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.