Sunday, 29 January 2012

Alpha Course - A Discussion That Includes The Actual Meaning Of Life

Cast your mind back to when I wrote about Week 3’s Alpha Course session - or have a glance at it here: "Why Did Jesus Die On the Cross?"

This post is about the group discussion we had after that talk, and it’s from when the group were still bedding in so I don’t feel weird about writing about it in such detail.

Week 3 was all about why Jesus died on the cross. Essentially, we were told, God’s idea was to send himself in the body of a human so that he could be put to death and thereby take away all our sins, giving us the opportunity to come to God unhindered by our sinning nature. This process also gave the omnipotent God the opportunity to experience anguish, suffering and all the rest of the human experience so that we might know for certain that he understands what we’re all going through as humans.

“Was Jesus dying on the cross enough?”

The first question that came up in the group discussion was asked by one of the younger women for whom this was her first Alpha session; “Was Jesus dying on the cross enough?” as in, is that all it took to do the job? Now that Jesus has done the deed, are all the sins forgiven and we all get to go to heaven? She suggested that it seemed a bit too easy and simplistic to her.

Nobody answered, so I had some fun by answering on behalf of Christianity. I suggested that in dying on the cross, Jesus did indeed wipe the slate clean, but it was still up to us to make the decision to have the relationship with God that was now made possible. We can now get to God or heaven, but we have to actively do so through Jesus. The group accepted this answer with nods.

This particular girl had not been to the previous sessions and so did not know my actual thoughts on these matters. From her perspective, I was just a guy at an Alpha course who had answered like a Christian and was therefore probably a Christian. Whilst this was a novelty, I couldn’t bear it so I soon added that she ought not to view me as a spokesman for the church as I’m quite definitely atheist. The lead helper told her she’d probably have realised this as the discussion progressed anyway, and we all laughed.

Going back to her question, I said that the other reason that Jesus’ actions were not enough to save us all is that not everyone on the planet would have heard about it for several hundred years - if they ever did. The Chinese and the Native American cultures, for instance, were quite happily getting on with their civilisations for a very long time afterwards, living and dying completely unaware of Jesus’ sacrifice. The church did not declare heaven as being the after-death destination for all those people - only for the followers of Jesus. Those unfortunate enough to be born in parts of the world that were ignorant of all this would remain excluded. So no, the crucifixion was indeed not enough, despite the language that the church uses when they speak of what Jesus did. This was one of those comments greeted by silence, some nodding and some furrowed brows.

Only the Middle-East had prophets

Another newcomer to the group, an American chap, was next to ask a question - this time directed at me: “How come all the prophets came from that part of the world? Doesn’t it make you think that there really was something special about what Jesus was doing?” Some of the group nodded as if this idea was a good point - as if their being unaware of “prophets” from other parts of the world somehow added to the validity of this Middle-Eastern story.

I said that all religions have their prophets or their fortune-tellers, including the religions that Christianity replaced in Europe. The prophets of these other religions simply backed the wrong horse. We are aware of the prophets of the Abrahamic religions as they dominated the known world for centuries. We are less aware of the prophets of other traditions because they died out or were exterminated.

“Yeah but what about those Indians you mentioned not getting to heaven because they were unaware of Jesus?” I didn’t understand this response in relation to what I had just said and I still don’t. I think it was just an attempt at a sideways shift in the conversation.

I said “Okay, but in response to your specific point about the prophets ALL coming from that part of the world - there were other prophets in other civilisations.”

Speaking to him on his own a little later on, it seemed to me (though I admit I couldn’t read his actual thoughts) that he was a guy that simply wanted to believe in the Christian story. He was coming to the Alpha course to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of Christianity, not to explore those gaps and see where they led. The few questions he asked followed the pattern of attacking the atheist viewpoint, ignoring the answer, attacking from different angle, ignoring the answer. [I saw him at one subsequent session and he had joined another group.]

