Following my recent attendance at ‘An Atheist on the Alpha Course’ presentation at Winchester Skeptics group by Simon Clare, I have done a bit more research and reflection. He acknowledged in passing that some Christians did not think much of the course as they thought it oversimplified orthodox (small ‘o’) Christian doctrine. From my limited researches, this seems to be so, up to a point.
A Google search found amongst other observations on Alpha the following item.
http://www.deceptioninthechurch.com/alpha.html under the not very cryptical banner ‘deception in the church’. This thoughtful essay by Tricia Tillin speaks of ‘post-Christian neo-mysticism’ and warns of the dangers of the so called Toronto Blessing which seems to have profoundly influenced Nicky Gumbel, the man most associated with the development and roll out of Alpha. I have seen the ‘Toronto Blessing’ and it sucks. There is some half hearted approval of Alpha which as acknowledged (as reported by Simon Clare) does present the message of Christ’s death for our sins, but asks (A) why do we need to ‘buy in’ Alpha to do this, and (B) what excess baggage comes with it?
‘Alpha certainly starts by preaching the Gospel; the first three talks on video one focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the three talks on video two cover fundamental steps for new Christians, such as ‘How can I be sure of my faith?’, ‘Why and how should I read the Bible?’ and ‘Why and how should I pray?’ are all good. but as the course progresses, some of the talks tend to wander of into lengthy accounts of HTB’s (Holy Trinity Brompton) experiences of the Toronto Blessing and associates ministries, novel exegeses of various Biblical passages common among pro-Toronto preachers, all of which are less than helpful, to say the least, to potential Christians.
Clearly the aim is to bring as many into God’s Kingdom as possible but by the end of the course I cannot help feeling that the Toronto Blessing may have been the greater beneficiary.’
Tillin offers the story of a woman who left a church and set up a group meeting in her own home because she refused to ‘..snort like a pig and bark like a dog.‘ This reminded me of the notorious 1960 anti Christian film ‘Elmer Gantry’ which as the Wikipedia (linked) article describes, concerns ‘..a con man and a female evangelist selling religion to small town America.’ Incidentally, how many folks today know what ‘the sin of simony’ is? More about simony later. I remember being profoundly disturbed by this film which I watched on TV as a child. Since this kind of perversion exists (and always has) I wish someone had explained it to me, but growing up in a Catholic home, all Protestantism was equally of the devil in my father’s eyes. All I was ever told about it was that it was wrong.
‘This article takes a very cautious view of the Alpha Course. We do recognise however that the Alpha Course has been a tremendous help to many Christians. Many people have come to faith in Jesus Christ though it. Many more have been strengthened in their faith and knowledge of God’s Word through it.’
So why the concerns? because, as they go on to say
‘The problem is that the Alpha Course can be very different depending on the church/organization that is using it. In the hands of a solidly evangelical teacher, the Alpha Course can be excellent. In the hands of someone trying to push beliefs and practices that are biblically questionable, the Alpha Course can be used to indoctrinate and mislead.’
That seems to fit in well with Simon Clare’s criticisms. The ‘Got Questions?’ article goes on to succinctly chronicle some of the doubtful to false doctrines and questionable practices of Alpha, while stressing (as do other commentators) that much good Christian truth is at the heart of Alpha and that the content and tone of the course depends very much on who is leading it.
The final paragraph states
”Again, as with any course or teaching, we must be diligent and discerning. We must diligently study God’s Word on our own and reject anything which contradicts the Bible. We must be discerning in evaluating the qualifications of the person or people teaching the course.”
the cartoon below depicts the decidedly dodgy revivalist Todd Bentley.
In a useful discussion on the gift of tongues the Biblical phenomenon of speaking in tongues (described particularly in Acts chapter 2) and the modern phenomenon of glossolalia. I was involved in the latter during my time in a Charismatic church and I am now quite certain that it was a learned behaviour encouraged by the leadership which had to do with religious enthusiasm and group identity. As a line from a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee classic ‘Sporting life blues’ goes ‘I was young and foolish, and easy led astray.’ I don’t it was either the Holy Spirit or the devil, I think it was emotional manipulation among mostly young Christian people who were hungry for a manifestation of God and religious excitement who found this sort of thing much more to their taste than boring old Bible study, prayer and sound doctrine. See 2 Timothy 4:3. I had reached this conclusion independently and abandoned the practice of glossolalia some years before hearing Simon Clare, but still found it painful to hear someone washing this particular item dirty linen in public. It has to be owned up to, but also put in context.
So, was Simon Clare telling the truth about the Alpha Course?
Yes and no. Credit to him, he was open about his atheism and desire to turn people away from God and Christ, converting them to atheism. However, that doesn’t detract from any faults he has found with Alpha. He is not the first to have found these faults, they are documented in the 2 links I have posted above, many more critical views from within the wider Christian church can be found. The church I am now committed to runs its own ‘Introduction to Christianity’ courses which absolutely do not rely on the kind of ‘cheap stage magic’ that Clare rightly deplores. So ‘An Atheist on the Alpha Course’ perhaps isn’t quite the big news story it might be seen as. Nor was it entirely representative of all Alpha courses everywhere, and nor am I going to condemn Alpha out of hand. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:2 ‘I have become all things to all men so that by all means I might save some.’ and that by the way is not an endorsement of any form of dishonesty or misrepresentation, for Paul wrote later to the same audience ‘We are not like so many peddlers of God’s word, but with sincerity we preach the word of Christ with God watching us’ (2 Corinthians 2:17.)
