Alpha Course Poll Forces Voters Hands

alph_course_pollBy now it’s old news that the UK’s Alpha Course ran a poll asking visitors whether “God” exists, by which they presumably mean their god. It’s also been well reported that atheists got wind of the poll and surfed over in large numbers to vote “No”. It’s not the only Christian Internet campaign to fall on its face recently.

All this is amusing, but doesn’t really tell us much. It certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or not of any god and it’s only representative of the people who happened to visit their website. I think the BHA took it far too seriously when they responded by saying,

That this poll has revealed such a high number of non-believers, and such a tiny proportion of those who do believe in a god, is really no surprise. This poll only supports what we know already – that most people either do not believe in god or that they simply do not think about the question because it is not relevant to their lives.

The UK does have a relatively high proportion of non-believers, but in every other poll it’s more like 25-35%, not 98% – besides, votes on this poll were not limited to the UK. We might be better off drawing the conclusion that there are a lot of motivated atheists on the Internet who are up for a prank.

Question Phrasing

What I think is worth investigating is the way the question – and in particular the answers – were phrased. It seems to be a clever piece of marketing.

These ads are up on billboards all over the place, but I first saw this ad on a poster outside a church. My reaction was, “Where’s Probably not?”. Or even Maybe, or I don’t know or the Igtheist position, What do you mean by “God”?. I wasn’t expecting them to have the equivalent of the 7-level Dawkins Scale of Belief, but a few more options would’ve been nice. As it stands, the poll only allows for Certain Theists, Agnostic Theists and Strong Atheists. The results aren’t going to be very representative.

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I wondered about this for a while, before slapping myself on the head in realisation. Of course, that’s not the point! The Alpha people were not trying to prove anything with their poll. The results were always intended to be meaningless. They were probably only trying to generate debate around a subject that, in the UK at least, is becoming irrelevant and uninteresting to many people.

Furthermore, I suspect that limiting the options is a tactical choice.

Those who vote Yes or Probably might be persuaded that, having admitted it, they shouldn’t stop there, but take the course and be led into the Alpha brand of Christianity. The rest are left only with the No choice – Strong Atheism – 7 on the scale above. It’s about as far towards the other end of the scale as you can get. A bold position that, in practice few atheists hold. Richard Dawkins, for example, says he’s at 6. The idea being to include an atheistic position that as few people as possible will completely agree with. This presumably in the hope that more people will end up in the Yes/Probably category of potential Alpha delegates. The poll is, after all, advertising and intended to get more people onto the course.

Plus, it helps them to label atheists and agnostics as ridiculous extremists.

Imagine a fiercely nationalistic group asking in a survey, “What should we do about immigrants?” and only providing the options: “Confine them to forced labour camps”, “Send them all home”, or “Give them each a free house and abandon all border controls”. Where is the reasonable, liberal option? Ordinary people answering such a poll would be forced into an extreme position that doesn’t properly represent them. A position which can be ridiculed.

So I expect the non-theists who made up the 98% of voters on the Alpha poll will be labelled by some as “extreme” or “fundamentalist”. However, strong atheists are pretty rare. Few people feel they can actually prove the non-existence of all kinds of deity, especially if we’re talking about the vague and woolly non-interventionist kind.

But rather than go into the philsophical subtleties, it’s simpler to say, “There are no god(s)” or just vote “No”.

One Man’s Experience Of The Alpha Course

I don’t often write posts waxing lyrical about something I found on the interwebs. There are plenty of freethinking blogs out there who do an excellent job of covering topical issues that are of interest to the non-religious.

However, this case is of particular interest to me.  I have toyed with the idea of going along to a local Alpha Course and asking all sorts of awkward questions. For a while I’ve been badgering yunshui to come along with me, you know, to hold my hand. I thought it would provide an insight into the psychology of believers, both new and old.

Then, a few weeks ago yunshui came up with the perfect excuse. He sent me a link to Stephen Butterfield’s “Alpha Course Reviewed” blog. This is a detailed account of the author’s time as a curious skeptic on the Alpha Course. He was granted permission to make audio recordings of their sessions including the DVD presentations featuring Nicky Gumbel and the group debates which followed. Much of the conversation is transcribed word-for-word, with exception of the other attendees’ names. As a result the 11 blog posts are each rather long, however I found them compulsive reading. The blog shows how thin the arguments presented on the course are, and how nonsensical Christian doctrine is accepted regardless. For example, here’s an extract from the final session which includes a typically protracted discussion of evil and free will.

The long-standing male member is still keen to press the issue. He tells me that God gave us free will because he wanted us to choose whether or not we loved him. He continues:

Long-Standing Male Member: “The argument I could make is that we’d be robots if it were any different. If we HAD to love God then we wouldn’t be free.”
Me: “Are you free in heaven not to love him?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m choosing IN THIS LIFE to love God. I make the choice HERE
Me: “Oh, so there’s no choice in heaven? I gather from that that we aren’t free in heaven, then”

What is especially impressive is the Stephen’s patient questioning, even when he is forced to repeat himself or listen to lengthy heartfelt testimonies. He seems to get along pretty well with the other members of the group – most of whom were already Christians.  He manages to avoid antagonising the other attendees while pressing his points and picking apart their rationalisations.

For those who aren’t Christians it’s well worth reading to understand the Christian mindset. For those who are, Stephen’s questions may help you to understand why so many people find it hard to accept your beliefs as true.