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!"