British 'Alpha Course':
Empty Boasts?
Cause For Concern?
Tom Jones

From: "tom jones"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: Friday, July 06, 2001 8:54 PM
Subject:

What do you know about this Alpha Course thing that is sweeping England and is moving to the USA. Have they really converted tens of thousands of atheists, or is this just PR and have there been any critical atheist responses written about it

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "tom jones"
Subject: Re:
Date: Friday, July 06, 2001 9:19 PM

I know nothing, and neither did the Dutch reader, Martin Horton, who initially alerted us of the situation. I dropped everything and posted this the moment I got it specifically in the hope of finding out more.

It appears to be an intensive method of inducement, an aggressive recruiting approach, perhaps involving physical isolation into a controled environment, a compound, much like what the so-called cults and the Billy Graham "youth camps" use. Brainwashing? I will not go that far without finding out what recruiting methods the program uses.

If they're hailing it as a technique, though, I find it hard to see it as involving the natural processes of a reasoned discussion -- otherwise, regular evangelism would not be any more or less effective at "making disciples." It is precisely because they're lauding this method for its success that I smell a rat. If there is something to my suspicions, here, we will see opposition from both the more reasoned and the more fundamentalistic wings of Christianity.

But I think we do well to find out what the program is, so we can be watchful -- in case it is what they're saying it is.

We also do well to see what their "recidivism" rates are (if that's what they'd call it), just in case this is merely another manifestation of what addiction "treatment" does -- boldly proclaiming its "successes" but, when examined, showing no substantial successes worthy of note -- much less the gloat.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: "tom jones"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: Friday, July 06, 2001 9:32 PM
Subject: Re:

It has arrived in my town a while back (I live in the Bible Belt) and the local paper greeted it with headlines proclaiming it's glories and the huge number of atheists it had converted. (To give you a sense of perspective about the area I live in, when Billy Graham came to town a while back the front page of the same paper was dominated by articles about him for four weeks two weeks prior to his visit one week during and one week after.)

I did a web search on this organization and found links to it directly and to other similar Christian sites. I did not get a chance to read them in detail. I did read that they credited part of their success to a warm and friendly atmosphere (they provide free meals, have beautiful flower arrangements, etc.). This sounds like the principle of reciprocity to me and it has been used to good effect by the Scientologists and Hari Krishnas as well.

I also wonder how many were actual atheists and how many were merely apathetic theists or more specifically apathetic Christians (i.e.,"yeah, this stuff is all real, but who cares?").

I would be very interested in hearing any atheist responses to this group.

P.S. What did you mean by "in case it is what they say it is"?

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "tom jones"
Subject: Re: Re:
Date: Friday, July 06, 2001 11:10 PM

when Billy Graham came to town a while back the front page of the same paper was dominated by articles about him for four weeks two weeks prior to his visit one week during and one week after

This is not far from what happened in Portland, Oregon -- the most atheistic city in the most atheistic state. This is not natural news coverage of what happens to be drawing interest, but is clearly propaganda launched by influential people in the press who are abusing their roles of responsibility to promote their religion for free.
 

This sounds like the principle of reciprocity to me and it has been used to good effect by the Scientologists and Hari Krishnas as well.

Where I grew up, Pacific Beach in San Diego, the Hare Krsna temple is the place to go to get a free meal and to cool off from a hot summer day. We'd ride our bikes out there as kids, even when it was near Balboa Park (seven or eight miles, including a long, steep hill). We loved it! It was a better entertainment value than much of what was going on at the time. Only one of us ever joined (and I'll bet he's still there -- that stuff was right up his alley), and only two others ever even considered what they were saying (I was one).

This was when George Harrison was singing "My Sweet Lord," when the film "Concert for Bangladesh" was in the theaters. This was when the religious "cult" craze had just replaced the Yippie! form of anti-war political activism as The Big Scary Monster which grieved the parents of mid-teens, which itself had just replaced LSD as The Big Bogey Man.
 

what did you mean by "in case it is what they say it is"?

I mean to say, if this course is converting as many atheists as they claim, and if the recidivism rates are low, then this is cause for genuine concern.

Otherwise, if it is what I suspect it might be, a boastful sham, our only concern is the dignity issue over establishing and supporting a program that would want to target atheists as being in need of this sort of re-education.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: tom jones
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2001 12:29 AM
Subject: Re: Re:

I found a site from the UK that has an atheist's account of the Alpha Course
www.bowness.demon.co.uk
What he says about the Alpha Course seems to match what I learned about them from their own sites. It all seems pretty trite, and seems to back up my guess that their audience was mostly apathetic theists. I would still be interested in an examination of their claim of "tens of thousands of converts" let me know if you find one.

