Since becoming an atheist and engaging with Christians within churches in evangelical circles, the suggestion almost inevitably surfaces that I and others go on an “Alpha Course” to explore the Christian faith and deal with our doubts. For those who don’t know, the Alpha Course is a course run over several weeks, by which people interested in the Christian faith get invited along, to eat a meal and discuss the Christianity in a relaxed context and which has shown to be incredibly successful in adding to members of the church around the world. This course seems to be the default method of conversion in a Christians mind and often the only method they have at their disposal, leading to a “one catch all” method in trying to convert individuals to Christianity. Failing to realise that people have different mind-sets, different ways of thinking, are in different situations and are at varying degrees of belief or non-belief before signing up and attending the Alpha Course each week.
For ex-Christians like myself, there seems to be a problem. Having known the gospel message, been saved and baptised, believed and trusted the bible, been along to church weekly for years and even help run alpha courses, it’s not the lack of knowledge in God and Jesus and the claims of Christianity that has made me an atheist, but the knowledge I do have that has made me doubt the claims of Christianity after years of further study. Saying to sceptics, “You cannot comment as you do not know enough about Christianity to discuss it and you haven’t been on an alpha course- I’ll invite you to explore the claims that Christianity makes”, does not apply in my situation- (although I do not know how many hours of study of leprechauns you need to engage in before you doubt their existence…).
In my mind, there are several major flaws in the course and it is shockingly ineffective in actually addressing the issues it should address, leaving a huge market needed for other ways to engage with sceptics, atheists and agnostics. Most fundamentally, it fails to be an effective resource for engaging with the “big questions” in life, as it claims in the adverts. The weekly outline has been set out for all churches running the course, going through issues such as “why did Jesus die” to “how can I find meaning in my life”. These topics seems to be geared towards people who already are open, susceptible and interested in finding out about the Christian faith and are interested in converting to Christianity at the outset. As others have said elsewhere - “I thought the Alpha Course was supposed to be aimed at people who were sceptical about the truth claims of Christianity - but to my disappointment, found the course to be aimed more at the casual Christian, someone who is looking to have his or her faith boosted, someone in need of a spiritual enema. I certainly don’t think that the course caters well enough for non-believers, and certainly not at all well enough for the informed sceptic”.
Lots of what is said on the alpha course is also un-substantiated claims, based on Christian theology and nothing else. Not particularly effective when engaging with non-Christians, who don’t have the belief to begin with. Talk of the devil, angels, demons, sin, salvation and other such talk and bible verses are, to my ears, completely pointless. A quote from Christopher Hitchens seems appropriate- “What can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
If persuaded to attend an alpha course in the future, after lots of thought, I would go along. But have to lay my cards on the table from the outset and explain that if I don’t hear good evidence for the beliefs and tenets of Christianity, such of the category that I have never heard before, I will not be persuaded. If the only benefit to attending an alpha course is that Christians feel I can comment and discuss with them on an informed level, then going forwards, this will be worth that effort. Of more interest to me is to engage, chat and enjoy chatting with people who have different views to me and try to get to the root of why people believe such things.
I always enjoy debating and discussing the big questions of life, often for its own sake, without any hidden agenda and this would be no exception. I wholeheartedly agree with C.S Lewis who said, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important” and so comments such as “Haven’t you got something better to do”, or “why bother debating religious people, they don’t hurt anyone” I feel are nonsense, nothing can be more important to occupy our lives.