Have You Taken the Alpha Course? September 30, 2010

Have You Taken the Alpha Course?

Some of you may have heard of the Alpha Course, a course of study to learn about Christianity.

CelticBear, an atheist, decided to take the course at his wife’s request. It might sound painful, but he’s been blogging about each of the ten sessions, so he has plenty of reason to pay attention.

The course is called Explore The Meaning of Life: The Alpha Course. by an English Anglican priest, Nicky Gumbel. Evidently, he’s taken this course, which has been around for decades, and turned it from being an introduction for new Christians into a study for people outside the faith looking to understand more about Christianity.

The course takes place at his church — they eat food, watch a video, and break up into small groups for discussion.

Not surprisingly, CelticBear is not very impressed. Here’s just one of his many rebuttals:

… from Nicky, we have this gem: “Everybody exercises faith all the time. Sitting in those chairs, you have faith they’ll hold you.” Name that fallacy: false equivocation. The kind of faith one has in the stability of a chair is not remotely close to the kind of faith needed to believe in an invisible disembodied intelligence that has a personal relationship with humans he blames for their failings despite him being their all-knowing/all-powerful creator. Wee bit different.

Has anyone else sat through an Alpha Course? I’m sure your thoughts were similar to CelticBear’s, but what did you think of the course itself? Is it a good primer for atheists? Is it completely a waste of time?

I’m sure he’d appreciate hearing from others who have already gone through this!

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  • Scott Turner

    I sat through Alpha when I was a churchgoer. It is not intellectually rigorous, but it’s a good presentation of how many modern Christians understand Christianity. I would attend again now at a local church if I had another humanist or similar friend to attend with me.

  • Richard Wade

    I wouldn’t even agree that “faith” would be a correct word at all when referring to sitting in a chair. That would be the confidence born of continuous reliable evidence that the chair is strong enough to hold you. “Faith” is used when you don’t have any evidence.

    CelticBear must have a lot of patience to sit through nonsense like that.

  • Things like Alpha are why so many Christians are incredibly ignorant about their own religion. As Scott Turner said, it’s not intellectually rigorous. They frequently run the courses at the Church I grew up in.

  • I’ve taken the Alpha course. What’s sad is that I took it while I was still a Christian, and I -still- thought it was a joke.

  • aerie

    Is this the program that adventurist/survivalist Bear Grylls went through and now promotes?

  • Peregrine

    The only experience I had with Alpha was when I was in university, a couple of Christian friends went to the Alpha group meetings on campus. I assume it’s the same thing, more or less. One day, they ordered pizza for the group, but didn’t have much of a turnout that particular day, so they had way too much pizza. One of our friends came out and invited us in to help them finish the pizza.

    No pretense, no strings attached, no nothing. Just “Hey, guys! There’s pizza here, if you want some.”

    I assume that they’d finished most of the discussion, or decided to save it for a better attended meeting, because with the exception of two or three people talking briefly amongst themselves at the other end of the table, the conversation was not very religious at all. It was mostly casual chit-chat.

    They were friendly. Pretty good pizza, too. But then free pizza is usually pretty good.

  • @aerie : yep, that’s the one.

    Hemant, thanks for the plug! 🙂 You’re too kind. If you happen to make a surprise appearance at Skepticon 3, lemme buy you a beer.

  • Joe

    Two birds at once. Hit the Alpha website http://alphausa.org/Groups/1000065342/Alt_Home_page.aspx and ask GOD something Blasphemous on the home page!!
    I mean dude, what’s the deal with Loki?

  • I prefer the Omega course, where we eat free pizza, drink a bottle of rum and talk about how silly it is for anyone to believe the bible.

  • Joe Z.

    I attended an Alpha course when I was a Christian. I don’t remember much from it except the whole “faith in chairs” bit and the statement that God’s morality was too high for us to attain or even comprehend. I fully bought into that stuff back then, even though I had started questioning the morality of the Bible.

