An Atheist’s Account of Going Through an Alpha Course

Atheist Tabatha Leggett attended a six-week Alpha Course, which she refers to as “Christianity’s most successful recruitment program,” and wrote about her experience for New Statesman.

Turns out it didn’t convince her to change her mind. But it’s still fun to read:

Discussion time isn’t fruitful. Natalie asks me how I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example. I explain that I work out what makes my peers happy and try to do those things. Everyone laughs, which I find confusing because I’m not joking.

Then we talk about which bits of the Bible we should take literally. Louise tells me I’ll work it out if I read the Bible. I tell her I’ve read it. She says I will never develop a full understanding because I’m not God so I can’t understand everything. This is becoming a recurring theme. These people have answers to some problems, but as soon as they hit a brick wall they settle for not understanding God and refuse to think through alternatives.

“Anyone feel unconvinced by the power of prayer?” Natalie asks. “YES,” I feel like shouting. “YOU’RE IDIOTS. ALL OF THOSE THINGS WERE PROBABLY COINCIDENCES THAT YOU’RE READING TOO MUCH INTO.” But I can’t say anything because how can you say those things to a group of people who have shared intimate facts about miscarriages and are now crying?

Logic: Always getting in the way of a good emotion-based brainwashing.

You have to wonder how so many millions of people have been taken in by this anti-intellectual conversion course. (Wait, I think I answered my own question.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • tinker

    So, now Xtians need to have an example of how to act morally? I am even more scared now, thanks.

    • Imblan

      Not examples, COMMANDS. They need commands on how to behave. If nobody COMMANDS you, then you’re an anarchist, troublemaker, a sinner, devil worshiper. If people act based on their own commands or some other external commands not coming from the group, then you can’t be trusted.

      • ortcutt

        There’s a word for giving oneself one’s own law. It’s “autonomy”. They are terrified by autonomy. If people don’t learn to blindly obey, how are men going to control women, and how are the rich going to control the poor?

        • phantomreader42

          “Unless we conform, unless we obey orders, unless we follow our leaders blindly, there is no hope we can remain free.” ~Major Frank Burns

          Decades ago, Frank Burns on M*A*S*H was written as an over-the-top PARODY of an incompetent conservative hypocrite, a man who mindlessly supported military action despite himself being a coward, and demanded to rule over other surgeons due to his rank even though he was the least competent surgeon in the camp. Today, his teachings are the core of modern conservative religion and politics.

          • Guest

            All must bow down before Ferret Face.

            • phantomreader42

              Hey, that’s offensive! Ferrets are beautiful and noble creatures, they have nothing in common with that incompetent asshat. :P

              (yes, I’m joking in the same vein as apologizing to mustelids for comparing politicians and religious apologists with weasels)

      • Michael W Busch

        Most people don’t need commands on how to behave. Many religions wrongly teach that people do, and then provide a set of commands. It can be thought of as creating a demand for the product.

  • Trickster Goddess

    Natalie asks me how I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example.

    Gaah!!! It drives me nuts whenever I hear this clueless question. To me it seems so freaking obvious: if I am going to do something, is it going to hurt someone physically/financially/emotionally/whatever? Then I probably shouldn’t do it. Is it going to help someone in some way? Then I’ll probably do it because it will increase their net happiness and I will feel happy about that.

    Anyone with a gram of empathy and nominally functioning pre-frontal cortex can figure it out.

    I had this exact discussion with my missionary sister not too long ago. As I said to her then: I don’t need a friggin instruction manual to figure out how to be nice to people.

    • Ellie

      I always feel like responding to that by saying…

      “Um, because I’m not an idiot”

      I really don’t think a question like that even deserves an answer. Perhaps we should all just stop answering it because it may make them feel like it is a question that has some merit if we entertain it.

      • 3lemenope

        “How can you even be good without Jesus?”

        [Icy stare]

        “If you can’t even base your actions…”

        [One eyebrow arches]

        “…on an unchanging, objective source…”

        [The other eyebrow joins its companion in attempting to high jump off the face]

        “…how can you even know what’s right and wrong?!”

        [Slow, incredulous nod of bemusement with smirk]

        • randomfactor

          So, like Jesus, they oppose divorce? They follow the kosher laws as he (presumably) did?

          • phantomreader42

            No, of course not. Because the more you TALK about jeebus, the less you have to ACT like jeebus!

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      And exactly how would apply Jesus’s teachings to today’s moral quandaries. If you’re a contractor working for the NSA and you discover that the government is spying on citizens, what do you do? Please back up your answer with biblical references. Best is if you can get two of them to disagree with each other, and arguing scripture.

