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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The Pill pushback

The contraceptive pill helped liberate women when it arrived in the UK in the 1960s. Now, spurred by experiences shared online and a spate of new fertility apps, many are turning their backs on it.  

Six weeks before her final exams, Claire* was looking forward to the end of university and a summer of travelling. By the time the first exam arrived, something had drastically changed. “I called my mum sobbing and told her there was no way I could take the exams,” she tells me now, several years later. “I hadn’t done even an hour's worth of revision. I just ate and slept and cried without understanding why.”

Claire’s GP at university diagnosed stress, yet on her planned trips abroad, nothing improved. “I was plagued by panic attacks. I felt like the world was crashing down on me.” On her return home, she visitedher local GP, who, unlike the previous doctor, immediately asked if she was on contraception. It was then that Claire made the link: a month and a half before her exams, she was first prescribed Cerazette, a common progesterone-only contraceptive pill.

The GP explained that depression is a known side effect of Cerazette, and she had seen it in other patients before. “She told me to stop taking it immediately. Within a week, the numbness began to lift and I felt my personality coming back. I felt hope for the first time in months.”

Claire is off the pill now, and in the past, this would have been the end of the story – especially since her GP “refused” to report her side effects to the yellow card scheme, which is used to collect information on medication’s unwelcome side effects.

But over the past decade or so, those who have experienced side effects – I’ll refer to “women” from here for clarity, but these issues can affect anyone with a uterus – like Claire have begun sharing their tales of contraceptive woe across forums, blogs, and social media.

#MyPillStory, a hashtag begun earlier this month, aggregated Twitter users’ tales of pill disaster, from blood clots to personality changes. It makes for spine-tingling reading – especially for anyone who pops their own pill daily. Depression, anxiety, and an affected sex drive crop up in scores of the posts, while handfuls of woman say they experienced blood clots, strokes, acne, swollen legs, chest pains, nausea… the list goes on.

Of course, the problem with this type of “data” is that, well, it isn’t. The medical profession’s denial of women’s experiences is usually badly handled, is often unjust and unfounded, but can also be correct. A medication you take for years of your life will, necessarily, coincide with other health problems. It’s incredibly difficult to establish causation in many of these cases.

I fantasise about stopping the Pill and having normal periods

Meanwhile, anecdotal stories can cause panics, and more problems than they solve. A scare around blood clots and pills containing Gestodene and Desogestrel in 1995 led to an estimated £21m cost in maternity care and £46m in abortion provision, as many frightened women went off contraception altogether. As a result, women’s use of oral contraception fell from 40 per cent to 27 per cent between 1995 and 1997.

Sarah Kipps, a nurse and contraception specialist with the National Union of Students, tells me there’s a danger that some women assume that generic “symptoms of life” are pill-related: “If you ask people on no medication what their symptoms are, they’ll have tiredness and headaches. This mirrors what some people say about the pill.” This is backed up by studies which show that around a quarter of study participants who have taken a placebo report side effects.

And yet women who do experience side effects are simply told to change their medication – which may explain why social media as a platform to share their stories has proved so attractive. These side effects scare women off hormonal contraception altogether, which, whether wise or unwise, is as much a product of an under-resourced sexual health system that tends to dismiss female pain as the health problems themselves.

I spoke to 20 women in depth about coming off the pill, and the choices they made afterwards. They added to the mix of stories about contraception clashing badly with anti-depressants, poor advice from doctors, unwanted pregnancies after coming off the pill, and an endless quest to find a method of contraception that actually works. The idea of choice was a key element: in a society increasingly concerned with wellness and what we put in our bodies, a daily dose of hormones begins to look less and less attractive.

As one woman told me, “As silly as I know this would be, I fantasise about stopping the pill and having normal periods, like a character in a Philippa Gregory nove.” Now, women can opt for different types of pills with different doses of hormones (WebMD has a good rundown), hormonal and non-hormonal coils which are inserted into the cervix, or injections. You can also, of course, opt for nothing at all.

