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September 17, 2010

Why I care: The Pope

Anyone following me on Twitter or Facebook today may have seen me be rather uncomplimentary towards the Pope, and this whole visit. Some people think I’m taking it too seriously, that we should just live and let live and I shouldn’t be acting like a Dawkins militant atheist. Well sod that. This does matter. I’m even prepared to risk sounding like Lily Allen when I say that the open arms with which we’re welcoming the Pope to our shores is really not okay. And apathy and a lack of opinion and live and let live claims from friends that I otherwise have intellectual and moral respect for are not okay either.

This fucking matters.

The child-abuse thing is awful. But it’s a cheap shot and it’s a flimsy argument. One I made myself in a recent blog. Things happened. Awful things. But we don’t know how involved the current Pope was and things are happening to try and sort it. It’s too slow, too late and not enough but it’s something. There’s action. You go up to the Pope today and he won’t tell you that child abuse is okay.

Homophobia. It’s awful, it’s bigoted and it’s institutionalised. I can’t imagine how gay people must feel seeing their country venerate someone who thinks their entire life is a sin. But bigots exist. They just don’t like people who are different. And we can fight against that where we find it but we find it in a hell of a lot of places. It’s an uphill struggle.

But then there’s AIDS in Africa. Ben Goldacre covers the facts and the scale in heart-wrenching detail. The headline: 2 million deaths a year. A huge chunk of which could be prevented if people weren’t told that using condoms will send them to hell. Keep that in mind while you consider this.

Most developed nations, most huge multi-nationals, most religions, are in some way democratic. If we really don’t like something our government does, we have the mechanism to vote them out of power. Religions are generally fractured, with different holy-men reigning over different regions and different denominations. Those that make unpopular decisions see their followers wane and disperse to different flavours of the same religion. Big companies are run by a board of directors but they answer to share-holders who can number in their thousands and can oust them with enough votes.

This is all good, it means there are checks and balances. It also means change, real change, is slow. Things have to be done gradually else the backlash can destroy any chance of them being done at all. The price we pay for democracy.

For the Catholic Church, uniquely, this is not so. One man rules. His is the divine word of God and cannot be questioned. You don’t get fired from being Pope. You answer to no-one. You don’t get ousted. It’s a job for life and the only way out is death. That may well make him the most powerful man on the planet.

You see, the Pope could turn around tomorrow and decree that condoms were now permitted by God to fight the greater evil that is AIDS and save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in a second. All he has to do is say it. There is no down-side. It doesn’t encourage people to have sex; trust me, if a 6% chance of catching AIDS doesn’t stop people shagging, nothing will. It wouldn’t even be that controversial, Catholicism is one of the few religions that still oppose condoms. Even the fundamentalist Muslims are in conflict over the issue. And if there is a fallout, so what? It was the word of God and you don’t question it.

Millions of lives, present and future, could be saved in an instant. And not only does the Pope not act, he even goes out of his way to make it clear that condoms are a sin when he gets the chance. How? Why? This isn’t a toss-up like the Iraq War, where thousands will die if we do but thousands may die if we don’t. There is no downside. You lose what? I’m sorry but but if you want to preach abstinence, fine, but the threat of catching AIDS is not a fucking weapon in your arsenal. Jesus didn’t hold his people at gunpoint while he preached.

And yet the Pope does nothing.

One fucking sentence out of his mouth and a few million people in Africa live instead of die. He’s not directly responsible for what’s happening. But he could accomplish so much by doing so little, and yet he doesn’t. The way I see it, that makes him culpable. Enabling child abuse is bad. But at least he doesn’t still openly call it okay. Enabling what could ultimately be genocide? Well you can make your own mind up on that.

But if you honestly think the answer is spending 12 million quid (when the country is broke) on having him turn up to give a couple of speeches is the answer then you’re fucking retarded.

That’s why this fucking matters to me and why the whole thing makes me really, really angry. And it’s why it should make you angry too. And if it doesn’t then honestly, there’s something wrong with you.

It’s not okay. His inaction is not okay. Us welcoming him to our country is not okay. And us shrugging our shoulders and saying “well it’s just religious politics bollocks” is not okay either.

