Inside Alpha: An atheist’s foray into Christianity

Tabatha Leggett signs up to Christianity’s most successful recruitment programme.

It’s 7.30pm on a Tuesday evening and I’m at a small church in East London. A man called Adam* hands me a name label, pours me a plastic cup of squash and says dinner won’t be long. I pull up a seat and introduce myself to ten strangers. It’s all rather awkward.

The reason I’m at church isn’t because I’m religious (I’m not) or because my fridge is empty (it is). It’s because I’ve signed up to Alpha, a weekly course run by churches all over the world in order to spread the Christian message. 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.

Over the next six weeks, I’ll exchange Bible reading tips with experts, share stories about intimate prayers with total strangers and spend a lot of time crying down the phone to my mum.

But it all begins when Adam hands me a hot dog. I don’t drop mine on the floor, unlike four of the other people, who I suppose are nervous or something. For pudding, we get a box of chocolates. In week one, they’re Roses. The strawberry ones go first, which makes me suspicious because they’re the worst ones.

Adam, the course leader, is wearing a Superdry shirt. After dinner, he explains that it’s customary to sing. Rebecca plays the acoustic guitar and Adam mans the PowerPoint presentation, which would have got an A* if it was a piece of ICT GCSE coursework because the lyrics make noises when they appear on the screen.

After singing comes talking. Specifically, Adam talking. Over the next six weeks, his talks will cover: “Is there more to life than this?”; “Who is Jesus and why did he die?”; “How can we have faith?”; “How can we read the Bible?”; “Why and how do I pray”; and “What about the Church?”. After each talk, we’ll break off into groups and discuss what we’ve learnt.

The first couple of sessions are similar. They involve Adam handing out copies of the Bible and saying things like, “So let’s assume Jesus does exist and came to Earth to save us…” I’m genuinely the only person who is annoyed that Adam makes no attempt to prove Jesus’s existence.

Adam’s big points in the first two weeks are that we should love Jesus because he loves us in spite of our tendency to sin and that we should try to emulate his behaviour, because it’s nice to have a role model.

Discussion time isn’t fruitful. Natalie asks me how I’m able to distinguish between moral and immoral behaviour if I don’t base my actions on Jesus’ example. I explain that I work out what makes my peers happy and try to do those things. Everyone laughs, which I find confusing because I’m not joking. I agree that having a role model can be helpful, but ask how they know Jesus is the best one. Anna and Will, who are married, tell me that it’s because the Bible said so. But how do they know the Bible is right? “No offence, Tabatha,” replies Louise, “but the Bible is quite far-fetched. I don’t get why someone would have made that stuff up if it weren’t true.” It sounds like I’m lying, but I’m not.

***

By week three, things intensify. Over dinner, we talk mostly about Adam’s marriage. It strikes me as odd that these people are willing, after only two weeks of knowing each other, to share intimate stories. I wonder whether they’re lonely.

This week, Adam’s main point is that Christianity isn’t about rules. Fine, but there’s still no attempt to prove God’s existence.

During discussion time, Natalie tells us that God forgives everything as long as you repent. Adultery? Yes. Murder? Yes. Mass genocide? Yes. The Christians are bored of my questions and Alasdair says, “Wouldn’t you forgive your child if he committed mass genocide, Tabatha?” I tell him it’s a poor example because there’s not an obvious answer, he tells me I’m too young to understand and I tell him he’s patronising.

Then we talk about which bits of the Bible we should take literally. Louise tells me I’ll work it out if I read the Bible. I tell her I’ve read it. She says I will never develop a full understanding because I’m not God so I can’t understand everything. This is becoming a recurring theme. These people have answers to some problems, but as soon as they hit a brick wall they settle for not understanding God and refuse to think through alternatives. They can explain why God is forgiving (it’s because Jesus took our sins), but they can’t explain what taking our sins entailed, or why a perfect creator put sin in the world in the first place.

On my way out, I overhear Patrick, a socially awkward member of the group, telling Adam that he suffers from anxiety attacks. I feel bad for making fun of him in my head, and also sad that Adam, a stranger who is not qualified to talk about anxiety, is the only person Patrick feels he can turn to. I cry a bit when I get home.