    Also, my mother suspected Nicky Gumbel might have some Iranian ancestry because he bears such a strong resemblance to my Iranian father. I didn’t buy it.

  • plublesnork

    Steven Novella took the Alpha course and wrote it up on his blog. At least, I’m pretty sure he did. NeuroLogica appears to be down right now.

  • Kyle N.

    If this is the Alpha Course, is the Omega Course the one where they tell you, “Sike! We made it all up.”

  • Cheryl

    That whole “faith in the chair” argument brought back some memories. It was used by the church youth leader from my born-again days in the 70’s. It was so over used that I pretty much ignored it – until …

    One night, after an intense workshop to teach us all how to witness and save people, some people were called up to improve a witness session. There were two or three of these all using the chair argument. Then the youth leader got up and talked about how valid that argument was. He then sat in the chair and it promptly collapsed under him.

    That was the best laugh I’d ever had and was the beginning of the end for me.

  • I actually went through the alpha course just a few years ago in college. I was just beginning to lose my faith at this point in my life, and I felt like the alpha course could help me “get back on the right track.”

    I attended a Christian college, and the group consisted of a few professors, the school chaplain, and students. We would watch Nicky’s video presentation and then have a group discussion.

    The videos are, I think, a pretty fair representation of how standard Evangelical-type churchgoers defend their faith. Nicky borrows heavily from writers like CS Lewis for his apologetics.

    A fair word of warning, however: each successive video assumes that the viewers accepted everything said in the previous videos. By the third or fourth session, almost everything discussed was irrelevant, because there were still so many logical fallacies that were unresolved from the first two sessions.

    These videos and (more importantly, perhaps) the discussions with other Christians which followed played a big part in my eventual deconversion. To hear my professors and classmates avoid my objections, to see them dance around my honest questions – well, you can imagine that it didn’t exactly prop up the already crumbling edifice that was my faith.

  • Whit

    A Christian friend of mine invited me to attend, only it wasn’t phrased as a Christian event, but in the frame of “Want to meet other friendly students and enjoy free coffee? Come to X room on friday night and talk about life”

    I googled the name and came up with their website, then linked it to the event page with a statement that there is nothing wrong with a religious event, but there is something fishy about not saying what it is up front. The response was immediate, they laughed it off as an atheist being paranoid, but changed the description to match the truth. I’m told only 5 people actually went, out of a campus of several thousand.

  • Being married to a Christian, I was persuaded a few years ago to attend church (a couple times a week) for about two years. I went through the equivalent of the Alpha course a number of times. I was partly motivated to learn what Christianity was all about (what they really believed) since I was raised without religion. After about two years of doing pretty much everything in the church, I finally got my fill and stopped going. Now no one in my immediate family goes to church.

    The bottom line is that if you were not raised religious and are curious what all the fuss is about (about Christianity) you might want to go to such a course.

    I have to say that from my experience in dabbling in Christianity, that I am more passionate about my atheism than I ever was before.

  • Deric, that sounds so familiar. My last year in college, I took a Philosophy of Religion course taught by an evangelical. He did a fantastic job of ignoring the glaring fallacies in his arguments for god’s existence and dancing around (without answering) the questions of the atheist students. Even as a believer I found his responses depressingly intellectually unsatisfying. I actually felt bad that he was such a poor defender of his beliefs.

  • Miko

    …false equivocation? That makes no sense.

    Something like “false equivalence” perhaps?

  • Focus on the Family has their own course called the “Truth Project”. If you really want to suffer try sitting through one of those.

  • @Miko : “false equivocation” is a perfectly cromulant term!
    Thanks for the correction; I’ll get that fixed.

  • Nordog

    Did someone say, “Sike!” ?

  • ACN

    My mom is regularly on my dad’s case about going to an alpha meeting because she says they answer all of his criticisms of christianity. He went once, and was annoyed and unimpressed.

  • hipopotamo

    I am from abroad, so I did not have the Alpha course per se. But this reminds me of one of my defining moments wrt my faith or lack of.

