Thursday, June 26, 2008

Robert Stovold on the Alpha Course turning away sceptics

Robert Stovold sent me the following email, which shows why Alpha Course leaders have to refuse sceptics to attend their courses....

Robert Stovold is often on Premier Christian Radio on Unbelievable

Hi Steven
I discovered your review of Professor Ward's book via the link in your "Premier Christian Radio" post, and think the review is excellent. I've only just begun to look at the rest of your extensive site, and was amused to read of your experience on Alpha Courses. I think we must be kindred spirits (if you'll excuse the phrase), as I like going to Alpha Courses too! The trouble is, I keep getting kicked off for asking awkard questions! You may be interested in a piece I wrote for the newsletter of my local humanist group:

I was thrown off an Alpha Course at Church of Christ the King (CCK) for asking critical (but perfectly reasonable) questions. People who favour biblical literalism and the idea that the Earth is only 6-10,000 years old don't take kindly to an informed sceptic such as myself (I have three degrees in the biological sciences, and attend such courses in order to debunk pseudoscientific nonsense). I'll never forget the 'Holy Spirit night' I attended on my first Alpha Course. One of the organisers came to me with a message from God: 'God wants you to be less critical'. I'll bet he does! As Corporal Jones would say, 'They don't like it up 'em!'

I registered for another course this January but, in a wonderfully-worded email from CCK, I was turned down: 'We are pausing in saying “Yes” to you attending Alpha at the moment'. Their email confirmed what I had earlier suspected: that the Alpha Course preys on desperate people ('those who are at that point in life when other options are closing down'), and that its primary aim is to prop up the fragile faith of existing Christians rather than to win genuine new converts ('By far the biggest pool of people attending Alpha would be those who for whatever reason have started to attend Sunday church'). This is at odds with the declaration on Alpha's official website that Alpha is 'designed primarily for people who aren't churchgoers, and each course is open to everyone who would like to attend.' But then a statement such as 'The Alpha Course is primarily for lapsed Christians who are clutching at straws' wouldn't read so well, would it?

Having been turned down, I wrote a leaflet called "Religion or Reason?", and with Bill McIlroy's help distributed it to people as they entered CCK. A course organiser demonstrated the Christian spirit of love and tolerance by ordering us to go away. "We're staying put", said Bill firmly. "We're on public ground, you can't touch us!". The organiser disappeared into the building only to re-emerge a few minutes later with a leaflet of his own. I read the first few lines of emotive testimony therein, and asked, "Is this just personal testimony, or does it actually contain objective evidence?"

"It's personal testimony" he replied, seemingly without any embarrassment at all.
My leaflet, on the other hand is jam-packed full of evidence and argument, and can be downloaded for free from my website:

All the best, and keep up the good work!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, its all incredibly manipulate and suductive... the problem is i think that mainstream christianity enables it all, by allowing that idea that the Jesus stuff happed to remain out there an unapposed

9:24 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Found your blog off of Reppert's blog. Good stuff. :)

I may link you off mine.


11:36 PM  
Blogger James Garth said...

I am very much saddened to hear that this is Robert's experience of the Alpha course. Please, can I implore you not to assume that this is always the case.

I can personally vouch for the fact that not all sceptics are turned away from Alpha.

As evidence in point, right at this moment I'm helping out with running an Alpha course here in Australia. We happen to have an ardent sceptic in one of our groups who is more than willing to ask such 'awkward questions', covering the whole gamut, from cosmology to religious violence to the historical-critical method. We welcome these questions, and I've really enjoyed spending time with him, because his questions are valid and ought to be engaged with.

If other Christians choose not to engage, or wish to muddy the waters with creationism or other such 'red herrings', then that's unfortunate, and the emphasis is on us to educate them as well.

4:25 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

When I went on an Alpha course, my Bible was taken off me (later returned), I was verbally abused, forbidden to read from the Bible.

Later the group organiser explained it was his job to set the questions and for the participants to answer them.

This is the authentic Alpha experience, even if one or two churches differ from the regime laid down by the organisers.

4:41 AM  
Blogger James Garth said...


Wow, that's really poor form on the part of the group organizer.

I wish to apologize to you on behalf of the Christian community for the way you were treated.

I realize it may or may not mean much to you, but I wish to apologize anyway.

