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.

1 comment:

  1. I totally support your standpoint re: personal conversations, and would add that I don't see that there would be anything to gain from including them anyway. It is the structure and content of the course that is likely to be the same for anybody whenever they take part that is most relevant in my opinion; the fact that there ARE sermons, followed by group discussions, and what the topics covered are, and other such details are what interest me. The nitty gritty of the actual course YOU attended as if recorded on video, may be voyeuristically interesting to some, but as you say, is likely to be at best unhelpful, and at worst damaging to all concerned.