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.
The style is more engaging than a typical church sermon and at times genuinely funny and interesting
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.
The adverts talk about "asking life's big questions", but a better subtitle would be "an introduction to Christianity" or "getting to know Jesus".