By week four, I find myself looking forward to Tuesday evening, which I didn’t expect. 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.

Leslie goes on to offer practical Bible-reading advice: you should read it for 15 minutes a day and ask God questions by verbalising your thoughts. By this stage, I’m annoyed. I want to know why we should read the Bible, how they know it’s true, what God sounds like and how He chooses which prayers to listen to. Instead, Leslie says things like, “If we pray, we become trees. Trees grow fruit, so we will live fruitful lives.” This kind of obscure, metaphorical chat is driving me mad.

In discussion time, it becomes clear that although these people are interested in religion, they’re uncritical of it. It’s really starting to bother me that this institution encourages blind faith at the expense of scientific enquiry. “Wouldn’t it be cool if God spoke to someone we knew,” Alasdair muses, and everyone nods in agreement. Well, quite. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why these people don’t ask good questions and why they dedicate so much of their lives to something they don’t seem to fully understand. I call my mum on the way home and cry again. Alpha’s starting to make me sad.

***

Week five is all about prayer, and I’m dreading it. These people love sharing uncomfortable truths, but I find it all very awkward. During dinner, I discover that everyone else on this course is already a Christian. Rebecca runs an Alpha course for kids, Maya is here with her brother Matteo because the last Alpha course she did was so helpful and Anna has bought her husband Will because they want to explore their current faith. With so many course repeaters, I’m starting to question the 2.8 million statistic I read on the website.

Adam tells a story about his wedding ring. It’s a more elaborate version of this: Adam went to Costa. He left his wedding ring behind. He realised what he’d done. He said a quick prayer. He went back to Costa. He found his ring. He reckons God answered his prayer. No one asks why God was so busy looking for Adam’s ring instead of sorting out problems like poverty.

The next thing Adam says makes me feel intensely uncomfortable. Richard isn’t at Alpha today, because his father died of cancer last night. Adam explains that despite his prayers and his commitment to Christianity (which he implies puts him higher up God’s priority list), he died. “We don’t know why, but God had a plan for him. It was right that he died,” Adam says. I’ve always had issues with organised religion, which suppresses freedom of thought and causes things like war, but I didn’t think small-scale religion caused any harm. It’s things like this, though – people like Adam telling people like Richard that it’s a good thing that his dad died of a terminal illness – that make me doubt that. In my mind, that’s a wicked thing to say.

In discussion time, we’re asked to talk about prayers that have been answered. I’m the only person who has never prayed. Louise claims that God once answered her prayer to get her to the airport on time. Alasdair thinks God stopped a wave breaking on him when he went surfing as a teenager. Robin tells us that God warned him to wear a helmet when he snowboards. But the weirdest and most upsetting claim comes from Maya, who asked God to let her leave her job. A week later, she fell pregnant and saw that as a sign that she should leave. She miscarried her child. Three days later, the company she worked for closed. “I thought God gave me a child, but He actually closed down my company,” she said. “He answered my prayer, but not how I expected.”

“Anyone feel unconvinced by the power of prayer?” Natalie asks. “YES,” I feel like shouting. “YOU’RE IDIOTS. ALL OF THOSE THINGS WERE PROBABLY COINCIDENCES THAT YOU’RE READING TOO MUCH INTO.” But I can’t say anything because how can you say those things to a group of people who have shared intimate facts about miscarriages and are now crying?

Natalie ends the session by asking us to close our eyes and say a prayer. You can opt out, and I do. Maya asks God to reveal himself to the group’s non-believers (which is basically just me). I think I hate this.

***

By week six, I’m relieved it’s over. Alpha has been emotional, frustrating and intensely sad. I’m exhausted. Thankfully this session does answer some of my questions. It doesn’t prove God’s existence, but I do finally understand why people keep going back.

Adam’s talk today isn’t about the Bible or God or any of the other issues he forgot to tackle. It’s an extended speech about why you 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. They’re happy because they’ve got new friends and I’m happy because I didn’t get brainwashed. Everyone’s a winner.

*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities

A stained glass window at Southwark Cathedral. Photograph: Getty Images

Tabatha Leggett is a freelance journalist who has been published in GQ and VICE and on the London Review of Books blog and Buzzfeed.com.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA