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Stephen Butterfield Takes the Alpha Course

12/02/08

  12:02:00 am, by Nimble   , 751 words  
Categories: Thoughts, Religion

Stephen Butterfield Takes the Alpha Course

You may have seen the ads for the Alpha Course floating around your town, perhaps saying "Is There More to Life Than This?", though you might wonder that if the person who climbed the mountain in that picture has that question, you might not need to ask the question for a while.

The ads typically make no mention of this, but it's an "introductory course" in Christianity, with an eye towards evangelizing it more so than, say, historical critical analysis.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if an atheist took the course?

Stephen Butterfield took the Alpha Course in the UK, and blogged the entire experience.

His account is pretty interesting, and it spans the whole 11-week course save for one part. He asked permission to record the experience, and his recorder broke down before one week's discussion and did not feel he could fairly paraphrase from memory.

He went in with a rough handful of Christians, both male and female, one fellow skeptic who was not so vocal, and a pastor. Everyone in the group is referred to only by their role, so as to preserve their identities.

His intentions:

Having been raised as a Christian, only later to drift away from the faith, I thought I’d give the Alpha Course a go. What did I have to lose? Maybe I’d get some questions (that had troubled me for a while) answered? What did the Christian faith have to offer in terms of evidence and fact? Would their arguments stand up to examination? I was looking forward to discovering the answers.

The Alpha Course has a series of accompanying DVDs, and if the course Stephen attended is any indication, the format is basically DVD watching, followed by discussion, or alternating between the two.

Much of the DVD part of the course sounds like it is filled with popular apologetics, rather than scholarly apologetics, such as C. S. Lewis' "Lunatic, Liar or Lord" gambit.

Stephen brings his skepticism as well as his knowledge of history and scripture to the table, making for deeper and more surprising discussions than the group would likely have had otherwise.

The other people in the course are likable, and despite the head-butting nature of the questions and topics, it is clear that everyone gets along. The pastor welcomes the challenge:

As I fasten up my jacket [the pastor] says to me, “I want you to test me. I want you to challenge us and to ask questions”. He looks me cheerfully in the eye and states that in regards to Christianity being true, “I am 100% convinced.” To which I reply, with a wink, “I am 100% convinced that you’re 100% convinced”. We laugh, shake hands, wish each other a safe and enjoyable week ahead, and then shuffle off separately into the night.

When positing skeptical questions in a course like this, you can take one of two approaches: from completely outside the faith, and arguing from the point-of-view of the faith in question. Stephen uses both to good effect.

Throughout the course, he covers questions like:

  • If saints were coming out of the graves, where were the contemporaneous reports of this happening?
  • Why did the Australian aborigines have to wait 1800 years for "the good news"?
  • Was sending down a son to be tortured really necessary for an purportedly omnipotent being?
  • Would dying for someone's sins in a modern, legal sense satisfy anyone's sense of justice?
  • Is a "free gift" really free when there are consequences for not accepting it?
  • Is it right to punish the children, including with death, for the wrongdoings of their parents?
  • Why is faith a prerequisite, as from so many testimonies, for "knowledge" of the existence of a deity?
  • What does eternal torture have to do with discipline?
  • Why is evil allowed to happen, and what does this say about omnipotence (being all-powerful) and omnibenevolence (being all-good)?
  • Will the course amazingly answer all the questions you had this week... err, after you had just reviewed the materials for this week?
  • Will God not talk to you if you have been talking to Muslims?
  • Why is the truth value of faith or testimony acceptable for one's own faith but not for those of other... all other faiths, no matter how genuine or fervent?

Will anything fantastic be revealed? Will anyone be converted? Will Stephen ever eat anything?

The series is a pretty long read if you attempt it from start to finish, but miles away from dry, and well-worth the read.

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