Tuesday 19 October 2010

Alpha Skeptic

A Blog Post by Patrick Redmond

A friend invited me to attend the Alpha Course talk he was giving. I’d originally met him after downloading a podcast of a sermon he’d given on why it was more logical to believe in God that not to. I’d sent him a three page response outlining what I thought of his arguments and why. He in turn asked me out for a beer. Damn, somebody must’ve tipped him off as to my weak spot. We met and had a surprisingly enjoyable evening of drink and argument.

Despite being what you might call a solid atheist I tend to avoid starting religious arguments with people that believe. There is often that uncomfortable point when the person tells you that it is only because of their faith that they got over some traumatic event in their life, that without God they would not be there now and that without their friends in the church they would be lost. For all that I believe it I find that saying something along the lines of “oh, but a rational outlook on life free from superstition can be invigorating and liberating” tends to make little impact in these cases.

On the other hand, should somebody say that they want to question their faith or my lack of one then I am very interested in entering that discussion. I think that by the terms of its advertising Alpha comes into this and so I decided to test my preconceptions and accept the invitation. What’s more I was told that the session would be held in a restaurant with free food and pudding. My suspicions as to inside information were further raised.

I was intrigued by Alpha as it purports to provide a place for those that are interested in Christianity to ask questions in a safe and non-threatening environment. My feeling was that it would primarily be that all questions asked would be found to have answers ultimately derived from the Bible and faith, but I would be happy to be proved wrong.  I didn’t see myself as a ninja atheist or some kind of anti-crusader. My intent was to sit back and sample the night. This plan was somewhat overturned by my being outed in a very friendly way early on as an atheist with a lot to say for himself.

The talk was delivered well and was on the topic of how relevant and true Chrisianity is in today’s world. Needless to say the speaker’s opinion and mine differed but it was good to listen to and a combination of politeness and pepperoni pizza helped to keep me quiet.

Afterwards I found myself in a group of four and that’s where the discussion ensued. I won’t go into every argument that we had, maybe in another post I’ll look at some of the questions in more detail.  I’m more interested in the approach of the people that were there.

One participant was the person who had led the talk. Another was an established member of the church. The final person was like me a first time attendee. I think my presence skewed the style and tone of what was supposed to be an introductory discussion. We ranged from creation vs. evolution, and the need for supernaturally set moral boundaries right through to the historical authenticity of the Bible and much more. It was intense but fine and there was never any animosity. I almost felt in some respects that they were as eager to test out their beliefs on this atheist that had pitched up at one of their meetings as they were to try and convince me.  I had half an ear open for the other groups but couldn’t detect quite the same level of heated debate.

At the end of the session many questions were left with no resolution, but I found that pleasing. I knew that I wouldn’t convince them but I tried to draw attention at the end not to points of textual accuracy but to the heart of their faith, their perception of a loving and forgiving God. The same God that ordered the genocide of so many in the Old Testament and who still, according to their doctrine, condemns a majority of people to a hard time whilst they live and then an even harder one when they die.

I was immensely pleased to see the speaker from Alpha at our last sitp with Simon Singh and hope he was made as welcome there as I was at their meeting. I’ll be interested to hear his take on the congregation of mostly godless individuals that make up our audience.

I will go back to Alpha and talk to more people, to get a larger sample of the types that attend and their motivations.  I also think I get a perverse pleasure from having people who profess to want only the best for me telling me that in all likelihood I’m heading for an eternity of hell bound torment.

 Patrick Redmond - Born in Stoke and moved the vast distance to live in Birmingham. He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub.


Tulpesh said...

Really enjoyed reading this, Patrick. I look forward to hearing more about it. I admire your stoic approach to the course and the discussion, you probably got further and learned more just by listening. I met the Alpha course guy at SITP, he seemed like a really nice bloke and offered to speak to the humanists.

I usually get too worked up and get a little strident when surrounded by religious folk. I'll try and get myself along to a Alpha course meeting and I'm hoping to attend some similar sessions with Islamic groups where I'll practice tempering myself and try to just listen and learn.

Elaine said...

So, beer, pizza and pudding...You are so cheap, Patrick! I await news that you are joining a homeopathy course on the basis that they give you your tea!

Seriously though, I found your report fascinating and I look forward to reading more. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet your Alpha Course leader friend at the Simon Singh sitp, but then the room was packed to capacity. Anyway, I feel inspired almost to the point of finding an Alpha Course to attend myself. 'Almost' because Bible study classes are still just a little too fresh in my mind...

Paul ;-) said...

Patrick it IS all about the pizza...who made it...and WHY

Andy said...

Well done for completing the first stage of your mission behind enemy lines. ;-)

I don't think I'd have been able to maintain such an equanimous attitude as your good self. Think I'd be either very reserved or very outspoken/strident, depending on circumstances. So good luck to you (and Tulpesh) for your future encounters.

PS. I especially loved your final sentence... :-)

Patrick said...

Thanks for all your kind comments. It's been pointed out to me that others have done this before but I'm not going to read their accounts yet. I'd rather go to the sessions not trying to live up to other much better bloggers.

Next session I'll tackle some of the theological questions and we'll see if I maintain my eqanimity then.

@Paul I'll talk about religion and science but when it comes to matters of dough based food stuffs there is a whole new level of existential contemplation that I can't even attempt to attain.

Anonymous said...

I hate to point this out after all of the domain names are paid for, but skeptic is the American spelling. Our spelling is sceptic, with a c.

Patrick said...

Cheers anon, the 'k' is a bit of a thorny one and I would personally prefer a 'c'. The evolution of the usage of the word in this context has made it usual to use a 'k' to show some affiliation with other similar groups and individuals, the trend originating in the US of A. It's very much up for debate though and if you have strong views feel free to write them in a blog post and I'll put it up on here.

Paul said...

Hi Patrick,

Good to meet you last night - especially another Loxley-ite!

Wow, you weren't wrong about the site! Just thought I'd look it up before going off to work this morning.

Enjoyed the post very much, as I have Alpha stories of my own.

In Domino(s!),


Patrick said...

Hi Paul

Good to meet you too, we should have a chat about those Alpha stories some time and compare notes.