Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Leader's Debate Drinking Game!!

Date and Time
Thursday 22nd April 2010, 20:00

The Rules
Grab yourself a lot of beer and listen carefully to the debate.
"Take a drink" means take a large swig.

Take a drink every time one of the leaders mentions somebody they met recently (take two bonus swigs if they are a member of a recognisable minority group).
Take a drink every time somebody says "We must be clear."
Take two large swigs every time Brown or Cameron say "I agree with Nick."
Take a drink every time Adam Boulton shouts, Alastair Stewart style.
Take a drink every time somebody has to correct a mistake.

Take a drink every time Gordon Brown laughs at one of his own jokes. (If anybody else laughs at one of his jokes, you have to put down your drink and throw yourself off a bridge).
Take a drink every time Gordon Brown blames David Cameron for something.

Take a drink everytime David Cameron mentions "broken politics", "broken Britain" or "broken society".
Drink steadily at any time David Cameron is on screen looking smug or smarmy (Note: This is a joke rule. DO NOT take it seriously. Following this rule may result in serious injury or death)

Take a drink every time Nick Clegg describes himself as "dismayed".
Take TWO drinks every time Nick Clegg says the word "Trident".

Take a drink every time any leader states how proud they are of our troops.
Take a drink every time you hear the words "Weapons of mass destruction"
Take a drink every time Saddam Hussein is mentioned.
Take a drink every time somebody speaks of "rebuilding Iraq"
If somebody mentions the "terrorist threat", make a tin-foil hat and finish your drink.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

The Return Of HeathenUK

To all who follow my blog or enjoyed my Alpha Course review - you may have noticed that I've been somewhat low-profile recently. The reason for this is very simple: my computer broke.

But now I have a NEW computer!!! So very soon I will be back to my skeptical blogging ways. Watch this space...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Alpha Course - Session 6... and course review.

Figgerson: Suppose I ask you what is to the north of England. What would you say?
Mathers: Scotland.
Figgerson: And what lies to the north of Scotland?
Mathers: Iceland.
Figgerson: And to the north of Iceland?
Mathers: The Arctic Circle.
Figgerson: And to the north of the Arctic Circle?
Mathers: The North Pole.
Figgerson: And what lies to the north of the North Pole?
Mathers: Er. What do you mean?

- Stephen Law, The Philosophy Gym

Alpha Course session six began the same as any other. Once again, the food was delicious – in fact, I think it may have been their best yet – but this time, that was as far as I got. Immediately after I’d finished eating, I gave a small donation to cover the cost of the meal, made my apologies and left.

During dinner, I found myself seated next to the vicar. We had a pleasant conversation and he really came across as a very nice guy. He asked how my week had been and I said it had gone well. I then asked if he’d been busy. His response was something I found very interesting: he said “Well, I tend not to say I’m busy. I have this theory that clergy shouldn’t be ‘busy’." I found this strange and quizzed him further. "Well, because as soon as you say that, it sounds as though you’re saying ‘I don’t have time for you.’ So if anybody asks me, I always say ‘well, I have plenty of things to do, but... I’m not busy.’” It’s nice. I think it might be the first thing of value that I’ve learned during this course.

It’s been an interesting journey, but most of that interest has come from the responses I’ve had to my blog as opposed to the course content itself. It’s been fascinating to discover, week by week, just how many people are reading it and what their different takes on things are. It’s almost an irony that some of the most vocal responses have been from my Christian friends who, despite my blog being almost entirely critical in the most negative sense towards the act of faith, have reacted positively and kindly to what I’ve said. One friend even made a gift of a book to me – which, I promise you, I have been reading – for which I can only take this opportunity to say thank you. If anything, it’s brought me closer to my Christian friends, and that’s something I’m happy about. You're all really good people, and I'm glad our differences in beliefs don't cause a divide. I'm happy to count you as my friends.

Having said that, you might not want to read the words that follow...

The second category of readers have been the ones who share my worldview – some of whom have been clearly lapping up any and every ounce of open disrespect I showed to this belief system, salivating every time I made a wise-crack at faith’s expense, or had the nerve to directly challenge a logically fallacious or just plain factually incorrect point made by the course staff. Guys, you’re the ones who should be speaking up more! It’s a simple fact that our beliefs inform our actions and in that respect, the fewer false beliefs that are allowed to proliferate the better. It’s only the fact that we so often just don’t want to upset those around us by the simple act of questioning their beliefs, that we’re the ones who are responsible for the strength of an institution that really doesn’t deserve the place it holds. Don’t be wishy-washy about it – if you don’t really believe that 2,000 years ago a virgin gave birth to a child who would perform miracles during his life, until thirty-three years later, after being crucified, stabbed with a spear and stuck in a cave for three days, came back to life, then don’t pay this stuff the respect it doesn’t deserve! It doesn’t take much: you don’t have to write blogs yourself, or preach on the streets, or join the National Secular Society. Just do simple things: don’t tick the “Christian” box on a census form just because you went to a Christian school, tick “No religion” if you don’t really believe it; don’t get your kids baptised (there are equivalent secular ceremonies if you still wish to have your family present when celebrating your new child); don’t marry in a church (again, you can have a beautiful day’s celebration without any superstitious overtones), etc. These are all very, very simple things you can do differently without changing your life except for giving yourself the relief of not having to show phony reverence to something that doesn’t deserve to be revered. It might sound preachy, but all I’m doing is asking you the question: if you enjoyed my blog so much, if you agree with my worldview, then why would you do any of these things in the first place other than because it’s “just what people do”? Just ask yourself that question. Maybe you can help bring about the sea change.