Regrettably, no subculture, either religious or non-religious, is immune from the temptations of power and the desire to have their own opinions rule over others'. Very occasionally I hear of such instances in the Christian scene and I find them most distasteful, and personally embarrassing. Although I might disagree with the conclusions that atheists and agnostics reach concerning the question of God, nonetheless I respect them and I think this mutual respect is an essential ingredient to any meaningful dialogue.

I can't help but think that Nicky Gumbel himself would be appalled at such a development; it certainly goes against everything that's taught openly and up-front in the training DVDs and handbooks.

Don't let it dissuade you in your search for truth. If there is a God, then it seems clear to me that he's above all these power games and machinations that we human beings would seek to impose upon him.


8:26 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

There is no need to apologise.

I am perfectly familiar with Christian love. To me ,it is water off a duck's back.

Having read the Gospels, I can see how these Christians reflected the character of Jesus , harsh, unforgiving, uncharitable, and filled with hate to anybody who dares question him or his answers.

According to the Gospels, Jesus condemned entire generations , man, woman and child.

How can the church not reflect such attitudes?

11:10 PM  
Blogger James Garth said...

Hmm? That's odd. I'd be interested to know what source material you've used to make such inferences, as your description of Jesus sounds unlike what's presented in any of the translations of the Gospels that I've ever read.

'Harsh?' -- 'Turn the other cheek' and the parable of the prodigal son seem to be the antithesis of harshness. Jesus' stinging rebukes seem reserved for hypocrites and religious zealots who should know better (eg Mt 23) - an approach both you (and I) would seem to endorse!

'Unforgiving?' -- "If [your brother] sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." (Lk. 17:4)

'Uncharitable?' -- "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." (Mt 5:42)

'Filled with hate to anybody who dares question him or his answers?' He certainly pulls no punches with the religious hypocrites of the day. But his dialogue with the 'tax collectors and sinners', and with individuals like Nicodemus, was frequently far more constructive.

I could direct you towards the lives of Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, or those from World Vision, the Salvos or to contest your belief that 'Christian love' has similar unpalatable characteristics, but I fear that might just belabor the point.

C'mon, I'm sure we can have a better, deeper dialogue than this!

I propose we start by leaving the straw men to the side.

What I'm really interested to know is, in a nutshell, what is your strongest, deepest genuine objection to theism in general and Christianity in particular.

I'm also very interested to know what sort of evidence or proof you would personally find sufficient to convince you that the theistic worldview is plausible, to the extent where it would make sense to live your life as though it were true.

Let's make this the starting point. In return, I'd be more than happy to provide you with what evidence I would consider necessary in order to convince me that the theistic worldview was NOT true (ie. in essence, what would be required to falsify my worldview, ala Flew's falsification challenge.)

How does that sound?


6:01 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Did the Jesus of the Gospels not say that God would forgive you the greatest debt in the world and then hand you over to be tortured?

Did Jesus not compare himself to a wicked king who commanded his enemies to be killed in front of him?

Did the Jesus of Revelation 2 not complain about a 'synagogue of Satan'?

Did the Jesus of Matthew 23 not indulge in hate speech, calling converts to Judaism 'sons of the devil'?

Did the Jesus of the Gospels not regard any questions of him as 'traps'?

10:23 PM  
Blogger James Garth said...

[OK let's try take #2, looks like my previous reply post didn't make it through..]

* I'm not familiar with the first reference, could you please point me in the right direction for this one? Thanks.

* The parable of the minas describes a 'harsh' king but it's not clear as to whether he is 'wicked', as it may be the servants who have a twisted opinion of him. The conclusion of the parable is, in my view, a metaphor for judgement, given its context.

* In Rev 2, Jesus specifically addresses 'those who say they are Jews, but are not', so his message is not to Jews in general, but instead those who claimed to be but were serving evil instead.

* I don't think Mt 23 is 'hate speech' in any form; as he chastises a narrow slice of religious hypocrites and condemns them for distorting religion and manipulating it for the sake of power. (refreshing words, indeed!)

* You're quite correct that Jesus believed certain questions asked of him were 'traps'. In an age where a particular answer could result in a stoning, or in charges of sedition, his responses were indeed chosen carefully.

So, would I be correct in assuming that your primary objection to theism is the Bible itself, or, more correctly, certain passages from the Bible?

We can fence-and-parry dot points such as these until it becomes tiresome, but I'm still very interested in hearing your response to my original question, ie. "What sort of evidence would you personally find convincing, to the extent that you would consider theism plausible?' I think that's where some productive dialogue can be had.