    I was a teenager and pretty much convinced of my agnosticism, but still tied by my past, traditions, family, etc.

    A girlfriend of mine invited me to a “spiritual retire”, an event in wich we would be isolated to learn about god, and at the end we would receive the Holy Spirit by means of hand-laying.

    Well, this event was the last straw: it convinced me of the psychologycal tactics of the church, of their predatory wasy with young, troubled minds, and of the complete irracionality of all.
    Of course I was labelled as a problem child from day one, and they prayed a lot when they layed hands on me claiming I had “too many ties”

    After that experience my journey into agnosticism was complete, though I waited almost 10 years to confess to the girl, she was so happy and extasiated I had received the holy spirit that I could not bear to tell her immediately.

  • Yours is far and away my favourite atheist blog, thanks for always putting up such interesting discussion topics – my friends and I all read this blog and then we sit down and have a chat over coffee in our university cafeteria… great stuff, keep it up!


  • Sounds stupid, but interesting. If I can find someone in the Vancouver, BC region I might be willing to check it out.

  • Aj

    I saw a documentary that followed 4 or 5 people who went on an Alpha Course, I think it was made one or two years ago. The people running it did use those stupid arguments about faith, and were not able to deal with even the standard arguments against faith or Christianity. They seemed to push a conservative, idiotic, and authoritarian form of Christianity. It seemed like the type of environment that breeds passive aggressive tits and unthinking twits, that’s basically what the Christians leading the “discussions” were.

  • @Miko,
    I think you’re correct — should just be the fallacy of equivocation, which is by definition false. However, I think the meaning is still clear in context.

  • Korou

    Thanks, Hemant! I love reading critiques of the Alpha Course!

    But I’ve still never seen one better than this:
    I’m sure everyone here will love it!

    This one too:
    Somehow, not so satisfying, I think – but a good read also. Maybe it’s because the first one, by Stephen Butterfield, was a skeptic in a group of Christians. The dialogue he quotes is fantastic!

  • There’s a small billboard near my house for the Alpha course that pictures a guy on a mountain peak with the tagline:

    “Is there more to life than this?”

    I want to print off a big sticker that says:

    “WTF? What more do you want?” – God

  • Actually, that’s not equivocation. The anology is apt because you cannot empirically demonstrate (thus ‘know’) before you sit down that it will hold your weight – you have to trust past experience, design standards etc. That one might perceive the amount of evidence and reasons for having faith in one thing over another is not equivocation.

    In fact, the common assertion that ‘faith is belief without evidence’ is what Christians mean when they talk about faith is equivocation, for Christian faith (see definition 8 here: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/faith?r=75&src=ref&ch=dic ) is trust in the historical person of Jesus. That one does not find the historical evidence for Jesus to be persuasive is not the same thing as there being no evidence.

  • I should have said – even though it’s not equivocation, it’s still not a very good analogy!

  • CelticBear’s experiences are interesting to read through, as is the inside conversation happening on this blog.

    I am working to organize a Veritas Forum on the campus of the University I attend.

    Reading through the comments here, I am disappointed the majority, if not the whole, of you have such negative, unconvincing and uninspiring experiences with Alpha meetings.

    As a Christian member of the Atheist and Agnostic club on campus, I observe this common thread among non-theists.

    I enjoy reading the comments on a lot of the posts here. I take the critiques and criticisms to heart. I greatly appreciate and value them!

    I agree so few Christians (some here may argue “all” Christians) are unskilled at explaining the faith they have, and cannot well – reasonably, rationally, or clearly – articulate why they believe what they believe.

    I assure those visiting this website that, though few can articulate their faith in God, some – and an increasing number of us – absolutely can and do.

    I encourage those still open to the possibility of God, or those wanting to observe and/or participate in a rational (yes, it’s possible) dialog on the reality and nature of God, to check out a Veritas Forum in your area. There are thinkers of substance who affirm the reality of God, and who can intelligently present valid reasons and compelling arguments (i.e. Dallas Willard, Leonard Sweet, Francis Collins, William Lane Craig, Rosalind Picard, and Ian H. Hutchinson, among many others) of and for this reality.