One thing I noted Clare say was that Jesus had some very good things to say, but only as judged against Clare’s ‘humanism’. But what exactly is ‘humanism’? Presumably a godless philosophy, one among many. Clare was quite clear about his belief in big bang cosmology and molecules to man evolution and that we were coming from nowhere and going to nothing. He also stated his belief, consistent with Dawkins (whom he said was a hero) that we have no free will but followed biological determinism. In that materialist context, what of humanism or any other philosophy? Can it be any more than a personal preference, a meme? Perhaps just as good or bad and as based on emotionalism and group thinking as the worst excesses Simon Clare criticises in the Alpha Course.
Who is Simon Clare to judge the moral worth of Jesus, or indeed of anyone, according to an abstract standard of his own preference? This seems to me an attempt to put a pseudo Christian gloss on the nihilism/hedonism that absolute materialism logically implies. Pure materialism is not a very attractive creed to live by.
I may return to this reflection later but now need to get breakfast and go to the orchard to split some logs. Oh yes the sin of simony….you can read about it in Acts chapter 8. Simon Magus was (apparently) a Christian convert who offered the Apostles money in return for spiritual power, that he could use to make more money. He was severely rebuked by the Apostle Peter. He gave his name to the sin of simony which is about using religion as a means of making profit. This heinous sin is referred to several times in the New Testament. 1 Peter ch 2 vss 1-3 describes false teachers ‘who will exploit you (KJV- will make merchandise of you) with deceptive words’, also Mathew 7 :5 where Jesus says ‘Beware of false prophets, they come to you in sheep’s clothing but inside are ravening wolves’ and as Paul said when he was leaving a church he had established and built up in Ephesus ‘For this I know, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.’ Many other similar warnings could be added. This isn’t new, indeed it has often been said that one of the things that adds credibility to the Bible is its unflinching depiction of the weaknesses and failings of most of its heroes.
So, the New Testament is quite clear that false teachers and exploiters will arise attempting to destroy the church from within, some of them totally wicked, others merely misled to greater or lesser degrees. That is why Christians need to watch and pray at all times, as Jesus commanded. A Sovereign God can use opponents of Christianity like Simon Clare to point this out if church leaders are failing in their duty to do so.
I wrote this the day after seeing the film, been busy, just finished editing and posted.
There are 2 films showing at the moment about the creation of humanoid robots/androids with artificial intelligence (AI). I saw one ‘Ex Machina’ last night and saw the trailer for the other ‘Chappie’. I don’t feel inclined to watch ‘Chappie’, which looked from the trailer pretty much a remake of ‘Short circuit’. In both cases, the AI creation was described as being ‘the next stage in evolution’. This use of language is worthy of comment.
Of course, there is a long history in science fiction and fantasy writing and film making of robots/androids who are very clever and can think and hold conversations. Without taxing myself I can think of Robbie the robot in the seminal sci-fi classic ‘Forbidden planet’ from around 1955, Isaac Asimov’s ‘I, Robot’, Marvin the paranoid android from Douglas Adams’ great sci-fi spoof ‘The Hitch hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, the cute little robots in ‘Silent Running’ and ‘Wall-E’ which was undoubtedly derivative of Silent Running. There are many others, including an oblique reference to artificial sex partners in C S Lewis’s ‘fairy tale for grown ups’ ‘That Hideous Strength’. So ‘Ex Machina’ is very much the latest twist on an old genre.
I appreciate sci fi and fantasy, and like any other fan I know full well that one has to willingly suspend disbelief when profoundly implausible technologies are deployed in the interest of good storytelling. So I won’t bother with a full technical review of the things on the film which obviously wouldn’t work in real life. But it was interesting in a brief chat with friends after the film how many thought that we might be no more than decades away from artificial intelligence. For pity’s sake, while we have rulers making insane political and economic decisions that doom nations it would be nice to have a bit more intelligence in live humans. I digress (but not much).
Caution plot spoilers
Ex Machina is a visually stunning and very watchable film despite there being only 3 main characters. 95% of the action takes place in or just outside the astonishing mainly subterranean home of the fabulously wealthy inventor Nathan which is located 2 hours helicopter ride in a mountainous wilderness. The mountains, glacier and river provide beautiful backdrops to several fascinating conversations.
Nathan lives there apparently alone with a female servant whom we are told speaks no English for security reasons. The young programmer from Nathan’s vast IT/mobile phone company wins a trip to the bosses home, but finds he has been brought there to carry out a ‘Turing test’ on the android, to see if she can really pass for human through interaction.
It seems that the android Ava has indeed acquired intelligence, a personality, and during a power outage that she has deliberately caused ( to disable the cameras that record their conversations) she confides to Caleb that ‘Nathan is not your friend’. It becomes clear that she wants to live and be free and suspects that she is going to be terminated. Her actions to prevent this deliver some very clever plot developments. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the plot.
The film is amongst other things a vehicle for philosophical ideas about who we are as humans and what intelligence, humanity, consciousness, freedom and love are. I was struck by the faith expressed in Ex Machina that clever men will soon, ‘inevitably’ as Nathan says, create intelligent androids. ‘Not if, but when.‘Nathan suggests that the future belongs to AI (think of the ’Terminator’ and ‘Matrix’ series of films) and that future AI beings ‘..will look back on humans as we look back on African ancestors using stone tools on the plains of Africa.’
All very deterministic, materialistic and evolutionary. This makes a kind of sense within a materialistic context. If we evolved from space dust via pond slime andwithout meaning or consequence and simply cease at death, then why would it matter if we humans were displaced by AI beings and rendered extinct? If we reject the Creator God and instead accept as a certain fact that we got here by a series of accidents (random mutations acting on natural selection in a struggle for life in which the strong eat the weak) then this will inevitably affect our world view, the things we think, and how we live and act.
I think the film understates the problems of creating an artificial brain by many, many, many orders of magnitude. On one level, OK-its only a film, category science fantasy. But on another level, when we see a flying horse or talking mouse as in C S Lewis’ Narnia stories we know we are watching fantasy, while this comes over as real. Film
s like Ex Machina present us with the prospect that creating a living humanoid is a realistically possible scientific achievement. Perhaps this is supposed to make it emotionally easier for folks to accept that life is nothing special and could have evolved, but even on that levels its nonsense, since what we see here is top end intelligent design (and beyond implausible at that.)
A watchable and thoughtful film, but one whose message needs to be evaluated in the light of the prevailing evolutionist assumptions that shape the world view of so many of us. If as I am convinced those assumptions are utterly false, then building our dreams and even basing our fears on them will lead us badly astray.
The MSM (main stream media) is buzzing today with talk about a 52 page open letter by the English bishops ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Reactions vary, but most of what I heard reported or scanned on a brief Google was mild to moderate disapproval, whether from Conservatives who feel misrepresented, misunderstood and got at, or from the general public who find the Church boring and irrelevant. Labour supporters and those who think that the message of Jesus was essentially ‘Be nice to each other and set up a generous Welfare State’ were most positive
There is a link to the letter from the BBC item linked to below.
I have read the full letter and what struck me most about it was its insufferable blandness. The tone is of damp social democracy and an attempt to induce guilt in anyone thinking of voting Conservative or (Giles Frazer forbid) UKIP. If they wanted to encourage people to vote Labour because they believe that big tax, big government and redistribution are Christian imperatives, why couldn’t they just say so? (and of course prove their case from Scripture). Likewise, if they believe in unilateral nuclear disarmanent, as the letter suggests, why don’t they just say so? Likewise, if they believe in open ended immigration, why not say so plainly rather than drop bland hints about ‘scapegoating’ and ‘community cohesion’?
Instead of anything distinctively Christian, we have 52 pages of bland waffle, with the official English Church’s name on it. It reads like an essay from a Guardian reading liberal lady curate with a sociology degree who is trying to be generally encouraging and uplifting without saying anything precise enough to offend anyone. The main impression is of a half hearted attempt to induce guilt in anyone who still believes in the so called Protestant Work Ethic. A trumpet blast calling for national repentance, it aint.
I am definitely not against Christian leaders speaking into national politics, far from it-although their main work is and must always be calling sinners to repentance, faith and Christian discipleship. To be fair, this does happen-and is not much reported as the MSM prefers controversy. However, if the C of E is going to sally forth into national politics, among subjects on which it might legitimately have a view and on which the letter is silent (unless I missed them in which case may i be corrected) are
-the persecution of Christians world wide, and their growing State-sponsored harrassment in Britain (as exemplified in the Leslie Pilkington and Ashers’ bakery cases)
-gambling (helping to keep poor folks poor)
-the cruel effects of supermarket cartels on milk farmers (Fair Trade begins at home)
-abortion and other harms resulting from sexual libertinism
-the continuing destruction of lifelong monogamous marriage including so called same sex marriage
-the manifold and demonstrable harms to children growing up in fatherless households (apart from a brief mention of ‘single parents’ in the context of saying they should be given more free money at the taxpayers’ expense)
-over regulation and other harmful effects on small business (a bedrock of liberty)
-the growing move towards legal mercy killing
-the debate about legalising cannabis and other harmful recreational drugs
-free speech including freedom to question, even insult, ALL religions and secularist viewpoints
-evolutionist and sexual libertarianist indoctrination in schools
Now there’s some stuff in there that WOULD cause real offence, but better to offend (for the right reasons) than to bore people comatose with bland waffle.
What offends me about this letter most is not its assumption that big government tax and spend policies are the default position for a Christian, (which by the way, if you read the Bible rather than The Guardian, they aren’t) but its squandering of the Church’s accumulated (but diminishing) stock of credibility on something so indistinguishable from a Guardian editorial. The more often the C of E comes out with this sort of banal expedition into general national politics, the less validity it will be seen as having when saying something distinctively Christian-for example-repent of your adulteries, murders, idolatries and thefts (Revelation 9:21).
Visited the Museum of Natural History in Oxford yesterday, while in town for a 36 hour trip centred on the William Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean.
The Oxford MNH is very well worth a visit despite the predictable Darwin worship. I may post in more detail about that when I have time. I am sometimes criticised by evolutionists for arguing against the supposed evidences of evolution I was indoctrinated with at school for A level zoology in the 1970s, when there is supposed to be much more sophisticated evidence these days. So I have heard, but in fact the exhibition about evolution and Darwin in the Oxford MNH (being viewed by various school parties yesterday) is still very much centred on those supposed evidences, including the pitiful Peppered Moth story.
In a large display on the peppered moth, there was no mention of the now well known fraud by the original researcher Kettlewell during his fiddled experiments-which included glueing moths to tree trunks to be photographed, but ignoring in any event the fact (obvious to me as a 17 year old) that all we were seeing here was a cyclical shuffling in gene frequency with nothing new being created.
There was another display about pigeons, showing several different varieties. The fact that these are all still very much 100% pigeons and nothing else is ignored.
You can shuffle pigeon genes for as long as you like, but they always remain pigeons. You can’t even breed them into a different kind of bird, its pigeons forever. The same is true for dogs, apples, carp and people. Darwin’s most fundamental error was to observe that trivial variations within a species existed and that some conditions favoured some previously existing forms (as with his classic grass square experiment, a very good bit of science as far as it went) and made the gigantic leap of faith to believing that all life forms were descended ‘by numerous, successive, gradual adaptations’ from a common ancestor which presumably assembled itself in ‘a warm little pond’ as he put it in a letter to Huxley.
He never had any repeatable observations to support the idea that one species could become another, even refused to define a species. His ‘theory’ was nothing but a great leap of imagination. But a godless origins story was what people like the anti-clerical T E Huxley WANTED to hear-as Dawkins wrote in ‘Blind Watchmaker’ ‘Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist’ . I submit that was and remains the primary reason for the widespread acceptance and protection of evolutionism from the normal process of criticism and falsification. The legend became the orthodox reality, which is even protected from criticism by law in our education system.
Darwin Day, 12th February, has not exactly taken off as a national celebration, at ;least not here in England 2015. But in the post-apocalyptic 2089 as imagined in my novel ‘Darwin’s Adders: A Chronicle of Pagan England 2089′ The Greatest Scientist Of All Time is honoured as a prophet and a god………
This morning we hear that hardware chain B&Q (where I frequently shop) is getting in extra stocks of ropes, chains and other stuff that can be used for bondage sex, in anticipation of the launch of the ’50 shades of Grey ‘ film this week. More worryingly, staff have been asked to read the book or see the film so they can help customers who are buying stuff to act out the bondage scenes in the film.
I haven’t read ‘50 Shades of Grey’ and I never will. That immediately brings me to a snide letter I read in the Guardian some 30 years or so ago after the late Mary Whitehouse had attacked the stage play ‘The Romans in Britain’ as it had a scene of simulated male rape. The writer put it ‘I don’t know what Mary Whitehouse said about ‘The Romans in Britain’ without having seen it, but whatever it was, it was disgusting.‘ A clever comment but not one that bears much scrutiny, since there was never any doubt about the depiction of male rape on stage. What Mary Whitehouse was opining was that such things were unsuitable for public view. I don’t agree with her that this play should have been censored. This is not the place for a balanced appraisal of Mary Whitehouse’s work, but I will say that I admire her courage and commitment, if not always her judgment. Anyhow, I have picked enough up from the MSM and read a review of 50 Shades in ‘Christianity Today’ and feel that’s all I need to know. So do I have the right to say anything about the book, shortly to be released as a blockbuster film, and on Valentine’s Day?
I certainly don’t want it banned, since I want free speech for myself I must accept it for others. And I’m not going to add a ‘but…’ about free speech at this moment at this point. We Christians have put up with ‘Piss Christ’, ‘Last Temptation..’ Jerry Springer the Opera and all the rest. Jesus will defend His own honour at the appointed time. But I feel like making a few comments about the wisdom and indeed safety of saturating our society with pornography. How do we define the word? Are all depictions of nudity or sex in art or literature unacceptable? What about depictions of violence? Are there any potential harms from this kind of ‘art’, and if so what protection should be in place to minimise harm? We hear of a disturbing trend of sexual assaults on young girls by young boys who, it is argued, have been inappropriately sexualised by internet pornography.
I confess to having voluntarily viewed pornography. I am not going to say when I last viewed porn except that it was a number of years ago and that I am ashamed. I remember aged about 14 seeing some hard core Scandinavian porn a friend had smuggled back after a school orchestra trip,. He hid the magazines in his tuba. There was also a ‘novel’, under the imprint ‘Keyhole Classics’. I’m not going to describe it even in outline for the simple reason that I have memories of what I read and saw 45 years later and I would rather not have those memories, so I will not risk passing them on. And thereby hangs a tale.
As a teenager, I was exposed to filthy jokes, football chants and various other stuff which IS STILL IN MY BRAIN 45 YEARS LATER. If the stuff is still in my head and pops up into my consciousness unexpectedly, it must be part of the neural programming that makes up my personality and way of looking at the world. It must have to some extent shaped my view of women. You are what you eat-rubbish in rubbish out is true of computers, and if so, then my brain, and yours too Dear Reader, shares many aspects of a supercomputer. If we are not influenced by stuff we read, see and hear, then why is there a multi billion pound advertising industry?
I read something by Hans Eysenck, inventor of the IQ test-clever guy and not known for being a Christian fundamentalist wacko like me. He looked at the effect of pornography and concluded, as far as his researches went, that most people who imbibe pornography are not measurably changed by it, but a few are. Eysenck, as I recall, saw peoples’ behaviour on a bell curve, with most people somewhere in the middle and some at each extreme. If exposure to pornography tilts men’s attitude and behaviour towards women a few degrees to the left, then a few people at one extreme end of the curve may be tilted over into wanting to act out sexual assault. Of course, this won’t be the case for most.
No kid needs to smuggle hard core porn home from Sweden in a tuba-porn beyond the wildest dreams of a horny 1970s teenager is available on Smartphones. I used to listen to Radio Caroline under my bed sheets at night-9 year olds can now watch explicit hard core sex. This has never happened before. What will be the effect? We don’t know, so its a massive uncontrolled experiment.
