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Inside Alpha: an atheist tries on the well-known evangelism program

Inside Alpha: an atheist tries on the well-known evangelism program

Tabatha Leggett didn’t believe in God when she enrolled in the well-known Alpha program at a church in East London. She describes for the New Statesman what happened next.

She begins:

Although I’m an atheist, I don’t have a problem with people who subscribe to religion. I am, however, wary of brainwashing, I think most religious beliefs are kind of stupid and I strongly suspect that organised religion is a horrible thing. But, 2.8 million people in the UK have done an Alpha course, and I’m willing to be proved wrong.

Of her fourth week in the program she writes:

This week, Leslie, a priest from the church, speaks about evolution, which has to be our most interesting topic to date. “How do I know evolution isn’t true?” he begins, continuing: “Because God revealed himself to me through scripture.” This annoys me: these people keep saying really obscure things and not explaining them. Leslie explains that scripture is “God-breathed,” so when you read the Bible, God is speaking directly to you. I’m not an idiot but I have absolutely no conception of what that means. ….

Leggett has intensely frustrating experiences, but she comes to a surprising conclusion during her final session with Alpha as she listens to the group leader explain why people should join the church.

His answer? Because you’ll make friends there. “We have socials once a week,” he explains. The term “social” made me cringe at university, and it’s even worse to hear a grown man use it. But as I look around the room, I realise everyone’s happy. Patrick, who has suffered from anxiety attacks for 30 years, has found a group of people who accept him. Maya and her brother Matteo have a reason to hang out every week, and Jackie has gained a social life outside of her work.

“If you’re a Christian, you’re our friend,” Adam says. Why can’t you find friends outside of the church? You can, but you won’t be as close because you don’t share a belief. I’m not convinced these people know what they believe because I don’t think they’ve thought about it properly. But what I do know is that I’m sitting in a room of happy people, and although this Alpha thing may not be for me, it is for them.


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In the end, Tabitha was happy for the group because they were happy to have found a circle of friends. But apparently she was frustrated to the point of tears during the course.

Our church offered six of the Alpha series during Lent a few years ago. My frustration and anger level was very high throughout the course, because I was so hostile to the simplistic assumptions and the lack of any depth whatsoever in the lectures. The Alpha I watched was a slick production, filmed at HTB church. The audience was mostly young, white, upper middle class to upper class, well-dressed, hanging on every word Nicky Gumbel said in rapt attention. If anyone was fidgety or bored, they were edited out of view. I see why people call the church a dating club for yuppies. My heart sank when I heard of Justin Welby’s association with the church.

When asked by the Guardian about “gay issues”, Nicky Gumbel mouths exactly what the ABC said in his speech in the House of Lords, “My views are the same as those of the Church of England.”

Of course the words won’t do for Justin now as ABC, for he well knows the whole church does not agree.

But then, who am I to quarrel with success? HTB is full to overflowing and is now planting churches all over London.

June Butler

Leslie Scoopmire

No, not at all, and I hardly think the alternative to scoffing at such a statement is to assume that one is antisocial and angry. The dichotomy you present is a bit exaggerated– “glowering?” Really?

But we can have friends who are NOT Christian, and church is more– far, far more!– than a social club or a singles bar. The omnidirectional love of God expressed through prayer, praise, and worship needs to figure somewhere in this equation, I would hope, not just in hanging out over canapes– or that sacred pseudosacrament, coffee.

I prefer the image of a family, where we love people and get to know people genuinely for who they are– not just because they know the secret handshake.

Weiwen Ng

Hang on: we do go to church to make friends and there is nothing wrong with that. St. Francis of Assisi would joyfully and genuinely worship God even among a bunch of his enemies, but most people are not St. Francis.

The friendships we make in church give us a network to draw support from in tough times. We can pray together, drink together, commiserate on the state of the world or the church or whatever together. At a more macro level, churches can contribute to social solidarity by giving us something in common with our fellow citizens.

I mean, what’s the alternative? Go to church, glower at the other parishioners over the top of the Hymnal and then stalk out?

Leslie Scoopmire

“If you’re a Christian, you’re our friend?”


Oh, my.

You should join the church to make friends?

Why is “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” going through my head right now?

“Evolution isn’t true because God has revealed himself to me through scripture.”

Oh, my.

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