Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Alpha Course Overnight Getaway: A Reflective Interlude

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 III, The Aftermath
The long session of the evening was a remarkable experience. I was the only one who had declined to participate in the praying. I stood by my chair and observed the leaders as they put their hands on people and implored God/Jesus/Holy Spirit to come into the people's lives and to help or heal them. It was a lot of this kind of unburdening that was being asked for. Some of the people were emotional. Then the small prayer groups started, and again it was a lot of touching. I left the session drained from everything that had happened during the day.

Everything about the day had been choreographed: the sessions, the meals, the hike/free time, the extended worship. I don’t mean “choreographed” to sound critical, necessarily. Jewish prayers are similarly set up to lead the praying person to increasing levels of passion and focus. The idea is to work the penitent into the proper mindset, with worldly/vulgar distractions cleared away. Clearly, the Alpha playbook is to excite people over the course of the day and build them up to a mental/emotional freneticism by the time they get to appealing for the Holy Spirit to come.

I don’t make the connection with Judaism lightly. This whole Alpha Saturday reminded me of Yom Kippur day services. Gumbel has some Jewish background, so I wonder if there’s more to this connection. Regardless, this was an intense day, as it was designed to be. Is it a pressure environment? Is it a coercive environment? I think perhaps. I was the lone person to refuse a prayer. I was the only one, so far as I can tell, to look and observe not only the construction of the environment over time but the emotional endgame being played. If you were one who thought at all about being a Christian, you could hardly do anything except be swept away in the moment. You were guaranteed to feel as though something magical was happening.

Although I wasn’t swept away, my heart was racing. I was anxious as hell about what was going to happen. Were people going to break down? cry out? speak in tongues? We’re they going to approach me? What would I say? How would it be taken?

And why was I not swept away? Well, I was never sold on the arguments for the Holy Spirit, or Jesus, or God. I also remembered early on, even though it had no part later, that all of the assertions being made by Gumbel and the pastor people--no matter how congenial or nice the assertions were in their presentation and substance--were incapable of overcoming facts. Later, I recalled having felt similarly emotional at other times in my life. My wedding day, for instance, was the one time in my life I felt I might faint. So, my understanding of what happened was that some mentally/emotionally/physically tired people underwent an intense and anticipation-laden experience of joint excitement. I imagine that Scientology pairs come out of their sessions feeling as exhilarated as folks did on this night.

Next Time: The Day After


  1. There's a bumper sticker for you:

    "Religious faith: Incapable of overcoming facts."

  2. I think they do quite well with the first assault of this psychological attack, because that's what it is. A cynical construct designed with the single intent of emotional manipulation to make them believe and it does touch people in very understandable ways. They seem to think it does a good job of bringing in recruits but I believe their retention figures are pretty poor. Like all new infatuations, it doesn't take long for the rose tint to wash off the glasses and for things to go back to normal.


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