I may add a few more reflections on porn later, getting ready to go out now, but feel that the question should be asked ‘How do we know that the widespread availability of explicit sexual material is not harmful? How would we test the hypothesis that it will inculcate harmful attitudes and behaviours? What if there are harmful effects on the development of particularly young men that will not become apparent for decades?
How can we test the effects on society of normalising and ubiquitising pornography, including bondage and S&M? Or is it OK to run a mass uncontrolled experiment, as long as some people are satisfying their urges and others are making money? We certainly can’t do a randomised prospective controlled double-blind trial, it would take 30years or more and it would sadly be impossible to find a control group that never used porn. If researchers would find such a group, they would be so unrepresentative of the general population as to nullify them as a control. But if it does turn out in 20 years or so that open access to hard core porn from a young age turns out a high proportion of men who are not satisfied with the ordinary conventional love of one woman, and that this has a catastrophic effect on families and therefore society, it will be too late.
An atheist on the Alpha course
This post is rather long at nearly 3,000 words, but it was a very intense evening touching on a lot of important issues, so I have written quite a lot. I haven’t exhausted my notes and could have written more. You have no obligation to read any of it!
On Wednesday 29th January 2015 I attended a meeting of the Winchester Skeptics Society held at The Discovery Centre, Winchester. It was my first main meeting of the society, although I had been to a coffee and chat after another meeting.
The following is part 1 of a write up and criticism of the meeting. This is the write up, I will write and post a separate essay criticising it later once this has been on my blog for a week or so to give the speaker a chance to respond. I aim to be as accurate as I can be in setting down an account of what was said from the notes I made on the night. Where I have put the speaker’s words in parentheses, I am quoting verbatim or near-verbatim. I have not covered everything that was said but tried to make a fair summary.
First I should say that I am an Evangelical Christian who has not been on an Alpha course but has heard a lot about the course and know many people, including my wife Julia, who have. I was a member of a charismatic style of church for some years that employed the alpha course, but I never felt the need or inclination to go on it. My feelings about Alpha before the meeting were generally positive, but I have no brief or interest in defending the course. I hope that I went with an open mind, while being fully aware of all of our tendencies to bring various items of baggage and mind set assumptions with us wherever we go, and in fact to deceive ourselves about how objective we really are.
As the proverb goes,
‘There’s nowt so queer as folk, except thee and me. And I’m not so sure about thee.’
or in modern parlance
‘I have a completely open mind and follow the facts and evidence wherever they lead, you are somewhat subjective, he is a deluded fundamentalist beyond the reach of reasoned argument.’
The speaker was Simon Clare from Brighton, an ‘agnostic atheist’ as he described himself. He went on the Alpha course out of curiosity and (as it slipped out later) to see if he could convert any Christians to atheism. He began the evening by asking if there were any Alpha course organisers present (there weren’t) as he liked them to be there in order to vouch for the accuracy of what he said. ‘I only want to share the truth with you’. There were about 100 people there by my rough estimation, there is a photo on Simon’s blog (I’m in it, on the far right, head down and scribbling notes).
I will say this in Simon Clare’s favour: he said that he had gone on the Alpha course as a convinced atheist and, if I understood him rightly, with somewhat stereotyped views of ‘people of faith’, whom he also took to have stereotyped views of atheists. Actually meeting and conversing with them, he came to realise that his assumptions about why people come to and persist in faith were too simplistic and that there were as many reasons for people being Christians as there were people, or words to that effect. I thought this was wise, thoughtful and helpful of him, and it made me reflect that I probably tend to oversimplify atheists in my arguments. Perhaps its is understandable that one’s response may be crude or uncharitable when an internet atheist is calling you an ignorant brainwashed moron who has a fetish about a magic man in the sky and believes in bronze age fairy tales because you are too stupid to understand science and can’t deal with the reality of extinction at death etc. But I hope in future to live up to the high standards of respect for one’s opponents as set out my Mr Clare, even if I can’t entirely forswear sarcasm.
The history of the course was discussed. As is well known, it began at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, initially in 1977 as a ‘refresher for established Christians’ but became more of an outreach tool. The course was transformed and revitalised under the control of Nicky Gumbel a trained barrister and Anglican minister. It has since gone global and mainstream, moving from being something on the fringes to being ‘central to the C of E’s method of spreading the word.‘ It has spread from its Anglican origins to most churches, and has had something like 15 to 20 million attendees in 160 countries, being very big in China and India (which held 20,000 courses in 2010, up from 20 in 2007), and also many UK prisons. Simon Clare lamented that prisoners were unlikely to be offered a ‘humanist’ course.
The course is somewhat respectable: Prime Minister David Cameron has mentioned the Alpha course in prisons in his Easter address, and Nicky Gumbel is a friend of Archbishop Justin Welby, who was at Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). The two of them have been to see the Pope and the Roman catholic church has adapted a version of Alpha which finds a place for Mary the mother of Jesus.
75% of Alpha attendees are aged 18-35 and although in Britain Alpha is largely attended by established Christians, whether committed or on the fringes, in some parts of the world (I think he said New England) a third of new conversions to Christian faith were via the course. So, Alpha is big, established and still growing. Mr Clare told the audience that ‘It might surprise you that it is so big given some of the content.’
Mr Clare said that he ‘Went on an Alpha course to see if my atheism, which was pretty fundamental, could resist the best that he church could throw at me.‘ He told us that ‘Richard Dawkins is my hero’ and he had got the polemicist to sign his Alpha ticket, which he showed us a photo of.