OK, OK, I admit it, I am being preachy, call me an evangelical atheist if you must, I don’t care, the label sticks and I’ll wear it with pride. But there are good reasons that I am this way, and one of those reasons involves the third category of people who sent me feedback. For some, going up against the church’s dogma was not simply a source of amusement, but something that could have prevented years of fear and torment if it had been done sooner. As I said in Alpha Course blog number 5, there are tens of thousands of different denominations, each running their own interpretation of the infallible and perfect word of God, as presented in the Bible, and some of them cherry-pick the nice bits while others cherry-pick the not so nice bits in order to justify their pre-held prejudices without having to give them too much thought and rational scrutiny. In some denominations, God is all-loving, while in others he is to be feared, and its a matter of good or bad luck which one you happen to be born into. I heard feedback from people who had grown up with a genuine fear of God – his ability to know your every thought and deed and his proclivity to punish those who disobey – but who had since rejected it. These were the most inspiring messages, the ones that really made me feel that what I was doing was worthwhile. I wasn’t just there to rattle cages and wind people up for the sake of amusing those readers who find it all very funny, I was there because I genuinely feel that this is an important issue. I went in with an open mind, ready to be convinced, but left with a clear and distinct impression that the vacuousness of the claims can only be matched by the eagerness with which people want to believe. There's no open-mindedness, just a closed mindset to disconfirming evidence. And yet, for people who had this nonsense pushed on them from an early age it became a source of terror. One person wrote to me saying "I wonder sometimes, what if I hadn't grown up in a city, around people with different ideas and instead had grown up in a place more isolated. I might still believe these things now. Even as a grown adult, I'd still be in constant fear." It's a difficult thought to swallow.
The court cases against clergy sexually abusing children are famous these days, but this seems of secondary concern to me in comparison to the worse crime: instilling life-long fear of somebody that knows your every move, deed and thought seems like a pretty harsh form of mental abuse to me. The person who commented was clearly of a similar opinion, saying "if only there was a way to sue!"
For those of you that have gotten used to my blunt approach to religion, my response to this may surprise you. I do think its an horrendous thing to do to a child, but even I can be a little sympathetic to those who do the preaching, and I'll explain why. But first, I'll explain why I left, before getting back to how I responded to this.

Let me begin by saying that I do not regret or apologise for a single word I've said in these posts. That's not why I left. To anybody who thinks I've been strident or offensive, then I would make the suggestion that it is you that has been the cause of the offense for holding onto these beliefs in the face of reason, whereas the only thing that I have ever done here is to try to be as honest as I possibly can. A statement of fact cannot be insolence. I think those readers are in the very small minority anyway.
But that doesn't mean I don't regret anything about my Alpha Course experience, because I do. There are things that I now wish I'd done differently.

In writing this blog and posting it, I have been completely open about my identity. Likewise, during the course itself I was also open about my identity. I was open about my beliefs too, when asked directly, although I took a week or two to feel fully comfortable with "outing" myself in such a voluntarily forthcoming way. I get a real anxiety about dishonesty, I'm a terrible liar and I hate doing it, which is why I lie very rarely, usually only stretching to little white-lies where there's a certainty it can do no harm. What I didn't do, though, was tell the people on the course that I was writing up and publishing my experience online. Since I never mentioned the specific church by name, and deliberately tried to keep the people involved unidentifiable, I didn't feel it was either necessary or appropriate to tell them: this blog was intended to be a form of investigative "gonzo" journalism, where I tried to keep the influence of knowing that the sessions were being reported on away from affecting what went on there. As I said before, my aim was to simply report on the course content and their arguments. In this way, the blog could be "universalized", so as to be a fair representation of what typically goes on at any Alpha Course anywhere.
This approach had the extra benefit of ensuring that nobody involved in the running of the course - who were clearly doing this with the best of intentions - would feel betrayed. Yet somehow, I got rumbled.

As I sat next to the vicar at dinner and he told me about how he never tells people he's "busy" so that they don't feel they're being ignored, this thought was running through my head. How many of them know about the blog? How many of them have read it? Now I felt completely dishonest in not telling them what I was planning to do, and they knew about it.
I know, you can still say that I didn't identify anybody, and that I did nothing wrong. I agree, I don't think I did anything immoral, but the change felt extremely uncomfortable. So I have to confess, I took the coward's way out and left. Hate me for wimping out if you must, I deserve it, I should have stuck to my guns. But that dishonesty anxiety was a little too much to bear, so I bailed.
In fact, now that I think about it, I feel a little ashamed for leaving when there was so much more to come. I'm very new to this kind of confrontation, I'll call this a learning experience. But please remember this: to those of you reading, you only get the impression of those on the course from reading my words. I, on the other hand, was dealing with real people. There's a whole extra dimension there where compassion, empathy and general care for others becomes a very real concern. I know I need to develop thicker skin, but these people were just too nice.

