Thursday, 13 October 2011

“Explore the Meaning of Life” The Alpha Course

I arrived at the gothic monolith of St Peter’s Church, next to the Level in Brighton. It’s a grand old building and I’d always wanted to look inside. At the age of 33 I finally got my chance. I signed up for the Alpha Course.

My main motivation was curiosity. I’m pretty secure in my atheism and I‘m satisfied that one lifetime of consciousness is plenty for me. I find the idea of death terrifying but I don’t think this means that there must be some kind of afterlife. I imagine that my experience after death will be exactly the same as the one I had before I was born. I acknowledge that there’s a theoretical chance that I’m wrong about this and that’s OK.  

I’ve had several conversations with believers during which the Alpha course has been recommended. We will have arrived at this point in the conversation because my interlocutor has run out of answers to my various questions about their faith. The obvious big questions about how God can allow suffering seem only to be resolved by reference to His Mysterious Ways. I can’t accept that as an answer, so when I ask for more, I am told “Well I can’t explain this to you but someone else can” and the Alpha course is mentioned. I’d like to bypass this part of future conversations by saying that I have indeed completed the Alpha course, then we can get back to where I want to the conversation to be, at the bit where the believer must tell me their reasons for accepting why the God they say loves them also chooses not to heal the sick, why they are OK with that.

My thoughts about religion can be summed primarily as seeing no reason to think there is some kind of personal creator or all-seeing eye out there. Secondarily, even if it turned out that the Christian God exists, I would not choose to worship such a petty, cruel and self-obsessed being. Aside from this, the obvious mutual incompatibility of the various religions tells its own tale.

Enough background. I arrived in the dark outside St Peter’s Church at 7pm and entered from the eastern side. The lighting was a mixture of suspended red heat-lamps and various coloured bulbs. My overall sense was one of a purple-blue glow. I felt like a teenager entering a disco full of people I didn’t know. I was surprised to see that about 10 circles of 10 chairs were arranged near the altar and halfway down the cavernous nave were tables set up with some sort of rice and casserole meal. Everybody was eating very well, except me, as I just can’t bear stuffing my face in close proximity to other people like that.

As I entered, I was greeted by three separate twenty-somethings who ushered me firstly to a table where I wrote down my name and contact details, and then onwards to my designated circle of chairs. My circle was right in the middle, a position which afforded me the pleasure of gazing up at the high, ornate ceiling for a bit. These roofs just astound me, they are wonderful. The word “glorious” pops into my head.

There were about 100 people there and the average age looked to be about 22-28. At first glance there seemed to be a few more women than men. My circle of 11 people was made up of 9 women and 2 men, of which I was one of the men. The other male was the sort of main ‘helper’ or ‘facilitator’ for our circle. There were 2 other helpers included in this ring, one of whom was sat directly to my left. We all introduced ourselves to each other and exchanged chit-chat. Some of them had done the course before 2 or 3 times. It felt like all of us wanted this to go well.

From where I sat I had a good view of the elevated screen that was on the stage/altar next to the rather stylised crucifix that was on the wall behind it. It was one of those crucifixions with no blood. Jesus was fully robed, caucasian, symmetrical and serene in his torture.

The Vicar stood up and introduced himself. I will refer to him as The Vicar. He looked about 35, bouncy blond curls, checked shirt, no dog-collar. He frequently burst into those fabulous grins that are granted only to the devout. (Actually he looked very much like Ben Goldacre in full flow.)

After making us feel welcome, The Vicar started to explain a little about what the Alpha Course is. (I didn’t keep notes, so this is not a verbatim account, though I did remember more of the talk than I expected to.) The main thing about the way the course is set up is that there appear to be no rules whatsoever. There is no restriction on what you can ask. None at all. Also, you don’t have to do or say anything. Every single thing you do there is done out of your own free will. He was keen to stress this aspect of the Alpha Course, and rightly so - I think it’s incredibly empowering to be told that you are free to do what you want. It immediately instilled me with a sense of wanting to repay their trust.

