Category Archives: Philosophy

Email campaign groups and charity

While there are no doubt many worthwhile causes that I agree with promoted by groups like 38degrees, there are some that I don’t agree with or don’t think are worth supporting.

The problem is how to decide which is which.

I’m not willing to blindly trust any organisation to decide on my behalf what is worth campaigning for by giving my support after only reading a brief email. I know we’re all inclined to believe simple ideas without much skepticism* if they align with our existing beliefs and I’m wary of making quick judgements that might reflect my existing biases more than careful consideration would.

The trouble is that I often find careful consideration of a new issue utterly exhausting. It requires time and a bit of intellectual effort. The volume of emails produced by most campaign groups, Avaaz, 38 degrees or others, are impossible to keep up with for anyone with a job, family, social life and regular exercise.

For me the same argument applies to charity cold-calling. I never sign up to anything on the doorstep or street. I already have regular charity commitments and make one-off donations to sponsor friends – should I change these when a representative of another charity knocks on my door? The answer depends on questions like how efficient the charity is, what they’ve achieved recently, if they’ve been involved in any scandals and how closely they align with my values. Not something I can judge in a five-minute or even half-hour conversation.

I admit that by refusing to consider every cause or charity that asks for my support I may be missing out on something I’d consider very worthwhile. I’m not saying I’d never explore new causes or charities, but the burden of choice means I’d prefer to start with a recommendation from a friend or trusted colleague or a subject matter I already know something about.

This might all be made simpler by having some independent reviewer of charities providing open and accessible comparisons of their finances and achievements. Until it becomes a lot easier to decide my default answer will be a simple, firm “No, thanks”.


* – I prefer Noah Webster’s “American” spelling of skepticism.

My experience of the alpha course

Over the last couple of months, I’ve attended a local Alpha Course, organised by a friend I used to work with. I expect some who know me think that is a bit odd, given that I’m a non-believer, philosophical naturalist, agnostic-atheist, secular humanist, etc, etc. I went along as I often find it interesting thinking about what other people believe and why. I also think it’s good to talk with people with whom I disagree, lest I become lazy or narrow-minded. To be fair, the liberal Christians I got to know on the course probably shared many of my opinions about the world, just not the supernatural. If I really wanted to experience an utterly different world view I should probably chat to Britain First or UKIP. Maybe one day. Right now I feel like a rest!

I did miss a couple of the sessions, but I’ve done my best to cover those I did attend in a series of posts, written as I went along – see the list at the bottom.

The alpha course content is in the form of videos and books and much of it is available online for anyone interested. The videos I saw begin with a series of brief street interviews with members of the public, most of whom seemed to be under thirty. Overall, the style is more engaging than a typical church sermon and at times genuinely funny and interesting. However, it is clearly intended to convince the listener that Christianity is true and some of it still feels quite preachy.

More seriously, some of the claims made by the speakers are factually incorrect, something that is apparent after only a few minutes of Internet searching. Another blogger previously pointed out that some of their arguments are so weak that they’re not really arguments at all, just restatements of their opinion. Very uninspiring. In both cases I felt the speakers should have known better. I couldn’t research every claim they made, but was disappointed that some of the ones I did check up on turned out to be false. Maybe everything else they said was true, but for me the videos lost credibility. I couldn’t trust them as they seemed to be more interested in impressing us than with accuracy. I was surprised that others in the group seemed unconcerned. I’m not sure whether they were unaware of the facts and lacked the interest to investigate further or whether lying for Jesus is so commonplace that it goes unnoticed.

On the other hand, when I raised skeptical concerns in the small group discussions, often someone would agree and say that it didn’t make sense to them either. This is one reason I enjoyed this part of the course so much. The openness and honesty. People didn’t tend to recite doctrine so much as relate their experiences. I found this much more engaging as I’ve heard most of the religious ideas before but I’m still curious about the people who believe them. Interestingly, when I found agreement with my objections, it wasn’t always the same person who would share my skepticism. I guess one person’s nonsense is another’s divine mystery. Though it seemed that none of these problems were sufficient for them to reject Christianity, which I guess is the big mystery to me.

Alpha presents a modern and flexible version of the religion, or “relationship with Jesus” as they tend to describe it. The adverts talk about “asking life’s big questions”, but a better subtitle would be “an introduction to Christianity” or “getting to know Jesus” because that is the actual theme of the alpha course. There’s a whole world of interesting philosophical questions which would be unlikely to ever come up on the alpha course.

For anyone interested in what other people believe the small group sessions could be very enjoyable, but this depends entirely on how open, honest and thoughtful the others were. I was lucky to be chatting with a nice bunch of people. I can see how a group could easily be dominated by a particularly talkative attendee, despite the efforts of the facilitator to let everyone have their say.

Which leads me to my next point. The majority of those who attend alpha are already Christians, many of whom rave about how much fun it is, which is why some have done it several times. If you’re not a Christian, you may find it difficult to get your point across. My group was very respectful of my opinion and I was never shouted down or interrupted. The point is, that when everyone is quite rightly given an equal chance to speak, the single dissenting voice can be lost. I found it hard to think on my feet and give good answers to the claims people made without being that guy who won’t stop talking. Still, I enjoyed the challenge.

Although the alpha course is intended for everybody, I’m not sure whether I would recommend it to atheists or non-Christians. Most people in this country are already familiar with Christianity, so might not learn much. Also, conversations with the religious are tricky for atheists (or non-Christians) because atheism is typically a “passive” belief or a lack of a belief. Most atheists don’t study atheism or meet up with other atheists to discuss it or sing songs about it. The same way people don’t meet up to discuss the Earth being round. It’s just a fact about the world that is accepted and mostly ignored. Religious people usually go to church and hence have a bit more practice at justifying their beliefs. So it can be hard to keep up. It seems that it’s the same if you talk to people who think the Earth is flat, who seem to be very thoroughly misinformed and quite capable of bamboozling an unprepared skeptic.

What I would like to do is a similar course for other religions about which I know comparatively little and I was pleasantly surprised that the others liked this idea too. I don’t know if any such thing exists, but I’ll see what I can find.

Here are the links to my experiences of the individual course sessions:-

If you’ve had similar experiences or have any comments, I’d love to hear from you.

Alpha course 7b: Does God heal today?

This post describes the latter part of a single alpha course evening session, the first part was about the church.

God’s healing

Chris now moved onto talking about the supernatural healing that he believes God provides in response to prayers. He said that God healed in the old and new testament and, as God doesn’t change, must be healing today. That is of course if you take the bible as true and historically accurate. He wanted to see more prayer and healing, to the extent that supernatural healing becomes natural or at least commonplace. He and others shared some amazing stories of people who had been prayed for, sometimes by large groups of people, and were cured of meningitis when apparently “a few hours from death” or other ailments both serious and trivial.

I asked Chris what he thought was happening when Christians prayed for healing. He said that God hears the prayer and may choose to intervene to heal that person, although it can’t be expected to work every time because it’s up to God, not us. I asked why the prayer was needed at all. You can’t give an all-knowing god new information – he must know about the sick person. Presumably in his infinite wisdom he has decided not to heal them. So why would the pleadings of an imperfect human change his mind? Chris had already mentioned in his introduction that God doesn’t change. His answer was an unsatisfactory but honest, “I don’t know”. I probed a little further asking why they’d mentioned getting large groups of people to pray at once. Would this make God more likely to hear or respond? Again Chris and Matt pleaded ignorance saying that there wasn’t a particular formula and that they couldn’t expect reliable results as it was out of their hands.

Others chimed in describing both their experiences and opinions on prayer and healing. The consensus seemed to be that, even though prayer might only have an effect less than half the time, it was always worth trying. Someone else commented that although physical healing would be wonderful, they also hope for mental or spiritual healing, which I took to mean the person simply feeling a bit better and more able to cope with their condition. This is no doubt a good thing, but even harder to measure and could easily be brought about by the feeling of love from knowing that a lot of people care about you and really want you to get better. Genuinely nice and worthwhile, but not necessarily supernatural.

It’s interesting that people are willing to ignore all the cases where no effect is observed following a prayer, but become really impressed when there is a change for the better. I didn’t hear anyone say, “It’s a miracle!”, but “Wow, that’s amazing!” was a typical response. This leaves a lot of room for Postdiction or Argument by selective observation. In short, counting the hits and ignoring the misses. If a failed healing can never count as evidence against faith healing, then it’s not reasonable to consider it true based on a few successes. It’s an unfalsifiable belief, making it unscientific and no better than any pseudoscience or conspiracy theory.

When you take the more falsifiable proposition that prayer ought to yield healing results significantly better than chance and prayer is actually tested systematically, in the way that medicine is, there’s no effect.

CONCLUSIONS:Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.

I asked whether people thought there was any risk in praying for someone. The only suggestion anyone made was that others might think they were crazy. I think there are other, more serious risks. I started to explain the tragic case of Kara Neumann who died from undiagnosed diabetes when her parents prayed for her instead of seeking medical attention. When her condition worsened, they thought it was a test of their faith. I didn’t have all the details memorised and as I paused to recall them other people started speaking. Another frustrating failure to get what I thought was an important point across. I guess I need to practise debating.