Care. Give a damn. Join the chorus of people mocking him either on the internet or protesting this for real. Let the world know that we do not approve and we expect, nay, demand more if he wants to be venerated like he expects.

September 12, 2010

Why the Pope is probably evil

I’m not a fan of politicians. Generally they’ll act in their own interests or the interests of a small group they represent. Protecting themselves and their political party/government is the overriding motivation, doing the right thing being only secondary.

It’s in that context that I can look at the actions of the Catholic Church over the whole child-rape thing and understand them. I get why the Church, and our current Pope in his old job in particular, opted to cover it up. It was the most politically expedient option. Obviously that’s not okay, not for any organisation, and one that basis itself on handing down moral instruction should be held to even higher standards. But it’s understandable. Deep down, when we all feign shock at the fact that the Church covered it up, a voice in our head is going “of course they did, they wanted to avoid a scandal”. It was a political move. Placing politics above what was morally right. Utterly reprehensible, but comprehendible in that context.

But something has been bugging me lately.

The cat is out of the bag now, the scandal exposed, we all know it happened, the cover-up failed. So what now? From a perspective of political expediency, one should publicly admit the mistake, apologise, fire a few people as scape-goats and promise to support the victims and do better in the future. That also happens to mostly be the right thing to do in this case, but that doesn’t matter. It’s also the correct move politically. Doing so moves on the debate. You admit you made an error and then those opposing you can no longer directly attack you on that issue “I said it was a mistake, I apologise, but it’s done now, what more can I do?” There are few answers to that that don’t involve moving on to a different topic entirely. “It’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission” is a fundamental rule of the political play-book. When something goes wrong you apologise and say you’ll try and stop it ever happening again and slowly the debate is recast and anyone still attacking you for it makes themselves look like a bully and you look like the victim.

Which is why it’s weird that the Pope hasn’t done this. He hasn’t taken the politically expedient path, and that’s scary. See, the cover-up is understandable if you accept the idea that he’s a politician. But his failure to apologise makes it clear that he isn’t. Which therefore means that he covered-up the whole thing because he thought it was the right thing to do.

Just stop and think about that for a minute and the true horror it implies.

From an atheist point of view, this is easy to reconcile. The Pope is wrong in the head and is unable to differentiate right from wrong. He’s no different to any other sociopathic criminal.

The interesting thing is how this must appear to other Christians. Generally most churches tolerate the Catholics as the slightly wacky cousins who wear funny hats and think they’re actually drinking the blood of Christ at communion. But essentially they believe the same things, more or less. The problem is, Catholics believe the Pope has a direct connection to God. Most Christians also believe you can have a personal connection to God. Thing is, many Christians, especially the more evangelical groups, believe the Devil and demons are real too. If you think you have a personal connection with God, and that connection is telling you something that is at odds with a given church’s teachings, the church is less likely to tell you you’re imagining things, and more to say that you’re actually talking to the devil or a demon, and you have to ignore it. Your prayers got the wrong number and you have to be strong and try calling again and hope you God picks up instead this time.

Extrapolating that, and assuming that a fair, just, Christian god would never want child-abuse covered up, the only conclusion is that the Pope is talking to the Devil. Which makes all Catholics devil-worshippers. Given this shocking revelation, I’m not sure why there isn’t also an evangelical Christian anti-Pope march going on, where they’re letting the world know that he’s a servant of Lucifer. But then, I guess that wouldn’t be politically expedient.

August 26, 2010

On faith schools

We’re going to talk about faith schools now, because I said I would. Again, I’m left-wing atheist liberal. You probably know my general opinion. This blog was inspired by the Dawkins documentary Faith School Menace last week and it’ll be of no surprise to you to know that I agree with him entirely. The arguments are straight-forward: it’s not okay to indoctrinate kids basically. I won’t repeat all that hear, instead I’d like to offer a few different angles on this.

Children are not property
There was a bit in that documentary where, frankly, Dawkins didn’t go far enough. One of his interviewees asked him if he thought a parent had the right choose how their child is educated. Dawkins skirted around the question. I wanted him to blow the guy’s argument to bits and say ‘no’.

I had it in my head when I was coming up with this piece that I’d point out that even if you home-school a child, you have to follow the National Curriculum and teach a child certain key things. You can’t teach them 1+1=3, so why should we choose what religious education they get. That seemed obvious. Then I did some research. Turns out you can teach whatever you want. The law just has a woolly rule that you have to provide your child with an education “suitable to their age, ability and aptitude”.