2:59 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

What evidence have you got?

People in the New Testament thought what happened in dreams was real.

Do you have any better evidence than people who literally dreamed things up?

For example, if you prayed to your alleged god the way the Baal-worshippers prayed to their alleged god in 1 Kings 17, would you expect as much of an answer as the Baal-worshippers gor?

7:45 AM  
Blogger James Garth said...

Well, I've written elsewhere about a selection of evidences which I find personally compelling, so that's a start:

Of course, it's important to recognize that certain evidences support theism in general, whilst other evidences go further and attempt to support the plausibility of a specifically Christian conception of God. Inadvertently confusing or mixing these categories can lead to all sorts of difficulties, naturally.

Personally, I find the argument from desire, Dostoevsky's argument regarding moral obligations, and the 'fine-tuning' of universal laws, with their inherent robust formational capabilities, to be the most compelling. Religious experiences intrigue me too, and I tend to think that these have the power to be subjective 'clinchers'. The transformational power of such experiences is staggering, and I think in the case of the early Christians (whom you brusquely dismiss as 'believing dreams were real'), the reality of such experiences seems to me to be a reasonable explanation for the driving force with which the movement formed and grew, in the face of strident persecution.

From a modern perspective, the Alister Hardy Society archives of numinous experiences - which occur within specific religious contexts or when dwelling upon 'higher' things - are also worth a look:


3:15 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

James produces zero evidence for his alleged god other than claims that because he wants there to be a god , there must be one.

And claims that fine-tuning means it would be a miracle if life existed if things were different.

I don't find very persuasive the idea that there is a god if no miracles have happened.

And I'm sure that Christians of 2,000 years ago really did believe their dreams were real.

Perhaps Paul really did believe he had gone to Heaven.

Lots of people are convinced they can hear voices, or have been kidnapped by aliens.

Claiming that some religious lunatics really believed that their dreams were true is not convincing.

All religions are based on frauds and lies.

Why should Christianity be the exception?

4:10 AM  
Blogger James Garth said...

Hi Steve,

Your statement "James produces zero evidence" makes me wonder whether you've actually clicked on my link and dwelled on its contents in the hour between when I made my post and when you posted your reply.

In point of fact, I have offered a number of items as evidence, together with an explanatory hypothesis, and invited the reader to consider whether in fact theism is the best inference that can be made to explain what we observe in the universe and in human experience. This is the same process that a prosecution would go through in order to attempt to prove a case to a jury in a civil or criminal trial.

The question is not about whether certain facts exist (for example, that Christians claimed to have experienced visions, or that the laws of the universe permit the formation of intelligent life), it is about how well certain hypothesis work towards explaining these facts. I contend the theistic hypothesis is the 'best' one. In the case of Christians 2000 years ago, I contend that a theistic origin for the onset of a unified series of transformational visions, especially within the context of the life, death and purported resurrection of Christ, is again the 'best' explanation.

If your response was "I do not find these evidences compelling, for reasons x, y and z", then I could at least somewhat respect that.

So once again, I put my question out there - "what evidence would you find compelling?"

You say that you 'don't find very persuasive the idea that there is a god if no miracles have happened.' But Steve, this is one of the very issues that is up for debate! It sounds like you are 'begging the question', a common philosophical error, by assuming that miracles have never happened and citing that as evidence that suggests that the existence of God is unlikely. (that being a theistic God, of course, not a deistic one)

But of course miraculous claims do abound. (I have pointed you towards some) And I contend that such claims are plausibly explained by the presence of a providential divine being of roughly the sort that the major religions claim exists in reality. One of the items in my list - my personal experience of the instantaneous onset of glossolalia within a strongly theistic context (ie. prayer) - is one such experience that I think can be best explained by the reality of theism rather than any alternative that has been suggested thusfar.

Steve, simply stating 'All religions are based on frauds and lies' is as unfruitful and unhelpful as a fundamentalist religious believer stating 'All atheists are arrogant and critical' and then leaving it at that. Unless supported with additional information to help the reader infer whether or not it is a true statement, it is a mere opinion.

I really would suggest that doing some foundational groundwork in epistemology would help you in a couple of ways. Firstly, it would help you to correctly understand what people who hold different opinions to you are trying to communicate in these kinds of discussions.