Chris and others repeatedly said that they always tell people who’ve been healed to go and get themselves checked out by a doctor. That’s obviously the responsible thing to do. I forgot to ask whether this policy was a result of someone having neglected medical treatment, or whether anyone made any record of the results of these medical examinations. Secondly, I suppose that thinking there’s a less than 50% chance it will work should encourage everyone to seek proper medical advice. Another thing which they thought was important was that the faith healing they do is all about Jesus and God – they’re not trying to take the credit themselves. He contrasted this with televangelists who garner a great following for themselves and a lot of money to go with it. But to be fair to televangelists, if you can bear to watch them for more than a few seconds, they do mention Jesus and God about as often as possible!

Chris asked whether anyone wanted to be prayed for or had a friend or family member who was ailing. I think they were hoping I’d say something, but soon someone suggested the two members of the group who were absent due to sickness as well as the homeless man who had been shivering on the street outside the coffee shop. Then Matt started rubbing his left shoulder and suggested this might be a sign that someone needed help with a similar complaint. After a long pause, Jeff indicated that both his shoulders were sore. So Matt prayed for him for a few moments and asked Jeff if he was feeling any better. I think he said, “About the same”. I’ve seen this kind of guess-the-illness game before and it seems like a great way to get mini miracle claims if the guesses are right or someone wants to play along. Presumably if no one, nor any of their friends or relatives, has the specified pain or ailment it’s quietly dropped and assumed the person voicing the prayer was mistaken.

We chatted a bit more and in response to the suggestions that I “might as well try prayer healing”, “What have you got to lose?”,  I made some comparisons to the beliefs of Buddhists I know who chant for healing and also have similar miraculous stories of success. I challenged Matt to go along and try that, but I doubted that he would. This reminds me of the following quote,

“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
– Stephen F Roberts

Time was runnning out, so they decided to finish the session with some music and a kind of free prayer session. Danni started the music on her phone and Matt voiced the first of the prayers giving thanks for the friendly alpha course we’d all experienced. We sat listening to the music for a bit longer and someone gave emotional thanks to God for her child, who despite early struggles with health is now doing well. After a while Matt started another prayer. I can’t remember the exact words he used, but I’ll paraphrase as follows:

“Lord, I pray that you might help those who might be struggling to know you and maybe if anyone has been hurt by church previously, or maybe not hurt, but turned off by church. I hope that they may come to experience your love, sometime in the next few weeks.”

Seeing as I was the only atheist in the room, this seems to be pretty transparently aimed at me. I don’t think I’ve been particularly hurt or turned off by church, except that church and Christians made me think it through a bit more carefully. I guess they’re speculating and trying to make sense of my reluctance to accept their beliefs. This praying out loud thing seems to be a strange way to speak indirectly to people. If they actually wanted to communicate with God, why speak out loud? I suppose it’s a way to share things with the group that people might not otherwise feel comfortable about. Like a support group, I suppose.

Once we’d all got up and started to move the chairs back, Chris came over to chat with me to check whether he had understood my questions correctly. During our discussions, lots of people had been talking at once which caused some confusion. He didn’t need to do this, so I thought it was nice of him to make the effort. We had a brief chat and Chris suggested that the Buddhists I mentioned may also be experiencing genuine supernatural healing, because we don’t know everything about spirits and how they work. I admit I was not expecting that! Christians admitting that other religions may have something supernatural and good going on. That raises a whole lot of interesting questions.

He also told me about a healing he’d witnessed where someone with unequal leg lengths had the shorter leg grow as people looked on. I’ve heard that this can be done as a magician’s trick. Derren Brown shows one way it can be done and it’s discussed further here. I said I wasn’t saying that what Chris saw was definitely a trick, but that it can be done that way. To be honest, it seems like the more plausible explanation.

Before we left, a couple of books were pressed into my hands. We ended on friendly terms and we were all invited for an informal reunion at Jeff and Kim’s place in a few weeks’ time. I’m looking forward to it.

Alpha course 7a: The church

The final session of the alpha course had two themes, the role of the church and asking whether God heals today. I think it was a bit of a shame that the two sessions were crammed into one as I think there was a lot to discuss here.

I arrived to find a smaller than usual group as a result of a couple of illnesses and the students heading home for Easter. This meant the two diminished groups formed one, slightly larger group. I was introduced to tonight’s guest speaker, Chris.

