Friday, February 10, 2012

Alpha Course Overnight Getaway: Parting Is Sorrow

This is a special, mini-series within my larger series on the Alpha course. I am a Jewish-raised dude and now Gnu Atheist who has taken the Alpha Course along with my Christian wife. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Part IV, Final Thoughts
On the second day of the Alpha retreat, after the morning events and concluding pleasantries, my wife and I packed up and headed home. I left with mixed feelings about the whole getaway and about Alpha. Clearly, many people participating in Alpha had personal hurts and trials to work through. They saw the group and its Christianity as helpful, as “safe” places to be themselves.

The group is safe because everyone has the same shared experience of Jesus, God and Holy Spirit. One’s personal senses of failure, weakness, or shame become released in a controlled environment of love and support. I can talk about how selfish and anxious I really am, and my prayer partner will call to God on my behalf.

What’s more, the worship is more active and personally fulfilling. People are not simply singing and reciting stock prayers. They are not merely sheep led by a pastor. No, they come to invest themselves emotionally in the act of worship. They come to release passion and to exercise emotional muscles that they cannot in public or even in one’s family. This church is perhaps the one place on earth where they feel encouraged to surrender to their passions. They get to surrender to their passions without restraint, and to express them openly. And they get to do it in a group, thus making it “normal” behavior. The whole thing is probably quite healthy.

What is the triune god, really? It’s an elaborate metaphor for our personal psychodrama. It’s a general code of conduct, yes. It’s a call to do and say--or not do and not say--certain things. But mostly, I think, it’s a screen upon which one unfolds and inspects a tightly wound psyche. Besides religion, there is no grass-roots social mechanism for helping people connect face-to-face with a community of people who also feel screwed up in the world. God-language provides the vocabulary and concepts for capturing that screwed-up-ness.

But I have some reservations about the whole Alpha thing, and this overnight thing in particular. The friendly face of the course doesn’t hide some rather nasty views on homosexuality as immoral, on eternal damnation, and on the supposed goodness of God. As usual, I find God (and Jesus and the Spirit) superfluous. In principle, the personal sharing and healing could have happened without reference at all to God or Spirit or anything like that. Any group devoted to sharing and talking could have accomplished the same thing--talking about fears, self-doubts, and so on--with equal or better long-term success.

The orgiastic atmosphere of the evening witness event was just creepy. It was a lot of effort to get to a point where people could say “I’m afraid and I want to talk with someone.” And as I said before, none of what we heard or felt in the witness event overcame the facts that we have no evidence of God, no evidence supporting the divine and supernatural claims of the Bible, no evidence of the patriarchs, no evidence of the exodus, no evidence of Jesus, no evidence of miracles.

Most of all, though, I realized (or remembered) that I needed to stand together with my wife. I want to stand with her. She wants to be a Christian. Fine. It’s her life and her call. I’ll help her be the best damn Christian she can be. I don’t need to be a Christian myself. I don’t need to agree with her about Christianity, and I don’t need to say I agree. Regardless of what I think or don’t think about Christianity, I support her. I respect her. I will not do anything to violate her right to think for herself and to form her own opinions. Likewise with all the folks in my group. I will never stop being an atheist. I will never stop critiquing religious doctrine. But I do genuinely support the people.

It was a success, I think, that I “came out” as an atheist. I had never done this before in a face-to-face group setting. But it was a failure that there was not quite an environment created whereby a Christian-atheist dialogue could take place. I have said I don’t want to be a “token” atheist, but I am now out as a real atheist. I have claimed a place in my group, and I have forged bonds. It will be interesting to see if anything changes over the next few weeks.


  1. Great stuff. It's interesting to see how different your "getaway" experience was to mine. We didn't have the orgiastic atmosphere as such, but there was a definite deliberate attempt to induce a certain atmosphere in the group - which was 300 strong - so that the holy spirit would manifest itself, which it duly did.
    I made my atheism explicit from the start but I managed to keep it all quite friendly and by the end the group thanked me for my input. I was lucky I think - in other groups, I'd have probably been unbearable.

  2. My husband once sent me on this weekend Leadership course in Vegas that everyone at his work was just floored by. It was a completely secular course, but they used many of the same techniques/environmental set-up, to try squeeze the emotion out of people. Others seemed to be eating it up, but I couldn't get into it either. I think there's something about groupthink and semi-ritualistic behavior that I just find creepy, whether its attached to religion or not!

    I'm curious whether your wife is as supportive of your atheism as you are about her Christianity. e.g. does she read your blog?


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