Monday 21 March 2011

The Return of the Alpha Skeptic

By Patrick Redmond

This is a rather belated follow up to my Alpha Skeptic post. There I described how I started the Alpha Course ran by a local evangelical church and I promised to follow up and report how I did. Well, basically, I failed. How and why I failed is a little confusing and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I was very open about my atheism in what I thought was a nonaggressive way, but I think that the problem was in my initial hopeful and naive conception of what the Alpha Course was for.

According to the advert it was for people to come and find out about Christianity and to ask questions. It said that you could come to all or dip in and out, which is what I was going to do. It also said that there was no need to make a commitment.

If you read the account of my first session the experience was positive, lots of debate and openness. My second session was not so. My life is full of ‘stuff’ and so I had missed out some weeks and came back in on Atonement, a biggie. I listened to the lecture which briefly covered most of the main points of Atonement theology, and couldn’t quite get a clear idea of where it was going except that we are all essentially sinful and unable to escape the burden of that sin without the help of Jesus. At the end we were asked if we wanted to make a commitment to God as a response to his saving us from our sinful nature. Whilst sat there amongst the remains of our pizza, I certainly didn’t feel ready.

At the breakout group I had a feeling of being sectioned off from the other possible (more probable) converts, though this could have been paranoia. Everything was friendly, everything was good, and I had some questions to ask. I’ll summarise the gist of the conversation. I wanted to know why I needed to be saved. The answer was because I was sinful, which wasn’t much of an answer. What is sin? Is it what we do? Yes and no apparently, you can sin just by thinking about doing it. Ah but if I think about it (whatever “it” is) am tempted but resist, doesn’t that make me a defeater of sin? No, no, no, you’ve thought about it and you may as well have done it. What’s more, the discussion leader informed me, it’s human nature to have such thoughts we can’t help it. Bugger me this being a Christian is tricky. Well, if that’s how we are and we’ve been made by God then it’s not our fault surely. I was told that I didn’t understand and that it wasn’t God’s fault that we were sinful.

Things were beginning to get a bit tense so I thought I’d try some theoretical situations. What if somebody did lead a blameless life and never thought about doing anything that could be considered sinful, would he still need to believe in God. I was told that such a person couldn’t exist, but in any case the Bible is clear that you can only get to heaven through acceptance of Jesus as Lord. Okay, what about people that live in the middle of the Amazon jungle and have never been exposed to Christianity or that live in non-Christian societies surely they shouldn’t be condemned to an eternity burning in the fires of hell and suffering whatever agonies our loving Father can devise?

They were a little unsure about this one and the answers were a bit unclear. There were however references to miraculous spontaneous conversions of people, the ‘fact’ that most people hear about Jesus in some form and a bit of shrugging shoulders. I got the feeling that it wasn’t really their problem. They knew about God and would tell enough people about God so that if those people continued to sin at least they could then be justifiably damned. Sorry, I mean that those people would have a chance of salvation too.

I still wasn’t happy about the definition of sin so tried to pin them down on it. That’s where I began to realise that maybe Alpha wasn’t what I thought it was. Or maybe it was what I thought it was but not what I had hoped it to be.  They told me that sin had actually been covered on an earlier session that I’d missed and they’d moved on. Ah, so sin was sorted, that’s good to know. Further my questions were a bit too big for Alpha; they were more suited to a different forum. Hmm, so people are expected to listen to the talks and then make a life changing commitment without asking any big or difficult questions? The pizza was good, but not that good.

I came away a little disillusioned and couldn’t face returning. Partly I questioned my own motives for being there. I’d moved from being an observer, as I had intended, to being a fly in the ointment. The other people that went along may well be up for a bit of convincing and converting and was it my place to turn up with my awkward questions and spoil that for them?
I’ve heard it said that Skeptics in the Pub is a lot like a church meeting. Well it is and it isn’t. Any collections of like minded people will have similarities, whether it’s the Women’s Institute or the Ku Klux Klan. I’m sure that most of the people in the room at the SitP will have similar views on homeopathy and mediumship, but we don’t demand that agreement. We don’t ask people to give up their critical thinking or accept an alternative view without saying, “well, here’s the evidence for my position, let’s look at yours and compare.” At least that’s what I hope we do. That’s what should lie at the heart of scepticism, not adherence to doctrine or discipleship to a personality. The application of critical thinking skills and the evaluation of evidence combined, hopefully, with some understanding and humanity to make us sound less like Daleks. 

