The Alpha Course

I'm opposed to capital punishment, but somebody fetch a mousetrap

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.]

28 Responses to “The Alpha Course”

  1. Parrotlover77 Says:

    Welcome back! Hooray for your return!

    Not to get all True Scottsman Fallacy on you, but it’s hard to square the definition of agnostic with what you described of the “agnostics” in the video. As important as the weak Atheism part of agnosticism is (ie, probably no God but I can’t 100% prove or refute it) is the apathetic part of agnosticism (ie, either way, I don’t care).

    I suppose the word agnostic is slowly becoming diluted and partitioned, as the word atheism already has (weak atheist, strong atheist, social / big “A” Atheist, dictionary atheist, etc.). What I take away from what you wrote up there is that agnostic is being used more for its weak atheist part than it’s apathetic about the consequences part. Interesting, never-the-less. With the exception of the first agnostic, UK’s agnostics disappointment me.

    The ones that thought about converting I’m sure would also make prime timeshare targets. That’s my guess.

  2. PaulJ Says:

    Funny you should mention Jon Ronson at TAM London 2009, because at TAM London 2010 Adam Rutherford gave a talk on the Alpha Course. I’ve seen the Jon Ronson documentary and I don’t think it was as informative as the David Frost series a few years previously. Ronson has a particular style (he apparently claims Louis Theroux filched it from him), which could explain your characterisation of amateurishness.

    Incidentally Ronson has subsequently revealed something that happened during filming of the documentary, that wasn’t shown in the film, which indicts the Alpha Course — or at least the minister in the film — of questionable ethical practices (I think Ronson talked about it at TAM London, but I’d have to check the DVD to be sure, as I’ve heard him speak elsewhere as well).

  3. Troy Says:

    I wonder do they bribe them with refreshments to attend? I recall a creationist that appeared on public access years ago mentioned that he was an evolutionist coming out of college but ended up teaching at a Christian church school and attending the services was primarily motivated by their excellent donuts.

  4. Ron Britton Says:

    PL:

    I don’t see where I’m True Scottsmaning the issue. The documentary never defines its terms. It makes a point of calling these people and everyone else who attends an agnostic. He appears to be painting with quite a wide brush. I’m guessing that most of those one in eight “agnostics” who convert are closer to the religion end of the spectrum than the atheist end.

    What I take away from what you wrote up there is that agnostic is being used more for its weak atheist part than it’s apathetic about the consequences part.

    I got the exact opposite impression from the documentary, although he never tells us anything like this explicitly (another reason this documentary is closer to the “blows” end of the spectrum). In that first week, some of the agnostics raise some objections to the theist arguments, but just a week later, they’re already beginning to falter. Weak atheist? They aren’t even weak agnostics.

  5. Ron Britton Says:

    PaulJ:

    Thanks for the info. Your article actually addresses ParrotLover’s question:

    The course is designed for those he described as the de-churched ― that is, those who were brought up with a more or less Christian background and belief, and subsequently lapsed. For the un-churched ― those who grew up without religious indoctrination ― the course is likely to be far less effective.

  6. Ron Britton Says:

    Troy:

    This is from the opening scene. As you can see, it’s a lot better than donuts.

    Alpha bits

  7. Brian Says:

    The very fact that they feel the pinch of declining congregations is a small ray of light that fills me with a small sense of hope for our species. Of course, that’ll all be shattered when we elect Michele Bachmann president next year…

  8. Ron Britton Says:

    Brian:

    Don’t get too excited. That documentary was focusing on the situation in Britain. They are a more secular country. Their churches are screaming toward irrelevancy faster than ours.

    We’re a country of religious nutbags. Our churches are glaciating toward irrelevancy. I think the sun may go nova before our last church closes.

    In fact, it will probably be all of our mainline less-crazy churches that shut down, leaving nothing but the loony bins still fully populated. The level of crazy will therefore increase, because there will be no moderating or diluting influence.

    Just thought I’d brighten your day.

  9. Parrotlover77 Says:

    I don’t see where I’m True Scottsmaning the issue.

    You weren’t. I was making a point that by the documentary choosing what I was seeing as very weak agnostics and my pointing out that they barely fit what I understand to be the definition, that I was playing that game. I stopped short of saying “they aren’t agnostic” but I try not to be hypocritical since I frequently call out christians that use the “but he/she isn’t a REAL christian” excuse for bad christian behavior. But I’m glad to see I’m not the only one uncomfortable with somebody using the identifying term “agnostic” when they so easily are swayed by what looks to be stew and mashed potatoes.