Secondly, it would assist you in making a more structured case for the plausibility of atheism, (if that is something you conclude is the best explanation for the world around us and for human experience) rather than relying on sound bites, which seem to be undergirded by some underlying hostility, the cause of which I would be interested to explore if you are willing.


11:04 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

People can speak in tongues and be totally atheistic. Dan Barker for example.

The ability to speak gibberish is not a convincing argument for Christianity.

Or indeed for anything.

And it is a fact that all religions have been based on frauds and lies.

Look at Mormonism, Christian Science, Scienology, Islam etc etc.

Why should Christianity with its stories of Jesus ascending into outer space, be any different?

Just like Joseph Smith claiming his Golden Plates had gone to Heaven, early Christians claimed Jesus had gone to Heaven - saving themselves the tedious task of producing evidence before they collected their living expenses from their flocks.

5:29 AM  
Blogger James Garth said...

I'd have to examine Dan Barker's story in further detail to make a fully informed comment, ie. to see whether his experience occurred while still a believer, whether it was learned or manifested instantly, and in what context.

To me, the context is crucially important. Were such experiences to appear within a non-theistic context (for example, when walking in the supermarket buying corn flakes), then their apologetic value would be limited. However, given their widespread occurrence within specific theistic contexts (eg. in prayer, in church or whilst dwelling on the divine), I submit that a theistic explanation is a simple, coherent, causally effective explanation with superior explanatory power.

Casual passers-by and readers of this blog may well be perplexed by this exchange, and feel that Steven and I are a bit like ships passing in the night.

Those particularly observant readers may well have noticed a pattern that exists in Steven's replies:

1) Propose that any of the evidence previously submitted is either meaningless, or not convincing, but not elaborate meaningfully on why this is so.

2) Introduce an obscure scriptural passage (without any attempt to apply a sensible hermeneutic, or engage with its literary style or context), or refer to an obscure religious behavior, as practiced by 'lunatics', with the intent of invoking ridicule.

3) Muddy the waters by mentioning other religious beliefs. (eg. Mormonism, Scientology, UFO believers). The more obscure the belief system, the better.

4) Ask the question: 'Why should Christianity be any different?'

Astute observers will also note that Steven has on multiple occasions evaded the crucial question of "what specific evidence would you personally find convincing to establish the overall plausibility of theism". This is a telling omission, one which I again invite him to remedy, which hamstrings any meaningful dialogue.

In the meantime, Steve theorizes that different people come to different conclusions regarding these matters because atheists are inherently truth-seeking and rational, and theists are hopelessly deluded, dishonest and fraudulent. I submit that there is a better explanation as to why we reach different conclusions. Put simply, different people hold different beliefs primarily because of differences in their individual criteria for ascertaining truth, different exposure to various slices of human experience, and background conscious and subconscious psychological motivations, which may provide powerful additional incentives and inclinations to either believe or disbelieve, to accept God, or reject him.

Why should atheism be any different? ;-)


5:23 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

James only evidence so far is that he was able to speak gibberish while in church.

This just isn't convincing.

Perhaps if James could come up with some evidence that Jesus walked on water, or that the miracle stories are not literary creations as can be seen in Miracles and the Book of Mormon

What evidence do I need to see that Christianity is false?

I can read.

So I know Christianity is false.

Just read the Bible, and apply the same logic to the Bible that Christians apply to the Book of Mormon and the Koran.

James can go back to his church and continue speaking gibberish. I won't find such gibberish at all convincing.

12:31 AM  
Blogger James Garth said...

Steve, I fear that you've either badly misunderstood my position or else are consciously distorting it with the intent of invoking ridicule.

I certainly do not propose to offer religious experience as the 'only evidence' of theism, rather I present it as part of a number of items, which together form a combined case of cumulative persuasive power. An analogy could be like bricks locking together to form a wall, where religious experiences, I contend, form one such brick. And of course glossolalia is just one of these experiences. Still more interesting examples of prophecy and healings also crop up within theistic contexts with sufficient frequency as to merit a thoughtful explanation. Again I contend that their persistent emergence within a theistic context is best explained by the existence of a God of the sort that Christians broadly describe.

Thanks for the link regarding the number of interesting parallels that exist between NT and OT events. I must say, I do tend more towards accepting Glen Miller's analysis. There are certainly a number of miracles that 'echo' OT events, but there are also numerous miracles (a stark proliferation of exorcisms in the Markan account, for example) for which no previous parallels with the OT exist whatsoever.