The church

After some informal chat, Chris began his talk about the role of the church. He defined it rather broadly, not as a building or clergy or organisation, but more like a family, school, hospital and community. I don’t think he was speaking particularly about their church, but about the idea of Christians meeting up to worship together. People shared stories about the wonderful feeling of being in church singing or enjoying others’ company. They described it better than I do, but I understand these feelings and I think they’re genuine. I don’t think that there is anything supernatural attached to them, though. In fact I think the effect of a supportive community on an individual is much more significant than most people, including the religious, would believe. For one thing, I’d guess that a group of people such as in a church or other social organisation could enable people to believe pretty much anything. If that sounds like an exaggeration, try looking into Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses or any apocalyptic cult and see what they believe. It’s a moot point whether their beliefs are more or less far-fetched than mainstream Christianity, but plenty of people do believe them. However outlandish a set of beliefs may seem to outsiders, for those whose entire family, colleagues and friends believe the same thing, I imagine it’s easy to agree. In that situation, it takes a real oddball not to follow the herd. In fact, if I remember rightly, Chris mentioned that church is meant to strengthen people’s faith and encourage them to believe.

Interestingly, there’s also plenty of evidence that community and social relationships have a huge positive effect on people’s health.

…social relationships affect a range of health outcomes, including mental health, physical health, health habits, and mortality risk.

I did try to make this point and that this might explain many of the life-changing stories of people whose lives are changed for the better by joining a church. Before I could really get it across clearly, Matt quickly responded that the holy spirit and Jesus were a really important part of it. Then someone else started speaking. I didn’t want to dominate the conversation but, as the only atheist in a slightly larger group, the dialogue felt a bit one-sided.

I’m going to discuss the healing talk in a second post, as it’s getting rather long.

Alpha course 6: How can I resist evil?

The alpha course video on the theme of evil featured a woman who was a sports presenter, although I didn’t recognise her. Hardly surprising as I tend to play more sports than I watch. She told some somewhat amusing anecdotes about people getting into mild peril, but also highlighted the shocking scale of present day human trafficking. She went on to describe how she ended up being part of an all-female team who rowed the Atlantic to raise awareness and money for victims of human trafficking. I found this interesting and quite impressive.

Forming into our small groups again, I apologised for my absence at the extra evening session last week, hoping that Danni hadn’t had to eat leftover curry for days. It seems I hadn’t missed any miraculous happenings, but one of the group who had known things about Jesus in her head said she began to feel it in her heart, too. They’d had a good time, but it sounded like the videos were rather long. Still, it would’ve been more fun than lying in bed with a headache!

We moved on to discussing evil and it became apparent that most people who expressed a view thought that Satan was a real, concious being, partially defeated by God/Jesus, but still tempting people and aiming to destroy us. Apparently some people (not here) find it easier to believe in the devil than God, which seems odd to me. We had some interesting talks about the ideas of evil in different cultures and how for us in relatively comfortable lives in the west, things can often seem very grey, morally speaking, but in harsher parts of the world the contrast good and evil may be a starker black and white. We spent a little while discussing the problem of evil and why God allows the devil to exist, instead of imprisoning or disarming him somehow. At least a couple of people seemed to accept that with an all-powerful god around, anything which does happen must have his implicit approval. So the evils he allows are presumably for some higher purpose. Allowing the devil the freedom to harm people is presumably part of some grand plan that we mere humans can’t comprehend. I don’t think this line of reasoning solves the problem of evil, but I pointed out that it might be easier to accept things are necessary evils for those of us with relatively comfortable lives who are rarely on the sharp end of any serious evil.

Discussing this issue made me realise that different people in the group responded differently to the arguments I made. Everyone was polite and listened carefully and I of course tried to do the same, in spite of my impatience. However, some of them seemed to be unconcerned about, say the problem of evil, but really puzzled and frustrated by things we’d discussed in previous weeks, for example the need to sacrifice Jesus before God could forgive. It didn’t seem like those who were comfortable with the problem of evil had got some really satisfying answer, just that it didn’t bother them so much. Sometimes I’d raise a point and one person would say, “Yeah, that’s never made sense to me”. Great, I’d think, someone is actually thinking critically about their beliefs, but I’d make another point another time and the same person wouldn’t see the problem. To me these all seem like equally good arguments and, in my opinion any one of them makes Christianity untenable. Maybe people are being inconsistently critical in their thinking, but I suppose it’s just as likely that my explanations were rambling and incomprehensible in some cases. Maybe I bored people and they switched off.

The conversation later moved on to people’s tales of feeling protected from evil or warned about evil, usually in a rather vague way. The girl whose mother ran into the room knowing she was silently choking, the guy who drove out to pickup his girlfriend unexpectedly, without knowing she was the last to leave the office and was feeling particularly vulnerable. The intervention of a higher power in their protection was mostly implied and no one was really offering this to me as evidence that their god was real, so I thought it would’ve been rude to point out that these things are easily explained as coincidences and that memory and the human mind isn’t as reliable as we tend to expect.

It was a good chat and over too quickly, so I was glad when people suggested that after next week’s final session we’d organise a post-alpha social.

Alpha course 5: Why and how should I tell others?