    In fact, it will probably be all of our mainline less-crazy churches that shut down, leaving nothing but the loony bins still fully populated. The level of crazy will therefore increase, because there will be no moderating or diluting influence.

    It really seems to be the case that the moderate churches are closing while the crazies are increasing. I’ll still take that as long as there is a net decrease. They may be more insane, but it will simply draw more attention to their insanity. Maybe we’ll reach a tipping point where we can stop handling them with kid gloves and call them out for what they are: religious fundamentalist terrorists.

  10. Brian Says:

    PL,

    If only the craziest churches remained open, they would not be seen as examples of the worst religion has to offer; they would simply become the new “normal”. We Americans have very low standards and we refuse to stand up for a principle, which is why the worst behaviors are constantly excused and forgotten.

    Take the Republicans (please) as an example. Today’s GOP is as insane as it’s ever been, and no one raises an eyebrow. They are nothing like the Reagan-era GOP, but no one seems to notice. They can act like douchebags with impunity because they know America will tolerate it. Religion will always receive the same deference, even after gays and atheists are literally burned at the stake.

  11. Sue Blue Says:

    I haven’t seen this documentary yet, but I wonder if the “agnostics” are just people who weren’t raised in any particular religion and haven’t given it much thought; then, either out of idle curiosity or just a “I’m bored today, there’s nothing on TV, and I’ve got nothing better to do” attitude, decided to give this Alpha Course thing a whirl. You don’t have to be a drooling Jesus freak to be stupid. It sounds like some of them were capable of at least rudimentary logic, but as the Asch experiment way back when showed, the fallback position when outnumbered in a group is to go with the flow. So, Ron, I think it is entirely possible that the crazies are increasing simply because of this effect – the more crazies there are, the more it seems okay to be crazy. Also, they are fond of that old logical fallacy that says that if a lot of people believe something, then it must be true (or real, or good, or whatever).

  12. ericsan Says:

    Good to have you back, Ron. I’ve been missing my BoF fix. I’ll look for this in the torrents ;)

  13. RBH Says:

    A couple of years ago Adam Rutherford (an atheist) took the Alpha Course and blogged it weekly for the Guardian. The first episode is here, while (most of?) the rest can be found by this search.

  14. Thomas Says:

    I might go to one of these, if there was free coffee. I’d feel less bad about it than I would about going to support meetings for diseases I didn’t have, a la Fight Club.

  15. Parrotlover77 Says:

    If only the craziest churches remained open, they would not be seen as examples of the worst religion has to offer; they would simply become the new “normal”. We Americans have very low standards and we refuse to stand up for a principle, which is why the worst behaviors are constantly excused and forgotten.

    I agree, to a degree. I think that a lot of the problem stems from apathy combined with cultural tolerance. Don’t get me wrong, tolerance is very much a Good Thing. But when you combine a tolerant culture with apathy, insanity might slip through. The media are bad about this with concern to politics, as you pointed out for an excellent example.

    The teahadists are absolutely fricking crazy, but are treated as a legitimate wing of a legitimate major political party in this country. Most people simply have no idea how extreme their ideas are (apathy) and we are a culturaly tolerant nation, so it’s just too easy to trust them.

    Although the media has yet to figure out how crazy the teatards are, public opinion is swinging rapidly increasing to “unfavorable” for them.

    The only real danger of teapidity is that voter suppression and apathy will allow the crazies to continue to hold onto power.

    Ehh. Where as I? It must be nap time, I’m totally lost in my own comment.

    Anyway, I think my point is that although our culture seems to allow short bursts of complete insanity to go relatively unchecked, it eventually smooths out and declines rapidly. I think the “new normal” situation you describe is a very real possibility, but I also think it fall hard within a five to ten years. It will be a hell of a five to ten years, though. I don’t see any way around it, though. What else can we do than try to educate our friends/peers? It’s a big ship and very tough to steer.

  16. Jason Failes Says:

    Never go into orbit around a black hole!

    A black hole exerts the same gravitational pull as the star it formed from (plus whatever has fallen in since), it just takes up less space. Spaceships should be able to orbit a black hole safely.

    Otherwise good post, want more.

  17. Ron Britton Says:

    Spaceships should be able to orbit a black hole safely.