It’s the Catholics that do all the guilt stuff

After this foray into world history we spoke briefly about what happens to people who never get to hear Jesus’ message. The idea of purgatory came up, but this was seen as something of a Catholic sticking-plaster solution to the problem. Nobody in the group really knew how to answer the theological side of the question in any conclusive way.

A couple of books were referred to, including Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” where he explores the possibility that in the afterlife, people have another opportunity to find Jesus. This gives Jesus literally all the time in the world to finish the job he started 2000 years ago. Bell believes that in the end, everyone will come to Jesus. Even if it’s long after they’re dead. This is of course just another unfalsifiable claim that only has any meaning if you choose to believe it. If someone has chosen to be a Christian, I could understand how such an idea would act as a kind of buttress for the righteousness of this choice, but from the outside it looks like an idea dreamt up by a man and nothing more.

Going back to the reasons Jesus had to die on the cross to “take away our sins” we touched a bit on guilt and original sin. Again, guilt was seen as more of a Catholic theme. I mentioned how in my Catholic upbringing we were taught that we shouldn’t receive communion unless we had been to confession beforehand as an example of one way in which Catholicism tried to instil a regular feeling of guilt within me. The group then chatted for a little while about Catholicism’s fixation with guilt. I found it funny that C of E believers accepted this supposed truth about the R.C. church having just sat through a sermon that repeatedly told them exactly the same message; that we are indeed born sinners and are not even capable of obtaining absolution for ourselves - only Jesus’ sacrifice makes it possible.

I told them that I found the idea of original sin, or the inherent sinning nature of mankind to be unnecessary at best and just nasty at worst, and that I simply did not understand why people would go along with such a teaching. Using the most obvious example I asked if any of them could honestly say that they believed a new born baby was guilty of sin. All of them said no. So why do they accept a doctrine that says we are all born sinners?

This unwillingness to clearly speak out against biblical teachings that are so demonstrably destructive is one of the most frustrating aspects of talking to believers. Rather than reject certain teachings, they put their disagreement down to their own lack of understanding of what God’s higher truth might be. They trust that in the end God or the church has already worked this stuff out. He was right about all sorts of things, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt when he says babies are guilty of sins. An opportunity to improve this religion by cutting away one of its more poisonous teachings and replacing it with something a little more humane is missed because of deference to God - or at least to his human spokesmen. The religion must be accepted in its entirety, one way or another.

Empathy, morality and sin

The conversation moved from here into the realm of what sin actually is. I said sin wasn’t just a matter of right and wrong but of disobedience to God, no-one disagreed. We then got on to how we know right from wrong and whether you need religion to provide the rules by which you tell them apart.

Most of the group said they derived their morals from their Christian faith, or at least from parents, school or a society that based their morals on Christian teaching. My answer was, unsurprisingly for everybody, that I believe human morality does not derive from belief in the supernatural. I said that I reckon our morals come from the human ability to empathise. It’s our sense of empathy that brings morality into the choices we make. If I take this food away from that person, they go without and I know I don’t like it when I go without food. It’s the fact that I know how that person feels that makes my decision to steal that food morally wrong.

Helper number 2 said she did not believe empathy was a natural instinct but that it is learnt. I disagreed and gave the example of seeing somebody get a paper cut on their finger and wincing in sympathy; you can’t teach that. Empathy is just one of things that the human brain naturally does.

Going back to why Jesus died on the cross. I asked why an omnipotent God would have had to go through these motions in order to forgive us our sins. To quote Richard Dawkins (among others) “Why not just forgive us?”

Their answers amounted to different versions of saying that God could do it whatever way he chose to as he’s the boss, though one of them did say it was also an opportunity to demonstrate to us that God understood the human experience. Having lived a human life and been tortured to death, there could be no doubt that God knew what mankind was going through. By this point, I had said enough, so it was my turn to just accept and nod.