I was genuinely shocked and appalled by this. A parent can opt to home-school a kid, teach him anything they make up, and not have him sit any GCSEs. Yes, if you home-school, you don’t have to do GCSEs. Which basically means parents have the totally legal option to make their kid entirely unemployable for the rest of their lives. That’s abuse. I imagine that most of us would agree that this would be awful, and that any education also didn’t teach a child basic skills like maths, reading and writing should be a crime. But it’s not. That’s plain wrong. Parents shouldn’t have the right to choose their child’s education. Children are not the property of their parents. Parents will inevitably have a huge influence on their children in everything from religion through to social values and all sorts. Education, school… that should be the one area where we’re on an even playing field. Sure, if you can afford it get better teachers at a private school, or if you must send them to a faith school where they associate with children of the same faith and the non-educational parts of school (assembly, etc) are in-line with your religion. But the syllabus should be the same for everyone. You wouldn’t want schools to be able to choose to teach that 1+1=3 in Maths, so don’t let them choose what to teach in Religious Education either. And if we can’t reach a compromise on the syllabus for RE, then drop it entirely. Let parents deal with that and replace it with Philosophy. It’s not that important anyway.

If you want to raise a child in a given religion there’s nothing that can be done to stop you. But by ensuring that all our children are educated with the same material to the same level, we can hopefully give them enough knowledge to decide for themselves if they really believe in that religion when they’re older. Removing that level playing field of basic education should be a crime.

Selection is either right or wrong, you can’t have it both ways

I hate hypocrisy. I’m a hypocrite myself too, but that’s okay because… Anyway. I went to a single-sex grammar school. If you don’t know what a grammar school is, it’s a selective secondary school with an entrance exam, but once you get it, it’s totally free. Like a private school that only has scholarships. There’s not many of them left these days, as Labour were hugely against them and even the Tories don’t want to bring them back.

Now I mostly benefitted from that experience. I think grammar schools are good. They’re not perfect: it certainly left me socially stunted when it came to liaising with the opposite sex, and it took years to get past that. Some would say I still haven’t, but it turns out the combination of being in your mid-twenties, taking up stand-up comedy and blurring the boundaries between yourself and your on-stage character means that ‘creepy’ somehow metamorphasises in to ‘quirky’. Someone called me ‘a bit of a character’ the other week. Point being, grammar schools have their ups and downs, but if you’re going to argue that we shouldn’t have them as selection is wrong, and goes against the principle of a common education for all, then how can you possibly argue that faith school are okay?

A school’s primary function is to educate. Yes, it serves secondary functions in a child’s general development, but it’s main purpose is as a learning institution. Grammar schools select pupils based on their aptitude for learning. It chooses those that learn quicker to better cater for their educational needs. There is an unfair element to that but it makes logical sense. Schools educate, so we select kids based on their ability to be educated.

The Labour government would have us think that that is wrong. While at the same time, encouraging selection based on the religion of the child’s parents. There’s a vague argument for that somewhere. In assembly and such religion comes in to play and religion is a small part of a child’s school life. But it’s tiny compared to the actual process of learning. Yet selecting based on a preference for that tiny little bit of school life is okay. Selecting on the basis of the whole rest of it is somehow wrong.

Again, I can see the argument against grammar schools. I can see the argument for faith schools. I can’t possibly see how you can hold both at the same time. Either it’s okay for schools to select their pupils (on any metric other than geographic location), in which case aptitude for learning is surely the first thing you’d go for, or education should be equal for all and selection is always wrong, in which case there’s no justification for faith schools at all.

Faith schools are racist

Controversial one last then. There are now a few Muslim faith schools dotted around the place. There’s been a bit of consternation about it but mostly they’ve gone ahead with little opposition. The reason for this is that no Muslim faith school has yet topped the local school league tables. This will happen eventually, and when it does the Daily Mail will go insane. “How dare they?” they will ask, “How dare they stop our white Christian kids attending the best school in the area!”