    Sure. Until your orbit degrades, and then you discover that your engines aren’t powerful enough to break you free! And then as you’re falling into it, time slows down to a glacial crawl. Just like being in church!

  18. Ericsan Says:

    We sadly have proof that religious- and racist-driven monstrous stupidity is not an American specialty. Those Xtians are nothing but vicious animals. I’m reading about the Norway massacre in the paper and the only reaction I can manage is to cry. When will we get rid of these idiotic gods that serve no other purpose than justify hatred?

  19. Ron Britton Says:

    Ericsan:

    I’m sickened by the massacre, but I’m also disappointed. The U.S. has fallen to the extremists. It’s pretty much game over for us. I was hoping that the few liberal democracies that remain wouldn’t succumb to our fate. If that can happen in Norway, that means the cancer has spread too far and too deep. We may lose the entire patient.

    To be fair to religion, I don’t think it’s completely at fault here. The sense I’m getting is that racism is his primary motivator. The religion provides a convenient excuse for him to latch onto. Haters shop around until they find an organization promoting the same type of hate as they have.

    Humans are nasty things. Hate comes to us naturally. Often religion fans the flames and throws in more fuel, but the fire is already burning.

  20. Parrotlover77 Says:

    Hold on here, in Norway’s defense, one madman does not an epidemic make! We lose when we start identifying criminal acts as a widespread conspiracy. This is what the right wing has done with the word “terrorist” which is so fuzzy in its interpretation now, it’s practically useless.

    Certainly, there is new European racism due to the influx of Islamic immigrants, but it’s hardly unique to any society in the world. This was an extremely tragic event so I don’t want to seem like I don’t care, but you can’t compare this one insane action to the many ills history has recorded of wrongs done to groups of people. Whether it’s the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany (Godwin alert!) or slavery of Africans in the west, there’s a lot of bad shit that’s happened in history, and I don’t see how this can possibly be used to gauge the decay of humanity compared to many larger scale evil things that have happened in the past. If we’re screwed now, we were even MORE screwed 80 years ago, so what does that mean?

    If this was a common problem in Norway, you would have a point. But it is impossible to track every single motivated murderous insane criminal in any country. Even in the liberal paradise of Europe.

    Humans are nasty things. Hate comes to us naturally. Often religion fans the flames and throws in more fuel, but the fire is already burning.

    Having said what I said above, I still agree with this statement completely. The true test of humanity’s long term survival in the universe will be finally overcoming our primitive selfish predator instincts in all its forms. If we can do that, we stand a chance. The prerequisites to it working are peace, stability, a public safety net, and education. You will notice that all four of those factors are actively being dismantled by the right wing of the USA.

  21. Ron Britton Says:

    Hold on here, in Norway’s defense, one madman does not an epidemic make!

    You’re right. It’s just very discouraging to see them suffering from the same thing that is destroying us. It’s hard to know for sure that he is a lone madman.

    Timothy McVeigh was not a lone madman. He was typical of what we have a lot of. How many Norwegians does Anders Behring Breivik represent?

  22. Sue Blue Says:

    The reason I find myself chafing at the “lone madman” label is that this is a common blame-deflecting tactic the rabid right-wingers use whenever one of their own goes over the top and makes a big bloody splash. They’re always quick to blame Islam or Muslims as a group whenever a single Muslim does anything, but whenever xtianity or right-wing ideology is put in the spotlight it’s always “he was just a crazy nut who certainly doesn’t represent us in any way whatsoever!” They don’t want to take any responsibility for their constant advocation of violence. Is this Breivik crazy? Possibly. Is he just blaming his craziness on some handy ideology? Maybe. But it’s interesting that he didn’t hang his hat on atheism or humanism. Apparently it’s so much more plausible, even for a homicidal maniac, to associate his own violence and hatred with groups that really are known to promote violence and hatred.

  23. Parrotlover77 Says:

    I can’t speak for wingnuts, but I wasn’t referring to “lone madman” in the sense that he is the only insane person in Norway. I was stating that his criminal actions are probably not related to a group or conspiracy actively planning the act. That doesn’t mean there aren’t others who don’t share his views or even egged him on in passive support roles.

    Glenn Beck may not actively have committed any crimes yet, but he is damn responsible for at least helping to persist the “climate of hate” that is pervasive throughout the country.