I spoke to a friend a few days after quitting and told her that it hadn't put me off completely, but that I'd learned a few things from it. Maybe I would do it again one day, but take a slightly different approach. She suggested I take the course, writing it up as I go along, but not publishing it until the course is fully complete. It's an excellent idea that I'll give serious consideration.

But let me get back to how I responded to the person who commented, wishing there was a way to sue the people who instilled fear in him for years:
"Remember that just before you said that, you also said that if you hadn't grown up in the culture you're in - if you'd have been a little more isolated - then you may still feel that fear now. Now imagine that you then have children of your own, and you still have a very real fear and a genuine belief. The fear you would feel on behalf of your children - who you would naturally want to protect as passionately as you could - would drive you to instill the same beliefs in them too. You'd do it out of love, not wanting them to go to Hell or suffer God's judgement. And these people who preach so passionately about it could have been you. Even if we could sue these people, it wouldn't be right: they're victims of the lie just the same as any of us."

So that's it. That's my Alpha Course experience. But did it teach me what it set out to?
On the cover of the course booklet, it says "Explore the meaning of life." The meaning of life. Wow, the great mystery people have been pondering over for millennia. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Did the Alpha Course answer this question? No. Because it's a stupid question. On the surface, it seems a reasonable question to ask. But compare it to a question such as "What is the colour of sleep?" Or "What number is bigger than infinity?" Or, as I began this blog, "What lies north of the North Pole?" There isn't an answer, although the question is posed to assume that there is - if only we could find it. But we can't - because life has no meaning.

But don't despair! Life may not have a meaning, but it has something else that makes it important: value. Each one of us may be completely insignificant on the scale of the universe: each of us merely a dot, sitting on a bigger dot, revolving round a bigger dot, swirling among millions of other dots among billions of other galaxies of dots... but here's the cool thing: at least you're a dot. And while we're pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things, we're tremendously significant to each other.* If you've got a bit of love in your life, you don't need meaning. This life is your one shot, so make the most of it.

And don't waste your time on bullshit.

Thanks for reading. If you've been following this from any of the forums I've been posting this on, feel free to add me on facebook (Blake Hutchings) - let me know you've been reading when you send a friend request. More blogs will be coming, tackling many other subjects of a similar nature, so if you've enjoyed them, stick around.

*A few lines from this paragraph are paraphrased from an essay written by Lauren Becker from the Point of Inquiry podcast. Unfortunately, I can't find the original source to reference, but I wanted to give credit where it was due, and avoid any accusations of plagiarism.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Alpha Course - Session 5: Why and How do I Pray?

I feel I haven't said enough about the food at these meetings, which is a shame really as it's usually the best part. So far, we've had jacket potato and chili, chicken in mushroom sauce, lasagne and hot dogs. Tonight, we had shepherd's pie. If you're considering giving the Alpha Course a try, it's worth it for the food alone!

But no matter how high they'd set the bar with tonight's dinner, it couldn't compare to how delicious the discussion was at the end. This was the first Alpha Course session I've walked away from feeling invigorated and full of energy. Filled with the Holy Spirit, perhaps? Well maybe. I guess we'll never know.

As I'd predicted, we began with another hymn, though I was wrong in my prediction that it would be the Cat Stevens classic "Morning Has Broken". Instead, it was one that I'd never heard. I considered choosing a lesser well-known hymn to be a risky strategy for them, as they may find that nobody knows the tune. Fortunately, the melody is virtually identical to the Village People's classic Go West, so I don my cowboy hat and get my boogie on! Fun times!

When this was done, we headed straight into the talk for this evening about why and how we should pray. Not wanting to find myself in a similar position to that which I found myself in last week when it came to blog writing time, unable to remember what was said, this time I took notes. Again, we began with anecdotes, but now, as I sit here to write, it feels like a betrayal of trust to recount the specific stories she told us. I've taken special care while writing this blog to keep the people involved in the course unidentifiable since, as they're unaware they're being written about, I don't think it's fair (damn my atheistic morals!). Instead, I focus on my own experience, the course content and their arguments, while keeping away from too personal details. In this instance, however, I need to go a little into at least the context of the stories to get the point across.
Stories of a friend's mother dying of cancer, or nights when the speaker worried for the safety of her teenage children who were late coming home served as the introduction to tonight's talk, as a way to give examples of the "opportunities" she had to pray. These were moments described as times where prayer was the "only thing you could do". I won't be pedantic and say that prayer is not the only thing you could do in such situations because that would be unreasonable - nobody would realistically call together a search party at 4am because somebody is a couple of hours later than expected, but I found the stories quite telling in what it really said about the nature of prayer and it's purpose. Whether or not it works or has any effect on the world outside of ourselves is seemingly irrelevant, because the real purpose is that it helps to settle the mind of the person doing the praying. Please don't read this as me being rude or mocking to those who engage in prayer, I think this may actually be a genuine benefit: if prayer can help to ease your mind or calm you down in times of worry, then that can certainly be helpful in that it moves you a little away from anxiety into a state where you can think more rationally. This is surely a good thing. This does, however, seem to be it's only benefit, which she compounds with her next point, which is that God doesn't always answer our prayers in the way we may want him to or expect him to. That's an incredible get-out clause! I struck upon a similar line of thinking just last night when I was considering whether or not to get up early for todays Alpha Course "Away Day" (which I'll talk a little more about in my next blog). Part of me wanted to go while another part of me didn't, and I'd gotten home very late after a gig and decided "I won't set my alarm. If I wake up early enough, I'll take it as a sign from God that I should go, and I will. But if I don't wake up early enough, then I'll take it as a sign from God that I shouldn't go, and I won't." I didn't wake up early enough, so I didn't go. A definite sign from God, that! Unequivocal proof not only of his existence, but also of his omniscience and infinite wisdom. Needless to say, I didn't really believe that, but it was an interesting parallel to the logic employed when assessing the power of prayer. I'm happy to report that the story of her teenage child not coming home ended happily and she eventually returned safely: prayer answered favourably. Sadly, however, her friends mother lost her battle with cancer and passed away. In this case, God answered her prayer in a way which wasn't what she'd hoped for, but that was what he considered best, perhaps as part of his plan.
I understand that I'm hitting a touchy subject here, and I'm using as much respect as I can, but I'm compelled to be honest in the way that I see it. One of my favourite comedians, the late George Carlin, put it slightly more bluntly:

