laughter. I'm certain I wasn't alone in my vision of Douglas Adams spinning in his grave ("Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"). Rutherford's response? "Yes, this IS it, and it's f***ing awesome!"

Rutherford had joined the course as an openly atheist blogger. He took us through some of his experiences, including meeting the effusive Alpha pioneer Nicky Gumbel whom he grilled about various aspects of Alpha, including the thorny issue of homosexuality,  still the subject of anachronistic considerations in this domain. Gumbel repeatedly insists that the view of Alpha on gay folk is the same as that of the Anglican Church generally, which I think could be fairly summarized thus: sex is a sin outside of marriage and - oh dear, what a shame! - gay marriage isn't recognized, ergo, gay sex is a sin. But hey! Everyone needs to be healed... 

Much amusement was had as we learned of the reliance of Alpha on the books The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. As well as being disparaging about their value as allegories, Rutherford confessed to a passionate dislike of the stories, describing the Lord of the Rings as boring and essentially "a story about walking"! (I have to disagree with him on this point: I've never been especially interested in any allegorical angles but I'm rather fond of the stories!) 

Further amusement was generated in his discussion on who knows most about the Bible, atheists and agnostics coming high on the list, and his invitation to this room full of (mostly) atheists to recite the Lord's Prayer. The mumbling proceeded in rather haphazard fashion and was followed by someone shouting, "I've seen the light!" 

We learned how the first half of the course focussed on the "facts" of Christianity, during which time Rutherford found the discussions of the historicity of Jesus frustratingly dissatisfying: if it's the message that's the important thing, he argues, what matter if Jesus was real or not? But despite the feeble evidence, it was explained to him that it is critical to Christianity that Jesus was a real man who suffered real death and bodily resurrection. Rutherford is disquieted by his observation that these assertions went largely unchallenged. He is also irritated that strict insistence on this as a core belief automatically bars rational people from Christianity and its promise of heaven, however closely they might adhere to the teachings of Jesus (although there was some attempt at fudging over this issue from the leader). This logical conclusion was however apparently lost on at least one of Rutherford's fellow attendees who rejected the resurrection as fact but was nonetheless not put off pursuit of the faith. 

Later, in what he was relieved to welcome as the less fact-based and more faith-centred half of the course, Rutherford encountered the bizarre phenomenon of glossolalia ("speaking in tongues") which Gumbel describes as a form of prayer and a supernatural gift,  and the more easily explicable "faith healing", which despite lack of evidence is accepted by many of the faithful as a genuine spiritual effect.

In conclusion, despite finding the people involved generally friendly, Rutherford's opinion of the Alpha Course is that it is an insidious and manipulative force which presents its ideas in a way not nearly as amenable to challenge as it pretends. It strikes me that he came up against responses similar to those which I recall from my own Bible study days: Christian discussion leaders have heard most of the challenges before and are ready for them; the leaders are difficult to argue with because their criteria for accepting something as fact are not those required in other areas of life, which I suppose is where faith steps in; and when they run out of reasoned arguments they duck behind the old platitudes which are safely beyond reason. I did the same thing when my children were small and were demanding one too many details about Santa: for years I got away with just saying, "It's all very magical!"

Such are Rutherford's concerns that he wants Alpha to die. To this end he implored every member of the TAM audience to join an Alpha Course and challenge its teachings. One of his major concerns is that the course is inherently homophobic and his parting shot was to display on the screen his considered response to anyone who claims that homosexuality is an aberration in need of healing... It read "F**k you!"

Elaine Pickering (@elainepixie) Trained as a scientist (biol/microbiol). Keen on critical thinking and laughing. Atheist. Sceptic. Wife. Mum. Compost enthusiast.


Abby said...

Another good post on the shortcomings of Alpha. Thanks Elaine - you might have seen my comments on Pat's last post, about my own church holding sessions for looking into things with a questioning eye, but since there are obviously several bad Alpha experiences such as this too, I think I'll feed this back to my church for its Alpha course. It does strike me as odd, though, that Rutherford thinks the mere "idea" of Jesus should be enough for Christians, whether Jesus existed & was resurrected or not (I personally wouldn't believe it if that was probably all a load of rubbish!) Despite the very nature of "faith", given that we don't have 100% proof of God's existence or non-existence, surely a good critical mind should still discount any line of thinking if there is little to suggest that its physical claims carry any evidential weight. Some scientists - and myself as a sceptic - have found faith by looking into these issues). In the meantime I think it's great for sceptics to be open-minded enough to have a look at things like Alpha. Perhaps we should also do a session on what those topical chiropractors would say about the guy in the Alpha logo struggling to carry that ridiculous question mark...

Patrick (@paddyrex) said...

@Abby They would say he needed his subluxations sorted and that'll be £50 please and don't tell the ASA or Simon Singh.

I very much enjoyed this post but was glad that I hadn't read Adam's stuff or heard what he said before I wrote mine. I think there are a lot of questions for Alpha and the style of Christianity that Adam and myself encountered.