I’m getting a bit behind with these write-ups, which actually describe meetings a week or two apart.

The next evening’s subject was evangelism. However the feel of the video was a lot less pushy than the word “evangelism” usually implies. In contrast to the earlier alpha course videos, I didn’t feel like I was sat in church, being preached to. She did speak about her relationship with Jesus, but hesitated to call herself a Christian. This was understandable as she related the story of her childhood, marred by the authoritarian church her father founded. She was visibly nervous, but came across as funny and genuine. Her take on evangelism was simply sharing something that you thought was great and compared it to getting a stunning view of the supermoon on her way home from work. All in all it was a very low-pressure message, which, I guess makes sense when alpha is aimed at everyone including new Christians who might be put off by having to preach their new faith.

In the group discussion people seemed to like this approach as they admitted to often feeling awkward talking to their non-Christian friends about attending church, possibly because of the bad reputation that a lot of Christians have as being self-righteous or moralising, things that this group are very adamant are to be avoided and certainly not “real Christianity”. I like them for this, but as I pointed out, that some Christians are uptight isn’t my main problem with the religion. In fact, I’d accept the teaching being authoritarian, if only they were true and made sense. It’s certainly true that I like my alpha group as a bunch of people much more than the kind of people who stand in the street waving a bible and preaching hell fire, but liking them doesn’t make them any more likely to be correct in their belief. Their take on Christianity might feel easier to accept, but it’s no more likely to be true, in my view, than the fire and brimstone versions. Nice people can be mistaken. I’m only in my late thirties, but my experience of life so far has suggested that every group of people – whether grouped by politics, religion, race or interests – has some nice people and some unpleasant misanthropes. It’s often the latter who get the most media coverage, something which is easy to be swayed by if the group is a minority or are unfamiliar to you. If you know a few Muslims who are decent folk, you’re less likely to be influenced by the media portrayals of the few extremists who make the news instead if the many peaceful, considerate ones who don’t.

At the end of the evening Danni made arrangements for the longer “Holy spirit” session which was at her house the following night. We were to watch the videos, eat curry and then “See what happens” she said with a grin and a shrug. This made me curious as it sounded like she was expecting some holy spirit magic to occur, which would’ve been very interesting. Regrettably I woke up the next day with a splitting headache and spent much of the day in bed recovering, so was unable to get to work, let alone the alpha course in the evening. I felt a bit bad about it as they’d done their best to arrange the session for a time I could make.

Alpha course 4: How do I have faith?

I arrived in the now familiar upstairs room of the coffee shop for the fourth proper session of the Alpha course a bit before 7pm. I spent the first half hour chatting with Matt, Katie and Mandy, mostly about children.

After the video presentation, we formed our usual groups for discussion. Dannii asked Tom for a definition of faith, the subject of the talk, which he’d looked up somewhere. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like,

“Believing something without proof”

I don’t think that’s a helpful definition, because none of our knowledge is proven. Scientific theories are never proven. Sounds odd but they’re not. The theory of gravity isn’t proven. The best theories are simply not (yet) disproven. They’re tentative, consistent with the evidence, but always potentially able to be proven wrong. In fact Newton’s theory of gravity was disproven and was rewritten by Einstein. Proof, as they say, is for mathematics and alcohol.

Tonight’s video sermon was about faith. The speaker was called Emily and she provided a lot of analogies and stories about her experience of faith and how it often differs between Christians. She also said, and again I paraphrase,

Faith is like trust and everyone is familiar with trust. An atheist trusts that there’s no God.

This kind of claim has come up in previous videos and I’ve often heard Christians telling me that you need just as much faith to be an atheist. This feels all kinds of wrong and I’ve spent some time trying to work out why. It seems like religious apologists recognise that faith has a bad reputation as a way of believing things and it is associated with blindness and ignoring the evidence. Mark Twain wrote that faith is “Believing something you know ain’t so”.

So, in addition to making regular reference to the historical and personal evidence, they seek to rescue the idea of religious faith by comparing it with secular ideas of trust and faith in people. In contrast to what is said about atheism, my take on it isn’t so much of a belief, but a lack of one. If you need faith not to believe in a god, then you need faith not to believe in unicorns, or all the other gods which you reject. A theist could argue that an atheist needs to have faith that the universe spontaneously came into being without a creator, but I don’t think this is even necessary. I’d say that I don’t know how or why the universe exists, but that all the religious explanations I’ve heard have been implausible or impossible.

If you think that all faith is the same thing, Greta Christina has made a comparison of secular and religious faith in which she quotes a lot of religious sources about what they think faith is. In my opinion this sums up the issue rather neatly, so I won’t attempt to improve on it.