Simon attended an Alpha course at St Peter’s, a church in Brighton which had apparently faced closure but had been rescued by a ‘church plant’ of enthusiastic Christians, as I recall with some assistance from HTB. He said ‘HTB is a rich church, they seem to grow vicars in test tubes.’ St Peters was now ‘packed out with young Christians multiple times on Sundays.’ He mentioned that it was a very active church which offered a soup kitchen, marriage and addiction support groups and a food bank. lots of things to do, lots of ways for people to get drawn in and involved. He admired this social aspect of church and lamented the failure of humanists, so far, to rival it, for example with the Sunday Assembly in Brighton which he had been involved in but left, for reasons he discusses on his blog.
He said that he liked the format and felt that humanists could learn from it. Attendees were met and greeted by 3 people and put in groups of about 10. He described the people as ‘lovely’ and mentioned that the course was free (apart from residential weekends which cost something, although bursaries were available for those who really couldn’t afford it)-you could contribute a few pounds for food if you wanted to.
He mentioned the singing of hymns-it was at this point that he realised that almost everyone on the course was an established Christian/regular churchgoer or at least cultural Christian. He didn’t think much of the hymns, describing some as having ‘…ear worm choruses and words even Christians should be offended by.’
Everyone gets a hand book, and in every group of 10, 3 are ‘staff’ i.e. church regulars and/or members of the Alpha team.
After the hymns, there was a talk/sermon which was [primarily about Jesus. He described the primary message as being along the lines of ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, but sin gets in the way, so God sent Jesus to die on the cross for your sins. All you have to do to appropriate all the goodness that God intends for you is to accept that Jesus died on the cross for your sins.‘ (my paraphrase/summary). He said that he heard the message being put that God had done this for us because ‘we deserve it’. (*) He described the content of the talks getting ‘stranger and stranger’ as the course progressed.
He found the format overall very good, with much in it that atheists/secularists/humanists could emulate, although obviously with very different content. His favourite bits were the discussions ‘I loved them’ he said. ‘This was something Alpha does really, really well…three quarters of an hour to have quality conversations about the big subjects.‘ He found it stimulating to talk with people who have different views, and then perhaps go down the pub afterwards for a continuation. On Simon’s own blog he says to visitors ‘Bored with outrage. If you listen, I’ll listen’ which sounds pretty good.
After 10 weeks course attendees had to decide whether to carry on, i.e. become regular attenders at the church, or stop coming- in which case they would lose the group of friends they had become engaged with over the last 10 weeks or so. It was at this point that Mr Clare seemed to begin developing the main payload of his presentation, that Alpha rather than being an honest way of unpacking and explaining the historical and eternal verities of the Christian faith was primarily about using psychology and reprehensible mind tricks to get people hooked. This would become the principal theme of his presentation, and I note that it forms a big part of his blog too.
The first 3 week’s themes were Jesus, God and The Holy Spirit (whom Clare referred to as ‘it’ throughout). He described the sessions on The Holy Spirit as ‘where it starts getting really weird.‘ He spoke about stories of dreams, ‘words of knowledge’, claimed supernatural healings and ‘tricks that stage psychics use.‘ He said this was the first thing that really upset him, comparing the way that supposed/reported/pretended supernatural happenings were encouraged and talked about was in the same league as ‘People like Derren Brown and people worse than Derren Brown’ employed to work gullible audiences.
He said ‘They talk about good humanist things (his phrase-SH) that Jesus said, then try to trick you with cultist tricks like miraculously unblocked tear ducts.’ He compared this sort of thing to spiritualist séances and stage illusionist trickery.
Discussing the session which asked the question ‘Who is Jesus?’, Mr Clare said ‘Jesus is real’. The Alpha course discussed that the earliest known New Testament documents went back to well within 100 years of the death of Jesus, whereas documents such as Julius Caesar’s history of the Gallic wars were far fewer in number and were dated at more like 600 years after Caesar’s life. Reputable historians were quite happy to cite this work as historically authoritative, even if probably somewhat biased, so why not the NT? He seemed amused by the claim that the existence of large numbers of New Testaments from early on was significant and managed to get some people in the audience to laugh at this alleged non sequitur.
The question was raised by the Alpha presenter as to ‘how we could have faith’. To illustrate this, a 2 minute animated cartoon was shown about the tightrope performer Blondin, who walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, performing various feats like cooking and eating an omelette half way across. After taking a sack of potatoes in a wheelbarrow across the rope before a huge audience, Blondin asked a dignitary and then the crowd if they believed that he could take a person across the Falls in a wheelbarrow. They agreed that he could. He then asked for a volunteer. Nobody would dare try it, until a little old lady came forward. Blondin took her across safety. She was his mother, the cartoon told us, and she had faith in him because she knew him.
After letting this sink in, Mr Clare dropped his bombshell. Not only had Blondin never taken any person across the Falls, but his mother had been dead for some years at the time in question. He concluded that not only was Alpha using an falsehood (whether deliberately or though ignorance) but also a rotten analogy since Blondin had demonstrated that he could perform astonishing feats of balance, which was not comparable with faith in God, ‘..that thing that may or may not exist.‘ as Clare put it.
This story from the Alpha course certainly underlined Simon Clare’s claim that Alpha ‘is often criticised by Christians for having very unsophisticated theology.’ He left it a little unclear whether, the historical inaccuracy having been pointed out, the cartoon was still being widely used.
