Week #5 has come and gone, and I’m finding this Alpha Course significantly less interesting than the other one I went to…
The discussion leader has apparently little interest in keeping anybody on topic, and we’ve had nights where someone went on for five minutes straight without anybody else talking.
“Mike,” you might ask, “if these things are boring you so much, why the hell do you keep going?” And that’s a fair question. To explain, maybe I should explain why I bothered to start going in the first place.
I’d never heard of Alpha when I was a believer; I’m not sure it’s been around that long. I first read about it on Stephen Butterfield’s fantastic blog “Alpha Course: Reviewed.” Stephen, a fellow atheist, did much the same thing I’m doing: attended an Alpha Course and wrote a weekly blog post about his experiences. Intrigued by what Stephen went through, I decided to Google around to see what other people were saying about Alpha. Another atheist blogger under the nom-de-web of CelticBear also blogged about his Alpha experience. Yet another atheist blogger, Crispian Jago, explained how it was his own Alpha experience that led to him becoming an atheist. Being the relatively open-minded sort of guy that I am, I decided it would be worthwhile to attend one myself.
My previous Alpha course was really fascinating. Unsurprisingly, I left with my nonbelief safely intact, though I think it’s fair to say that I came to better understand why some people believe the things they believe. The discussions were lively; we weren’t afraid to disagree, we talked about things that most people never seem to spend a moment considering, and nobody took pot shots at me for being an unbeliever. I even made a few friends.
This time around, it just feels different. The others seem almost embarrassed to be discussing the weekly topics. The talks so far have seemed to work their way back around to how wonderful it is to be a Christian, and how great it is to have faith. They end up relating lots of totally off-topic personal anecdotes, rather than discussing anything meaty. Whenever the leader raises a topic for discussion, we sit around awkwardly attempting to avoid eye contact, hoping that someone else would say something first.
So why keep going? Well, there are several reasons – though upon reflection, none of them are particularly good. Maybe I want to insert myself into a situation that’s outside my comfort zone, and test out my ability to defend my disbelief (even though it’s the logical default position). Maybe I want to present an image of what an atheist is really like, rather than the version they hear from the pulpit. Maybe I just want to finish something I started. Maybe I’m bit of a masochist.
In any case, the subject this week was how and why we should pray. Interestingly, I noticed from the video that nearly everything Nicky cited was from the (purported) writing of Paul, with little mention of what Jesus said about the subject. We “learned” that unconfessed sin prevents prayer from being answered, just minutes after learning that all prayer is answered. We also learned that God’s answer to prayer can be ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘wait’, which are conveniently the same answers you can get by praying to literally anything, whether it exists or not. We also learned that whatever two believers agree upon on earth, it will be done for them by God. Or something along those lines… Nicky was evasive about just how dependable this promise was. No mention was made of John 14:13-14, which literally says that anything you ask for in Jesus’ name will be given to you – no ifs, ands, or buts – essentially making Jesus into some kind of wish-granting genie. (“Oh, but it’s out of context!” an apologist may cry. Sure. But I’d love to see where Jesus himself is quoted as saying that there are caveats, as opposed to someone else saying it for him.) If that promise doesn’t apply to every Christian, why on earth should you take any of Jesus’ other promises to mean that they apply to every Christian as well?
As I said, the discussions so far have been a bit lackluster, and this week was no exception. People talked about how they didn’t believe in coincidence, and that everything someone might call a coincidence is really God answering a prayer. A few examples:
- A young man prays that God show himself somehow to his coworker. The next day at the ice cream shop where he works, a cone falls off the counter and he can’t explain why it happened; therefore, that was God giving the coworker a sign. Does this even really merit a response?
- A woman needs a new car. Someone gives her a used car. (Someone who, undoubtedly, saw that her car was old and in bad shape, and heard her talking about how she needed a car and couldn’t afford one.)
- A woman needs a new mattress for her bed. She gets a call from the lady who owns the hairdressing shop below her apartment, and there’s a mattress company there with a delivery in her name! Couldn’t be that she told someone she had a bad bed, and they decided to buy her a mattress.
(Something I’ve just realized I should’ve said though I didn’t say it at the time: How do you explain the experiences of “answered prayer” that members of other faiths have? Is it that their gods also exist and are answering prayer, or is it more likely that coincidences are basically guaranteed to happen in a big enough population and over a long enough period of time?)
I tried to get in a single substantive question – essentially, why God answers prayers in ways that are perfectly natural, and big problems are never solved by prayer – but by the time I got around to asking it, there wasn’t even enough time to discuss it. We spent around 90% of the discussion period talking about people’s personal experiences, which is fine if what you want to do is talk about the touchy-feely warm-fuzzy stuff. Frankly, this was a wasted evening.
I made up for it, though, with a couple of fun nights out with my fellow heathens. The night before Alpha a gang of about 22 of us went out for some barbecue, and then on Friday a dozen of us rang in the twice-failed rapture with drinks and appetizers. The discussion was vastly more interesting and touched on subjects that I don’t dare to dream I’ll hear about in the Alpha course, like the development of the Biblical canon and the reasons for the differences between the different gospels.
I hope Week 6 catches my interest more than this week did…