Friday, October 22, 2010

TAM London speaker 4: Adam Rutherford

Sorry I’m taking a long time to get through these.  Idiotic amounts of work are getting in the way.  I’ll have to pretend I’m writing them as a guide for people deciding whether to go next year, or something.

Adam Rutherford is an editor of Nature, a science writer and a TV and radio presenter.  He’s also an engaging and funny guy.  He also managed to get a thousand skeptics to recite The Lord’s Prayer, which was quite an achievement.  He also took The Alpha Course, so that the rest of us thankfully don’t have to.  He blogged about it here at the time and he spoke about it at TAM London.

The Alpha Course is a conservative Christian marketing exercise designed to get bums on pews.  It targets what it calls the ‘dechurched’, who are those of us who grew up in vaguely or moderately Christian households but are not ourselves actively religious.  It’s not there to convert hardcore atheists or members of other religions.  Adam himself is one of the dechurched, although rather more of a hardcore atheist than the course is really aimed at.  In other words, it tries to leverage the indoctrination and guilt so many of us suffered as infants.  This is in itself a sinister agenda if you ask me.

Adam was funny and enthusiastic.  One of Alpha’s slogans, which you might have seen on the ubiquitous posters on busses, stations and trains, is “Is this it?”  In fact, one advert depicts someone who has climbed to the top of a mountain and faces a vista of unparalleled beauty and marvel, nature revealed in its glory.  And the guy is asking “is that the best you’ve got?”  Adam’s reply to this stupid and egocentric question was “YES! It’s all there is!  And it’s fucking awesome”.

This statement endeared Adam to me and he endeared himself further by describing his hatred of the loathsome and clumsy Narnia books of C S Lewis.  He blotted his copybook a bit by also disliking The Lord of the Rings, which I happen to enjoy, but at least he was funny about it “It’s a book about walking.”  The reason he mentioned these works at all is that Alpha refers to them a lot in it’s course material.  As Adam pointed out, this is cool teacher syndrome.  They are using popular culture to sell a less palatable message.  In the Narnia case, this is not unreasonable.  The entire story is a clumsy hack of an allegory so transparent that it’s hardly worth bothering changing the names in the first place.  In the LOTR case, it doesn’t work so well.  This is because Frodo taking the ring to Mordor is nothing like any of the stories of Christianity.  As it happens, Tolkein despised allegory and states clearly in at least one edition of LOTR that it’s not allegorical, as many people have claimed.  But none of this matters to believers because they can make analogies that are so mystifyingly vague that they induce some emperor’s-new-clothes-ism: nodding sagely makes you seem wise, but if everyone else is doing that, asking what the fuck makes you look stupid.

A random slide from Adam’s talk:  Its a sentiment we’ve seen many times, but not a bad rendition of it.

Adam spoke about some of the positive sides of the course.  Everyone was friendly and participants were encouraged to say what they were thinking and to argue (although presumably this was limited: it seems unlikely that continued disruption would be tolerated for long).  He met with the leader of Alpha, who was a very nice man with jam on his crotch.

But then he spoke about the darker side.  Darker even than the leverage of indoctrinated fear and guilt described earlier.  It’s homophobia.  The Alpha Course and its leader stress emphatically that the course is not homophobic.  Indeed, it states that it welcomes homosexuals…. but it also states that they can be ‘cured’.  It says that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and that gays can – and should - choose otherwise.  If this isn’t homophobia, I’m not sure what is. 

Which brings me to another point: I’ve never quite understood why everyone – believers and non-believers, homophobes and anti-homophobes alike – seems to spend so much time arguing about whether homosexuality is or isn’t a choice.  Or rather, I understand why believers do it: it’s necessary if they are to justify their actions.  It can’t really be a sin if you can’t help it.  But why do non-believers and non-homophobes engage in this argument?  What does it matter whether homosexuality is a choice or not?  Surely the issue is that it’s nobody’s business what consenting adults do with their genitals in private, regardless of whether they choose which sex they are attracted to.  The evidence certainly seems to show that homosexuality has genetic and environmental components (like almost everything else).  But I refuse to engage homophobes on this matter because it isn’t productive.  It plays into the homophobe’s hands because it confuses the issue.  It implies that if homosexuality is a choice, then there’s a right one and a wrong one.

So The Alpha Course is homophobic, although it says it isn’t.  It’s a kind of franchise model and accepts any denomination of Christianity, so every one will be different and mileage will vary.  Adam finished by saying it’s worth taking the Alpha Course for a couple of reasons: you get to learn how Christianity works and you get the opportunity to challenge them in their lair.

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