Monday 17 August 2009

How the Alpha Course turned me into an Atheist

Like everyone on this planet, I was born an atheist. I was also fortunate enough to have non religious, liberal and enlightened parents. However the religious beliefs that soak our culture drew me in during my teenage years due to a mixture of circumstance, chance and curiosity.

I made some of my longest-standing and dearest friends through the Church (Methodist in my case), and I become deeply involved with the Church during my late teenage years. I even briefly sat on my local Church council to give the youth perspective.

However, despite attending a Billy Graham rally, I never actually experienced the highly emotional blinding light on the road to Damascus that clearly denotes the conversion point of many born again Christians. But I wanted to believe, I wanted to fit in with my new friends, I could see the Church as a force for good and I even enjoyed many of the sermons from the very good minister that we had at the time. Anyway, not everyone undergoes the sudden life changing experience, for many, it’s a slow gradual process, and that’s how I expected it would be for me.

As a younger child, I had, as I do now, an interest in science. Although I accept that many scientists have a meaningful faith, I now find the two viewpoints massively contradictory. I handled this at the time by simply ignoring science. My Church certainly never instructed that conventional science was wrong, they just focussed my attentions on more spiritual matters. So I was confirmed and I continued regularly and enthusiastically attending church, while putting any contradictory scientific notions to the back of my mind.

Over many years however my faith wasn’t growing, although fully supporting the Church, I was finding more and more sermons harder to swallow. And so my local Church, suggested, nay insisted, that I attended their next Alpha course.

I turned up at the first meeting naively expecting answers to be revealed, wisdom to be bestowed upon me and my faith to be reignited. Instead, I found myself simply unable to accept the theologies when they were laid out in front of me in all their irrational detail.

During the alpha sessions I came to realise that those with stronger faith than me, hadn’t understood something that I couldn’t grasp, they hadn’t gained extra knowledge or wisdom that I was still seeking, they had just made a blind leap of faith.

Whilst at the Alpha course, I realised that I was not going to get the intellectually satisfying answers that I sought. I was standing at the edge of a precipice while others encouraged me to make that leap of faith. But to make that leap I would have to accept things I knew to be irrational and contradictory to empirical evidence. Yes there were nice things on offer on the other side, but I decided that I would be being dishonest to myself and deliberately deluding myself if I were to make that leap.

Looking back at the Alpha course now, it seems that focusing my mind on the questions that I had been putting to the back of mind in order to retain some semblance of faith is what caused the fragile foundation of that faith to simply collapse.

Despite actively seeking a faith, I do not now mourn the loss of the little faith I had. I have worked my way through countless popular science books, and while I don’t claim that science has all the answers, or that I fully understand it all, I have nonetheless gained a rational and natural understanding of the world that gives for me more satisfaction, awe and pleasure than my spiritual journey brought me.

Apologies for the lack of satirical content, normal service will be resumed in the next post.


Paul S. Jenkins said...

Crispian, did you see Jon Ronson's recent TV documentary on Alpha?

I found it more revealing of the course format than the David Frost series on Alpha a few years ago, but I felt that the earlier series delved more into the individual participants' motivations. Jon Ronson's film had hints of the freak show about it.

I recall the earlier series was not allowed to film the "talking in tongues" part, which - given what was shown in the more recent programme - was probably a good idea.

Interesting that you didn't get intellectually satisfying answers from your course. The impression given by Jon Ronson's film was that the whole thing is based on a purely emotional acceptance, and is therefore only likely to 'work' with someone who's pretty much 'there already'.

Crispian Jago said...

Thanks for the comment Paul, I did watch Jon Ronson's Alpha doc and enjoyed his comment to the supermarket bin raider about taking communion in order to get free food and drink.

We never had the week end away or the speaking in tongues on my Alpha.

Dr Michael Ward said...

I tried to listen to your radio show, but they wanted me to install RealPlayer - which is a kind a Trojan. I have a freeware player that will play realplayer type files but it wouldn't play yours. I may just have to give in and install real player and zap it again once you've finished speaking - the things I do for scepticism! Anyway lets' see if this commenting malarkey works on your new blog site.

Bender said...

I do not understand why so many skeptics say that they are atheist. It seems to me that saying there is/are no god(s) - atheist - is as much a leap of faith as saying this is/are god(s) - theist.

What reasons do you have for not being agnostic?

Crispian Jago said...


Thanks for commenting.

I agree that you don’t have to be an atheist to be a skeptic or vice versa, but I strongly disagree with everything else you say.

I did not have to take a leap of faith to become an atheist; it was my blank, default starting point from birth. My understanding of the world since that point has formed from scientific facts that I do not take on faith, I take then on empirical evidence. There is therefore no leap of faith required.

Bertrand Russell’s teapot is a tired old cliché but it answers your comment.