      (Edit: my online grammar seems to be devolving)

      • Hat Stealer

        And really, exactly how many of Jesus’s (Jesuses? Jesus’?) teachings are applicable in today’s world? I tried disowning my mother- it didn’t work out well.

        • allein

          Jesus’ or Jesus’s…Chicago Manual of Style likes either one. ;)

        • Alice

          I ran out of body parts (Matt. 5:29-30).

  • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

    “I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example”

    For example, based on Jesus’s behavior it is moral to tell a woman who had sex, consensual or otherwise, outside of marriage, that she should be stoned –that it is moral for her to be stone. But you’re not going to stone her, because no one is good enough to stone her now. Also you should remind her that at some latter date you will stone her forever and ever, because you love her.

    Also it is moral to kill a fig tree (or as implied a person) if they don’t give you fruit on demand, even though it is out of season. (Also that it is ok to through a mountain into the sea regardless of the ecological consequences.)

    • Tom

      The real question to ask them is “how can you tell Jesus was moral?”

      • Reginald Selkirk

        Because he did moral things, like cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season, and calling Canaanites ‘dogs.’

      • baal

        He washed some feet and is the son of god. QED

      • trj

        He told people to treat their slaves fairly – as in, not killing them, just beating them to within an inch of their lives.

        (Well, technically God said that, but God and Jesus are supposed to be the same person).

    • Carmelita Spats

      He also ordered a hit on his enemies…He wasn’t going to get his hands dirty, others have to kill for him…Luke 19:27…Says Jesus, “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.”

      • trj

        Actually, that was from a parable Jesus was telling. It wasn’t his personal command.

        • Matt D

          And how does one determine this is a parable?

          • trj

            Well, it should be pretty clear from the fact that Luke 19:11 says “While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable…”, followed by the story of a cruel nobleman who commands his slaves/servants to be brought before him and killed.

            Take a look.

            • Art_Vandelay

              What is the lesson he’s trying to teach from this parable? Because it seems to me as I read on that after he finishes the parable, he has his buddies steal a colt and proceeds to ride into Jerusalem sort of implying that anyone who doesn’t think he’s the Lord is going to catch some stones to the head.

              • trj

                What is the lesson he’s trying to teach from this parable?

                I think the common interpretation is that Jesus is telling his disciples he’s like the nobleman, hinting that if they don’t meticulously carry out his will while he “temporarily” leaves them he’ll doom them upon his return, strict and wrathful ruler that he is. So he’s basically being a jerk to his disciples.

    • Art_Vandelay

      Then there was that time in the temple market where he got pissed that people were selling their sheep so he just started whipping everyone.

    • Hat Stealer

      Guys guys guys… those are all clearly metaphors. Anything in the Bible that makes God or Jesus look bad is a metaphor. Didn’t you know that?

  • primenumbers

    I’d very much like to see backup on the “success” of alpha. From what I understand most people going through it are already Christian (and are there basically to fill in the numbers because of the very small number of non-Christians that ever attend) and hence very very few people are ever actually converted, and certainly not enough to stem the tide of people leaving Christianity in the countries where alpha is used.

  • The Militant One

    This points up once again the difference between morality vs ethics: Religious morality is doing what you are told regardless of what is right. Ethics is doing what is right regardless of what you are told.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      The words morality and ethics are for the most part interchangeable. Note that you had to use the adjective religious to distinguish between them.

  • Tom Donald

    Hemant I think you should be greatly cheered by the very low levels of christianity in the UK, most “normal” people don’t go to church anymore, the people who are left in the ever diminishing congregations are either very old or very enthusiastic… and the enthusiasts sometimes try the Alpha Course idea to snare the curious outsider. Perhaps some people fall for it! But nothing has stemmed the long term decline of christianity in these islands, it’s shrinking still, and it won’t be long before it’s no larger than any other crazy little millennial cult. Happy days!

    • Katwise

      Sometimes I think that the U.S. founders should have established an official church; if Europe is any indication, we would be well on the way to a truly secular society.

  • Rain

    Discussion time isn’t fruitful. Natalie asks me how I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example.

    Like it’s just oh so totally obvious that Jesus is the only god out there.

  • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

    Six week indoctrination courses that prey on the gullible and socially outcast? Why am I not surprised. Just one more abomination on the list for Christianity.

  • Art_Vandelay

    Natalie asks me how I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example.

    That is absolutely terrifying.

  • John Small Berries

    Here’s another atheist’s account of going through the Alpha course – but in his case, it was twelve weeks long.

    Reading these accounts, I realize that the authors have far more patience for irrationality than I do.