The Vicar’s introduction was all very light-hearted and even genuinely funny sometimes. He said a lot of people turn up to Alpha wondering if they’ll be the only normal person there, which made me laugh. After this, he got on to the subject of singing. Apparently one of the things people dislike most about the course is the singing, but it also happens to be one of the things that people say they like the most about the course too. More laughter.

Another chap was invited on to the stage. He held a guitar and I felt myself start to blush.
“I’m your worst nightmare,” he announced as he checked the tuning of the guitar,
“A Christian who really believes”.

Here we go, I thought. As I feared, we were invited to stand up and sing along. To my horror, everybody stood up. I had a short conversation with myself where I weighed up the awkwardness of remaining seated against the self-loathing I would feel if I stood. I hate this kind of light, harmless social pressure so I remained in my seat. Looking around, I think there were maybe 5 of us in total doing this. Nobody else in my circle was seated. I felt very much like this little exercise had identified all the people who may prove tricky.

He started singing “How Great Thou Art” and almost everybody joined in immediately.

It’s one of those hymns that I quite like the sound of, apart from the lyrics. As my gaze switched from the glorious ceiling to the floor and back again, I couldn’t help but feel some pangs of envy. I wished that I too felt like just singing out. They sung all of the verses and choruses and by the end I was comfortable in my non-participation and pleased with myself for resisting the first wave of group pressure. Well done, Simon.

As well as identifying me as potential trouble, the singing also demonstrated that 95% of the attendees were actually rather faithful Christians. I had expected around half of them to be recognisable as doubters, especially in Brighton, but no. The overwhelming majority of this group were believers. It was a congregation.

After the singing, The Vicar got back up on stage and started his main talk, or sermon if you like. We had a bit more about the course itself. He reminded us again of how free we all were to say whatever we wanted to, and that the course did not require us to leave our brains at the door but to bring our best questions. Many people on the course were there because they have doubts or difficulties with their faith and it’s through sharing them that we could start to address such issues. From what I saw, a lot of people are there for a general refresher in the basics of Christianity, and some people were there just as a bit of extra-curricular churchgoing.

I think he said this was the 6th course that had been run from this church. He said he had learned a great deal from each of the previous courses. For him, the new questions had made him see his faith from new viewpoints, all of which, as it happened, ended up reinforcing his Christian faith.

He told us that each of us can have a personal relationship with God, where he knows you and you know him. This isn’t just a figure of speech but a description of a real relationship. It’s a relationship that The Vicar feels and it’s a relationship he wants us all to feel. He went on to mention how some people never do get it. Some well-meaning people have said to him that they could see how the christian faith was really good for him and that he seemed to benefit greatly from it, but that it wasn’t for them. Although they meant this as a compliment, he didn’t feel like it was a compliment.

This brought him on to the “New Atheism” as he called it. Name-checking Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, and their respective anti-religious books, The Vicar spoke of their effect on society by offering only a materialistic view of the world, with no appreciation of the human experiences of faith or a desire for meaning etc. He outlined their view that religion has a wholly negative influence on the world. After giving a brief but fair summary of each of the writers, he concluded by referring their approach to religion as an “intellectual” one. Apparently religion can’t be understood by purely “intellectual” means. Finally, he appealed to the ubiquitous sense that there must be more to life than this.

From the language he used, I suspect that he has indeed read the work of the authors he mentioned. Although he neglected to mention the awe and wonder expressed for instance by Dawkins in relation to the natural world, he managed to avoid lapsing straight into the caricatures that are so often referred to instead of their written words.

After reading a quote from a Charlie Brooker* Guardian article in which Brooker characteristically describes the sense of emptiness and hopelessness felt by, well, him, The Vicar started to talk about how Christianity fills the gap. Christianity provides him and other believers with a sense of MEANING and PURPOSE. After outlining these a little (good works, etc), he surprised me by saying that these are “Subjective Benefits” in that they are something that can be defined and experienced differently by everyone, and that these benefits alone are not any sort of proof that Christianity is the way to go.