My Alpha group spoke quite a bit about other religions and it’s something they seem to show genuine interest in. Perhaps it’s worth noting that most, if not all, of the world’s religions rely on faith. Presumably Christians would agree that the Hindu god Vishnu isn’t real, he’s fictional. I happen to agree about that. The same goes for Mithra, Zeus, Odin and thousands of other gods in which people have believed and in some cases still do believe. How do people believe in these gods we think are fictional? At least in part, through faith.

When we were talking about the start of a relationship with Jesus, Tom asked why it has to be through faith. I didn’t have much to say at the time, but on further thought I’d suggest that it’s because Christianity doesn’t make sense. Religious faith allows people to believe things which don’t make sense. I imagine people agree that other religions use faith to believe things which don’t make sense, so why not Christianity?

For example, when a believer prays for the health of a loved one, the ailing person will often get better or find a new way to cope with their illness. This is taken as evidence that God is real and listening to prayers. If the loved one’s health didn’t improve or took a serious turn for the worse, then the believer might be told that they need to have faith, or even that their faith is being tested. Never can it be taken as a sign that God isn’t really there. Faith encourages believers to ignore half the evidence – the half which doesn’t support the religion. I think this is a clear example of bias and one which is positively encouraged by many religions.

Of course, none of this occurred to me until I was on the train home, or on the train to work the next day. I just mumbled something about other faiths and how it shouldn’t be considered the would-be believer’s fault when things don’t make sense to them. Anyway, I had some nice informal chats with people at the end and on the way out. I’m not yet sure if I can make it next week, but I look forward to meeting with them again.

Alpha course 3: Why did Jesus die?

Having previously been frustrated having to leave just when the discussions were getting interesting, this time I decided that I’d stay and have to wait for the late train.

I was one of the first to get there, but was glad to recognise Kim and Jeff from last time. We chatted about children and work while Matt brought in cakes and wrestled with the projector. Jeff also mentioned that he liked my suggestion from last time about finding out whether other religions offered an Alpha course-style introductions and going along. Other people also made enthusiastic noises. To be honest, I had only expected people to pay lip-service to the idea, in the spirit of open-mindedness. I’m pleasantly surprised that this was brought up again.

Tonight’s half-hour video was called “Why did Jesus die?”, presented by a youthful and charismatic chap called Toby. ‘Fraid I didn’t catch his surname. He spoke humbly about how we all have things we’ve done we’re not proud of and that this sin separates us from God and how Jesus died to take on all that sin so we could have a relationship with God. He went to some length to explain this with a book covering one hand (us) blocking us from God (up there), then the other hand (Jesus) taking the book away. This seemed a bit unnecessary and, for me, simply laboured the point (that Jesus died for our sins), rather than addressing the more important “why” question.

Although they set the theme for the discussions which follow, I find the videos tedious. Having been a Christian in my younger days and attended a friendly church youth group for years, this didn’t teach me anything new. While the talk was peppered with some amusing stories and jokes, it still felt like preaching. Thankfully we soon got into our familiar groups, mine led by Dannii, along with Jeff, Beth and Jenny.

We spoke a bit about the contents of last week’s talk and I mentioned the Liar, Lunatic, Lord trilemma to which Dannii responded with interest. While, by their own admission they didn’t have satisfactory answers, my group didn’t try to avoid the questions by acting like it wasn’t an issue or answering an easier one instead. I like their attitude, I have a feeling this is going to be fun. Jeff spoke a bit about how he became a Christian and his many doubts and experiences. He only summarised the main bits, but it was interesting and I hope to hear more of this another time.

People talked for a while about how amazing they thought it was that God was willing to die for them. I asked why they thought that was necessary. If a human wants to forgive someone, we don’t have to have someone killed first. So a human can do something that God can’t do? There was a frank admission that this didn’t make sense and that it was something that they struggle with as well. I was relieved not to get a typical “politician’s answers” to this, though they did move on to saying that there are lots of things in the world we don’t understand, yet accept and “I guess that’s where faith comes in”. I did briefly ask why they should choose one faith over another, but I think faith is next week’s subject so I guess we’ll discuss that more later.

The conversation moved onto the Alpha video’s themes of guilt and forgiveness and we were invited to share personal stories on this theme. I racked my brains but couldn’t think of any interesting examples. No problem as others did. They were in some cases personal, so I won’t share the details, but I found their experiences interesting and increased my feeling that they’re a decent bunch of people. In one case I was able to sympathise having also experienced the conflict of forgiving someone whom others did not. I think forgiveness between humans is a rather different thing to what they’re describing with God.

God’s forgiveness was described as a blank cheque, forgiving anyone who accepted it of whatever they might have done. We talked through the implications of this, arriving at original sin, which in my opinion makes what people have done wrong in their lives seems a bit irrelevant when it comes to God’s forgiveness. In fact original sin is a bit of a philosophical mess in many ways, which may be why it wasn’t mentioned in the video.

