I was invited by a friend of mine in the Christian Union (yes, I do have friends) to an Alpha Course group. For the first few weeks we followed the structure of the course guide, but we increasingly noticed that Nicky Gumbel, the incredibly well-spoken man behind the course, assumes he’s managed to turn everyone into a Christian after week three. Unsurprisingly, he’ll have to try again with me. So we did away with the course guides and instead we’d just have a discussion about some aspect of Christianity like the power of prayer, final judgement or the unlikelihood of life or something. Then after a few weeks of that we watched some short films as a stimulus and have a discussion afterwards, and we kind of fizzled out from there. All in all we met for about 10 weeks.
There were several points when I realised some differences between many theists and many atheists. For me and most other people, the reason for debate and discussion is a healthy respect for the truth. But that didn’t always seem to be the case there. Sometimes it seemed that the only reason they were engaging in the discussion was in the hope that I’d change my mind, with no possibility that they might too. Often I would make a point that they couldn’t answer (like for example that you could never justify eternal punishment), but instead of taking it on board, they just changed tack and used another argument to try and convince me. I didn’t expect that from relatively liberal Christians at university (although I’m still shocked that several members of the CU don’t believe in evolution).
So is it worth doing? Definitely! Interactions of this type between humanists and faith groups mean that next time someone at church refers to the demon atheist wallowing in sin and obstinate hatred of the innocent baby Jesus, the believer knows at least one example where that isn’t true, and similarly we don’t fall into the lazy trap of generalising religionists as idiots (we should only call them idiots if they ARE idiots). Humanists should constantly be challenging their own positions, and discussion with a group of people who don’t share those positions is the perfect opportunity to do so! I found that I came out of such encounters more sceptical of religious belief than when I went in, with my arguments and opinions honed (and my patience more durable). I have an appreciation for evidence that I didn’t have before. But most importantly of all, these interactions with faith groups mean that now, everyone at the Chaplaincy includes non-believers in their thoughts and actions from the offset. They no longer speak of ‘faith groups’ but of ‘beliefs and traditions’ or ‘backgrounds’. The humanists at the university have become part of a wider community based at the Chaplaincy. Of course many might see that as an excellent reason not to interact, but I think those people are missing out.