... and I say fine, pray for anything you want, pray for anything, but... What about the divine plan? Remember that, the divine plan? A long time ago God made a divine plan! He gave it a lot of thought, decided it was a good plan, put it into practise, and for billions and billions of years the divine plan has been doing just fine. Now you come along and pray for something. Now suppose the thing you want isn't in God's divine plan. What do you want him to do, change his plan? Just for you? Doesn't that seem a little arrogant? It's a divine plan! What's the use in being God if every run down schmuck with a two-dollar prayer book can come along and fuck up your plan! And here's something else, another problem you might have: suppose your prayers aren't answered. What do you say? "Well it's God's will. Thy will be done." Fine, but if it's God's will and he's gonna do what he wants to anyway, why the fuck bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn't you just skip the praying part and go straight to his will? It's all very confusing.

After leading us in saying the Lord's Prayer, it's time for coffee.

In the coffee break, I get to meet the vicar, and this was the moment I had been looking forward to. I have to say, though, I ended up feeling a little let down. Not by him, he was a very forthcoming, seemingly very genuine, kindhearted man, but perhaps by my expectations as to what our meeting would be like. The way my group leader spoke to me last week made me think I was going to be taken aside for a private and in-depth discussion: a prospect I had begun to relish! Instead, it was more of a simple introduction and an invitation to ask him any questions we may have. My friend Martin, who had joined me again this week, joined us in conversation and we chatted for five minutes or so. The questions we asked were fairly straightforward and the answers were suitably mundane. Although his answers all used the existence of God as an unstated assumption, the moment didn't seem appropriate to dig too heavily into that since it was obvious we wouldn't be having a lengthy discussion, as such a question would have required, so we listened respectfully, asking topic-appropriate questions based around where the conversation was going. The only thing that I really remember from what he had to say was that he had a very emphatic belief that God loves us all, reguardless of what we believe. This seems a little at odds with many specific passages in the Bible that specifically say how non-Christians should be treated, but again, without the possibility to really discuss things fully, we don't go too deeply into it. I'm more interested in finding out what it is exactly that he believes.

As an aside, it's always been a curiosity to me to find out exactly what each individual believer actually believes. With different Christian denominations numbering in the tens of thousands, each following their own specific interpretation of the Bible, hearing somebody tell you that they believe in God really tells you very, very little about what they actually do believe. Some believe in evolution, some don't; some believe in a young earth, some don't; some believe that homosexuals should be stoned to death, some don't*. It's little wonder since, with so many internal contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, the number of different permutations with which people can choose to agree with one side of a contradiction on one issue and another side for another, renders the "good book" practically meaningless and positively unhelpful as a guide for life. But that's just me thinking out loud.

Things finally got interesting when we headed for our group discussion, which was, of course, intended to be based around the course theme for the evening about prayer, but which soon flew off on a tangent of it's own. We began by talking about why we might pray, what different reasons we may have for doing so. A list was quickly rattled off: as a plea for help; as a way of giving thanks; to repent of any sins we may have, etc. And then somebody mentioned 'as a way of giving praise'. An interesting suggestion, which prompted our group leader to point out a "good example" of this within the Bible, directing us to look up Psalm 139 and inviting us to read aloud a few lines each.

Big mistake!!

Read it here, and imagine, if you will, a dividing line between verses 18 and 19. See what you think.

OK, read it? Good.

Did the change of tone strike you as a little strange? What had begun as a reasonably pleasant talk about the wonder of God suddenly seemed to take a rather vitriolic twist. I was rather taken aback by this talk of killing and hatred and, when the group began commenting on how the Psalm was a wonderful example of reflecting on the majesty and greatness of the Lord's infinite knowledge, I had to speak up and comment on this. What was all that about at the end? Martin seemed equally struck by this and we felt almost embarressed to point out that these don't seem like the actions of an all-loving being - to hate and to kill, particularly after what the vicar had said to us just a few minutes previously. I didn't want to be the one to bring these things up, but I was shocked at the the way that these words were so easily brushed aside and ignored in favour of the earlier lines, particularly in the last of last week's session where we were informed that the Bible was the word of God. Don't the final verses carry just as much weight as the earlier ones?