If I say that there is a celestial teapot orbiting the sun that you cannot see, I suspect your default position would be not to accept the existence of the tea pot. You wouldn’t have to take a leap of faith to disbelieve in the teapot as there is no evidence to suggest it is really there. You would however, have to make a leap of faith if you wanted to believe in the teapot in the absence of any evidence to support its existence.

Where does the burden of proof lie? Should we assume the teapot exists unless the unbelievers can irrefutably disprove it, or should we be skeptical on the existence of the teapot until the believers can prove that it does exists? I think the later.

Finally, you may still not believe in the teapot, but you cannot conclusively disprove the non existence of the teapot, so why not call yourself a teapot agnostic just in case it does exist? Because it suggests your midway between believing and not believing, when in fact your much further along the disbelieving side

Dr Michael Ward said...


A question:

Are you agnostic or atheist when it comes to the existence of Thor?

Bender said...

I thought I was agnostic about the existence of all gods, but after Crispian's answer, I seem to be a confused atheist.

At least a small part of me wants a "creator" to exist, but the larger more rational part says that one doesn't.

Unknown said...

Seems to me there's a difference between what you want to be true and what we've learned to be true. It's not really moral to go around believing things because we want them to be true or because they promise us bribes or scare us with threats if we don't believe them. You wouldn't go round believing things if you were trying to decide something relatively (by comparison) trivial such as if a guy was guilty or not. That's why I think the term juryist is more useful than atheist. A juryist makes a commitment not to believe things. Certainly not ideas that try to nobble him by promising rewards or threatening punishments if only you will let them in. A juryist will accept an idea if and only if it is true, if it is evidenced. That is the only moral way to behave.
Even the theists say that you have to have faith, you have to believe their ideas, these are ajuryistic. If it is not something that we have learnt or discovered and is just an idea that gets to be popular through jury nobbling and tricks like Dan Dennet's lancet fluke, appealing to us, trying all the tricks in the book to struggle against all the other ideas in the world of ideas, well at least the "weak atheists" have the courage to accept only whatsover is true.

Skepticat said...

Really interesting post, Crispian.

I don't really agree with the notion that we were all born atheist because I think the label 'atheist', as it is commonly understood, is a stance that implies one has actually heard of the gods one doesn't believe in. It implies at a least few seconds thought. I think a better label for babies and anyone else who's never heard of gods is simply non-theist, which doesn't carry the same implications.

Monkeynuts said...

I'm not trying to argue against scientific discovery and invention, but it does annoy me when people go on about "empirical evidence." It sounds great, doesn't it... "lots of other silly people believe lies, I only believe things that are empirically true."

Empirical means based on experimentation... experiments that have been designed by humans, that are not (by definition) designed to pick up on things that - well - they haven't been designed to pick up! An experiment isn't a telescope; "we did an experiment to investigate the conductive properties of toast, and unexpectedly discovered there is a god" - I don't think so.

I have decided that much as I love the study and application of "science" (or natural philosphy, as it used to be called), it isn't deserving of the highest level of trust I'm able to give. You have decided otherwise, which is fine. But as irrational as I may seem to you, your position looks to me like a computer that processes binary data when presented with a ham sandwich. "Hurrr hurr... illogical... where are the 1's and 0's!!!!"

I have no problem basing a lot of my actions on empirical evidence. In the hospital, you need to be able to show why you chose a particular course of action - but actually, for people who work in these fields, it's a lot less about "proving" something either way, and more about saying "if we treated you with this drug 1000 times, about 800 of those times you'd live, rather than 300 if we didn't treat." That's the day to day face of "empirical evidence", not people waltzing around using it like some kind of superphrase that means the same as "absolute".

I'm not saying that there are no "holes" in my faith; I've been presented with an option - someone saying "look at this old and slightly weird book, it says God exists (and so on and so forth)", and I've decided that based on my experience and observations about people, the nature of life etc I'm going to trust it. Again, you disagree - fine. But ultimately it's a decision of authority, or trust, or whatever you want to call it. I don't call you petty names because you chose differently, perhaps one day you guys will grow up and return the favour.

obsessivenormalcy said...

I definitely can relate - for most of my life, I found it hard to believe the things I learned about Christianity in church and from my parents and friends. It seemed obvious to me that there were flaws in religious arguments, but being raised in a small Christian town with no real exposure to the outside world, I didn't know what to believe in it's place. I became worried that my skepticism was a way of Satan getting at me, and became angry, depressed, and confused that despite my prayers, I couldn't shake it.
I was 10 years old at the time. I didn't embrace my inevitable shift towards atheism until 4 or 5 years later. Once I made the decision to stop trying to believe in God, I no longer felt burdened. I was still scared to share my beliefs with my peers, though, in fear of rejection. A few months ago I finally told my friends, and though they are devout Christians, they accepted me. I'm 17 years old now, and extremely happy and proud of who I am.

Roger O'Donnell said...

In my experience, the 'Alpha' stands for 'Amway.' It's pyramid selling