Alpha Course

This afternoon I had an interesting yet challenging encounter with the CU. Ruth, who I’d met at the society’s fair, invited me along to a lunchtime talk but I didn’t realise it was the Alpha Course. Maybe that’s a good thing because if I’d realised that I probably wouldn’t have gone (I’ve seen some of the materials used and it’s clearly geared towards Christians). In any case that wasn’t the interesting part, that was mainly just an exploration of Christian theology, which I’m not too interested in. I think it was good for them too to have an atheist come along and ask questions from that point of view.

I started by commenting on the notion of justice. During the talk there had been a section on grace and mercy which linked in with justice. God has to punish somehow, else where would the justice be? We wouldn’t be too happy if the Nuremberg Trials had just given Hitler a slap on the wrist (had he survived, of course), for example. But I entered the suggestion that an eternal punishment of any kind cannot be justified (whether you view hell as a place of torment or just a separation from God), there should always be some kind of time limit on it. One of the humanist society’s newer members, Greg, has made this argument before, but I think he made the mistake of saying you can’t justify eternal torment, when in fact a more modern interpretation of the idea of hell is that it’s just a separation from God, which takes the poke out of his argument, when in fact it should be on the idea that it’s eternal. There’s nothing you could do to warrant an eternal punishment. Someone brought up that even in human justice systems we have life sentences which, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, is essentially eternal, but for me that’s nothing to do with punishment, a life sentence is to protect to public from a dangerous person. The conversation kind of concluded on the thought that hell isn’t a punishment either, it’s a choice. People have chosen not to be with God, and hell (a separation from God) is the outcome of that choice, people just don’t realise how bad it is. That doesn’t really sit well with me either, but we kind of cover that later.

I then moved the conversation onto predeterminism, much to the groans of the others. The fact that God supposedly knows me and knows what I will do before it happens means that (presuming I don’t accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour) he has created me purely so that I can go to hell, which is a problem because he’s supposed to love me. Balancing free will against this predeterminism is also a significant problem with me. I suppose knowing what I’m going to do isn’t necessarily the same as controlling it, but in that case why does he bother with our time on earth, why not just judge us based on what he knows we’re going to do?

Free will is also one way to explain away the problem of evil which I brought up next. If God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then how can evil persist in the world? Someone asked if I thought God controlled everything and I said no, just that he would intervene to prevent evil. The extension of that argument is that it would contravene our free will, but so what? Surely an omnibenevolent God would place the prevention of evil above free will? Even if not, free will doesn’t explain natural disasters and genetic diseases, but that can be explained by the Fall. Apparently the earth took the physical consequences of our sin. I have my own problems with the Fall (for example, there’s no evidence that sin is genetic), but for the purposes of the conversation I left that aside.

-It’s awkward, I keep remembering important things we talked about, but we were talking for a good 2 hours or so, I can’t possibly include it all here, which is a shame. Maybe I’ll fill in the gaps in another post another time-

I think I’ll finish on our discussion of the trilemma and its branches. You may be familiar with CS Lewis’ argument that Jesus was either ‘lunatic, liar or lord’, and that if he’s either of the first two he cannot be merely a great moral teacher on the lines of Ghandi, Buddha etc. I added the possibility that he was merely lied about (apparently a lot of people add the words ‘or legend’ at the end), but for the people there, the historical evidence is so overwhelming that that’s not an option. I’ve already dealt with this kind of thing in my review of The Case for Christ and I don’t accept it (it’s based on the view that miracles are just as likely as normal stuff, whereas I’m like Hume – after all, if we accept the possibility that witches might exist, what happens after that is the Inquisition, it’s a twisted logic). From their perspective I look like the closed-minded one, but they’re going to have to show me the evidence before I believe in miracles. I’m not likely to budge on that one. I also queried whether Jesus could be a good moral teacher if he was a lunatic, because as far as I know, morality and lunacy aren’t mutually exclusive. This really puts the trilemma in hot water because the only reason Lewis accepts Jesus as the Son of God is because the other options aren’t feasible.