    • Anna

      On the one hand, I think it might be interesting to do something like this. However, I’m not sure I have the patience to deal with it. I’m not terribly outspoken either, so I don’t think I’d be able to do much more than stew in silence.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        My local mega church has put it on in the past, and schedule permitting I’d like to go.

        I happened to listen to a sermon at said church a couple of years back, and the pastor was talking about a book he was writing “the best arguments to give your non-believing friends” and was asking for volunteers to read it and give him feedback. I emailed and said if he wanted someone from the target audience to read it, I’d be happy to. He wrote back wanting to know a bit more about me (understandable). I replied with a short bio, and my community connections, and an offer to meet him for coffee at his convenience. I never heard back from him.

        Reminds me, I should see if that book ever got published.

        The one example he gave in the sermon was something about how “the fact that we experience love means God exists” ignoring any evolutionary advantages to long term pair bonding, or effects of Oxytocin on voles http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA4w–HP7tc

        • Anna

          Interesting. I wonder if any of these people realize how poor and unconvincing their arguments actually are.

          One of the local Presbyterian churches advertises an Alpha course. They have big banner hanging out right now. I’d be too scared to go to one at an evangelical mega church, but I imagine the mainline Protestants might be slightly more palatable.

  • beatlefreak9

    One of the members of my Secular Humanist Association discovered that there were Alpha meetings on campus that had really good food, so a couple of us went to the last few meetings of the semester.

    Everybody there was actually really respectful and open to discussion – and my group really grilled them ;) It was a positive experience, though nobody on either side was converted.

  • Miss_Beara

    From the article:

    But the weirdest and most upsetting claim comes from Maya, who asked God to let her leave her job. A week later, she fell pregnant and saw that as a sign that she should leave. She miscarried her child. Three days later, the company she worked for closed. “I thought God gave me a child, but He actually closed down my company,” she said. “He answered my prayer, but not how I expected.”

    I don’t even…

    • Art_Vandelay

      Well, you see…it’s just that Maya…God…I got nothing.

      • JWH

        Well it illustrates one thing to me. I don’t believe in a god, but I have begun to think that irony is one of the fundamental forces of the universe.

      • Miss_Beara

        He made everyone lose their jobs for Maya’s benefit…

        or something.

  • Matt D

    “Natalie asks me how I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example.”
    Since Jesus isn’t the only example of moral behavior, this question is irrelevant.

  • JKPS

    But how do they know the Bible is right? “No offence, Tabatha,” replies Louise, “but the Bible is quite far-fetched. I don’t get why someone would have made that stuff up if it weren’t true.” It sounds like I’m lying, but I’m not.

    Well, that just made my day.

    • kagekiri

      Haha, yeah, the argument from “this is too ridiculous not to be true!” is really a thing.

      It’s definitely one of the more embarrassing things to have once believed as a former Christian, in my personal experience.

      They do like to tie it to “who would die for a lie so ridiculous?” so you feel bad for thinking all those so-called martyrs who might have died because of a ridiculous lie…

      • allein

        I was listening to a podcast the other day with Richard Carrier talking about whether Jesus really existed and the “argument from embarassment” was mentioned, which is similar to “if they were willing to die for it, it must be true”; essentially, if something might embarass the author, and they publish it anyway, it must be true. Of course, all that proves is that the author (or the one willing to die) thinks it’s true. I don’t understand how that doesn’t occur to the people making these arguments…

        • Lurker111

          “if they were willing to die for it, it must be true”

          One word: Jonestown.

          • allein

            Yeah…reading that post right now..

        • kagekiri

          Some believers may have these exact same doubts and see the holes, but they’re actively trying to ignore or dismantle their doubts and will do anything to shore up their beliefs. It’s really quite the set of blinkers.

          When I saw evolutionary proof as a Creationist, I usually tried to ignore the sources outright. When bringing up theological inconsistencies in Bible studies, I actively helped the group swerve away from awareness with “well, doesn’t really matter if we think it’s fishy, His ways are higher, just focus on God and pray for faith”.

          And yeah, great point with that specific dismantling. I always harbored similar problems with the argument, like “we’re not the only religion who has martyrs obviously convinced they have the truth.”

          But when you believe in demons and the Bible full of accusations of demon-worship against other religions, well, you have lots of ways to rationalize supernatural reasons how they could be so deluded as to die for a lie.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      So there’s this guy named Mohamed, and he flew to heaven on this winged horse. Seriously!

      • 3lemenope

        Ooh, ooh! And there’s this guy named Siddhartha who defeated a host of demons by sitting under a fig tree and thinking really hard! Seriously!

