The Omega Course

The wheels on the Atheist Bus are going round and round:

The atheist bus campaign launches today thanks to Comment is free readers. Because of your enthusiastic response to the idea of a reassuring God-free advert being used to counter religious advertising, the slogan ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ could now become an ad campaign on London buses – and leading secularists have jumped on board to help us raise the money.

The British Humanist Association will be administering all donations to the campaign, and Professor Richard Dawkins, bestselling author of The God Delusion, has generously agreed to match all contributions up to a maximum of £5,500, giving us a total of £11,000 if we raise the full amount. This will be enough to fund two sets of atheist adverts on 30 London buses for four weeks.

As you read this, a new advertising campaign for Alpha Courses is running on London buses. If you attend an Alpha Course, you will again be told that failing to believe in Jesus will condemn you to hell. There’s no doubt that advertising can be effective, and religious advertising works particularly well on those who are vulnerable, frightening them into believing. Religious organisations’ jobs are made easier because there’s no publicly visible counter-view to refute their threats of eternal damnation.

I fully expect some religious apologist to say something like ‘Look – the atheist fundamentalists demand propaganda on buses now.’ You can find out more about the campaign here but I want to look at what’s already on the buses.

I’ve always been curious about Alpha – it has been around for years, it had a big presence at the universities I went to, it seems vibrant and successful. And it attracts little scrutiny.

There are courses running all over the country. The structure seems to be a ten-week programme with food, drink, discussion, talks and a weekend away. The website is friendly and professional, full of video testimony by young, happy-looking people. They make it clear that the environment is fun and welcoming, that it’s not a cult, that questions are allowed, that it’s not ‘old people sitting around drinking orange squash out of horrible flasks,’ as one testimonial went. Alpha has won plaudits from everyone from Geri Halliwell to Rowan Williams (and our old pal Joel Edwards.)

However, as so often these days, it appears that under the glossy liberal surface there is a nasty set of priorities. First port of call is this briefing from the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association; published in 2002, it examines the Alpha attitude to homosexuality, with close reading of course texts from Alpha’s current alpha male Nicky Gumbel. Its author is John Rose from the University of York, who objected to Alpha’s presence on his campus. Rose found that:

1) Nicky Gumbel has compared gay people with paedophiles, and says that God ‘did not design our bodies for homosexual intercourse.’

2) His core text, Searching Issues, not only condemns gay people as ‘offenders’ but also condemns people who accept gay lifestyles (or ‘approve of those who practise them’);

3) Gumbel blames the presence of HIV in the straight population on gays, and regards the virus as God’s judgement on homosexuals;

4) Gumbel assumes that all gay people are recklessly promiscuous and that gay people without AIDS are somehow ‘get[ting] away with it’;

5) Gumbel says that ‘homosexual orientation is something that is acquired or learned’ and has asserted that ‘gay people need to be healed’;

6) Gumbel backs up his assertion that gay people can be ‘cured’ with reference to a survey produced by the British Medical Association in 1955: ten years before homosexuality was decriminalised in this country and thirty-five years before the World Health Organisation stopped classifying it as a disease.

Rose ends on a warning note:

Along with those who criticise ‘psychological manipulation’ and brainwashing, there are those who claim the Alpha course is a cult that targets the most vulnerable in society, owing to the high levels of conversions and the convulsive behaviour exploited by some of the most vulnerable converts. Students are an ideal target for the Alpha course, and I do not use the term ‘target’ lightly. The Alpha course is directly targeting students by placing an Alpha course on campus. As a student, you are encouraged to join every society going to make new friends. Alpha sells itself on companionship and a ready-made network of friends. There are those who would have joined the Alpha course to make new friends in a new area of interest, and will have found themselves in a very vulnerable situation.

I also came across this account from a Warwick student who gave Alpha a try. Do check out the comments.