The Psalms, we are told, were mostly written by David. I ask "is this David, as in King David?" She answers, yes. "As in King David, who's blood line is said to run down to Joseph...?" She cuts me off at this point, "Down to Jesus, yes.**"
This is a man held in very high esteem in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and yet he says such hateful things? I lay off a little, because I really know very little about King David, and such words are a forgivable human weakness. We all have occasional bad thoughts. What matters is how we act upon them, and so long as he acted as a good man, then I won't be too hard on him. Besides, seeing the Bible as I do in that it's not the word of God but actually written by people, these kinds of things are to be expected.
But the the group leader offers to tell us a little more about King David and, keen to fill the gaps in my knowledge, I gladly ask to learn more.
It seems that he certainly did do some good things, so that's fine, good for him. She then told the story of David and Goliath. Here, David kills Goliath, breaking God's sixth commandment, but no reasonable person would condemn David for taking the life of a man who was a very real threat to not only him but to all of his people. The killing of Goliath was an unavoidable act of self-defense which, though still sad in the way that it came about, I feel is justifiable.
But then we're told of the story where David was lounging on the roof of his palace one day (as you do) when he saw a woman, Bathsheba, taking a bath and desired her. Bathsheba, however, was married to Uriah, though this didn't seem a problem to David, who made her pregnant anyway. As a way of concealing this from her husband (who was serving under David in the army at the time), he summoned him home in the hope that he and Bathsheba would have sex so that he would assume the child was really his. Uriah, however, would not do this since it was against the rules about soldiers in active service. So instead, David arranged to have him killed. Once he was dead, the then married Bathsheba himself.

I have to ask, what do you expect us to think of this? So the great King David was a coveting, adulterous murderer? At no point did either Martin or myself become rude or pointed in our questions, but... are you serious?? The discussion became very much more animated from here on in as we were told more and more appalling things about this man, who one of the attendees described as "quite a colourful character" which I took to mean "he killed a lot more people than this."

None of us are perfect, sure, but if I had to list my own crimes, I'd struggle to find anything more severe than perhaps making the occasional illegal copy of a friend's CD. And yet these are the great men of the Bible.

Mark Twain once said "Give a man a reputation as an early riser, and that man can sleep till noon." His point? We tend to judge people's actions by their reputations rather than their reputations by their actions. And that's exactly what's happening here. Don't fall for it!!

Yet despite such a confrontational end, I left feeling exhilirated! I'd finally found my voice, and when it got to issues of morality, I just couldn't hold it in any longer. I'll definitely be back next week.

* Most, thankfully, at least in the western world.
** Actually, Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 both give different genealogies of Jesus that go back through Joseph, all the way back to King David. The problem here should be obvious: Mary was supposed to be a virgin. Therefore, Jesus wasn't a descendant of King David at all, since he wasn't Joseph's biological son. According to prophecy, the Messiah would be a descendant of David. Unless Mary was also a descendant of David (and nowhere is this recorded) then that part of the prophecy is unfulfilled, meaning that Jesus cannot be the prophesised Messiah. Though without Mary's bloodline available, we will never know.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Alpha Course - Session 4: Why and How Should I Read the Bible?

Forget the course themes, the discussion sessions and the talks; forget rational inquiry, evidence, theories and logic; forget the search for truth or a meaningful probing into the notion of what God is or why we should believe. This isn't what the Alpha Course is about. In fact, I think I've sussed how the Alpha Course works, and how it's been so successful. Call it a "revelation", if you will.

After our dinner, we move into the room where we are about to hear the speaker for the evening give her talk about Bible reading, only this time there's a bit of a twist: rather than getting straight to it, making the introductions and explaining the significance that the Bible should play in our lives, we're going to do something else first: we're going to sing a hymn. Amazing Grace, I'm sure you know that one. It has a catchy tune, I remember it from my primary school days, so I'm sure it'll be no problem for everybody to join in and sing their praises to God together.

This is what the Alpha Course is all about: gradually increasing levels of active involvement in Christian activity. Last week, if you remember, we were encouraged to take part in a prayer. It was simple to do, you just bow your head and close your eyes and say "Amen" at the end. This week, we're upping the ante a little by actually singing. Far less passive, much more active, yet still a simple act.
This is week four out of a total of ten. I've heard stories (which appear to be confirmed by the course guide given to us) that this goes as far as encouraging us to speak in tongues. Maybe even further...

What impact does this have? It affects how you identify yourself. For example, I would quite comfortably identify myself as a singer. Why? Because I regularly sing in public. I'd refer to myself as a blogger. Why? Because I regularly write blogs. I'd refer to myself as a driving instructor. Why? Because I teach people to drive.
If I ceased doing any of these things, I'd no longer refer to myself as such. Instead, I'd say "I used to be a singer," or "I used to be a driving instructor." A person's behaviour can have quite profound effects on their self-image. Could it be that these small steps are a way of leading somebody who may have been sitting a little bit on the fence when considering whether to identify as a Christian or an agnostic into the type of behaviour that would make it easier to decide on how they define themselves?
I know many people who would answer the question "what religion are you?" with a very wishy-washy answer along the lines of "Well, I'm kind of a Christian, but I don't go to church..." and if you do a bit more digging and questioning, you'll probably find that they don't pray, don't read the Bible etc., all the kinds of behaviour that Christians are supposed to do. As far as whether or not they believe in God, they may well answer "yes", without really knowing anything about what God supposedly is in the way that he's described in the Bible. "Christian" is simply the box that they tick on the census form because they were labelled as such from a young age and haven't stopped to think "Do I actually believe all this?"