This is essentially why I failed the Alpha Course. They could never be wrong. If they couldn’t answer my questions then the question was at fault or it was something that couldn’t be understood by mortal mind, or at least my mortal mind. Faith is unfalsifiable and it’s difficult at times to see how  arguing can change it as one of the prerequisites of joining the believers is to ignore all evidence that might counteract their worldview and to accept only that which confirms it. I don’t think they could see the point of my questions and after a while, for different reasons, neither could I.

I spoke to Jon Ronson at the QED conference about his experience with the Alpha Course. He went to the original Alpha set up by Nicky Gumbel at Holy Trinity Brompton and he didn’t report the same experiences or pressures. I reckon that there are now so many Alpha courses around the country run by so many different churches that they possibly each have their own flavour and style reflecting that group’ s particular interpretation of Christian doctrine, just as you get different flavours and styles of Skeptics in the Pub. Now there’s an idea. Maybe we should be running a Skeptical Alpha Course where we refuse to accept anybody that doesn’t question the things that we tell them.

Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) was Born in Stoke and moved the vast distance to live in Birmingham. He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub and presents the Birmingham Skeptics podcast.


Jimbobthomas said...

Agreed! Managed to get to 5 meetings but the Creationist agenda in my group was apparent right from the start and eventually I had to leave because it would have turned nasty.

Anonymous said...

I have often contemplated that whilst Xtians have the Alpha course we should run the Better (get it better/beta) Course. Of course you do being bright intelligent people.
But who has got the time.
That's what skeptics, humanist, Cafe Scientifique etc etc are for.

This is not a head to head argument because you cannot convince the true believer with ANY argument.

Here is what should be done.
Enjoy Nick Naylor on ice cream.

Patrick (@paddyrex) said...

Mmm ice cream! A good illustration. I agree that it's extremely unlikely that you will ever persuade the true believer through argument, but we still need to have those discussions. There's little that's truly new in the world of theological debate and there's a bit of me that at times wonders "why bother?"

But if we ask the questions and keep the conversation public even if we don't persuade that person we might plant a seed somewhere that will help somebody make a more informed choice at some point in their life. As the man in the ice cream clip illustrates.

Andy said...

Great post, Paddy! My view is that sin is essentially defined as "anything we don't want you to do or that we can make you feel ashamed about" by people who want to frighten and control you. The notion that just by contemplating an act that you are as guilty as committing it is overwhelmingly manipulative and another ploy to discourage independent thinking.

Your comments about Amazonian Indians reminded me of a BBCR4 Book of the Week from some time last year telling the story of a Catholic missionary who had gone into the Amazon to spread the word of Jesus. After about 10 years of lukewarm indifference and a small degree of derision from the natives he suddenly had an epiphany - an "Emperor's new clothes moment" as it were - and realised just how hollow and meaningless his teachings were to these free-living free-thinking people in the jungle. He returned as a humbled atheist... :-)

Well done again on completing your mission. Strengthens the evidence that those who get absorbed by the church are those who have not had the resistance to really question the indoctrination...

Patrick (@paddyrex) said...

Thanks Andy, I'm not sure you could count it as completing a mission though, I struck out early on. Jimbobthomas up yonder lasted longer than me. I didn't really have a brief either beyond lets go in and see what it's all about.

I don't think all believers as the same, people are much more interesting than that and I have good Christian friends that are still happy to argue with me, which is good.

Andy said...

Oops yes! Thanks for putting me right there. I rather got carried away with my generalisations. [to self: "Bad Skeptic!"] I also of course know lots of lovely and interesting and smart people who are believers. No offence intended...

RobN said...

Strange that they didn't mention original sin, I think that came up when Adam Rutherford did the Alpha course. The idea that we're all born sinners because of what Adam and Eve did (who didn't really exist), and that jesus died on the cross to absolve us of that sin (through 'punative substitution' or something) and that's why we owe him, big time, and have to accept him as saviour.

Sounds like a crock of s*** to me

Patrick (@paddyrex) said...

Hi RobN, they did mention Original Sin but there are so many layers of theology to this subject now that it can get a bit confusing and I think the speaker was trying to cover the lot in half an hour.

The problem with original sin is that superficially it can seem to take away individual responsibility for the fallen state which to an outsider seems unjust. It's therefore not a great doctrine for catching the wavering believer.

The more evangelical churches especially also strongly advocate a personal response to Jesus to take away sin and an admission of individual culpability. They're therefore big on hammering home individual wickedness and weakness.

