Nigel Warburton will be on the Richard Bacon show on Radio 5 live, Tues 30th June from midnight, talking on the subject of agnosticism and whether it’s a cop-out. I recently posted a flyer for his talk with the group Dialogue with Islam about whether we need religion. I have heard from a source that there was ‘a symptomatic moment… when the Humanist association organizer without irony asked the Muslims to the pub to carry on the conversation.’

A while ago I was interviewed by Jon Ronson, and since then have met him a few times at a friend’s barbeques. A fascinating and funny man to talk to. Last night I watched his ‘Revelations’ documentary on the Alpha Course, which exists to turn agnostics into Christians. It was on C4, and is well worth a watch if you can find some way of doing so. He followed eight agnostics attending the course, who, through the clever structure of the course days, had Jesus gently and relentlessly sold to them. It became increasingly uncomfortable to watch. Certain things struck me in particular:

1 – Each of the attendees was clearly unhappy. Hence, one imagines, their attending such a course. The relentless and structured selling of any solution to unhappiness in that sort of environment would clearly be effective. Any message could have been offered. In fact, the 1 in 8 success rate the Alpha Course apparently boasts would seem rather low, compared to other life-changing happiness secrets (bogus or otherwise) which could have been proffered instead. Having attended several courses, religious or otherwise in my time, I can testify how quickly one falls in line with thinking, and starts to think and speak as a devotee, enjoying the bonding of the group. It’s a pointer to perhaps how ultimately mundane and misguided the message was at this course that not more attendees were ‘spoken to’. Loads of unhappy people ready to accept God, and the perfect environment to find him: you’d imagine a least as much enthusiasm and ‘conversion’ as from an NLP course, surely?

2. I can’t reconcile in my mind the person of Jesus, whoever he was in history, and the modern need to have a course as manipulative as this one. It’s a shame that God seems to need salesmen, and a structure as ultimately cynical and carefully thought-through as the Alpha Course to connect with people. There were parallels with a time-share ‘talk’ that I once went to, and echoes of plenty of brain-washing techniques from history. What a shame that people, especially unhappy ones, need to be broken down in such a familiar way. The Christians involved I’m sure, don’t see it as remotely cynical, just preparing a ground for God to do his best work. But if they don’t also stop and honestly wonder if they’ve been recruited into a persuasion exercise, then they’re doing themselves an injustice. I spoke to an ex-pastor recently from a Charistmatic church who left his calling out of disgust at the manipulative techniques he knew he was employing, and expected to employ, with his congregation. The placing of the music, the manipulative nature of the music itself, the timing of the emotional pleas, the whipping up of the crowd hysteria, the pushing over of people to suggest they’d been ‘slain in the Spirit’, the transparent nonsense of getting everyone to talk in tongues and the arbitrariness of so-called ‘interpretations; the heightening of suggestibility: he had the honesty to realise that nothing separated him from a stage hypnotist or a revivalist showman. He still privately believes, but is disgusted at the manipulative techniques that are used. At the time, it’s hard for him to say if he was being ‘cynical’ or not. Probably not – he was just letting God do his work and providing a rousing experience for his congregation. It took a moment of brave honesty to see what was going on.

3. There was an interesting exchange between a questioning attendee and one of the Christians designated to gently persuade them during the small group meetings. The Christian said that God had spoken to him on a bus. He had been asked to carry out an assignment which he felt was probably too much for him, and God has spoken to him, ‘as a voice inside his head’, to say ‘you can’t do it’. The question was asked – a perfectly sensible one – how did he know it came from God, as opposed to from himself? The question was treated as patronising and offensive, by the very people placed there to answer sensible questions. It was brilliantly symptomatic of the problem: that rational discussion has no place at the table. Just believe it because it’s true. End of story.

Fascinating stuff.