I'm a little confused as to your position though. Earlier you mentioned that "People in the NT thought what happened in dreams was real" and yet on the other hand your article seems to indicate that Jesus' miracle stories were consciously selected to carefully hand-craft a stage-managed messianic figure. Perhaps you can clarify whether you think the resurrection appearances were dreams that were actually experienced by the disciples, or whether they were deliberate fictional inventions from a later date. It would seem to me that they could not have been both.

As for Mormonism, it's something I have examined, but at this stage I have found an absence of geographical and archeological evidence to authenticate any of the cities or people groups mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Were such evidence to be forthcoming, I'd be content to consider changing my mind as to its historical authenticity.

Now, I must really applaud your next comment: "What evidence do I need to see that Christianity is false? I can read." It's truly the high point of your response. Bravo, Steve, bravo.

Oh, wait... hang on. Looks like I can say the same thing too: "What evidence do I need to see that atheism is false? I can read." Gee, looks like we're stalemated here. :-/

Outside readers may well lament, as I am, that this lame debate is a far cry from the thoughtful engagement one would expect from a Michael Ruse, a Michael Martin or a Kai Nielsen.

I fear Steve has merely embraced a form of fundamentalism as emotive, intolerant and odious as the one which he would seek to eradicate.

I am reminded of the acclaimed atheist Kai Nielsen, who once spoke these haunting words:

"I know plenty of neurotic and fanatical Christians, and I know plenty of neurotic and fanatical atheists. One of the reasons I don't like going around to little humanist societies is that it seems to me that many of them are just the reverse side of sectarian Christianity. I've also known many sane and sensible atheists and many sane and sensible Christians. I think it would be very hard to tell which group is the more neurotic."

So, yes, I will 'go back to my church' where, in Steve's fertile imagination at least, we all wobble around like buffoons and 'speak gibberish', along with all the other neurotic believers, whilst all of the thoroughly rational and well-adjusted atheists can go off to gather in their respective non-judgemental enclaves, content in the unquestionable superiority of their position.

So in closing, once again, it comes time for me to chime in like a broken record and ask Steve to enlighten us by answering the question "what sort of evidence would you personally find convincing to establish the overall plausibility of the theistic worldview?" Who knows, perhaps I may eventually earn a response!


5:03 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

It appears that James will not accept even obvious fictions in the plagiarisms found in the New Testament Gospel stories.

Such is the self-imposed blindess of the religious fanatic, who regards his anonymous, unprovenanced Holy Texts as true, despite having no evidence for any of the miracle stories in them.

5:14 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Glenn Miller, of course, is way too gone to be objective.

Just look at the sheer lies he came up with :-

'As a matter of fact, the ONLY points of continuity are (1) the mention of a 'hand' (even there it is used quite differently in each story!); and (2) the general motif that God can take on large armies with smaller armies (a general pan-cultural theme in no way implying borrowing!).


Simply look at the following stories and see if Miller is nothing less than insane to claim that they only thing they have in common is a mention of a hand, and one army taking on another :-

STORY 1 from the Koran :-

So when Talut departed with the forces, he said: Surely Allah will try you with a river; whoever then drinks from it, he is not of me, and whoever does not taste of it, he is surely of me, except he who takes with his hand as much of it as fills the hand; but with the exception of a few of them they drank from it. So when he had crossed it, he and those who believed with him, they said: We have today no power against Jalut and his forces.

STORY 2 from Judges :-
And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go.

So he brought down the people unto the water: and the LORD said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink.

And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water.

Miller is insane to say the only thing they have in common is the use of a hand.

Yet James thinks Miller is correct.

The first thing to do with insane people like that is to ignore them.

5:23 AM  
Blogger James Garth said...

I don't suppose, by any chance, you'd mind letting us know what sort of evidence you'd personally find compelling in order to establish the overall plausibility of theism? :)

11:07 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Evidence for god or unicorns is easy.

Produce this alleged god or these alleged unicorns.

This is not a difficult concept but one way beyond the imagination of Christians who think that seeing people produce nonsensical sounds in public is evidence for a god.

It isn't. Talking in tongues is only evidence that Christians are weird.

I take it James is way too embarrased to defend Miller's claim that the only things in common with the two stories I gave in my article were the mention of a hand and a weaker army facing a stronger army.

12:16 AM  
Blogger James Garth said...

Good idea, we can talk Miller... Let's switch to your new post and do it there since this thread's getting a little long.

3:31 PM  

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