    This is a good free speech limitation question. It’s not black and white and it is not an easy question at all. I’d like to continue to err on the side of too much speech, personally, but maybe more people would be alive today if we added more restrictions? I don’t have the answers.

    I can say, though, that something needs to be done to help these crazy insane people before they go crazy and insane. I would not be surprised if the Norwegian shooter and others like him have/had treatable forms of mental illness but aren’t getting the help they need.

  24. Ron Britton Says:

    I wasn’t referring to “lone madman” in the sense that he is the only insane person in Norway.

    But I was. That’s what’s so discouraging. They’ve got some percentage of insane bigoted haters. Norway is far more civilized and tolerant than we are (just compare crime rates, executions, etc.), but this incident shows you can’t eliminate the hatred.

    Glenn Beck may not actively have committed any crimes yet, but he is damn responsible for at least helping to persist the “climate of hate” that is pervasive throughout the country.

    He’s a stochastic terrorist.

    I’d like to continue to err on the side of too much speech, personally, but maybe more people would be alive today if we added more restrictions?

    We have to preserve free speech. Freedom always comes at a cost. Restricted speech eventually has a higher death toll. Free speech holds governments accountable. We can’t afford to lose that.

    What we have to do is somehow make the stochastic terrorists civilly accountable. Lawsuits are one of the tools that have made consumer products safer. Maybe they can make the airwaves safer.

  25. Parrotlover77 Says:

    That was basically my point. I don’t know for a fact if some level of more restricted speech actually saves more lives (looking at a sliding scale of speech permissibility, not just jumping into China-level censorship), but I would be opposed to it for other reasons, such as various issues of quality of life associated with abuses of the speech restriction laws.

    Yea, statistics is a bitch. No matter what you do, it seems that outliers always exist. Minimizing them is our best hope.

    Excellent link, btw. I had not heard that term, but it will now be added to my repertoire! I’m bookmarking that Great Orange Satan page.

    Speaking of stochastic terrorists and their enablers/fluffers, I read a blog post about something Ross Douthat wrote recently. If you aren’t already in a bad mood yet today, you will be.

  26. Sue Blue Says:

    Free speech…well, that’s a wonderful thing. But, like every other right, it comes with responsibilities. I think everyone should have the right to spout all the stupid shit they want, but they should be held accountable for the results. In other words, walkin talkin rectums like Glenn Beck are free to rant and rave, but if their ranting and raving has actual, objectively harmful outcomes (such as eye-rolling freaks who take their rants literally and start shooting) they should be held accountable. You can shout “fire” in a crowded theater, but be prepared to be held responsible for the ensuing mayhem.
    These “madmen” never really act alone, in my opinion. While some may be inherently violent, most just simmer silently in their own little poisonous brews until somebody like Beck et. al. comes along, turns up the heat and stirs the pot until it boils over.

  27. Brian Says:

    I have always felt the best way to deal with objectionable speech is to drown it out with vigorous, full-throated counter arguments. Censorship has a long history of failure, and any attempt to do so will harm everyone, not just those being quieted. I understand holding someone like Glenn Beck accountable if one of his deranged listeners goes off the deep end and massacres a crowd of people after having been “inspired” by what Beck said on the air. But as a practical matter, how do we best accomplish it? Fire him? Yeah, that’ll probably be a reasonable response, but someone else will most likely just rehire him. Fines? Jail? As emotionally satisfying as those punishments might be, how do we establish a uniform standard that applies equally to others with a platform from which similar tragedies might result? I don’t think there’s a right answer.

    Truly free speech is always going to be fraught with these dangers, and we’re just going to have to deal with each incident as best we can in a manner consistent with our Constitution. That we can talk about this on a variety of media is a triumph for our country, despite the myriad ways our modern society seems like it’s circling the drain.

  28. Parrotlover77 Says:

    But as a practical matter, how do we best accomplish it? Fire him? Yeah, that’ll probably be a reasonable response, but someone else will most likely just rehire him.

    Worse. It will turn him into a martyr. You think Beck is bad when he’s raking in money? Just wait until his income is threatened.

    I don’t think there’s a right answer.

    Truly free speech is always going to be fraught with these dangers, and we’re just going to have to deal with each incident as best we can in a manner consistent with our Constitution. That we can talk about this on a variety of media is a triumph for our country, despite the myriad ways our modern society seems like it’s circling the drain.

    1000x this. Everybody else on this thread is doing a better job of expressing my thoughts than I am.