***

Data shows that the use of oral contraceptives as a percentage of contraceptive methods has remained largely stable over the past decade. Tellingly, though, figures from sexual and reproductive health services also show a sharp upturn in Long Action Reversible Contraception, such as coils and implants, since 2010. Arm implants contain the lowest doses of hormones available, while non-hormonal coils are also available. The data shows the contraceptive choices of women who have visited sexual and reproductive health services (not including GP surgeries or pharmacies) during a certain year, so while they show trends, they don't represent the whole UK population of women. 

Lois is one of those datapoints. While at university she experience “horrific migraines”, a common side effect of high-oestrogen birth controls she was taking. As a result, she opted for the non-hormonal coil, a T-shaped device inserted into the uterus: “It’s good for ten years, and the lack of hormones meant that I no longer got migraines from my birth control. I don’t ever have to think about it, unless I’m telling someone about how great it is.”

Perhaps the most interesting figure of all in this data comes under the heading “natural family planning” – or, in common parlance, unsafe sex. It hasnt topped 1 per cent over the past decade, but the numbers have increased over tenfold, from 500 women who visited sexual and reproductive health services in 2004/5 to 7,700 in 2014/15. (It’s worth noting that data collection methods have changed slightly over this period, which could partially account for the change.)

In the past, this decision may have been borne of religious convictions, but my interviewees suggest that secular women are using this method too. They are helped by fertility apps, which allow women to estimate the most fertile days of their cycle and take precautions accordingly.

Sarah, a sex blogger, quit the pill after reading a blogpost by a woman who, like Claire, escaped a cycle of depression and anxiety only when she went pill-free. She had noticed a decreased sex drive, and wanted to know what life without contraceptive medication would be like.

“I honestly didn’t realise how bad I felt until I started feeling better,” Sarah tells me now. “I was feeling depressed, but I never thought it had to do with the pill. Neither my therapist nor my psychiatrist ever brought it up.” Now, Claire uses condoms, but also a period monitoring app, Clue, so she knows to avoid penetrative sex on her most fertile days.

Natural Cycles is another such app that uses temperature measurements to predict fertility and marks days red, yellow or green depending on how safe it is to have sex. It recently hit headlines when a study claimed it is as effective as the pill when used correctly, based on a study of 4,023 Swedish women. Professor Kristina Gemzell, one of the authors of the study, said: “More and more women, especially in the age group of 20-30, tend to abstain from hormonal contraception and desire a hormone-free alternative. It is important to increase choice among contraceptives for women and inform them about their pros and cons.”

There's a complacency around contraception

Unsurprisingly, these claims, and the publicity around them, are worrying for those working in sexual health and family planning. Dawn Stacey, a contraceptive expert and professor, tells me that she would guess the app is “not as effective as the pill”. This is based on the fact that the app suggests users log their temperature to monitor fertility, while nurses use a minimum of three indicators to predict fertility, including the consistancy of the cervical mucus and position of the cervix. Fertility planning was once taught in clinics, but is now thought of as too complex and risky - nurses would monitor a woman's fertility for two or three months before hazarding a guess at a pattern.

“Plus, there are other factors that could impact determining your fertility,” Stacey adds. “Many women don't have regular cycles until their mid-20s and ovulation can be impacted by stress, lack of sleep, or being sick. it doesn't look like the app takes any of that into consideration.”

Sarah Kipps, a contraceptive nurse, adds that this type of natural planning “involves a lot of abstinence – you could be fertile for five days in a month”. In her eyes, "there's a kind of complacency around contraception” as the pill’s introduction in the 1960s becomes a distant memory. 

“People come in and see us, and they want to be natural. But natural means pregnancy. If you don’t get on with the pill, come and have a chat in the clinic – there are lots of other alternatives. If you don’t want to have children, you have to defeat biology. The pill defeated biology, but now there’s a backlash against it.” 

Dr Raoul Scherwitzl, co-founder of the Natural Cycles app, says that temperature is “enough…to confirm that ovulation has happened” and that the app responds to irregular cycles, adding extra "red days" to "cover the uncertainty around the irregularities". 

Despite the risk, some women see this “natural” contraception as a way of reclaiming control. This seems especially common among women who went on the pill early and are now questioning its effects on their bodies.

