Thursday, 2 July 2009

How to Find God

Channel 4 screened the first of the series Revelations: How to Find God, which followed some agnostics embarking on the Alpha Course, Nicky Gumbel's well organised effort to convert the masses.

The excellent Jon Ronson was our guide, a suitably neutral commentary, but his slightly cynical voice tends to give away his sceptical outlook, I feel.

I found the course fascinating in its techniques and personnel. The methods are carefully worked out for the maximum effect; rousing speeches from friendly Tony Bliar style trendy vicars, with follow -up sessions in groups of eight or so, where bonding helps to draw the vulnerable in and break down the barriers of the cynical. It's noticeable how the agnostics quicly grew to feel empathy for their Christian group leaders - almost *protective* of them. And certainly in this case the two group leaders seemed like thoroughly decent types, despite their delusion; what wasn't to like about them?

They were incredibly sensitive about their belief, however, highlighted after the male Christian explained a time when he thought god was talking to him (on a bus, apparently) when one of the group innocently asked how he knew the voice in his head was god and not just a voice in his head. A not unreasonable question. The female Christian leapt to his defence (they were married, I think) and said they were *patronising* him, and that he wasn't stupid - she was quite irate! But they weren't patronising him, or calling him stupid, but asking him a genuine question, that deserves an answer. I've written before how it would be impossible in practice, I think, to differentiate between god speaking to you in your head, and having a brainstorm and *thinking* that god is speaking to you in your head. So, not stupid, just vulnerable, from that point of view.

It seemed to me that everyone involved from Alpha was well-intentioned and hard-working; I would congratulate them on that and would be loathe to assign any nefarious motives to them, certainly at grass-roots level; they honestly believed they were doing people a favour. Even the agnostics who were no nearer god after the course found them admirable people.

This is one of the tragedies for me, because plenty of religions attract these otherwise wonderful members of the community to work for them. But I think they would be wonderful people without their religious convictions, and that the dogma for which they fall just distracts them from benefitting the community even more.

At the end, there seemed to be only one member of the group much closer to god than before, but I guess that's better than nothing, for their purposes. Interestingly, one or two members seemed quite favourable to the Alpha ideas until the 'speaking in tongues' session; maybe this is a step too far for many introverted Brits!

I did watch a Nicky Gumbel video where he laid out the *evidence* for faith in Christianity. It wasn't too good! Here's a summary:

Creation itself; hmmm, can't see anything about that to compel me to Christianity. We don't know exactly how the universe came about yet, possibly never will; And philosophers down the ages have pondered the question long and hard without coming to a consensus.

Fine tuning; again, nothing Christian about that. Did Christ mention it in the Sermon on the Mount? Not that I recall. I've seen good cases made for it being an argument *against* a god. So, not a convincing one.

Humans have a god-shaped vacuum in them! Nice one; might be true, I suppose, since most (all?) societies create their own gods. Nothing Christian about it though. Perhaps this god-shaped hole is telling us something about humans, and nothing about the truth or otherwise of a deity?

Finally he gets onto Christianity and says there is 'massive evidence' for Jesus Christ. That's a little economical with the truth, I think. We have two references in Roman histories, of dubious provenance, and then the NT. It's true that we cannot dismiss the whole of the history of the Christian Church - we need to consider that as *some* evidence. But there are many holy men giving rise to various churches down the years, so what is it about JC that means we must believe in him?

Other evidence (he's beginning to waffle a bit now), transformed lives. I've heard of many transformed lives from non Christian religions, so this can be dismissed out of hand. Nazism transformed a few lives too.

The Church Itself! It's not like there's other churches, is it!

So the Alpha Course has no *good* evidence, after all. Nevertheless, an enjoyable program, and interesting to see how they operate.


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