Elaine said...

Thanks for your post, Patrick. It was really interesting to read about how your investigative experience turned out. Even though you only attended here and there it is still valuable to get the perspective of a critically-thinking observer. I was disappointed but unsurprised to hear that your big questions were not as welcome as the Alpha invitations make out. I came across the same thing in my church-attending days. Whilst I was still viewed by the vicar as good potential Christian material he patiently tried to answer my questions, but as the years rolled by I could sense his exasperation! One of the last things he said to me was, "We really do try to make it as simple as possible!" Well, by that point the one thing I was certain of was that if you really try to think it through there's nothing simple about it. I left. I fully expected a home visit from him but it never came. I suspect he was secretly glad to be rid if me!

Patrick (@paddyrex) said...

I know what you mean Elaine. I get quite angry about the subject of sin and atonement. It instills the ultimate thought police, condemns without trial and offers a solution that's conditional on a life time of commitment and servitude. They can make you feel good about yourself as long as you accept that you are inheritently bad and dependent on God for that goodness.

Elaine said...

Absolutely. I am reminded of a lady I know well who tells how, as a little girl being brought up in strict Roman Catholic tradition, she was obliged to make up "sins" to confess: she genuinely couldn't think of anything bad she'd done or even thought, but knew that only Jesus is allowed to be sin-free.

Danny @dts1970 said...

Great post Patrick. From what I know of the Alpha course, which isn't a great deal, it seems its for converting the people who are thinking seriously about taking that leap of faith. I guess anyone with any more skeptical a view is unlikely to be swayed. I find the whole concept of the alpha course intriguing, yet frightening. It's almost like the IKEA of religion. Come along and let's self assemble your view of Christianity.
I guess religion has at its core a don't question things too much culture. This is very different to the way sitp should work. I think we need to make sure sitp does keep that questioning attitude. There are people involved in sitp who do think it should be about preaching to the masses. I know you don't and I certainly don't either. The whole point of sitp to me, is to provoke debate. The alpha course it seems to me, is just preaching, though it leads people to believe that there is a debate to be had.
Great post by the way. Looking forward to seeing you again soon at a brim skeptics event in the future.

Abby said...

Thanks Pat, that's a really good post. It's such a shame that there are environments at some Alpha Courses which give the impression that questionning isn't as important as it actually is to faith. Just last Sunday I'd actually been to one of the Q&A sessions that my church holds specifically for the purposes of looking into questions, often with the idea that we don't have definite answers for everything. (It was a great session but Post-It notes were involved and I'm not a fan of flourescent office stationery). Seriously, thanks for posting; very interesting stuff.

Patrick (@paddyrex) said...

@Danny thanks and very much looking forward to seeing you again too. I'd love to make it up to Newcastle one day. And I agree, long live debate and open doors.

@Abby thank you for the kind comments. I must admit that when I post this kind of thing up I half wonder how my Christian friends will react when they read it. I'd be interested in the Q and A at your church. Perhaps you could take me some time and I promise that I'd behave ;)

Abby said...

Pat, I wouldn't worry, we don't behave ourselves :-) so sure, no problem.

And I agree, Danny & Pat, long live debate and open doors! Otherwise, what's the point? (Thought I'd end with a question. Oops, just put the kibosh on that).

Anonymous said...

Very good summary of your experiences Paddy. I recall that there was a documentary on television a few years ago on the Alpha course where a presenter (cannot remember who) went through the process from start to finish. It actually scared me a little, they use quite a lot of differing techniques to try and indoctrinate those without a strong mind. The culmination of this particular documentary was a 'Weekend Retreat' with the course to complete and become a full christian. The weekend actually included a session where attendees were "encouraged" to speak in tongues as proof that they were connected to God.

Much has been said of Richard Dawkins' militant atheism but the Alpha course seemingly takes militant Christianity to a new level.

The one or two people who lead the breakout sessions after the main presentations have been trained significantly in objection handling and have stock answers to many of the questions that people ask. If they aren't very good at it they either are new or lack a certain intelligence that would have stopped them going in the first place!

Patrick (@paddyrex) said...

Thanks @pedebumchin. I still have contact with some people from the church and we still argue the same points. The main tactic seems to be to try and take me into philosophical considerations of reality and knowledge. I presume the reason for this is to show me that I can't trust my perceptions and "faith" in a materialistic existence. The quality of the argument is quite good on an academic level but I think it depends on that old chestnut of describing a lack of supernatural dependency as a belief system.