I can see how this might have an effect, but at the moment it's just my hypothesis. We'll see as the weeks go by.

The talk for the evening was about "Why and how should we read the Bible?" and as much as I've just attempted to recall anything from it to include here, the only thing I can really remember was that it was once again (as is becoming a predictable pattern) a series of anecdotes and metaphors that didn't seem to make a lot of sense. The conclusion was that we should try to read a little of the Bible every day and let it help to guide us.

She also points to a collection of books at the back of the room that contain "Bible reading Guide notes". Why do we need Bible Reading guide notes? It's a big book, there's a lot in it, and it's supposed to be inspired by God. There are some very nice verses in there and some very not-nice verses in there. There are some verses that flatly contradict each other. These guides show you which verses you should focus on and how to interpret them. But if you're only reading the parts you're directed to read and ignoring the rest, you're not being guided by God at all, you're being guided by a person who can be just as fallible as you or I. It's a form of quote mining, like when creationists pull Darwin's quote about the evolution of the eye out of context, completely ignoring the words that follow directly after it.

I need to stop on that subject, all this faulty logic is making by brain hurt.

The talk is mercifully brief, and this is usually our break for coffee, but just as I'm about to get up, the leader from my discussion group comes over and sits down with me. She tells me that after last week's discussion, she wondered whether the group I'm in was really helping me at all, and that perhaps I might get a bit more out of a discussion with her husband, who is a vicar, and the man who gave the first two evening's lectures on "Who is Jesus?" and "Why did Jesus die?" This is an interesting twist, and something that intrigues me. If you read my first two blogs you may remember the impression I was left with after the lectures he gave. Not very impressed with his logic, but he was, at least, quite articulate. At the time that I was asked, I felt a little wary, but the more I think about it, the more I relish the opportunity to have a one-on-one theological discussion with an articulate vicar... even though it might end up being akin to banging my head against a wall even harder than the granite one I described in blog number 2.

He wasn't available that night, but should be around for a discussion next week. Make sure you tune in to next weeks blog, that should make for some very interesting reading!

Getting back to this session though, we made our way into our groups to find ours quite severely diminished from the previous weeks: just me, the leader and two others. It turned out to be quite a good experience! One guy, who had been fairly quiet in the first few weeks and seemed to be quite willing to take on the stories being presented to him, suddenly showed himself to be very critically minded. He set about highlighting one absurdity in the Bible after another, which made me smile, but I really remember very little about it so I won't go on. For me, the important parts of the evening were the hymn, which highlighted to me the approach that the Alpha Course is really taking, and the offer of a one-on-one talk with the vicar next week.

I really don't want to forget what's said during that discussion, so I may ask him if he minds if I record the conversation.

This may be interesting...

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The Alpha Course - Session 3: How Can We Have Faith?

I'm not going to lie: I'm finding these sessions excruciatingly uncomfortable. Not because the people there are unpleasant; quite the opposite. In fact, they're all really nice.

There is a clear and distinct difference between skepticism and cynicism that people sometimes muddle, and it's a fine line that we often tread. I take great pride in my skeptical approach, taking care not to fall into the trap of cynicism, but I'm not too proud to admit that I sometimes falter. With regards to the truth value of the claims of Christianity, I think I've already given it enough thought and careful consideration to be able to rationally, confidently and justifiably dismiss them as false, or - at the very least - not worthy of belief. My beliefs about the church itself, however, may be a little trickier to justify. So I'm taking a slight step back tonight. The moment I become a cynic is the moment that all my integrity falls away.

At the beginning of this week's session, we walked into the dining area where dinner was served, as is the case every week. For the first time, I hadn't come alone. My friend Martin decided - having read my previous posts - that he was intrigued and wanted to also come along to see what it was all about. Martin, like me, is a hard line skeptic/atheist, and this just made me feel even more conspicuous among the group of people "searching for something in their lives".

Why the sudden concern about my attitude? Alongside the group of Alpha attendees were a small number of homeless people who the course leaders had also invited in to eat with us. Having made food for everybody, they obviously decided it would be nice to do something good for the less fortunate.
These are clearly good, charitable people. They obviously have good intentions and are kind and caring. To be honest, I expected nothing less.

But when the dinner is over and the talk begins I just feel sad. I don't feel annoyed or angry, just sad and a little frustrated. The speaker tonight is a woman who had actually been sitting and chatting with us over dinner just a few minutes before. She told us all about herself, how she'd become a Christian in 1996 and when she'd taken the step of faith. She made reference to verses from the Bible (verses that, at present, I'm unable to reference as I've misplaced my course guide, but I'll add them in a future edit) about how Jesus only comes into your life if you invite him in. She told another series of stories that didn't really seem to go anywhere. And at the end of it all, her conclusion was: you just need to have faith.
Her talk culminates with a prayer, which she asks us all to take part in, bowing our heads and closing our eyes. To be honest, I was feeling tired anyway, so the opportunity to shut my eyes for a moment without seeming rude was quite welcome, but when it's over and we have a few minutes break for coffee, I feel like this has all been a total washout. It becomes clear that they're not even trying to convince people, they're instead working with people who are eager to be convinced and ready to try anything. These people on the course aren't being misled against their will, they're here because they're not seeking truth, they're seeking fantasy and comfort.