The next prompt was about why didn’t God make a perfect world, why did he create a world with all the sin and suffering in it - a world that required him to send Jesus into it to die on the cross? The group spoke a little about free will, and about our need for the option of sinning so that we could also have the option of having real faith in God. A popular answer was also “it would be boring!” Again, I stayed quiet for this discussion as I think they needed a break from me.

A relationship with God

Helper number 2 then asked “What do people feel about the idea of a relationship with God?”

A couple of people answered that they felt it as a loving presence or as someone to turn to.

One of the group - the strongest believer, I’d say - said that God was an ever-present part of her thoughts to whom she spoke all the time and who she felt answered by regularly. It had always been that way, as far as she could remember. She said she couldn’t imagine what it would be like not having a relationship with God. I’ve never seen anyone as disarmingly matter-of-fact about having such a belief. I’ve only heard these kinds of words coming from the mouths of rather fanatical people in the past, but she is not in the least bit fanatical. She just meant it as naturally as I do when I say I have conversations with myself in my head sometimes. To her, talking to God is as obvious and everyday as it is for me to imagine 2 versions of myself speaking to each other in my mind.

In response to her saying she couldn’t imagine what it’s like not having a relationship with God, I couldn’t help but say that not having a relationship with the Christian God is as natural for me as her not having a relationship with Zeus. (Dawkins again - I couldn’t think of a more concise way of putting it). I actually think she then spent a moment thinking about Zeus, and seemed to take my point in the spirit it was intended.

Helper 2 pondered on the possibility that these feelings of a relationship with God might actually be the result of something physical happening in the brain; just chemicals being released in response to something. Or to put it another way, when chemicals are released in the brain in response to a stimulus, could the feelings they induce mistakenly be attributed to a manifestation of God? Are those who say the Holy Spirit gave them a feeling of warmth or of love actually just misinterpreting natural feelings? Or if it was real, could the presence of the Holy Spirit itself cause ‘endorphin’ releases? Could this “presence” be measured in our physical reactions? I liked the way she was thinking and I was glad it wasn’t me that had said it all.

A few others spoke of times when they had inexplicably strong feelings of love or meaningfulness come over them. On other occasions it was a physical sensation of a presence or of being filled with energy of some kind. They had invariably attributed these experiences to God speaking to them or giving them a sign in some way. Their eyes shone and they smiled as they related little instances of being touched by the creator of the universe himself and the sense of almost certain faith that they were given. I felt a bit left out. I knew the feelings they were talking about, but I’d never had them in relation to anything related to God, or to the purpose of reality.

Or had I?

The meaning of life

Come to think of it, there have been moments in my life where things seemed to suddenly make sense, or fill me with a buzzing sense of purpose or meaning. Had I been a believer, I too might have given Yahweh the credit for what I was feeling. I too might have seen those sensations as confirmation of the Christian stories and believed that God’s Holy Spirit was speaking to me. I decided to share the most visceral (and non-sexual) of these experiences with the group:

I used to believe music was the meaning of life. I used to know music was the meaning of life.

In my late teens, I developed a real passion for loud rock music. I would hear the music I loved and be filled with a sense of euphoria unlike anything else I’d ever experienced. It was almost tangible. I could feel the layers of overdriven guitars in my body - I mean actually feel them. The music, lyrics and imagery opened up a new aesthetic world that touched something vital in me, like I’d tapped into some hidden stream of wisdom that existed outside the clumsy, cold dimensions I lived in. I felt almost solipsistically special and entirely filled with a glowing sense of there being a definite purpose to life.

I tried to relate this feeling to the group as an attempt to show that I was not a stranger to the seemingly magical sensations they’d had. I told them of my youthful conviction that I had come across the meaning of life in the rock music that I loved. How its beauty and the feelings that it inspired transcended anything I’d experienced in my life. How, given that music can only be created by creatures like us, and given that our existence is so spectacularly unlikely, might it not be that our very purpose was to create these sounds, just so that they could exist? I told them I’d concluded that the creation of music was the only believable reason for our existence and that if this is indeed the meaning of life then that’s fine by me.

