Thus did scientist, TV presenter, editor and professional geek Adam Rutherford begin his TAM London talk. It turns out that he had done the Alpha Course ― a series of free evangelical evening classes, versions of which are held all over the country, indeed all over the world. This seems a rather odd thing for him to have done, given that he is an atheist. The course is designed for those he described as the de-churched ― that is, those who were brought up with a more or less Christian background and belief, and subsequently lapsed. For the un-churched ― those who grew up without religious indoctrination ― the course is likely to be far less effective. As part of his exploration of the Alpha Course Adam Rutherford interviewed its current leader, the man responsible for its global expansion, evangelical preacher Nicky Gumbel. The whole thing is written up at the Guardian | Comment is Free | Belief (which I highly recommend).
I've seen the ads for the Alpha Course, and I've watched Jon Ronson's TV documentary. A few years ago I also saw several of the David Frost TV series "Alpha: Will it Change Their Lives?" and its more recent follow up: "Alpha: Did it Change Their Lives?" The David Frost series featured clips from the Alpha Course led by Nicky Gumbel at Holy Trinity Brompton. Apparently the satellite courses make extensive use of videos of Nicky Gumbel's sermons (if sermon is the right word), though they are free to adapt.
Prior to Adam Rutherford's talk I would have said that the most controversial aspect of the Alpha Course is the weekend away. The course includes a residential component at which the participants can immerse themselves in evangelical godliness, culminating in a session of glossolalia ― otherwise known as "speaking in tongues".
I got the impression from the David Frost series that the course is intended for teetering agnostics, and is unlikely to sway those who self-identify as atheists. There was nothing I heard in the Nicky Gumbel clips, or saw in any of the documentaries, to suggest that they are using anything other than small group dynamics to encourage people to share and discuss hitherto private thoughts about belief. To be honest, I found it unimpressive. The fact that they are promoting glossolalia suggests that the whole enterprise is geared towards emotional response and "personal experience of the Holy Spirit" rather than addressing annoying factors like reason and evidence.
Adam Rutherford's experience seems to bear out my suspicions, though he identified an additional concern that I don't recall surfacing in the documentaries. The Alpha Course, he says, is a homophobic cult. He puts it that strongly, despite finding Nicky Gumbel himself to be a thoroughly nice chap.