See, the thing about Catholic, CofE and other Christian denominational faith schools is that, to white person, they’re all much of a muchness. I don’t like the system, but I’m no fool. If I’m living in an area where a faith school is the place my child will get the best all-round education, then I’ll play the system. The Dawkins documentary had an interesting fact: 30% of schools are faith schools, 3% of people regularly go to Church. Lots of people are playing the system. As a white, middle-class male, I can do that. It doesn’t matter the denomination, any Christian school and I can just start turning up at the local Church a few years before. My general engagement with religious matters, the fact that I’ve studied the Bible so I can be confident in my atheism, that all actually means that I can probably fake it better than the family that self-identify as Christian but only go to church twice a year and don’t really think about it too much. Being able to engage the priest in a complex religious discussion is more likely to get you noticed and your kid a recommendation than someone that just shows their face.

But like I say, I can do that, because I’m white. And because I’m an atheist that doesn’t have to worry about making my god angry by switching religion. Your average Muslim family can’t do that. Partly because religion is often so tightly ingrained in their culture that they can’t just switch, partly because they don’t want to, and partly because even if they did, they’d probably be regarded with suspicion and face accusations of converting just to get their kids in to the good CofE school. And those accusations would probably come from the white parents doing the exact same thing.

The white non-practicing-christian middle-class mostly ignore this, as there’s no shoe on the other foot. No Muslim faith school is the best school in the area yet. So they don’t have to worry. When that does happen, it’ll raise some interesting questions. In theory religion is something you choose, in practice it’s often something you’re born in to.

August 24, 2010

On the "Ground Zero Mosque

Given you’re probably aware that my liberal leanings are so pronounced that I almost fall over, you may be surprised to hear that I’m against any plans to build a Mosque at Ground Zero.

Let’s get one thing clear before you run off in disgust: the thing you’re reading about and seeing in the news, the thing being referred to as the “Ground Zero Mosque” is in no way a plan to build a Mosque at Ground Zero. The media are trying to pull the whole “piracy is theft” thing on us again. Namely, saying something so many times in the hope that that will simply make it true, while ignoring a few small things like the definitions of the actual words they’re using. In this case it’s a) not at Ground Zero, and b) not a Mosque. It’s a few blocks away and it’s a Muslim community centre.

I’d hope you already know this, and for the record, I have no trouble with that whatsoever. But.

When I first read the story, I had a different reaction. Like most people, for a few seconds, I thought the headlines were true. And the idea annoyed and upset me. Some liberal commentators have taken the whole “even if this story were real, it still wouldn’t matter” approach. Yes it would.

I’m going to say it now, a new rule that we should adopt that I think is pretty fair: if someone commits an atrocity in the name of your religion, you don’t get to build a holy site right next to the place it happened. Now I know the people that did it don’t represent your views, I know you’d never do anything like that, you’re a sane person that actually reads your holy book and obeys the whole “do no harm” principle that they’re all based around. But they’re your people, they’re part of your religion and it’s down to you to evangelise and preach and talk some sense in to them. Stop trying to convert us agnostics and atheists. Sort yourselves out first. Honestly you have to convince us that a god exists at all first, them you just need to convince that said god meant something slightly different. And where your religion is being abused by people of power, you need to fight against it and stamp it out. If you’re part of a religion which preaches evangelism at all (and that’s 95% of them) then that’s your job.

I actually see the appeal of the Catholic system here, by the way. There’s one guy that has a direct line to God and everything he says is treated as God’s own word. It’s pretty handy, as if anyone does anything bad in the name of Catholicism, he can just say that God told him they were evil and going to hell and aren’t real Catholics. He won’t, of course, as the church only elects utterly gutless cretins that are too scared to condemn people for kiddy-fiddling let alone wake up one morning and go “hey guys, God says condoms are okay now.” Still, it’d be an awesome system if it worked.

I’m not attacking Islam here by the way. At least, not exclusively. No holy buildings on the sites of atrocities. So no Catholic Churches near primary schools (and certainly no Catholic schools but that’s a whole other blog), no Synagogues near paediatrics wards (ritual circumcision is an atrocity) and no Scientology centres near filming locations used for Battlefield: Earth.

That’s perfectly reasonable to me. Those of us that aren’t religious don’t want to be reminded of what people did in your name. By all means, keep your faith and practice it wherever you want, just don’t build monuments to it that the rest of us have to look at right next to where someone killed a few thousand people in your name.

