July 4, 2009

Channel 4 recently screened How to Find God, Jon Ronson’s documentary on the Alpha course. You can watch it online for a few weeks. Edited to add: Ronson also went on the Alpha course himself back in 2000: you can read about it in the Grauniad, and find some interesting discussion of his article on Metafilter.

The documentary follows one group of people taking the course at St Aldates, Oxford, a charismatic Anglican church. The group were a mixed bunch, from Dave, a psychology student who was feeling a bit guilty about drinking 12 pints in an evening; to my favourite, Ed, the unemployed freegan who liked to look for spare food round the back of supermarkets.

What we see of Alpha’s apologetics is pretty bad: there’s Josephus‘s reference to Jesus, Lewis’s Mad/Bad/God argument, as appropriated by McDowell, and what ophe1ia-in-red‘s own review (which you should also read) rightly calls a false dichotomy between a life of meaningless debauchery and Christianity. At one point, the male small group leader says that God once spoke to him in his head to tell him he didn’t have to give a talk he was nervous about. When the non-Christians ask how he knows it was God and not his imagination, his wife gets annoyed and accuses them of calling her husband stupid. A rationalist with too much time on their hands could probably have a bit of fun attending an Alpha Course, and it seems some have.

Nevertheless, I doubt that these arguments have a lot to do with Alpha’s success rate (quoted as being about 1 person in each small group of about 8). As Ronson says, “Alpha is all about rigorously structured, almost mathematical, niceness. And this structure is a huge success.” The free food (and the attractive Christian ladies serving it), friendly people and small group discussions are the most important parts of Alpha’s methods.

Despite accusations of bias from the commenters on Channel 4’s site, Ronson’s style is non-confrontational. Rachel Cooke’s review in New Statesman describes it as “like a religious version of Springwatch: instead of wondering which egg was going to hatch first, we were invited to wonder which agnostic would find Jesus first.” I found it a bit like the “who’s going to die this week?” stuff you used to get in the opening scenes of Casualty: Bob’s using the threshing machine and once felt a “sort of energy” when he was a bit down, Alice is on the motorway behind a tanker full of petrol and is unemployed and a bit directionless: who’s going to get Jesus’d?

The “Holy Spirit weekend”, where the potential converts go off on a weekend break and are encouraged to try speaking in tongues, is the most controversial part of Alpha. Indeed, it’s partly what lead the more conservative evangelical churches to replace Alpha with Christianity Explored (that and the conservatives’ feeling that more emphasis is needed on the fact that we’re all sinners who deserve to be tortured forever, and will be if we find ourselves unable to radically change our lives on the basis of insufficient evidence: this is what conservatives call “the Good News“). It certainly made for the most interesting part of the documentary.

After a few explanatory shots of the Toronto Blessing, we follow the group on to a conference centre near Oxford, which it turns out they’re sharing with a conference for Ford GT40 fans. There’s a Derren Brown Messiah suggestion session where everyone stands with their eyes closed, but alas, it’s interrupted by the noise from the GT40s outside (modern day iron chariots, as one of Channel 4’s commenters has it). They carry on, with the Christians singing songs and the pastor singing in tongues, but one of the non-Christians feels he’s been manipulated and walks out of the room. However, the beer-drinking psychology student likes the atmosphere, asks people to pray for him, and says he’ll be going on another Alpha Course. In the end, two of them walk away saying the experience has put them off Christianity, and the freegan says he respects Christians more now. I’d call it a no-score draw.