Wednesday, December 07, 2011

A Jewish-Born Atheist Does the Alpha Course

Over the next several weeks, I am going to post my impressions of the Alpha course, a series of weekly meetings introducing people to Christian belief.

Interestingly, there are no pastors or preachers heading the sessions: they are run by churchgoers, which contributes to a collegiate atmosphere. The course's "We are all discovering together" message would be impossible in a clergy-run operation, where clerics dispense their wisdom to the unknowing. I would later learn, however, that the group leaders often had more knowledge than they had first let on.

In our course, the sessions went the same every week:
  • A meal (nominally free, but $5.00 per person donations were requested).
  • Two worship songs. Starting in week #3 and continuing throughout, a woman led everyone in songs, with words presented behind her in a PowerPoint presentation.
  • A DVD talk. Each talk is a recording of Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton church in England, speaking before an audience in his church. Everyone in the course has a handbook outlining Gumbel's talks.
  • Small group discussion. We had a group of 15 people, and we met together in a room to present responses to the talks, to share other impressions, and sometimes to go through exercises planned by the leaders. We had two nominal leaders and two helpers. They had taken the course before. Our group was one of three small groups. Group makeup seemed to be by age of the participants.
Hopefully, people will find my notes interesting and helpful. When I was first invited to take the course, along with my wife, I was happy to find at least one detailed account of an atheist's Alpha experience. This was the account of Stephen Butterfield in the UK.

But I am an American atheist, and my background is from Judaism. Also, my wife has a strong belief in Christianity. All of this gives me a different perspective on the course, and I am eager to share.

I did not intend at the outset to have a blog series on Alpha, but immediately I found it necessary to take notes and jot down impressions. Every week, I heard statements and arguments that were incredible. Yet, I felt like there was no outlet for me to question or challenge what was being said.

Should there have been such an outlet? I'm not sure, but I thought there would be one because the course was pitched as a way for people to get together to explore the "big questions." Here is a description from the Alpha web site:
Who Is Alpha For?
Alpha is for anyone…anyone who thinks there may be more to life than meets the eye.

People attend from all backgrounds, religions, and viewpoints. They come to investigate questions about the existence of God, the purpose of life, the afterlife, the claims of Jesus and more. Some people want to get beyond religion and find a relationship with God that really changes life. Others come for the close, long-lasting friendships that are built during the Alpha course.

Many guests have never been to church, others may have attended church occasionally but feel they have never really understood the basics of the Christian faith. Everyone is welcome.
My initial understanding was that the stuff about finding a relationship with God would be not as heavily pushed as it actually ended up being. Indeed, I soon learned that the primary aim of the course was to encourage and foster personal faith. We did not investigate--at least as I understand that word--the questions so much.

Over the next several weeks, I'll provide my notes on each session and additional commentary. I want to keep each post fairly light and brief. That is, I won't spend a lot of time refuting or challenging what I heard. What's the point? It's been done to death. Through brevity, I also want to protect the anonymity and privacy of the other people who participated in Alpha with me.

Everyone I met was very nice and seemingly open-minded, yet I was an outsider at Alpha and I remained one throughout. I was not always comfortable, and at times I was sad because I did not belong. That's a strange and awful feeling, to sense that you don't belong.

I'm interested to get reactions over the next few weeks. To me, it was ultimately worthwhile to take the course, if for nothing else then to be with my wife. I can't say I learned much that was new or surprising, except perhaps that people will accept extraordinary assertions. I dare say that given a similar environment, the obviously bullshit Gospel of Judas could have gotten a high level of acceptance in the group.


  1. Anonymous5:28 PM

    Looking forward to following along with your Alpha posts. I am a former Christian and helped lead Alpha courses for a while.

    There is another atheist-attending-Alpha blog series -here-. It's been a while since I've read them, but I remember enjoying them. Though they are probably more "done to death" than what you are planning.

  2. I've read through Butterfield's and also CelticBear's musings on the Alpha Course. I look forward to your perspective!

  3. I look forward to reading this series of reflections.

    Also, I should point out that the Gnostic Gospel of Judas is just as *bullshit* as any other, including the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All *bullshit*.

    Which is to say they are all largely untrue (but passed off as historically trustworthy), largely falsifiable (but ignored and passed off as historically reliable), and what's left being largely dubious (but it is pretended that there is no problem and that it's all still historically justifiable). Like I said, a ton of BS right there alone.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.