I said I thought that it was an odd kind of justice that condemns people for failing to meet an impossible standard and that access to the salvation of Jesus was rather unevenly distributed, comparing the opportunity of the apostle Thomas, who supposedly touched the resurrected Jesus to check if he was real, and the Australian Aboriginals who died many years before Christianity reached their shores.

Dannii and others have obviously thought this through before. They said they believe that God is a just god and wouldn’t condemn people unfairly. Dannii also offered to find the bible verse which confirmed this. Someone else added that the same would apply to those mentally incapable of understanding.

“Or just a bit difficult?”, I said with a grin, indicating myself.
“Ah, that comes down to choice, James”, Jeff responded.
I said “Oh don’t get me started on choice…”. This got a little laughter, but I knew that we were drifting from the topic and I don’t want to bore people with my opinions at the expense of listening to others. My main reason for going to Alpha is to better understand people who disagree with me and you don’t do that by talking all the time. As it happened time was up, so maybe we’ll discuss that another time.

As promised, Dannii later posted on the Alpha course’s Facebook page with the reference, Romans 2:1-16. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s a quote which seems to support her argument of people being saved without necessarily knowing Jesus.

 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.

On it’s own that sounds quite a convincing argument, but if you look at other Bible verses, faith in Jesus, specifically Jesus, not just a vague, benevolent creator, is required. See John 14:6.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

So it’s not looking good for the early Aboriginals. Looking at what people have written online about this, most of the debate is not over whether faith is required, but whether good works are required in addition to faith. There’s a fair bit of inconsistency and contradiction. Christians don’t all agree on this apparently-important issue.

But let’s say for the sake of argument than Dannii is right and people such as the early Aboriginals who never got a chance to hear Jesus’ message can be saved by good works alone. If that’s true, then why are Christians always preaching about opening up to a relationship with Jesus, instead of telling everyone to be as morally good as they can? Why did missionaries go to great lengths to spread the word of God? Were they misguided? On the other hand, maybe even if it isn’t strictly necessary, there is some advantage in the relationship with Jesus, with regards to salvation. Perhaps it makes it easier to do good works and resist evil? If so, we’re back at the unfair advantage for some over others.

At this point some Christians might throw up their hands and say, “We don’t actually know how God judges people to be worthy of salvation, but we trust that he’s fair about it”. Yet that’s not how it sounds when they’re talking about the importance of Jesus and accepting his sacrifice. If it’s reasonable to say that God’s will is mysterious and unknowable, then there doesn’t seem to much point trying to understand the Bible and various views on it, because one person’s guess is as good as another’s.

Alpha Course 2: Who is Jesus?

I was unable to attend the third week of alpha, but I understand that the theme is “Who is Jesus?”. Alpha has a half-hour Nicky Gumbell video on this title, which is presumably what everyone else watched, so I caught up on that at home. (EDIT: Actually it was the same talk by Stephen Foster, with a different cake as a visual aid). I was very sorry to miss out on the group discussion which followed as I’m interested in how much people take this at face value and how much thought they give it.

There’s a lot I could say about the video, but I’ll concentrate on the main points which interested me.

First is the claim of evidence for Jesus outside of the Bible. In my view, how much of the Bible is historical and how much is fictional is a really important question. It’s something that the rest of the course and many of the subsequent claims depend. I guess that’s why it’s covered first.

One of my group helpfully posted a link on the Facebook group to Lee Strobel’s The Case For Christ. As it happens, I’ve already read this book a few years ago as well as a critical review of it in the form of Earl Doherty’s Challenging the verdict. To be honest, even Strobel’s book alone made me less convinced of the historical accuracy of the Bible. Back when I counted myself as a Christian, I’d always assumed that the gospels were written very close to the time of the events, by Jesus’ disciples, but this is not the case. The earliest gospel is thought to be Mark, written around 60 CE – some 30 years after the events. Even assuming that it was written by someone who personally witnessed the events, the delay in writing would cause a lot of errors and uncertainty. I can’t accurately recall conversations from my wedding day, less than ten years ago. Anyone trying to think back 30 years would’ve had to be vague or embellish their memories with invented details.

Josephus and Tactitus are mentioned as historical sources from outside the Bible. Both of these are covered in reviews of Lee Strobel’s book, but it’s worth noting that even the carefully-picked scholars he interviewed have to admit that the writings of Josephus at least contained “interpolations” by Christian authors, while other scholars believe the passages to be inserted in their entirety.