    The point is, Alpha classes likely suck (I’ve never been to one, but there seems to be a consensus here), and many or most Christians lack the ability to clearly articulate their faith (as I’m sure many non-theists do as well); however, there are people in your communities who can effectively express why they trust that God is. Try not to get caught up in the laughable, pseudo-apologetics you read in the media or on billboards.

    These are questions that concern each our permanent position and time in the universe. Seek out people who know what the hell they’re talking about, for crying out loud.




  • I’ve been looking for a local Alpha course for years. For some reason the churches in my area just aren’t interested in running them. So sad. 🙁

  • wow. i live in a different world. i’ve never heard of the “Alpha” course. i’m a little shaken by that and don’t know what to say.

    indoctrination isn’t new, i guess. churchie mind control sessions are obviously way more common than even a cynic like me wanted to assume. or should i say sales pitches? anything that needs a ten week course to convince you is… well, i won’t go there. i went to divinity school, so the irony is not lost on me. but i tend to speak of religion as political, as about power, as about control and money. treating it like it is real, even as a “skeptic” is really, mostly foreign to me. as Hoss says (atrios) “i just don’t get it.” i dabbled in some mysticism for a while, but like smoking pot in college, i got over it. it’s mostly impossible for me to understand why anyone would take a course like this. other than dating. i’m sure you could meet some chicks at a gig like this, albeit not really hot ones.

  • Alex

    I’ve recently started taking the Alpha course. I’ll be attending the third evening next week.

    Given that you can access the presentations by Gumbel online, and assuming you have food at home, the main reason for attending are the discussions, along with a nifty little book outlining the main points of the presentations.

    I mistakenly went to the evenings thinking that I’d be hit hard with historical facts concerning the authenticity of the NT, but found that I knew more about NT scholarship than the people there. They took what Gumbel said about parallels between the gospels and other historical documents at face value, and didn’t have much to say when I opined that there may be reasons for accepting Caesar’s Gallic war that don’t apply to the Bible (Physical evidence, eyewitnesses, consistency with the laws of nature, etc).

    My discussion group comprised of some of professionals (a clinical psychologist, a care worker and a car salesman), and some teenagers and graduate students.

    One young lady said that she found evidence boring, and believed because of the good that Christianity did for society (even though anybody with strong beliefs about ethics will be motivated to act on them), and a number of answered prayers that sounded like coincidences.

    Someone else argued that the Big Bang theory was as ridiculous as the Biblical account of creationism, which she also described as a theory.

    All in all, your experiences of the course may be different from me, but don’t expect any revelations. Go to the course for the discussions; you may either derive some comedy value from them, or set some people straight about the nature of science, statistics, and biblical criticism.

  • Gordon

    As far as I recall they present as “contemporary historical accounts” the writings of historians born decades after the supposed death of Jesus.

    The people delivering the course may not realise they are lying for jesus, but the people who made the content must know!

  • Penny

    Jon Ronson wrote about his experience of going on an Alpha Course: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2000/oct/21/weekend7.weekend

    He also recently made a follow-up documentary which was shown here in the UK.

  • Ceryle

    My mum made me go as a teenager when I told her I didn’t believe any of it. They give you the intro stuff, and a list of topics at the beginning – the one that interested me was the ‘why Christianity?’ (or something like that – I am talking 20 years ago). It was supposed to be a comparison of different religions, but I was disappointed that it was only ‘this group doesn’t believe in the trinity, so they are no good’ or ‘this group has more than one god, so they are no good’. No real comparisons at all.

    For some reason my mum was disappointed that the alpha course didn’t bring me back to the fold.

  • Aj


    That one does not find the historical evidence for Jesus to be persuasive is not the same thing as there being no evidence.