I thought they’d think I’d gone a bit mad, but they liked this little outburst.

Perhaps a relationship with God feels like all that. Anyway, I told them I still love the music but that I no longer see it as the meaning of life. Life doesn’t need an external meaning like that.

Here's a song from the album that made me think I'd stumbled onto the purpose of it all:

In the next instalment, it’s the group discussion from Week 4. Coming... soon!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Alpha Course Blog: Where Was I?

As penance for the long pause, I was going to offer you a gigantic blog post but the fact is it’s simply too long. So, here is the first part in which I talk about how the group discussions themselves developed over the first four weeks of the course. After the fourth week, the group discussions became more personal, like a group of friends talking, so I won’t be reporting on them in quite the same way from the fifth session onwards. I try to explain this here.

The second part of the post contains only the delayed write-ups for weeks 3 and 4’s group discussions, as promised in my previous posts - I’ll publish this bit later in the week so as not to overload you.

After I publish that, we get back to the fun. We will pick up from week 5 of Alpha, where I get back to describing the content of the sermons and commenting when I can’t resist it. After Week 6 comes the Alpha residential weekend; I’ve already written so much about the experience that I think the blog for that will have to be split over a couple of episodes. I can’t wait to share it with you.

The Group Discussions - The First Four Weeks

I, Simon-who-is-an-atheist, joined the Autumn term of the Alpha course in Brighton for various reasons. They essentially boil down to a desire to understand and empathise with people that have faith in the Christian God. The course is now finished, but I’m not quite halfway through writing about the sessions for a few reasons.

In writing about the last couple of sessions, I hadn’t quite got around to describing the content of the group discussions. This was partly because the posts were already rather lengthy but it’s also because of growing reservations I had about describing what were essentially private conversations.

I felt like I was betraying these people by writing about our chats in the same analytical way that I wrote about the sermons. The content of the sermons is fair game to be shot at and butchered, but when you’re talking about the words of other people who are just giving their own unrehearsed responses to the innocently-posed questions of others, this approach just won’t do.  I welcomed the opportunity to put it off for a bit.

During the sermons, I would write down as much of the content of the talk as I could. I don’t know shorthand, so I’d spend the entire talk furiously scribbling notes in the gaps in the handbooks we are provided with. I was a little uncomfortable about this for the first couple of weeks, but nobody seemed to mind. Indeed, it turns out that few people noticed even while I was sat next to them.

At the end of the lessons, one of the helpers would get a tray of tea and coffee for the group and at this point I would always very deliberately put my pen and notes into my bag. This ensured that I would not forget to take them home with me, but it also meant that I wouldn’t be tempted to quickly note down things that they said during the discussion. This would have just been rude.


In embarking on the Alpha course, I wanted to immerse myself into it as completely as possible - short of pretending to think things that I don’t think - just to give it a fair hearing and to see what it had to offer as openly as I possibly could. I didn’t want to be one of those people that just goes in and sits with their arms folded, rejecting everything that happens offhand. While you are free to do just that if you choose to, I would now see that as a bit of a waste of an opportunity to explain to some inquisitive Christians why exactly you don’t share their views. Who knows, if you explain it well enough, you might even help them to think differently, or at least to see that atheists are not made of pure evil.

With this in mind, I didn’t take notes during the group discussions. However, when I got home I would sit and write down as much of it as I could before going to bed and remembering more. Of course even this approach was a betrayal of trust; I was still writing down the content of our private conversations, but I was doing it a couple of hours afterwards. Perhaps it would have been less cowardly to write it all down while they were speaking, but then they would not have spoken. Is this justification? Nope.

Although I did not hide my atheism from the group, at first I was not explicit about the fact that I was writing a blog about it all. This disclosure might have affected the things they said in the group or made them feel uncomfortable, so I just didn’t tell them. As a way of justifying this, I promised myself that if any of them asked why I was taking notes on the sermons I would be honest about it. It wasn’t until the residential weekend that I was finally asked, so they’ve known since then (week 7). I was worried about how they would react, but I haven’t had a single negative word said to me about it. They’ve been characteristically gracious, without exception.