On the other hand, if you want to build a centre devoted to building community bonds between your religion and the local people a few blocks down the road, then have at it.

March 29, 2010

Dean Love vs God

Well, even though the previous articles on the alpha course are no longer the most popular thing on this blog (being surpassed by the Frank Turner piece and…err… the Total Wipeout review – seriously folks?) I found this CD while I was having a sort out today.

It’s a recording of a debate I did live on Premier Christian Radio around three years ago now. On the anti-Alpha side was me, a guy that had once been on an alpha course. On the pro-Alpha side was the communications director from one of the biggest churches in London. On the phone lines were inevitably a bunch of Christians. All said, I think I did alright. And now I’ve finally got around to putting up the recording, you can decide for yourselves!

Listen here!

December 02, 2009

New thoughts on intelligent design in schools

I’ve written plenty on this in the past. It’s fairly obvious what my opinion is. And hundreds of others have debated it to death too. So I kind of wanted to throw out some stuff that I haven’t seen talked about before. These are half-formed and part-informed ideas but maybe they’ll be interesting.

It started with me reading this article, It treads the same old ground and my initial uncharitable response was that it’s just another old man, who when faced with his own mortality, is desperate to cling on the to hope that there’s something after. Mean and somewhat ridiculous but no more so than the bollocks he’s spouting.

So my initial counter-point was the same as ever: intelligent design isn’t a scientific theory (there’s no falsifiability to it for one), and even if you cast it in such a light that it could charitably be deemed to be one, it’s still a really bad one. It’s basically psuedo-science at best, and if we’re going to teach that in science classes then we may as well throw in homeopathy, psychics and UFOs too. They could all claim to be based upon scientific theory and evidence, but just like intelligent design, the so called ‘evidence’ has not been throughly vetted or peer reviewed, so it doesn’t get taught in science classes.

I fall back to my default position: intelligent design has it’s place in RE, let’s leave science to focus on real, respected theories. I’ve always adopted that position. It’s the obvious one for those of us arguing against the invariably religious intelligent design advocates: “you get your say here, let us have ours here, and lets all get along”.

What I never considered was the inverse.

Lets say we scientific folk bow to the pressure of the intelligent design lobby. Fine, you win. We’ll start teaching it as a theory in science lessons. If you want rid of this demarcation between science and belief then okay, we’ll start presenting it next to evolution as an option. To be fair it’ll probably be five lessons studying the development of evolutionary theory over the centuries, then five minutes at the end going “magic man done it” (thanks to Robin Ince for that one) as that’s the entire ID theory, but fine, we’ll mention it.

There are, however, consequences.

I want my science in your RE lessons. It sounds preposterous, but when you think about it carefully you do start to wonder why our schools teach Religious Education and not the broader subject, Philosophy, of which religion would simply make up a (not insignificant) component. Why was I taught about Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism at length, but never once encountered the phrase ‘secular humanism’ until I started reading the internet? The reason given, of course, is that religion is a big part of the lives of many people, and it’s essential to teach children about it as it’s part of making sure they can live and operate in modern society. Essential knowledge, just like learning how to use Google and Microsoft Word or learning how to read. It’s a notion that seems fair at first glance, those of us that aren’t religious are in the minority after all and kids need to know how to deal with what the majority think, even if they grow up to disagree with it. Problem is, last time we checked only 19% of Britons regularly went to a religious service and 33% don’t believe in a higher power at all. A third! Don’t believe at all! I’m not even in that group and I’m writing this!

Back when we weren’t a primarily secular nation the RE thing made sense, but now I no longer see why it should get special treatment. Sure, lets teach our kids about Jesus and Allah, but lets also teach them about Descartes and Popper. The religious apologists continually throw out that claim that ‘science is just as much of a belief system as Christianity’ and while you can explain how they’re technically wrong, you can also see the point they’re getting at. So next time you hear that one, how about suggesting we start covering the scientific method in RE classes instead? See where it goes. I’d be intrigued.

And y’know what else. In these new philosophy classes, we can teach our kids proper fucking science as well.