I may be wrong! Perhaps some people here do care as passionately about the truth as I do, but are less critically minded and unable to discern good evidence from bad. Either way, I'm very much out of place.

I go into the discussion group with a sense of dread. At the end of the talk, I want to go home, but Martin says he wants to stay and see more, so I reluctantly stick around.
I'm actually glad I stayed, because I was able to say a few words in the discussion group that made me feel better.
This being the third week in, I was much more comfortable with laying all my cards out on the table and being completely frank and honest about my position and my beliefs. The question was thrown out towards the group: what kind of changes have you seen in yourself or in others when they have come into faith? A couple of people answered that they'd seen changes in their family members who had moved toward faith, describing the positive effect it'd had, and it was here where I felt myself becoming more and more eager to speak. It was difficult to find the courage at first but eventually, just as I could sense that the topic was about to change, I couldn't hold it in anymore.
"Umm... I'm going to have to buck the trend slightly and tell a bit of a different story. I've never considered myself to be a believer in any religion, or in having any kind of supernatural beliefs in general, but I think it would be fair to say that my investigations and musings on religious beliefs in recent years has had quite a profound effect on me. The deeper I delve, the more I study, the more confident I become in my position that... I believe there is no God. I have no emotional attachment to, or investment in, that belief, and if it turns out that I'm wrong then so be it, but what I have become passionate about is a method of thinking and a way of coming to my beliefs. Since I've done that, I've been able to feel comfortable in a certain identity I have of myself that has given me a feeling of self-respect that I would say had been lacking in the years before that kind of... turning point."
The group leader quite graciously listens and acknowledges what I say. She's obviously heard this before and can clearly see that I'm not trying to be rude or disrespectful to anybody else's beliefs. Everybody knows exactly where I stand now and I feel far more at ease.

As the discussion goes on, people continue to share the personal experiences that had led them towards their beliefs, and I sit and listen. We here people tell of times they'd heard stories of people seeing ghosts; a feeling of being surrounded by angels; prayers being answered etc. One of the Alpha attendees, who had earlier identified himself as Anglican, seemed to be giving me evil stares since my declaration of the joy that a complete rejection of God had given me, and smug looks when people described seemingly unexplainable phenomena... though it's quite possible that I'm just being paranoid and he was doing nothing of the sort.

At the end of the discussion, the course leader invited me to comment on anything I'd heard brought up. I don't think it was a direct challenge along the lines of "Explain that then, Mr Smartypants skeptic!" but I declined to comment, smiled and said, no, I have nothing to say about that.

The truth is, I did have something to say about all that, I just couldn't see the point in bringing it up. The truth is that the psychology of belief is something that has fascinated me immensely for a long time, and I've looked into it... there was nothing described in the discussion group that couldn't be explained by well understood psychological phenomena such as hypnagogia, or sleep paralysis, or logical fallacies such as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, confirmation bias and cherry-picking.

Leaving the course that night left me feeling sad on two levels: for myself and for the people who are "searching".

I'll finish off this post by seemingly going off topic and talking about the X Factor (bear with me, it's relevant).
How often do you see somebody attend the auditions on X Factor, telling the judges that they're there because they've always dreamed of being a singer and that "all their friends" tell them that they have a "really good voice"... only to open their mouth and reveal themselves to be completely tone deaf? Happens pretty often, right?
To me, the Alpha Course attendees are like those people attending the audition, and the course leaders are like the friends behind the scenes. They tell people - with the best intentions - that they have a good voice, because they think that that's what they want to hear, that it'll make them happy, and that it'll give them a reason to feel good about themselves.
The problem is, what they're being told isn't true, and that's a problem because if you believe something that isn't true it informs your decisions and your actions, and leads you to be humiliated on national TV. Then along comes Simon Cowell who pays you the ultimate respect by telling you the truth. No, you can't sing.
Of course, we all see Simon Cowell, or the skeptic, as the bad guy, the meanie who doesn't care about how you feel. But if people had been honest with you in the first place, would you have given up your job and driven yourself into debt chasing an impossible dream, or found yourself in The Sun under mocking headlines?

I'll leave you with that thought.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Alpha Course - Session 2: Why Did Jesus Die?

The song "Creep" by Radiohead contains the line "What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here." I have to admit, that song was going round and round my head through this session. What am I doing here?

I thought I knew what I was doing here, or at least I thought I knew what the Alpha Course was all about, but now I'm not so sure. You've all seen the posters, they're everywhere. For those of you who haven't, the posters read "Does God exist?" followed by three tick-boxes labelled "Yes", "No" and "Probably". This implies - to me, at least - that they're appealing to agnostics. The advertising is based around uncertainty, so I would expect the course to be somewhat structured around an attempt to show that the stories in the Bible are true, that God does exist, and that Jesus Christ is "the way, the truth and the light." But it doesn't do this. It begins with the assumption that it is true, and then goes from there, teaching you about Jesus and how you should live your life. At no point do they even attempt to convince you that it's true, they just take it as given.

OK wait, wait, I'm being unfair, they do make some effort to show that it's true. In the Bible, Jesus says - explicitly - that he's the son of God. What more proof do you need?