    There’s rather weak historical evidence that a man called Jesus was a claimed prophet with followers around that time and place. Fine, I’m willing to tentatively accept that a man claimed to be a prophet, it’s unremarkable, many have, and many will. Is there historical evidence for the canonical Christian account? No. Is there a reason to believe the canonical Christian account over other gospel accounts apart from faith? No. Is there a reason to believe the canonical Christian account over the hundreds if not thousands of other claimed prophets and mysticisms throughout the ages other than faith? No.

  • We held Alpha courses at my Episcopal church for a number of years, and I was one of the lead organizers / group leaders (my sainted wife being in charge of the food).

    Nicky’s theology tends to be a bit more evangelical and conservative than most of the Episcopalians in our parish, and he tends to swing from maudlin to over-confident in various areas. And, as noted, he builds on “Well, you accepted X last time, so now you have to accept Y this time,” which was hardly ever so.

    That said, it was a useful springboard for (a) some really fine fellowship, and (b) some good discussion about religion and faith (esp. in areas where folks disagreed with Nicky). It didn’t work as indoctrination, but it did help (in our use of it) folks actually think about what they believed, which I think is always a useful thing.

    (Plus: good food.)

  • muggle

    Never even heard of it and I’m amazed since I went to three different Protestant churches growing up. I thought it must be something new then saw people’s comments about it being around in the 70’s. 😮 How could I have never heard of this or the chair analogy before?

    How utterly ridiculous. And why would anyone willingly subject themselves to that for any reason other than Deric’s. Rather sounds like they don’t. Like they mostly go either tricked or pressured into it by family members.

  • Secular Stu

    That one does not find the historical evidence for Jesus to be persuasive is not the same thing as there being no evidence.

    Actually that is the same thing. Or to be more precise, saying there is not a single piece of evidence that is persuasive is the same as saying there is no evidence. Otherwise it would lead to such absurd positions as saying there is evidence that Abraham Lincoln traveled through time and shot JFK from the grassy knoll. My grandfather said so, it’s an eyewitness account. So you all may find the evidence unpersuasive, but that doesn’t mean there’s no evidence.

  • Chris Jones

    Korou, I was going to post Stephen Butterfield’s blog on his experience with the Alpha Course and you’ve beaten me to it. Thank you for that other one, though. I enjoy reading these.

  • Tom

    Sounds a lot like Catholic confirmation classes. Learn about what faith means in everyday life, explain what Jesus means to you, all sorts of other substance-less lessons. None of which came with anything but a 2000 year old book and word of mouth to explain how anybody knows this stuff is true.

    Going through the Confirmation process at my church just turned me from a teenage kid with questions into an an atheist with knowledge. Catholocism could not answer “how do you know we Catholics are right and everybody else is wrong” without invoking scripture or supposed miracles. Neither could any other religion. Atheism offered the honest answer “we don’t know. yet.”

  • John

    After reading the entire 11 entries of the Stephen Butterfield Alpha Course, that was an ordeal! – It reminded me of my Jehovah’s Witness years and it was traumatic!

  • King Aardvark attended Alpha Course, and wrote up a whole entertaining series about it. Look here for starters. 😀

  • I ran one for a couple years on a campus (I’m a Christian). In that time we probably had about a quarter of the guests identify as atheists, some more as agnostics. Of course they wouldn’t have been completely honest with me but in the follow-ups many of them really loved the course even though they didn’t agree with the conclusions. Some even came back to help with the next course. The beauty of the course is that it is not primarily an evangelistic tool – its primarily a discussion tool (if the leaders follow the training, and I know many don’t).

    The downside as pointed out is that there are some logical fallacies. That’s fairly inevitable whenever the content has to be shortened significantly (still could be better). But that is also an upside if the leaders are running their groups right because people will have no qualms bringing those up in the small groups which is the heart of the course. Then people can discuss those fallacies: was Nicky right in his simplification? Was he wrong? Was his conclusion right but he didn’t include all the steps in his reasoning?

    All in all, even as a Christian I didn’t agree with all his content but I did love the format because I can honestly say that every viewpoint was welcomed in that discussion.

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