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "tom jones"
Subject: Re: Re:
Date: Saturday, July 07, 2001 3:35 AM

Here's the course itself:
http://www.alpha.org.uk/3minutealpha/index.htm

I was right: the Alpha Course does involve the temporary physical isolation of their marks into a controlled environment -- which they call "The Weekend." They also describe extremely persuasive indoctrination at the hands of people who have been specially trained to deal with various forms of resistance to the technique. The group is also "Charismatic," which means that it uses the mass-hypnosis methods for invoking the "sudden personality change" described in the 1978 book Snapping by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman and also discussed by Marjoe Gortner during his lectures on the subject, wherein he'd bring a skeptic from the audience onto the stage, insist again and again that it's not real, and have skeptic falling over, "slain in the spirit," within moments -- demonstrating that it's just a trick.

I was "slain in the spirit" once -- and I actually fell over, despite my efforts to remain standing. I swear I felt an electric shock when the preacher touched my forehead. Perhaps the kindly woman holding me and preparing to help brace my fall was the cathode and the preacher's ring was the anode?
 

You're right about these "atheists" in their stats probably being nominal Christians. From the course description, I would wager that an "atheist," to them, is somebody who does not worship The One True God (meaning their specific and perhaps unique concept of the Christian godhead, as opposed to the "another Jesus" denounced by Saint Paul in II Corinthians 11:4). Many Charismatic sects consider such Christians as Roman Catholics and even non-Charismatic Protestants to be non-Christians -- that is, atheists. In fact, this thinking abounds throughout Christianity and is even dogmatized in the Roman Catholic Church: Wicked Christians are, according to this logic, atheists, because they show by their behavior that they cannot possibly believe in "God" -- otherwise they would not be acting wickedly, because Christians, by definition, act righteously. So, according to this thinking, whatever God these "atheists" think they believe in, it cannot be The One True God; thus, since they don't believe in the "real" God, they must be atheists. This is classic case of Circular Reasoning.

I don't know which makes me more nervous -- take your pick: (1) a group which openly and publicly targets atheists (or any cultural group) as being in need of re-education; (2) a group that is so utterly fundamentalistic, and is thus so entirely exclusivistic, that the slightest variation in dogma renders an otherwise devout Christian worthy of being described as an unbeliever ("We will determine whether your private expression of faith is valid!").
 

My main concern -- still -- is not that they might be effective. I doubt that they're very effective at all -- beyond the first few weeks or months. Albert Ellis used to talk about a viewpoint which was obtained by reason and discovery, versus one which that is based upon solely upon faith, that is, solely upon claims being made and dogma being asserted. Fact versus fancy, he'd say! The latter must continually be renewed week after week lest it wear off, because it is not based in reality and is not discovered through experience; rather, it was drilled into the person through indoctrination or "wore off" on a person through association with those who already believe that way (at least, they say they believe that way).

Discussing faith-based drug and alcohol "treatment," Ellis remarks:

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The kind of the Belief System you adopt does have some importance to long-term sobriety, however. This is because we often start out gung ho with a new Belief System, but the fire dims as time passes. Farfetched Belief-Systems with little general problem-solving, happiness-producing capacities frequently lose their hold on us. This often happens with cults, even powerful and dangerous ones. In time we see their limitations, learn that their leaders are only human, and realize that we do better when we put ourselves ahead of the cult leader.

We lose faith in faith-inspired Belief Systems unless we continue to surround ourselves with other true believers. This is why you have to attend most kinds of churches pretty well forever. The same thing is true of some kinds of recovery meetings. If you don't attend, your faith may fade. People who adopt a faith-based Belief System and improve often think it should work for others also if those others will just "work a good program." They may feel threatened and attacked if some people don't like that approach and prefer something different.
     -- When AA Doesn't Work For You: Rational Steps To Quitting Alcohol, pp. 80-81

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This is why the Charismatic "experience" is so heavily emphasized in such religions: even though the experience itself is just a trick of the mind, at least it feels like an experience. Still, the Charismatic must practice the trance-inducing experience, invoking it at regular intervals, or the faith loses its realism and thus its power over the individual. What's left is to return to the previous way of thinking, which inevitably contains more reason-based elements when it comes to views about religion.

Remember: Faith usually involves only religious tenets. Most of us, no matter how religious we are, usually live almost all our lives as if the world were entirely physical. Very few Charismatics, for example, will depend entirely upon prayer and ceremonial oil for their health care (James 5:14-5). They'll pray, to be sure, because this is the religiously correct thing to do. And with very few exceptions, they will pray on the way to the hospital. Hardly anybody will stop off at a chapel or a shrine, chant a prayer and anoint the dying person with oil, and then casually continue their journey to the Emergency Room. If anything, they will do this ceremonial stuff only after they have arrived and the medical team has started working (or, in America, while they're signing the numerous contracts which ensure the hospital, usually a tax-exempt religious "charity," that you'll pay your bill -- and in case you don't, that plenty of "persons to contact in case of emergency" are listed to help them track you down [I always write down "The Authorities" in this space]).