This should be ringing alarm bells with everybody, setting off everybody's inbuilt bullshit-detectors that God (or Nature, you decide) instilled in all of us. It's the same device that makes you say "yeah right!" when somebody tells you they've got a 12-inch... umm... something.... err... big toe (phew, just managed to save this from going into the gutter), but won't take their shoe off to show you.
Ring-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling-a-ling... that's my bullshit-detector going off!

Surely, if this room is filled with agnostics, atheists and/or skeptics then their bullshit-detectors must be going off too, right? These course leaders must really be ready to deal with any question we could throw at them, right?

At the end of the main course-leader's talk about why Jesus died, everybody applauds, but I'm left completely bemused! That was not an impressive speech, it was a series of stories, allegories and anecdotes, some of which may have had some interesting meanings or messages behind them, but others simply told us that we're all unclean, immoral people who need to ask for forgiveness. Not forgiveness from the people we may have wronged, which would be understandable, but from God, who he has still not even given us any reason to believe even exists yet!

So why is everybody clapping???

The answer, when it comes, is so obvious I'm surprised I didn't think of it before. After his speech, I turn to the guy sitting next to me and we strike up a conversation. He seems like a nice, friendly guy and for the purpose of this blog we'll simply call him "Joe" because... well... that was his name. Joe asks what I do for a living (firstly asking if I'm a student - apparently I still look young enough), where I'm from, you know the kind of thing. I can't recall what he said he does, but he also tells me that he helps out a lot at the cathedral. Ahhh, now things are making sense. I ask if he's involved in running the course. Nope, he's just another attendee, like me. He just also happens to help out a lot at the cathedral and be a regular churchgoer. Interesting.

The next person I speak to introduces himself to me, another friendly guy who asks the usual questions. I ask him what brought him to the Alpha Course and he explains that he is a Christian who wants to come and learn a bit more about the faith. He introduces me to his friend, another Alpha attendee, who is also a Christian. He asks if I am a Christian and I say no, I don't identify myself as such, I'm just here to see what the course is about. I am keeping a very open mind, if they're able to give me any reason to believe it, but until then I stick to the null hypothesis.

This was when I started getting "Creep" stuck in my head. What the hell am I doing here?

When we separate into our groups, I find that some members of last week's group aren't present this week and some new members have joined the ranks. As a second ice-breaker, to expand on last week and to include the newer members, we are asked to each introduce ourselves and, this time, say why we're here for the course. It turns out that three of the attendees are actively involved in the church, two are on the Alpha course for the second time (a married couple, who took the Alpha Course a few years ago in order to be allowed to marry in church and decided to come back. They both wear cross pendants), one guy who is not actively involved but who considers himself a Christian already and wants to find out more. And then there's me.

Well, that explains the clapping.

It's during this set of introductions that I honestly and frankly state that I don't consider myself to be a believer but that religion has long fascinated me. I've never been able to understand why people believe something that I don't seem to be able to. Having seen the advertisements, I was curious to see what it was all about.

I've actually left one person out, but I've done that deliberately because she, to me, was the most interesting one. The last member of the group was a lady who said she was "giving religion a try". I won't hazard a guess at her age, but she's what I would call a more mature woman. Over 21. Her husband died recently and he was always very involved with the church, but despite that, she'd never really been a believer herself. Maybe it was the loss of her husband, maybe it's something else, but she seemed as though she had tried and tried for much of her life to believe but just couldn't make herself. The lack of anything empirical or logical left her wishing that she could find something to believe in, but based on what's available, it's just impossible for her. I think we may become friends as the course goes on.

The group discussion, led by the group leader, is staggering in it's weakness of argument. Before coming on the Alpha Course I was slightly worried that I may end up brainwashed into believing. Maybe somebody might say something that really set a thought off in my head leading to a leap of faith. These people are lifetime devotees to Christianity after all, I would expect them to have some sort of semi-believable argument or philosophy, but the vacuousness of their arguments is mind-boggling!
One woman in the group asks the question that if Jesus died for our sins - and we've all sinned - then does that mean that we are saved? What about people who have committed really bad sins, like robbers and murderers?
The group leader refers to Jesus' conversation with one of the two robbers who was crucified next to him.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, "If thou be Christ, save thyself and us." But the other answering rebuked him, saying, "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." And he said unto Jesus, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." And Jesus said unto him, "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise."

- Luke 23:39-43

What does this mean? Well apparently, according to the Alpha Course, it means that if you steal, ie. break the 8th commandment, you can still get to heaven if you recognise Jesus for who he is and ask his forgiveness. Well what about the 6th commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." Are we let off this one if we recognise Jesus as the son of God and ask his forgiveness?

It brings up obvious questions that I just have to ask: "Is there such a thing as being 'beyond salvation', where you commit crimes so bad that no amount of repenting of sin can be forgiven? What about acts of genocide? Could Hitler go to heaven if he repented at the last minute, like the thief on the cross?"

I know what you're thinking: why am I bothering with all this? Where does it get me? Nowhere! You can't expect a reasonable, logical explanation from religion, that's not what it's about. I'm banging my head against a granite wall and it's totally, totally pointless.

As I leave, that song goes through my head again. WHY am I coming to this course?

I'm just so damn curious!

Next week: How Can We Have Faith?