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03 July 2009 @ 07:49 pm
Way behind the rest of the UK, I just watched Jon Ronson’s Channel 4 Revelations programme about the Alpha Course, How To Find God. I also currently happen to be re-reading professional sceptic Michael Shermer’s acclaimed (but in my view, slightly overrated) book, Why People Believe Weird Things.

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.

Ophelia Xx

Mood: aggravatedaggravated
Music: Magic Rabbit - My Brightest Diamond
internetsdairyinternetsdairy on July 3rd, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I've seen you frantically cramming sweet peas up your nose in club toilets, you godless junkie.
Ophe1ia: sobophe1ia_in_red on July 3rd, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
percyprunepercyprune on July 3rd, 2009 08:09 pm (UTC)
Cynic? I'm cynical about your cynicism. A cynic wouldn't write prose about the smell of sweet peas. Fie on you youngsters, and get orf my lawn!
lordsuperfast on July 3rd, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
I completely agree that it's a false dichotomy, but I can't help feeling you're being a bit harsh. I can't say that God looks at all similar to excessive consumption given the small subset of people I've come across in my life. Your experience may differ, of course.

In terms of choosing between having a fulfilling life and a dissipated life, I currently hold the opinion that for some people this is to a certain degree a matter of establishing good habits rather than bad habits. Hence this is why some people can benefit from CBT.

I could see how people could use a belief in God to help themselves develop more fulfilling habits, but in that sense I would see it as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. There are probably easier means to use, and certainly less prescriptive ones, but there have been times when I've thought wistfully that my life might be easier if I had a faith in God to help me through it.
The Nudenudejournal on July 4th, 2009 01:28 am (UTC)
"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."

Well, that's pretty much the entire demographic, isn't it? Other than a handful of amateur Ronsons who are a bit curious and perhaps some people who get conned into going to the first one because they don't know what is.

They're pretty much going for the I Want To Believe end of agnosticism, i.e. yon miserable student sod desperately trying to find a purpose to his life other than trying to cop off with the disinterested girl he took a coach trip to London with, rather than the jovial older guy who was just doing it so his brother didn't boot him out of the spare room or whatever.
Ophe1ia: devilophe1ia_in_red on July 4th, 2009 08:00 am (UTC)
I dunno, would have thought a few angry people like me would go too, out of sheer bloody-mindedness…
The Nudenudejournal on July 4th, 2009 08:58 am (UTC)
I wonder if, just now, they're getting loads of people turning up to try and troll the discussion group leaders into losing their temper. The thought has crossed my mind.
internetsdairyinternetsdairy on July 4th, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)
I don't know, Ed, I've seen you in as 'fragile' a state after a night out as the guy who got the letter. Be careful!
The Nudenudejournal on July 4th, 2009 01:34 am (UTC)
And the Christians might say that of course you think you're having a happy and fulfilled life, you just don't know yet how much better it would if THE LIGHT OF JESUS entered your heart.

It was good when the Christian chap leading the discussion talking about God talking to him when he was on a bus, and someone suggested he might have been imaginging it, and his wife started to lose it and shout ARE YOU CALLING HIM THICK? I wonder if that's in the Alpha script?
stevencarrwork on July 4th, 2009 12:56 pm (UTC)
'It was good when the Christian chap leading the discussion talking about God talking to him when he was on a bus....'

Why do these people always sit next to me on the bus???
stevencarrwork on July 4th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)
Nicky Gumbel is famous as the man who got up in church to tell the congregation that he did not find his marriage to his wife fulfilled him.

It is on the first Alpha talk!

I wonder why she didn't hit and/or divorce him.
Ophe1ia: ewophe1ia_in_red on July 5th, 2009 08:13 am (UTC)
Re: Highs...
I hate him. I had his books thrust upon me by my homophobic, evangelical Christian best friend when I was at secondary school, and even at 15 the vacuousness of his arguments, and the disingenuous misrepresentation of his sceptical or converted interviewees, were glaringly obvious to me. So I was not surprised (but still rather pleased) to see that he was an oily, hand-wringing little man, embarrassingly and transparently nice for the sake of winning a few more converts.
Paul Wrightpw201 on July 5th, 2009 01:14 am (UTC)
Nice one. I mentioned your review in mine.
Ophe1ia: smileophe1ia_in_red on July 5th, 2009 08:09 am (UTC)
Thank you. :)