Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A fair picture of the Alpha course?

Channel 4, as is their want, showed an interesting, if slightly eyebrow raising documentary on Sunday about the Alpha Course, the worldwide phenomenon started by Nicky Gumbel in London that claims to give agnostics the chance to find out what life is really about through a particular religion (Christianity).

I have heard one or two moans about the way the presenter seemed to go in with a preconceived idea of how the documentary was to turn out. I was interested, as I have been on an Alpha Course, to see how his version compared with my experience.

There were several aspects that didn't ring true, though some of these may have been down to the course portrayed being a high power version at St Aldates in Oxford, where the one I attended was a small village affair, held in someone's home. Probably the most doubtful aspect was the claim that part of the course's template was to have food served by (I paraphrase) 'attractive young Christian women.' Having a meal was certainly part of it, but that's as far as it went.

However, the documentary was, I think, quite fair in picking out some of the oddities of the course. The weekend away that I attended was much lower key than the one shown and didn't involve speaking in tongues - I would have been among those who were clearly highly uncomfortable if my experience had been like the one shown.

Jon Ronson, the documentary maker, missed what was, for me, the weakest part of the course. Each session introduced a concept. In the discussion afterwards, just as in the film, concerns were voiced about some aspects of the concept, which were rarely effectively answered. But then next week, the course moves on as if the previous session has fixed all the issues. So the whole thing does seem, to me, to be built on shaky foundations.

All in all, I thought it was a surprisingly fair look at Alpha. Before each advert break there were examples of ridiculous over-hyping about how 'someone would make an amazing change' or whatever... and it should have been made clearer that the big flashy St Aldates course is not typical of the sort of thing most churches around the world do with Alpha - but I can't agree with those who think this was a hatchet job.


  1. I'm not religious at all and would never go on an alpha course as I have no desire to be. I do get slightly concerned, though, about the current uprising of the 'fundamental atheist' led by Prof Dawkins who believe that everyone should be pushed to share their own atheist beliefs because 'it's the only intelligent viewpoint'. Personally, that scares me. People should be allowed to believe and live any way they choose. Dawkins says religion causes wars but he's wrong. Lack of respect and tolerence of people having different opinions from you is what causes wars and violence.

    Lol - sorry my rant's not everso relevant to your post - but something made me think of that when I read it so I'll press send anyway.

  2. I think the alpha course is interesting in part because it's aimed at agnostics.

    I totally agree with your analysis of Richard Dawkins - and there are a lot of atheist scientists who agree. He does science no favours with his beligerence and lack of tolerance. (Quite how he got a chair of public understanding of science, when he clearly doesn't understand the public is incomprehensible.)

    No need to apologize - it's a valuable addition.

  3. There seems to be a lot of hype surrounding the man. I do think he's interesting and makes some good points in his book, but also scary. I blame the New Scientist too. I love that mag and we get it every week, but there was a period about two or so years ago when they seemed to be pushing his agenda. I think it was mostly a (over)reaction to the whole creationist movement in the US but still... They are by far the most popular science magazine and what they do and say makes a difference.