Around week 7 or 8 of the 10 week course the piece de la resistance of the marketing occurs: the weekend away. If you thought it was tough to find out anything about Alpha in general, try searching for information on the weekend away! I kid you not dear readers, but when I attended the course I was unable to obtain even an address for where we going! The most specific it got was ‘somewhere in Great Malvern’ despite asking a number of the group organisers. It seems this information, along with all others on the weekend, was heavily guarded. But through either curiosity or stupidity I did get on that coach to be driven to an unknown location with a bunch of people I barely knew. It is a genius method of marketing: take a bunch of people away for a weekend where they will be trapped, a totally captive audience, with little to do other than what you organise for them. It might sound like I’m a bit cynical and over the top here but think about it: the weekend is just the usual talks, discussion and worship. There’s no reason this couldn’t be done at the regular venue – this along with the inability for anyone to give me an address for the trip so I could say, look up the nearest train station in advance, leads me to think that it’s there solely to ensure there’s no escape for the people involved

This in mind, the worship quota is upped for the weekend, and whole notion of giving your life to Jesus and getting ‘saved’ is raised, with people going up to the front of the chapel and praying in a sort of ‘Christianity pledge’, with people collapsing and doing the (pretty amusing) speaking in tongues thing, just like any good cult. These things occurring of course, after the preacher has mentioned that they might. I imagine the result would be somewhat different if he didn’t.

It’s at that point you really see what the Alpha Course truly is: it’s not an invitation to explore the meaning of life, but a slickly marketed Christian conversion course. The objective of Alpha is not to educate people about Christianity, but to convert as many people as possible their particular brand of this religion. By the time it’s been pared down enough to just the people left at the weekend, the success rate is pretty high, around 90%. As more people go to the front of the stage to be ‘saved’ you become made to feel increasingly awkward stood at the back, perhaps even a little tempted to just give in and go for it anyways, made all the more acute by the preacher singling you out: the combination of direct and peer pressure make for an extremely uncomfortable situation. I stuck around for the remaining few weeks after the weekend as I figured I may as well finish it off so I could at least write about it with some authority and it wouldn’t be a total waste of my time, but by that time there were only a couple of us sceptics left and we were left to feel increasingly marginalised and singled out as the last attempts to convert us were made.

The ‘speaking in tongues’ thing is backed up by Jon Ronson. 

Brief digression: the phenomenon of speaking in tongues brings to mind Stephen King’s statement that ‘babies make all the sounds the human voicebox is capable of… the liquid trill that proves so difficult for first-year French students, the glottal grunts and clicks of the Australian bush people, the thickened, abrupt consonants of German. They lose the capability as they learn English.’

Is speaking in tongues just an induced regression to this state? It would explain why, as the Guardian says, people who don’t know Chinese have been heard to speak Chinese when they speak in tongues.

Anyway: another nonbeliever who walked into Alpha with his mind duly propped open was the New Humanist’s Michael Marsden. He encounters similar stuff from Gumbel about the sin of homosexuality, and meditations on sex outside marriage and relationships with non-Christians (not advised). Gumbel also echoes the old song that our society has become decadent and immoral, and he dreams of ‘a nation where the laws of God will again be the foundation of society.’ Can’t wait.

An obvious question arises: who is susceptible to this kind of thing? I had the impression that almost all the people who did the course with me fell into one or more of three categories. First, a sizeable minority had turned to Christianity during periods of unhappiness. This was obvious not only from the talks and discussions, but also from the Alpha newspaper: every edition contains guilt-ridden adulterers, depressed alcoholics and self-destructive hard-drug users whose lives had been transformed by Christ. Second, there were those who had grown up in Christian families: many had never been actively involved in a church, but the beliefs had always been there in the background of their lives. Third, if HTB is anything to go by, it seemed a lot of people were attracted by Alpha’s extensive social network. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I couldn’t help being dubious about the individuals to whom, by their own admission, the primordial truths of Christianity had been imperceptible until shortly after Alpha shifted their social lives into a higher gear.

Of course, many people are happy to see religion as a kind of psychological safety net. One last telling para from Marsden:

With one of them I had a memorable conversation that struck me as offering an insight into the psychology of religious conversion: he told me he had studied philosophy at university and had been frustrated by the lack of ‘answers’ it provided, but then found Christianity offered what he described as a ‘short-cut’. He is now training to be an Anglican vicar.

3 Responses to “The Omega Course”

  1. An objection anticipated « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] objection anticipated When I wrote about the atheist bus campaign a few days back, I said that: I fully expect some religious apologist to say something like […]

  2. Nick Hales Says:

    Could I make it clear, in case a web search churns it up, that The Omega Course given within dissociates itself from the Alpha Course and all techniques employed and also the US evangelical attempt to convert eastern europe known as The Omega Course

  3. Coalition of the Damned « Shiraz Socialist Says:

    […] chairman of the Alpha Course (like Cameron himself, it’s less liberal than it sounds) has given at least £50,000 to the party. Thirty-seven election candidates were members of the […]

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