According to Jon Ronson, The Alpha Course has a pretty high conversion rate of around one in eight. Now of course, we don’t know what the exact demographic is of that one in eight: a good many may be very open to religious belief already. But nevertheless, one in eight is quite a lot, when thousands of people in the UK alone attend the course every year. Yet the footage of the Alpha Course that I saw on this programme seemed astonishingly transparent to me. Maybe it was down to editing, but there was nothing subtle about the psychology of it, the calculated movement from large group meetings to small group discussion, the planting of attractive Christian ladies to serve up the food, the unrelenting niceness of everyone there who was on Jesus’ side. I found it bizarre that it took almost until the very end, when one man walked out after a second session of everyone being encouraged to speak in tongues, that someone mentioned that there might be something coercive about this process.
But here is the part of the Alpha Course footage that really riled me up the most. In a talk about resisting Satan, some guy was saying to this audience of agnostics,
“All these things, alcohol, promiscuous sex, pornography, the latest electronic gadget—whatever you get your highs from—it’s all just a pale imitation of the real thing [i.e. Jesus’ lurve].”
HOLD UP, ladies and gentlemen, and let’s put on our Friday evening critical thinking hats. What we have here is what is known as a false dichotomy. Because of course, we non-believers don’t get all our highs from drink or sex or iPhones. Just like Christians, we get ’em from lots of other pursuits that are too all-round positive and beneficial for our little God-fearing Christian to mention: music, study, time spent with friends and loved ones, frolicking in the park, creative pursuits, sport, the smell of sweet peas, baking, and writing rants about the Alpha Course on LJ. Don’t think anyone’s convinced by this dodgy tactic on the part of the Alpha Leader? Think again: by the end of the programme, the guy who seemed most likely to convert had said at one point that he saw that his Christian friends were very happy and that he sometimes felt there must be more to life than getting wasted.
You do not have to choose between Jesus and hangovers. There is a beautiful, fulfilling life to be had without God or excessive consumption. In fact, old-at-22 cynic that I am, God and excessive consumption look quite similar to me. So I don’t see an existence of fully human, down-to-earth, this-life eudaimonia as a middle ground. It is the highest ground, the best that you can and should do.
Oh, also, I learned from the programme that not only is Nicky Gumbel a facile, disingenuous hack of a writer (I knew that already), but he’s also a self-aggrandising and obsequious speaker. Good.