It was good to go along and discuss this kind of thing. I think I was invited personally because I like to listen to people (this is something we’re not very good at as a society – even during our own meetings we get sidetracked into our own little conversations and people get ignored, a personal pet peeve of mine), and I appear more open to discussion, whereas other members of our society can seem intimidating. That’s going to be a weakness in interfaith events, I think. I also had to leave aside points of contention (like interpretations of genesis, for example) which I knew we wouldn’t get anywhere on. Anyway I think I’ll go along next week, but my timetable changes in 3 weeks so I may be unable to go after that.

That was a long post and I still didn’t cover half of it.

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8 Responses to Alpha Course

  1. Hobbes says:

    I was just wondering why you wrote “(I’ve seen some of the materials used and it’s clearly geared towards Christians).” I would be intrigued how the Alpha course can change that perception since Alpha leaders are primarily interested in engaging those who aren’t Christians.

    Thanks.

  2. grammarking says:

    Maybe “geared towards Christians” wasn’t the best way of putting it. “Towards people of a religious mindset” would perhaps be more appropriate. It just seems to me that it skips straight into the intricate details of Christian theology than exploring the reasons why we should believe in God in the first instance. From an atheist/agnostic position, the way to worship God is kind of irrelevant if you don’t have any reason to believe in God. Maybe that’s for the best though, the informal discussion we had afterwards was a much better format for exploring that issue than I imagine a talk/speech would be.

  3. tychy says:

    an interesting post, although your thoughts on free will rather overlooked the ingenious calvinist solution…

    The calvinist God knows that salvation must be offered freely – otherwise it would resemble something as vulgar and bourgeois as a contract, with man and God both equally fulfilling agreed obligations. The calvinist God therefore realises that the only true salvation is entirely arbitrary, with a minority chosen randomly for heaven. This salvation is offered freely, and it does not matter if the saved is a murderer or a paedophile…

    The calvinist God really loves man, and he demonstrates this with unconditional salvation.

    Ingenious!

  4. Hobbes says:

    Ah yes, grammarking, I would agree that the Alpha course topics are geared towards those who already believe in the concept of a god (“religious mindset”?) but I thought you agreed with at least a basic concept of God as originator?

    I think the course really wants to show that the Christian God is personal and that He has shown that by coming into history in the form of the man Jesus. Really, Jesus is the bridge from a distant Creator God to one who showed that He cares.

    I guess the main thing is that the Alpha course wants to show God as relevant, through His coming in the human form of Jesus. Comments? Am I misinterpreting you?

  5. grammarking says:

    That would be stretching it a little. I have little problem with the idea of a deist God or Spinoza’s God, that doesn’t mean to say I agree with it.

  6. Having recently attended an alpha course with my own views on god and spirituality i can say with total conviction that its teachings are vile warped and twisted. The purveyors of this filth will have much to answer to if the words of the gospel are the true teachings of jesus when they are confronted by saint peter at the pearly gates. The fires of hell will burn brightly with the souls of those who decieve this would include group leaders, tongue talkers runners, kitchen staff et al. Jonestown doesnt get a look in!

  7. grammarking says:

    Well, Jonestown is a good example of what happens when you let a religious belief take over your life, but I find it almost as offensive to tell people their souls are going to burn in hell. As far as I can tell Alpha Course is an evangelical organisation (and you can decide for yourself whether what they evangelicise is true or not), but what it preaches isn’t invasive (it’s enturely voluntary), it’s not particularly offensive unless you delve deep into the consequences of some core beliefs, it’s just people teaching about God and Christ. I have no problem with people knowing more about Christianity, I can appreciate the Bible in the same way that I can appreciate Hamlet.

  8. Hey, NSFH! I’m in a similar situation, blogging about my experiences being dragged to an Alpha Course (by my wife, in this case). I’m having an interesting time reading your take on it. In most ways, your view is similar to my view. A lot of canned answers, and shifting goalposts if you ask tough questions. Anyway, if you’d like, please check out my blog about my time there.

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