I am familiar with almost every trick Alpha Course mentioned in their course description, and these methods do not stick for very long. Most of these methods soon wear off on most people. Alpha Course is not much different from what they do in the Billy Graham "youth camps." I am not convinced that Alpha Course is any better at it than Graham. Or are they another arm of the Billy Graham Crusades? (I love that name! Campus Crusades for Christ, too! It's so appropriate of the conqueror mentality involved: We must amass our young soldiers across land and sea so they can slaughter those godless heathen and their children, because we must redeem this land for Christ!)
 

Even if they were as effective as they claim, this would only mean that they've definitely got something up their sleeves, because regular Christianity is not nearly this successful. In this case, they face serious scrutiny from both fundamentalistic purists and Liberals.

What does concern me is that a group is going around portraying atheists as a group of people who need to be re-educated. This is 198-proof bigotry, and would never be tolerated had they portrayed any other group as needing re-education.

The leader of Teen Challenge was rightly denounced for bragging that some of his clients had become "Completed Jews." Within the confines of Christian circles, this might be considered a valid expression of their point of view. But this language is bigotry when it extends even to Christian public relations statements. Amongst themselves, they may think what they want. I have no response except that I want no part of this style of thinking. Once they start talking to us this way, though, they have committed an act of indignity by suggesting that regular Jews are somehow "incomplete."

I think the situation is not much different when the Alpha Course gloats about all the "atheists" they've converted, or states, publicly, that the target for their recruiting campaigns consists of "atheists." Even if it turns out that what they actually mean is "Christians -- or anyone -- who do not believe like us," they are using a word that in almost every other context means people without religion or people who reject religion. They are saying that they are targeting a specific and easily identified people group -- a people group that suffers more than its fair share of indignity.

What is it about atheists that they have waged a campaign targeting us to be persuaded to change our religious views? What make it even acceptable that they would talk like this? and why should we remain silent when they do?
 

The main reason I don't think they will get very far is that their exclusivism and bigotry is so utterly transparent that I think most people will be able to see through it -- in spite of the vicious indoctrination techniques designed to identify and counter any hint of doubt, in spite of the brutal method of isolating people into a sequestered environment where a single viewpoint is emphasized and there is no second opinion. I think, with George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), that the human mind will, in most cases, overcome even this:

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Fatally powerful as religious systems have been, human nature is stronger and wider, and though dogmas may hamper they cannot absolutely repress its growth.

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Regular religion -- what I consider healthy expressions of religion (yeah, I know) -- does not need to go to these extremes either to set people straight or to keep them in line. Healthy religion do not need to target a specific group and let them know exactly what's up. The religions that will always attract their share of followers (though not necessarily in messiah-comples droves) are those who trust their religion to do its own work. (Is your religion attractive on its own merits?) Good religion describes a God who is sufficiently powerful and influential and attractive, good religion would never think of sequestering their prospective converts. They wouldn't need to do this and they wouldn't want to do this. They would trust their God to "call" whomever He will. And their congregations will always be pure in that they will have very few people who were coerced or tricked into joining.

Religion that deserves the respect and devotion of its adherents is that which trusts its devotees to obey the tenets of the religion (rather than lo bby to make specifically religions infractions illegal for us all). Religion that earns the respect of the community is that religion which trusts nonmembers to make their own decisions about their own lives -- particularly when it comes to something as private and as personal as faith (or lack thereof).
 

Hare Krsna? Yup! Billy Graham? Uh huh! These guys appear to have learned from the Krsnas, who definitely learned more than a little from Graham. But this group is so much like Graham's operation that I cannot help but wonder how much of their stock is in his portfolio.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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From: tom jones
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: Saturday, July 07, 2001 1:41 PM
Subject: Re: Re:

Did you get my last email? here is the link to that page again.
http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/alpha.htm

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "tom jones"
Subject: Re: Re:
Date: Saturday, July 07, 2001 5:49 PM

Okay, here it is (double-negative and all):

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I was told that the course was designed for people searching for Jesus with open minds, and not for people who did not believe that Christianity was untrue.

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Did they mean people who did believe Christianity was untrue? i.e., atheists, etc.? I doubt it! They just spent more time looking out the schoolroom window than burying their noses in the English books!

If they gloat that they've converted so many "atheists," then they cannot turn around and say this is only for people "searching for Jesus with open minds" and still be considered truthful. Someone "searching for Jesus" is not rightly considered an atheist!

The Alpha Course guy:

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so I will leave off re-inventing the wheel for the time being

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This is another of my favorite ways that hucksters and the like use to dismiss someone's criticism.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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