Yara went on the pill aged 15, “because I went to the doctor with an irregular period. Looking back I'm pretty sure it's because I was underweight, but the doctor didn't spot that and put me on the pill. After that i felt pressured by boyfriends.” Within the past few years she went off the pill, then got an implant, and now uses a combination of the Clue app and condoms. “Clue is awesome,” she says. “It makes me feel in control of my body and tells me when I’m fertile. I’d be open to using it alone, except for my concerns about STIs.” Since coming off the pill, she has had a “massive mood boost”.

***

One woman told me she saw the pill as “the lesser of several evils”, which is probably a good expression of most women’s view of their choice of contraception.

There’s an ingrained, insurmountable biological unfairness throughout the contraception debate, since women, even as we near an age of male pills and longer-term contraceptive options for men, bear the brunt of the decisions, health effects and stress around contraception.

Marie* went off the pill following dramatic mood swings, but now, her new boyfriend is “a bit less forgiving” when it comes to using condoms. “He’s really keen that I use something else, so I’m currently looking.”

Zoe* started out using Cerazette in 2012, which she says sent her “a bit loopy”, tried the coil, which was “incredibly painful”, then returned to the pill. Her boyfriend was unwilling to use condoms, and throughout, “I certainly felt that finding the right method of contraception was in my hands only, not a shared endeavour.”

These long, winding medical histories, reeled off at a moment’s notice, are common among women who use contraception. In this sense, to be fertile is a health condition which many women struggle with for much of their lives.

Meanwhile, society contains a frustrating contradiction. Women’s bodies are mythologised and sexualised, and yet discussion of their intimate workings are taboo in many forums. In 2010, a student at Dartmouth College in the US handed out nearly 2,000 hand mirrors to women so they could see their own genitalia, perhaps for the first time. A student paper called her campaign “disrespectful” to women of faith – and yet one has to wonder what motivates a religion to hide a woman's genitalia from its owner. Other students, meanwhile, saw the mirrors as an “in-your-face show of sexual profligacy”. 

Meanwhile, we ask women to make decisions about their uteruses which could affect their mental and physical health for years to come, based on a dearth of support and information which begins in the schoolroom and continues in the doctor’s office. “I was just shown some leaflets” was a common refrain among the women I spoke to. The online movement around contraception is a sign that advice and guidance serves aren’t working offline. 

So what’s the solution? Perhaps the most positive story I heard throughout this research came at the conclusion of one of the most distressing. Lisa*, whose pill interfered with her anti-depressants, eventually decided to get a coil. “My GP, who I don’t think had ever put in a coil before, tried to install a coil and did it wrong. It was one of the most traumatic medical experiences I have had – even as someone who lived in and out of hospital for two years for other reasons.”

She then found the Margaret Pyke Centre, a contraceptive and reproductive clinic in King’s Cross. The centre offers one-on-one appointments where women can discuss their decision, and Lisa says they “took me through all my options, with models [of the coil] which i could play with and loads of proper information”.

She opted for the coil again, which surprised me given her previous experiences – even a standard coil insertion procedure can range from uncomfortable to painful. So what changed her mind? “If you go to Margaret Pyke on your own for the operation, there is quite literally someone there to hold your hand.”

In an age of shrinking health budgets and ever-more confused messaging around women’s bodies, safe contraception chosen by women with access to all the information should be a right, not a privilege. Meanwhile, continued research into the pill's side effects should be a much higher priority, as the hormonal dosages may be lower, but the drugs have developed little since the 1960s. The male contraceptive pill has been hampered in its development by the fact that 63 per cent of men say they wouldn't take it if it caused side effects like weight gain and acne; side effects which most women would consider par for the course, compared to the far worse effects some experience.

The pill and the general normalisation of contraception in the UK helped shrink families, ratchet up gender equality, and increase prosperity across the second half of the twentieth century. Yet since then, progress seems to have slowed to a crawl.

“The lack of research into contraception’s side effects is unreal,” Yara says. “But it’s such a fundamental part of being a human with a uterus. To be able to not be pregnant.”

*Most names have been changed.

For advice on contraception, try your local GP surgery, the Family Planning Association, or specialist sexual health and contraceptive services, a list of which can be found here

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.