The Emergence of Trust

By the end of the fourth week, our conversations had acquired a certain friendliness that I had not been expecting to see. The first couple of weeks had been marked by gaps in the talking, but these happened less and less frequently. The discussions roamed free and easy by this time, often going off on interesting or amusing tangents. Usually it was the helpers that came up with the prompts for discussions, but these prompts led to more and more branches of conversation being started by other members of the group.

I duly went home and noted it all down but when it came to the blog, I published only my description of the sermon itself, telling my dear readers that I would get onto the group discussion in the next instalment.

Another element that emerged around the fourth week was a kind of group trust. There was a core of 5 or 6 of us that I think would by then have been happy talking to each other about all of the weird little thoughts and doubts that form our experience of the world, in a way that we might not have done with our “normal friends”. You experience a kind of liberty when you only know people through the single thing you have in common. I only knew these people because I sat in a circle with them every week with the sole intention of exploring faith (of all things!).

More often than not, we would end up referring to our own personal experiences - sometimes as a way of illustrating a point we were trying to make, sometimes as a way of showing we understood someone else’s point and sometimes for reasons that none of us never quite comprehended, to be honest.

The stories became more and more personal as this sense of trust grew and when this became noticeable I knew I could not go on writing about this element of the Alpha course in the same way. To listen to someone’s response to a bereavement, for instance, and then to go and publish a blog which referred to it would not be something I would be happy doing. Those moments where such thoughts were shared were integral to how the dynamic of the group developed, and to my understanding of why they asked the questions they did and where their answers and explanations came from.

The Group Identity & Being Affected by the Group

As we gradually contributed little tales of our relevant experiences, they built up over the weeks to form a kind of unique group biography - or even identity - in my mind at least. Over the nine weeks we listened to each other telling fragments of the personal stories of how we each came to be sat there, in that circle. We heard those pieces of stories and couldn’t help but absorb them. Through absorbing them, we became affected and altered by them.

In a good group, you are part of it, but it also becomes part of you.

When I say I was “affected” by it, I don’t mean this figuratively. All this absorbing was done by my brain, which is the same thing I do my thinking with. By “absorbing” the stories, I mean listening to and learning from them. Learning involves a physical change in the brain and in this case it manifested itself in a noticeable change in my thinking and, ultimately, in my behaviour.

For me, it happened in this way: you find yourself idly wondering how, say, Emily or Rich in the group might respond to a certain situation - just out of interest. Deliberately or not, you might do this a fair bit - especially in the days immediately after the session. Eventually you don’t even consciously ask yourself the question; wondering how the group might respond just becomes part of your own natural thought process. From inside your own head it feels like you’re thinking just like you always did - but those little thoughts like “what would Emily think?” are just another few thousand neurons firing without you noticing.

I’m sure this doesn’t only happen on religious education courses but in all situations where you go through the process of getting to know people. I wonder if I would have noticed the group’s influence on my own mind in this way if I hadn’t been writing down my thoughts so carefully during this time.

On my Alpha Course Odyssey, this influence was a wholly positive one, but I do wonder how I might have been affected if I was exposed in a similar way to a cult or other group that didn’t have my best interests at heart. The process of the group identity and my own identity bleeding into each other is very subtle but it is real. Years of exposure to an organisation that actively wanted to manipulate this process could be horribly effective. I digress.

For the rest of the series, I won’t give a separate narrative for the group discussions as to describe them in enough detail to do them justice would simply be too much of a betrayal. I will go through the sermons, giving my commentary (which I love doing) but I’ll only refer to the group chats where the discussion was directly relevant to the sermon, or of course, where I say something brilliant.

Ah, that feels better. I'll post the full content of week 3&4's discussions later in the week. Please feel free to comment if you have anything to add or any criticisms to make.