The Alpha Course
I was all set for my big comeback article tonight. It was going to be good. I was going to write about a high-pressure fundie recruitment ploy that utilizes intensive sales techniques, a la the dreaded timeshare sales pitch.
It turns out that isn’t quite what they do, and it was a rather sucky documentary to boot.
The film I watched is episode one of an 8-part U.K. documentary series on religion, titled Revelations (That page at the IMDb is like the documentary: Not really worth your time.).
The series was actually made back in 2009. Apparently it’s in the process of being rebroadcast right now. Depending on where you live, you can watch a few of the episodes online, but not episode one.
That first episode is titled “How to Find God”. It’s about a Christian recruitment program called The Alpha Course. Alpha was developed by a reverend in the Church of England, but it’s used by churches of many denominations. According to the documentary, “there are 30,000 Alpha courses running… in 168 countries.”
The whole shtick here is that churches know they’re losing members. They don’t want the golden goose (that allows them to avoid getting real jobs) to die, so they have to bring in fresh bodies. Like the tobacco industry, they don’t want to steal parishioners away from some other church. That just means they’d be squabbling over the crumbs of a smaller and smaller pie. They need brand new bodies! They’ve had schemes running for centuries to suck in the kids (just like the tobacco industry). That used to be sufficient. Sadly, not even that will stave off irrelevance. They need some other source of bodies. How about atheists? No, that really wouldn’t work. Here’s an idea! Why don’t they harvest some agnostics? Brilliant!
So they developed this course that runs one night per week for eight weeks, plus a weekend getaway (ironic, since “getaway” is the one thing they don’t want you to do). The documentary tells us that more than two million agnostics in Britain have done the Alpha course. One in eight converts. Multiply that by all of the other Alpha courses running around the world. Yow! That’s a lot of very weak agnostics.
The documentary was produced by a chap named Jon Ronson. I guess I haven’t been paying attention, because I didn’t know who he is. It turns out that this is the guy who wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats. If you go to his Wikipedia page, the first thing you’ll see is a picture of him speaking at TAM London in 2009. (If I had actually been able to score a ticket to TAM London like I wanted, then maybe I wouldn’t have been so clueless on who he is.)
The documentary itself was somewhat amateurish. It follows eight agnostics as they go through this course, yet Ronson doesn’t even bother to get all their names. One agnostic bails after the first night. We watch her walk away while Ronson narrates “…one of them, I never know her name, says it isn’t for her.” Then in a later scene, his video tape runs out, and he misses a dramatic moment. Later in the documentary, he forgets to turn off the camera. He catches an important scene merely through ineptitude! Despite this, the program did hold my interest, but maybe only because I was taking notes for this article.
The way the Alpha course is structured, everybody piles into the church some evening for the weekly meeting. The head of that church gives a low-pressure lecture about Jesus, what he taught, how we “know” he was real (they claim to have evidence, but it’s just Josephus, who wrote about Jesus years later), and how God loves you so much he’s going to send you to hell to burn and writhe in agony for eternity for not clapping your hands and believing in Tinkerbell.
After the lecture, the congregation of agnostics breaks up into small discussion groups. In the documentary, we follow one of these groups, which consists of eight agnostics (seven after the first night) plus two discussion leaders. In the group, they discuss where everybody is coming from regarding their thoughts on whether God & Jesus exist and if there is any chance in hell of any of them converting.
During these discussion groups, the agnostics raise all sorts of logical objections. Those clever Alpha people can’t be stumped, though! The head office publishes a set of pamphlets that refutes (or so they think) all of the common logical proofs that God & Son are unlikely to exist.
It’s clear that the agnostics in this documentary are not buying any of it at that first meeting. For whatever reason, all seven come back in subsequent weeks and continue to subject themselves to this low-grade sales pitch. Ultimately, some of them falter and find themselves getting drawn in. Don’t these people read science fiction? Never go into orbit around a black hole!
I would surmise that the reason this course works on so many agnostics is because it isn’t hardcore fundie. Supposedly the content is evangelical. It is anti-gay. They even speak in tongues at one point (or fail to in this documentary, thanks to a convention of sports car enthusiasts). But I didn’t see any of the fire and brimstone that we normally associate with fundiegelicalism.
Maybe that’s something that varies by church. Of the thousands of churches around the world that use this course, perhaps some of them whip themselves into a frenzy of Jesus-praising and gay-bashing and porn-hating. I’d be very curious to see what their conversion rate is. As counterintuitive as it might seem, I’d be willing to bet that those fundie churches actually have a much higher conversion rate than one in eight. After all, look how many people buy timeshares.
[If you are unable to find this documentary through your cable system or however else you acquire content, I did find a watchable copy on YouTube. It’s apparently from German TV, because it’s full of German subtitles (or maybe the video is speaking in tongues). Here are part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.]