One of the criticisms the ID movement use of modern science teaching is that things like evolution aren’t presented as theories, they’re presented as fact. As much as I hate it, they done have a point. Pretty much all science is just a theory. Tim Minchin has a brilliant line about if everything is just a theory, maybe the theory of gravity will stop applying and the apologists will just “float the fuck away”. The irony there being that a lot of Newton’s theories were proven to be untrue in certain circumstances by Einstein. It’s not until you hit relativity in A-level physics that you’re introduced to the idea that what you’ve been learning the past ten years is all in flux and that science is a developing field, and you’re being taught theories, not absolute truths. The ID people think this is terrible, and I somewhat agree.

Funny thing is, I’m fairly sure the fact that science (and for that matter, history) is taught this way is the reason we still have 67% of the country believing in a god. Because if you start encouraging kids at a young age (or even at bloody GCSE age) to think for themselves, to question what’s given to them, to seek out alternative theories… well my friends, you’re going to raise a generation of atheists and agnostics. Because kids aren’t, on the whole, dumb. You tell them to start questioning what they’re taught in science class and you can be sure they’ll be applying that to RE too. More to the point, they might start asking difficult questions of mommy and daddy on the weekly trip to church. Maybe they’ll question the preacher or the cleric. It really is playing with dynamite, and I’m in favour of blowing their minds wide open.

Because science at school does sort of suck. Yeah, we get to set stuff on fire and see chemicals react, and we sure as hell have the scientific method beaten in to us: hypotheses, method, results, conclusions. Every GCSE science kid writes down those headings about a hundred time over the two years. It’s the way you do it, it’s the scientific method. But they never teach you why. They never tell you where it comes from, or the philosophical basis behind it. Which really sucks as it’s bloody annoying at times and a lot of kids grow up thinking we do stuff that way because their teachers were pedants that wanted everything in a set format. Or because that’s what you need to do in the exam. You never get taught about why it’s there and why it’s so important. Perhaps because that’s not really science either. It’s philosophy. Which we won’t teach at GCSE. Because RE is more important.

The message for the proponents of intelligent design is simple: you can’t have it both ways. And personally, at least once you get to GCSE level, I’m in favour of giving the kids the benefit of the doubt. Let them drop ID in next to evolution and let us get rid of this pointless, increasingly irrelevant ‘religious education’ and start teaching kids how to think, not what to think, instead.

July 27, 2006

Radio Appearance

Hey folks,
Quick heads up to let you know I'll be on radio from 12 noon on saturday debating the Alpha Course on Premier Christian Radio.

Within the next day or so I'm also going to be posting up a previously unpublished piece I wrote on the course here.

The original article that sparked all this is here

You can find Premier Christian Radio on MW 1305, 1332 & 1413 in and around London. Freeview 725, Sky 0123, NTL cable 886 or online

February 27, 2005

Christianity as a Commodity: The Alpha Course

I'm interested to know if anyone here has had any experience with the Christian Alpha Course: it's something I have a lot of opinions about and could write a small book on it – in fact I have but I'm not going to repeat it all here (unless there's a lot of interest for some odd reason). I'm going to try and be a little more objective here – I'll also try and keep it fairly short and post a follow up article in a few days if it generates any interest or debate.

For those that have no idea what I'm talking about the Alpha Course is basically what you get when you cross preaching Christianity with fantastic marketing. It's an attempt to sell to you what really boils down to a life-changing experience. If that sounds good, note that I'm not suggesting this change is in any way a good thing.

If you find yourself intrigued and decide to research the Alpha Course online you'll find very little detail on what it actually is. There's sites with great slogans like "An opportunity to explore the meaning of life" that make it sound really interesting, and you find out that the average Alpha evening consists of free food (good if you're ever really stuck for cash) followed by a talk on an aspect of Christianity followed by a chance to discuss said aspect. That's pretty much all you'll find, other than some wishy-washy testimonials like "It made me understand that God knew me as an individual and knew what I was going through". There's not much substance to it.

This is all part of the marketing, make it seem intriguing and pull people in, impress them with nice food and then, then it gets a bit bizarre. They decide to engage in 10–15 minutes of Christian worship: songs and prayer. I think you can guess why that wasn't mentioned in the publicity. You can either join in or not, and just look like a numpty, as another odd facet of the Alpha Course is that they are packed with people who are already committed Christians (I'm sure when I attended the number of people involved with the organisation of the course approximated that of the number of guests). Hence people will see half the room doing something and join in, singing words of praise to a god they may or may not have any belief in: again, part of the canny marketing strategy.