Taking a punctuation stop at this point, Mr Clare repeated his heartfelt desire that ‘..there was something like the Alpha course without God for humanists’ (**)
Returning to the subject of The Holy Spirit, our speaker again derided the methods used on the course which he caricaturised as saying ‘The reason we know this (i.e. the Christian faith-SH) is true is that we can conjure God into the room now, like cultists.’ he went on, in his own voice to say ‘..when we analyse the universe, it is wonderful and magical…we don’t need these cheap party tricks.’
He discussed ‘words of knowledge’ which he described as being the same sort of crowd-working emotional/psychological trickery that a psychic would use. The Alpha leader would claim something like ‘When you are talking to God and praying, sometimes a word of knowledge will come to you’ and gave the example of someone claiming that they had ‘received a word of knowledge’ that someone in the audience had foot trouble, or money trouble. He described this as ‘complete nonsense’ and said that the words of Jesus were wonderful enough to stand on their own and ‘don’t need this embellishment’ and that by trying to use emotion (pretended or imagined supernatural communications and healings) the church was ‘shooting itself in the foot.’
I was saddened at this since I have been in church settings where I saw this sort of emotional manipulation in use. No use denying it happens at times and places, there are appalling examples on YouTube, Google for example Todd Bentley. I will discuss what the New Testament says about this sort of thing, and how representative this is of mainstream Christianity-or even the Alpha course- in part 2 of my reflections on this evening.
It felt uncomfortable to hear the church’s, or some sections of the Church’s, dirty laundry being aired in public here. But one must give Simon Clare his due-he may have been being selective and, like a prosecuting lawyer, making the accused sound as bad as possible while playing down any good aspects, but even if this was a biased presentation he clearly wasn’t making any of this up. The only remedy to alleged misrepresentation is to hear both sides of the case.
He described a meeting at which Nicky Gumbel used emotion and music to get people ‘singing in tongues’. He showed us a passage in the course leaders’ manual which offered the phrase ‘Only last week in this place, someone was praying for someone else in tongues and it turned out to be Arabic!’. Beside this in the margin was the advice to the presenter ‘Use this example or substitute one of your own.’ Mr Clare rightly pointed out that, regardless of whether the claim about Arabic tongues had ever been true or not, it would clearly be unacceptable for someone to use this example if they did not know it was true. It is impossible to disagree with him on this point.
In response to the final audience question Mr Clare became somewhat animated as he mentioned that people on the Alpha course seemed to believe in an actual supernatural malignant intelligence, i.e. the Devil or Satan. This belief upset him very much. But earlier he had been telling us what a jolly good fellow the historical Jesus was, the same Jesus who was so often on about that very same Satan, calling him ‘…the father of lies.’ amongst other things. I imagine Mr Clare has seen the film ‘The Usual Suspects’ in which Kevin Spacey’s character ‘Verbal’ Kint says ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was getting people to believe he didn’t exist.’ I’ll finish for now at that point.
Anyway, there’s my imperfect and incomplete write up of ‘An Atheist on the Alpha Course’. I appreciated the evening if I can’t say I enjoyed it, and I applaud Simon Clare’s stated aims of telling the truth, asking and trying to answer difficult questions, listening and reasoning respectfully with people of diametrically opposite beliefs. I aspire to all those aims, even if, weak as I am, I do not always succeed. I am rather busy at present but will try to write and post part 2 of this review in 2 weeks or so, in which I will discuss what I see as Mr Clare’s errors and omissions.
(*) I will address this profound theological misunderstanding/error in the second part of this discussion. I am quite clear that Simon Clare used the term ‘deserve’, whether he was reporting this accurately or he misremembered, it is not what the Bible teaches. Biblical Christian theology is absolutely clear that we do NOT deserve the love of God, see for example Romans 6:23 ‘For the wages (i.e. just deserts) of sin is death, but the free gift of God is everlasting life in Christ Jesus.’ The point was made by both him and questioners from the floor that many Christians felt that Alpha propounded a shallow and/or erroneous version of Christian theology-more about that later.
(**) I was tempted to call out ‘There already is training in secular humanism-its called the Establishment, including the government, mainstream media, secular education and the BBC!’.
I went to see this film mainly because of the bad reviews from leftists. When I read about this film I remembered director Clint Eastwood’s angry ‘no-one messes with my country’ comments about ‘this day will live in infamy…’on the patriotic US TV programme that was put on shortly after the Muslim attacks on civilisation commonly known as ‘9/11′. I haven’t watched Michael Moore’s review apparently comparing the US sniper with Hitler’s, only heard reports of it, but I did read the Guardian’s write up and it was exactly as expected. I won’t bother recycling it here, if you are familiar with The Guardian’s usual anti-American line you could probably write it yourself.
I was expecting the film to be something of a cross between ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘High Noon’ with a dash of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and good deal of Rambo style (subtly underplayed with some self doubt of course) Vietnam era ‘Get some, M…..F…..!’ thrown in as bad guys are blown away by the dozen with many an exploding tomato sauce exit wound. I wasn’t disappointed on that score. For the record, I think ‘The Hurt Locker’ depicted the horrors faced by both US soldier and Iraqi civilian far more effectively with a lower body and explosion count.
Caution plot spoilers.