      • Michael W Busch

        Well, at least the first part of that one is true, although the second is nonsense. The same can’t be said of Siddhartha, and possibly not of Jesus.

        • rtanen

          There are plenty of people named Jesus, you could probably meet one in person in certain areas due to naming conventions.

    • trj

      By this standard I estimate Scientology to be 3000% true.

  • Hat Stealer

    There’s a simple message to stories like this: religion is stupid, and anyone who invests their life in it is stupid, at least as far as their beliefs are concerned.

  • JWH

    I’m somewhat surprised that New Frontiersman commenters are arguing about the historicity of Jesus. That philosopher’s existence is really a separate issue from his divine status.

  • Anna

    Natalie asks me how I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example.

    Wow. Haven’t these people ever bothered to learn anything about any culture other than their own? Don’t they know that there are billions of people who have never even heard of Jesus, yet manage to live happy, productive, moral lives? It’s astonishing that some Christians could be so ignorant not only of history, but also of the reality of life in other countries. This is the 21st century, not the 19th.

    • Michael W Busch

      Don’t they know that there are billions of people who have never even
      heard of Jesus, yet manage to live happy, productive, moral lives?

      I don’t think that one is true. Most of the world’s population knows a little bit about the Jesus story. It’s just that the majority of them recognize that there is no justification for the claims Christianity makes, and that the character of Jesus is neither necessary for moral behavior nor a good example of it.

      • Anna

        I was thinking past and present. There are certainly billions of people throughout history who never heard of Jesus. And while it’s true that the efforts of missionaries have made at least the name familiar in most far-flung locations, there are still people (millions, I would imagine) who don’t know any of the stories associated with Jesus and have never read (or even seen) a Bible. There are billions of people who live in countries where Christians are either a tiny minority or completely non-existent.

        • Michael W Busch

          There are certainly billions of people throughout history who never heard of Jesus.

          That much is certain.

          There are still people (millions, I would imagine) who don’t know any of the stories associated with Jesus and have never read (or even seen) a Bible.

          True, but most of those people will eventually acquire some knowledge of Christianity (however distorted).

          • Anna

            Perhaps, but it’s doubtful that those people would learn very much. Americans live in a society where access to knowledge is almost univeral, only a click away on our computers. Yet how many Americans could tell you any of the stories associated with Buddhist or Hindu religious figures? I would guess it would be fewer than 5%, and we’re in the developed world. Many people who live in non-Christian countries don’t have the ability to read at all, and many more don’t have computers or books with which to do research.

            • Michael W Busch

              how many Americans could tell you any of the stories associated with Buddhist or Hindu religious figures?

              Pew Forum data say it’s ~50% and ~40% respectively (http://www.pewforum.org/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx ).

              But you’re quite correct that the knowledge that many people have about world religions is fragmentary. And the Pew data show that that often extends to the religion they identify with (e.g. ~50% of American Protestants were unable to identify Martin Luther as a central figure of the Reformation).

              My disagreement was with your initial statement that billions of people “have never even heard of Jesus”. One in seven people out of the current population is a bit high for not having been exposed to that particular bit of knowledge.

              • Anna

                I’m very familiar with the Pew Forum survey, but it doesn’t measure that information, namely what percentage of Americans could tell you any of the stories associated with Buddhist or Hindu religious figures. Knowing their names is different from knowing anything about them.

                In addition, fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism. And only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) correctly answer that most people in Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population – are Muslims.

                How many of those 38% who know the names of Vishnu and Shiva could tell you stories about them? Beyond knowing his name, how many could tell you stories about the life of Buddha? How many could tell you any of the stories from the Vedas and Upanishads, or the Tripitaka? I would estimate that number to be under 5%.

                I’m certainly willing to concede that billions of modern day people not having heard the name of Jesus is likely incorrect. Due to the efforts of missionaries, I would assume most have at least heard the name. However, those in predominantly non-Christian societies are not likely to know more than the name. They wouldn’t have met any Christians, wouldn’t have read the Bible, and wouldn’t be familiar with stories about Jesus.

                • Michael W Busch

                  How many of those 38% who know the names of Vishnu and Shiva could tell you stories about them? Beyond knowing his name, how many could tell you stories about the life of Buddha?

                  That becomes a question of the knowledge required to tell a story. “Buddha supposedly said all existence is suffering” is technically a story, albeit a simple one. And there are certainly many people who have had little personal experience with Christians and know very little beyond “Christians worship this character called Jesus, who supposedly died and came back to life”.

                  I cannot speak to the detailed distribution of knowledge about religions.


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