Thursday, January 12, 2012

An Atheist Jew Does the Alpha Course: Week 4, How Can We Have Faith?

Alpha begins to resemble Bizarro World.
This is the fourth official installment in the Alpha course series, in which I recall my experiences as a Jewish-raised dude and now a Gnu Atheist who took the Alpha course with his Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

I was more alert entering into tonight's session because I was not sure how others in my group understood my perspective last week. Even today, I cannot tell whether at the time they thought I was a Christian with doubts, a Jew with questions, or an atheist bent on troublemaking.

In this uncertain context, tonight's session would confirm some of my thoughts about Alpha and about the group. I would learn why our small group had four leaders, people who had taken the course before and had had some training in participating as leaders. I would realize that the leaders were using techniques they had been taught as they conducted the class and contributed to small group discussions. And I would see and know what Alpha was really all about. Until tonight, I thought it was about inquiry. After tonight, I knew it was about evangelism.

My notes on the evening:
  • Chicken sausage and salad for dinner. Very good.
  • I thought someone would give me some questions at dinner, but I was wrong. No religious talk at the table.
  • A couple of songs played and sung by Carmen, with lights dimmed for mood.
  • Nicky Gumbel’s DVD talk was on how to have faith. 
    • His argument was that one could know and have faith in Jesus/God by:
      • Reading the Bible
      • Considering the death and resurrection of Jesus as historical events
      • Having the proper attitude and frame of mind
    • Gumbel also talked about being a Christian as being a follower of Jesus. 
      • Who determines who a follower is?
      • Can one be a follower and still think Jesus was OK in some respects but flawed in others?
    • Lots of emphasis on:
      • John's gospel, which of course is late and quite different from the synoptics. In fact, it is a wicked text.
      • Doctrinal teachings of Paul
    • So far, we are not answering “the big questions” but are rather being encouraged in the faith. This whole program is about helping folks become more sure of their faith and more religious.
  • Small group discussion started off with an ice-breaker. We went around with reactions to the talk and ideas about faith.
    • People talked about having conversations with Jesus/God, with coming to faith through prayer and so forth.
    • About 15-20 minutes in, the woo became too much for me and I asked why people felt that faith offered a “special sauce” to things they could do or get just as well without faith.
    • There was a comment on Christian values and such, as in why one would have any moral restraint at all if one wasn’t a Christian.
    • There was a comment on a morality derived from “survival of the fittest.”
    • It was recommended to me to read the Bible and how wonderful it would be. I mentioned that I have read the Bible many times.
    • I challenged the idea of Jesus having given a “free gift” because the consequences of not accepting the gift after the fact are H-E-L-L.
  • I am feeling irritated at being the “village atheist,” even if people don't yet get that I am an atheist. 
    • I have not said I am and no one has asked.
    • I'm also irritated that Alpha is about encouraging faith, not about exploring “big issues.” 
    • Everyone except me is looking for a reason and a way to accept the faith. 
I was soured enough on the session to send the following note to my wife:

Was thinking about something as I drove into work today.

I go to Alpha because I love you and want to be with you, and because I was invited by Carmen. I enjoy the people and the interaction, but I wonder if my presence will sooner or later become a nuisance.

Yesterday in small group, one woman encouraged me to read the Bible, and she made her statement in reference to what she imagined was my "struggle with faith." You of course know that I am not having any kind of struggle, but these folks don't. I would hate to have them think I attend Alpha either to achieve some sort of faith or to be a contrarian pest. I'm there for you and for the discussion (and for the food), and that's it. I'm not looking to buy Christianity or to sell not-Christianity.

I know that there are many more sessions to come, but so far it seems the purpose of Alpha is to encourage people in the faith. We have only skirted on addressing the "big questions." If faith-building is the main objective, I wonder if the group leaders and others would prefer that I not attend.

After all, I'm never going to be a Christian in their sense of the term, and I'm never going to conclude something radically different about gods and religions generally. I know what the texts are and how they were written. I know the historical questions and backdrops. I know the philosophies and the theologies. And I know the desires and fears that have always driven religious experience.

My point is that I can never be anything but an opponent to someone seeking faith or to a group trying to promote it. Scott, Karen, and Josh lead our group trying to get people to open themselves to faith. I'm "closed," of course, and so maybe they'd feel like they could better accomplish what they wanted if I were not there.

Now, I don't want to steer people away from faith. I don't even think I could do this if I wanted to. I don't care what people choose to believe. I care about facts, and I only feel like speaking when people play fast and loose with factual information.

I should also say that I enjoy being in the group and speaking up. I like to argue and to dialogue. I want to stay, but I understand if the group leaders feel as though my participation is going to jam them up or cloud matters for others.

So, could you please ask them--maybe through Karen--if they are comfortable with my continued participation? Are you comfortable?


This note was never sent, fortunately. But I pretty much shut up after this class--pretty much, not totally. I decided that my role in the group was only to support my wife and to correct any misapprehensions about atheists.

I figured out that group leaders had been instructed to let others in the group air out their thoughts, experiences, views, doubts, and so forth. They were not to engage in debate but rather to recount their personal experiences. When they spoke, they often related their first-hand experience. The tactic was clear: "You may doubt miracles, but I know what I saw with my own eyes." The tactic also helped people feel close to those who were opening themselves up publicly.

I think two other people have emerged as having some reservations. What's remarkable is that the trouble for them does not seem to be Christianity but rather their self-consciousness at not being as open to it as they feel they should be. This assessment is speculative, but I understand it. I have posted here about how I once felt like my agnosticism was my fault and that I should be a better, more consistently-believing Jew.

Ironically, after writing the note to my wife and concluding about my role in the group and course, I settled down and just started to observe. From turmoil came solace. That's about the time I began to think about possibly posting my experiences. The experiences would start to get ever more bizarre.

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