The church that I went to has a website where you can download recordings of sermons from that explain the justification for their views on homosexuality and the role of women in the church and within the family. They are anachronistic to say the least but can be justified from scripture, as could so many other things if you really wanted to.

There is really no amount of convincing that I can think of that'd make me accept that this is right. But it seems to be an all or nothing package. It's not a pick and mix faith and in some ways I can respect that, but in most every other way I really really can't.

@Abby I'm very glad that you are open to discussion and have a skeptical attitude. It's easy for atheists to paint believers as fanatics and concentrate on the extreme views that some hold.

Andy said...

Thanks for this, Elaine. I do remember Adam's talk as one of the best at TAM. I find it quite amusing that even whilst attending the Alpha course, there are individuals picking and choosing which bits of the doctrine to accept and which to treat as allegorical. Maybe the remarkable statistic I heard on the radio the other day - that there are over 22,000 variants of the Christian faith - is not so surprising after all!

On the other hand, maybe all that diversity is a sign that followers are applying their own critical thinking to the stories, as Abby's comments suggest...

Abby said...

Yes, we were chatting about different Christian denominations the other day and mentioned the differences in styles, emphases, etc. that are found between them, and how the centrality of the cross is the main thing that keeps a "Christian" denomination "Christian" (some adherents of Catholicism, for example, can be called into question there, whilst other Catholics would feel the same as other denominations about the ramifications of the cross).

Whether other details (aside from the cross) are claimed to be allegorical or not - the unscientific treatment of Genesis as literal, for example, which some atheistic critics assume is central to theism - can be important, but mainly if the details concerned affect the validity of the faith. For example, Jesus is written about as historical; if he turned out not to be, that would cast a great deal of doubt on the claims of Christianity in general. Similarly with the story of creation, which we know is unscientific if taken literaly; yet it's less a mere "choosing" to class that as allegorical, and more down to the fact that we can distinguish between the potential use of a literary style to refer to an event way back at the beginning of time, and the gospels' reporting of the life of someone who'd existed within living memory of plenty of people at the time of writing, many opposed to Christians and simply not believing in the deity of Jesus / supernatural reasons for why the tomb was empty, but not denying his existence. I do like [physicist and Christian] Wilson Poon's choice of words when, biographically referring to how he at one time imagined creation in a Genesis guise, he says his "biblical hermeneutics matured" and he was "cured" of creationism!*

* After “Googling” to avoid the wrath of copyright controllers descending on this blog!, this is from Poon’s chapter in the book Real Scientists, Real Faith (2009, ed. R. J. Berry, Monarch Books).

Elaine said...

Many thanks, everyone, for your responses.

Regarding historicity, I think Jesus may well have been a real man (although there are historians who throw doubt on whether he ever existed) but there's a huge difference between accepting that he was a real man and accepting that he was not only a real man but also the son of God who was born of a virgin, performed miracles and physically returned from the dead. These things - which are, as we have established - pivotal to Christianity, are what demand faith. Our only (accepted) source of information about them is the Bible, something which we know to have been written by people, and people with various agendas at that. It's my understanding that Christians believe that the people who wrote the Bible were being guided at every step by the Holy Spirit - as too, presumably, were all the subsequent translators - but this is hard to reconcile with even an occasional factual error such as the bat being listed as a bird, not to mention the rewrites and modifications that I understand to have occurred along the way as different authorities came to political power. Taken alongside what we know of the powerful human urge to explain existence and the immense human capacity and propensity for storytelling, it is no mean feat for a rational person to accept these core teachings as facts. (Not impossible, as intelligent skeptic Abby shows, and I am happy to accept that at the end of the rationalization process it is evidently achievable.) Even "living memory" is fallible and malleable and quickly distorted as we know from the very recent story of John Frum.

And yet, most rational people are happy to live their life according to many of the teachings attributed to Jesus. I think that's what Adam Rutherford was getting at: God gave me an analytical brain, but when I use it to spot that there's something distinctly fishy about the Bible, and cannot bring myself to pretend otherwise, I find myself automatically condemned to eternal torment.

@Patrick: Christianity as taught by Alpha may not be pick-and-mix, but as Andy's possible 22,000+ variants of Christianity suggest, there are plenty of Christians in the world who do pick and choose, at least regarding the details. In fact, I'd say that there are probably as many variants as there are Christians. One elderly Christian lady I know, in addition to rejecting the entire Old Testament, has recently decided to reject all the gospels except for Mark as that's her favourite. I bet they haven't counted that!

Abby said...

I agree - you can't rationally hold the Bible itself in reverence as an untouchable work without contradictions (some Christians derogatorily refer to that as "Bibliolatry"!) Whether you believe it's divinely inspired or not, that doesn't necessitate perfection - presumably such Christians think we're divinely inspired too, but are we perfect...?!

And yes, as I said in my earlier point about what you think of Jesus - if you accept he's historical that doesn't mean you accept he's divine; that's where faith comes in - we should always critically question our faith on the basis and validity of various factors, but we can't prove or disprove his divinity. Otherwise we'd all be automatically believing / disbelieving robots without even the need to think critically, which would be worse than having to watch Big Brother on loop or be force fed by Noel Edmonds.