For the Vicar, the clincher is not the meaning or the purpose that Christianity brings, but the fact (as he sees it) that Jesus is the son of God. This was a bit of a leap of logic for me. Having so honourably acknowledged the subjective nature of meaning and purpose, I was expecting something based on a similarly analytical approach. The Vicar told us that Jesus said “I am the truth” and for him this is such a fundamental and extraordinary statement of intent from Jesus, that he is compelled to believe in him. He touched on C.S. Lewis’ analysis that Christ was either mad, a liar or the son of God. Out of the three, The Vicar chose the Son of God option. He doesn’t believe that someone (especially Jesus!) would make such claims dishonestly. Along with other circumstantial reinforcements of this idea, he is very secure in this faith.

From here, the vicar explained his idea of “reasonable faith”. He wouldn’t believe in Jesus’ message if it wasn’t reasonable to do so. He touched on the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus and hinted that we’d learn more about that over the coming weeks. Aside from the non-biblical evidence of his existence, The Vicar told us that the descriptions of the behaviour and fates of the apostles just rang true with him. Underlying all of this reasoning was the assumption that the gospels are a true account of Jesus’ life. This assumption was utilised a lot through the night, with no real critical thought about the possibility that it is at the very least an enhanced version of events.

With all the “evidence” and “reasoning” available, the Vicar concludes that Christianity is either completely meaningless, or is the most important truth that there is.

He ended his talk by going through the top 10 list of questions typed into the Ask Jeeves search engine. After the predictably frivolous ones, we got down to number 2 which was “Does god exist?”. At number 1 in the list was: “What is the Meaning of Life?”. The point was rather poignant. People all across the planet, sitting alone at their computers, all want to know the answer to that big question. They want to know it so much that they ask the hive mind, in case the answer is out there somewhere. This Christianity says it has the answer; it knows the truth. It says the truth is Jesus Christ.

For me, this is not an answer at all. It’s a non-answer to a non-question. I don’t see any need for there to be a “meaning” of life in the first place. To my mind, anyone that says they know the answer is indeed simply a liar, or deluded. Saying you have the answer, is not the same as having an answer and nor does it make you a god.

After the sermon, we discussed the subjects raised by the Vicar within our group. This was the most enjoyable part for me, but I will write more about the group element of the course next week, as I’ve written too much already. After the discussion, the session was over and I went for a pint with the main ‘helper’.

I hope you can stick with me on my little journey through the Alpha Course. I am determined to complete the whole thing. My inability to keep my mouth shut when presented with poor answers is the biggest threat to my achieving this. I must walk a line between being true to myself and avoiding expulsion.

Next week I will look more closely at the group discussions as this is where you get to the guts of why people are there and why they believe what they do. We also see how they respond to the decidedly awkward questions I have.

*The Vicar is going to dig up the Charlie Brooker quote for me.


  1. A good read. I especially liked the third paragraph where you detailed why you were doing the course.

    I look forward to the following installments.


  2. I was interested to hear of the high proportion of believers at these courses - it does sound as if they are preaching to the the converted. However, it does increase the emotional pressure on the small number of non-believers to conform and join in, particularly if they are lonely or vulnerable. I'll be following the rest of the blog to hear your experiences!

  3. thanks for doing this. I too look forwards to future installments!

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  5. 'Brooker characteristically describes the sense of emptiness and hopelessness felt by, well, him, '

    Ha Ha, Classic Brooker! Loved the use of the commas there. I'd be interested in the source of this quote too. If you could provide a link when you find it that would be great.

    Great post. First time reading your blog. Just goes to show what you can find on Twitter.

    I think that you write very well. I'm looking forward to going on this journey with you.

    ' I felt very much like this little exercise had identified all the people who may prove tricky.' - Ha Ha

  6. Thanks all for your comments, I really appreciate it :)