Then come the talks – these are actually relatively inoffensive, although inevitably one-sided, but at times give the illusion of truth by attempting to address some of the common issues ("We know what Jesus did was real as it's mentioned in this Roman emperor's biography as well": well done, you've found one corroborating source for the bible – considering all the things he apparently did, it's a bit odd there aren’t more, no?)

Following this is the group discussion, though the leaders are only responsible for directing the conversation and won't actually jump in to defend their faith. It's perfectly possible for a strong enough atheist personality to dominate these talks and convince everyone that the entire contents of the talk was incorrect and flawed, but this is totally irrelevant as the following weeks talk is always delivered upon the assumption that you have accepted as fact the previous weeks one (eg. Week 2: the bible is the infallible word of God. Week 3: we know all this stuff about Jesus is true as the bible said so and we established that as true last week.) The talks serve the purpose of giving the illusion of choice; the idea that you can make your own opinions heard makes you think that any acceptance of the ideas presented comes from you thinking and going over the issues, as opposed to just accepting them as given. But in actuality the discussions are completely pointless to you, as the next week will simply assume you have accepted the ideas anyway. Here you get a sort of positive re-inforcement: you realise in week 3 or 4 that if you don’t accept the bible as being one-hundred percent true, you may as well not be there, as any other arguments will build upon this. If you’ve any interest in the subject matter it’s easy to just let yourself accept this in order to see the arguments in their proper context, but in doing so you also help convince yourself of its truth.

Around week 7 or 8 of the 10 week course the piece de la resistance of the marketing occurs: the weekend away. If you thought it was tough to find out anything about Alpha in general, try searching for information on the weekend away! I kid you not dear readers, but when I attended the course I was unable to obtain even an address for where we going! The most specific it got was ‘somewhere in Great Malvern’ despite asking a number of the group organisers. It seems this information, along with all others on the weekend, was heavily guarded. But through either curiosity or stupidity I did get on that coach to be driven to an unknown location with a bunch of people I barely knew. It is a genius method of marketing: take a bunch of people away for a weekend where they will be trapped, a totally captive audience, with little to do other than what you organise for them. It might sound like I’m a bit cynical and over the top here but think about it: the weekend is just the usual talks, discussion and worship. There’s no reason this couldn’t be done at the regular venue – this along with the inability for anyone to give me an address for the trip so I could say, look up the nearest train station in advance, leads me to think that it’s there solely to ensure there’s no escape for the people involved
This in mind, the worship quota is upped for the weekend, and whole notion of giving your life to Jesus and getting ‘saved’ is raised, with people going up to the front of the chapel and praying in a sort of ‘Christianity pledge’, with people collapsing and doing the (pretty amusing) speaking in tongues thing, just like any good cult. These things occurring of course, after the preacher has mentioned that they might. I imagine the result would be somewhat different if he didn’t.

It’s at that point you really see what the Alpha Course truly is: it’s not an invitation to explore the meaning of life, but a slickly marketed Christian conversion course. The objective of Alpha is not to educate people about Christianity, but to convert as many people as possible their particular brand of this religion. By the time it’s been pared down enough to just the people left at the weekend, the success rate is pretty high, around 90%. As more people go to the front of the stage to be ‘saved’ you become made to feel increasingly awkward stood at the back, perhaps even a little tempted to just give in and go for it anyways, made all the more acute by the preacher singling you out: the combination of direct and peer pressure make for an extremely uncomfortable situation. I stuck around for the remaining few weeks after the weekend as I figured I may as well finish it off so I could at least write about it with some authority and it wouldn’t be a total waste of my time, but by that time there were only a couple of us sceptics left and we were left to feel increasingly marginalised and singled out as the last attempts to convert us were made. From the Alpha course people are then moved into becoming regular church goers at churches with similar beliefs to those taught at Alpha, and absorbed into Cell groups, and I’ll talk more about Alpha’s particular ‘brand’ of Christianity in the follow up article.

Alpha is ingenious at what it does, but be warned it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

August 2020

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