That surprised me. Even the committed Christian scholars acknowledge that early Christians were not above doctoring historical documents to bolster the case for their religion. That’s a massive admission and one which, for me, totally invalidates Josephus’s writing as evidence of Jesus and casts doubt on others. Add these dubious writings with the surprising silence of many contemporary writers and a mythical Jesus seems more likely. I guess Gumbell and Foster must know all this, but they still present the passage from Josephus’s Antiquities as if it was strong evidence. It makes me wonder what else they’ve misrepresented.

Another interesting thing they mention the Liar Lunatic Lord trilemma. You only have to look as far as Wikipedia to see there’s a conspicuously-absent fourth option – Legend. This is the possibility that the New Testament’s account of Jesus was at least partly fictional, that words were put into his mouth by later writers or those who passed on the legend by word of mouth. I guess this omission comes from the Christian assumption that the Bible is historical rather than mythical, which part of the question this is trying to answer in the first place.

Finally, Stephen Foster states that Jesus was the first to tell people to love their enemies and that no one has improved on his moral teachings.

On the contrary, there are multiple examples from across the world, hundreds or thousands of years before Jesus, expressing the sentiment of loving one’s enemy. For example:

Do not return evil to your adversary; Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, Maintain justice for your enemy, Be friendly to your enemy.
– Akkadian Councils of Wisdom (from the ancient Babylonian civilization that existed two millennia before Jesus was born)

Admittedly I’m not a historian and I haven’t looked in detail at the age of these texts, but I think it’s at least plausible that they didn’t all get this idea from Jesus. I don’t know whether Nicky Gumbel and Stephen Foster are ignorant of these other writers or deliberately misleading people with these claims, but either way it casts doubt on what they’re saying. I think they both trained as barristers, so maybe they’d excuse themselves by saying that in fact no one had previously used the exact words “Love your enemies”. That’s still disingenuous in my book.

The next claim was that no one has ever improved on Jesus’ moral teachings. From some of what’s written in the Bible, Jesus could be said to be quite progressive for his day, but I think we can also say there are some serious omissions. Most people today would consider the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, animal welfare and the universal declaration of human rights as moral progress, but as far as I know you can’t find these ideas in the Gospels and in some cases could be said to flatly contradict the Bible. Otherwise you might have expected early Christians to endorse these ideas. There are also plenty of things Jesus said which more progressive Christians would disagree with, or at least have a hard time justifying.

I think it’s fair to say that most people could improve on this kind of morality.

All of which leaves me rather disappointed with the Alpha course’s official content. Still, I’m hugely enjoying the group discussions which follow.

Alpha Course 1: Is there more to life than this?

Back for the second session of the Alpha Course and there were indeed more people, as well as the familiar faces from last week. I chatted to a musician called Jeff and we found common ground over troubles with our technological tools getting in the way of the real work we wanted to do.

Tonight we were to watch a video presentation by Charlie Mackesy. I joined Mandy and David on the sofa. David was surprised that I was back after my comment last week about the course being mis-advertised. I had been mostly positive and said I was interested by the whole idea of discussing these big questions; I guess I’ve got some way to go in expressing myself clearly. The video took a little while to set up, but was entertaining. Charlie gave an eccentric account of his journey to Christianity, littered with genuinely funny jokes and quotes from Ghandi, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. This was a personal account, not an academic argument for his beliefs, but I expect most people find personal accounts more persuasive. I was a little irked at how he presented his former, atheist self as cynical and naive. I don’t know, those things may have been true of him, but the stereotype smears all atheists, cynical and not.

When the video finished we formed two groups of about 7 people and did the introductions again, as there were some new people. This time we had to say what item we’d like to take to a desert island. Plenty of people went for books or technology, though two others, like me, chose a musical instrument. I admitted I was not a very good guitarist, but that would be ideal with no one to hear me. I also restated my reasons for attending Alpha including that I would like to learn to express myself better.

We moved on to talking about the video and what we thought. There was a bit of an awkward pause with everyone waiting for each other to speak, so I leapt in saying I thought the speaker was pretty funny. People  agreed and the conversation moved on to the misconceptions about Christianity that had been mentioned. One girl whose name I didn’t catch said she gets a bit of a worried reaction when she mentions going to church. I found this all really interesting, so was annoyed when my alarm went off for my train. I apologised for the interruption and she finished what she had to say and two others gave similar stories, with Jeff admitting that he wasn’t sure when someone, particularly in America, told him they were Christian what kind of Christian they meant. As I put on my jacket and left I managed to point out that other beliefs, such as atheism or Islam are similarly misunderstood and that I’d aim to consider people as individuals as much as possible, separate for any labels. This received some nods, though regrettably I had to make my excuses and leave.

They’re a nice bunch and I’d like to spend the time getting to know them better. I need to work out a way to stay a little later so as not to miss most of the discussions at the end, as that’s the most interesting bit for me.