Clint Eastwood sets out his stall early on. Our hero as a child sees his small brother being savagely beaten in the playground by a much bigger boy, cheered on by non-intervening onlookers. The brave brother piles in and savagely beats the boy who was savagely beating his brother. Later at table, an aggressive father, threatening with a belt and bad language, explains that ‘There are three kinds of people in the world. Sheep, who get eaten, wolves who eat them, and sheepdogs who protect.’ (*) He then asks if the bigger boy (Chris) ‘ended it’. He replies on the affirmative. Father sternly approves, saying ‘then you know what you are ”( a sheepdog).” On refection later I recalled a similar, albeit grossly obscene, film speech about 3 kinds of people (dicks, pussies and assholes) in the puppet spoof film ‘Team America: World Police.‘ I have no idea whether or not Eastwood saw the latter film, the cynic will see many similarities between the spoof which mocks America’s supposed role as global sheriff and his Chris Kyle biopic, which seems to celebrate it.
Later the adult Chris is disturbed by TV reports of attacks on overseas US embassies and finally by ‘9/11′ after which he signs up immediately to protect his country from the bad guys. Tough boot camp, great loyalty, brave soldiering, ‘love my God, Country and Family SIR…’
That’s about it bar the shooting. Of which there is a lot.
In the last scene, we see the man playfully pointing a revolver at his wife and demanding she take down her drawers for some hasty sex (all in jest of course, which is fine in a country with some 30,000 firearms deaths a year, many domestic), He then goes off to the shooting range, where we are told (not shown) that he was ‘killed by a veteran he was trying to help’. We see a huge funeral cortege with much flying of the flag. And perhaps for Clint Eastwood that final line sums up the whole tragedy of America in Iraq ‘We were only trying to help. it was SOOOO ungrateful of you to kill our occupying soldiers!!!’
Was the film a Clint Eastwood all American propaganda vehicle? Yes
Does it justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Pretty much.
Does it dehumanise Arabs? Not all of them. Some (not all) of the regular street Arabs are seen as victims-of Al Qaeda, not of the Americans who are the good guys, but the Al Qaeda and other insurgents are frequently referred to as ‘savages’ with many bloody illustrations including a chained and dismembered corpse hanging in a torture chamber full of body parts and a child being murdered with a drill in front of his family. Eastwood’s message is that these people are BAD and they DESERVE to die. Sort of side-steps the issue of how things might have been if the US and UK led invasion hadn’t destabilised Iraq and the whole Middle East. An Iraqi I know says ‘Under Saddam it wasn’t democracy but we had water, electricity and education and if you kept your mouth shut about politics you could walk down the street without being killed.’
The issue that the wily Saudi Osama bin Laden had a deliberate long term plan to provoke America into actions that his people could use to provoke unending global jihad and that Bush and Blair walked right into it is not addressed.
On reflection, much as I detest the anti-American and anti-Western views of the left, I have always sided with them about the wicked and stupid nature of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Saddam Hussein was a very wicked man but it seems doubtful if anyone gentler could have kept the lid on the ethnic and religious hatreds and sheer criminality that exploded in Iraq after the Allied forces stood down the police and army. There seems no doubt that the Islamic State murder organisation is the child of that invasion and is a far bigger threat to the west than Saddam Hussein ever was. Middle East Christians (not that they are the only victims) are immeasurably worse off than they would be if Saddam and Gaddafi were still in power.
Yes soldiers are brave and we prefer ours to theirs, but a bad call is still a bad call. The sniper on several occasions had a difficult decision to make about whether to take a shot. He was told ‘Its your call’ and on one occasion was told that he would go to prison if he got it wrong. It is regrettable that no such sanction has been applied to George Bush and Anthony Blair, whose monumentally wrong call against good advice went so disastrously wrong. We still await the Chilcot report into the start of the 2003 Iraq war although the last testimony was given in 2011.
3 stars out of 5.
(*) I quote from memory, may be inexact but that was the gist of it.
Last week I attended my first meeting of the Winchester Skeptics Society at the Discovery Centre. The speaker, Simon Clare from Brighton, was talking about the Alpha course. He posted this picture on Twitter and you can see me ‘furiously taking notes’ as a friend observed, circled near the right of the image.
I am writing up the meeting and my thoughts on it, its taking a while-2,600 words written so far and well short of finishing my notes. So much else to do…aged relatives to visit, younger daughter to see off on plane to work placement in Vietnam, my skin cancer diagnostics course to finalise…when DO I get time to blog? Oh yes, instead of watching TV or playing your guitar and after you should have gone to bed….anyway
Summary: Simon Clare is a committed atheist who wishes to be known as an objective, rational, humanist, skeptical truth seeker. He went on an Alpha course and now tours the country and blogs about how the people who run this course use lies and emotional mind control techniques to con people and draw them in. There is a good deal of truth in some of what he says. (*)
I will publish my write up of the meeting and my comments as 2 separate posts here shortly.
(*) ‘The enemy made his lie stronger my mixing a good deal of truth with it.‘ C S Lewis ‘The Last Battle.’
Stephen ‘I’m so clever, and famous too!’ Fry has been recycling atheist cliches again. Reminds me of Richard Dawkins as caricaturised (but not very much) in Private Eye.
‘God! What a bastard! and he doesn’t even EXIST!!!!’
The slogans pumped out by the two of them, like those of Christopher Hitchens, are good examples of the saying ‘It is a hard thing to correct a simple lie with a complex truth’. But someone has to try.
The following essay is lifted verbatim from my www.questiondarwin.com site where it can be found under the ‘Christian apologetics and counterblasts’ menu. It was first published in my Kindle book ‘Three Men in a Hut and Other Essays.’