Briefing: Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People
Adam Rutherford remembers getting atheists reciting the Lord's Prayer at last year's rationalist jamboree
In 2009 I spent more time in church than most Christians. For my sins, and more prosaically for the Guardian’s religion blog, I took the Alpha Course and wrote it up as a ten-part exploration of an atheist’s exposure to evangelical Christianity.
You may have seen the prominent adverts for Alpha: “Is this it?” they ask with a soul-destroying lack of wonder. Billed as an “opportunity for anyone to explore the Christian faith in a relaxed setting”, Alpha is really a recruitment drive for a particular type of conservative Christian theology: atonement via penal substitution. It is simplistic, anti-intellectual and dull-witted, and all theologians I’ve spoken to who are not involved in Alpha wince when I mention it. But it is undeniably successful: Alpha claim that 13 million people worldwide have attended the ten-week course.
To be clear, I didn’t do it so you don’t have to. I urge you to do the Alpha Course so you can see for yourself how this branch of modern Christianity peddles its wares. But more importantly, in this age of direct action, I encourage the faithless to take part so you can influence the discussion. This was my jolly Christmas message at the 2010 Nine Lessons shows.
Alpha is aimed very specifically at people whom they refer to as “dechurched”. Much like background radiation, the language, trappings and culture of Christianity were ever-present in the upbringing of many of us in our 30s and older. There was never a risk of my adopting faith of any sort, but the key demographic is specifically those who once went to church, and now do not. It occurred to me that this Christian cultural shadow was never more apparent than in our ability to regurgitate the Lord’s Prayer with drone-like fidelity.
So at last year’s Nine Lessons, I tested this with the godless audience. The spirit of pantomime season audience feedback no doubt helped, but simply starting a sentence with “Our father…” triggered a Pavlovian response from the sold-out Bloomsbury Theatre congregation, instantly transported back to school assembly: “… which art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name…”
Back in the real world it’s hard enough to get my kids to do anything I want, so I can’t deny the buzz of getting 500 adults to obey my command. It’s even better when it is an incitement to betray exactly why they are there in the first place. It’s the thrill of power by grace.
Given that Alpha is clearly a pernicious homophobic conservative Christian recruitment drive, it is heartening to know that its reach may not extend effectively beyond the dechurched. My 15-year-old cousin Claire was in the audience, and she didn’t know the words well enough to parrot them, as her parents and the rest of the audience did. Claire is what the Alpha organisers fear, the “unchurched”. With a more pluralist religious education at school, the Lord’s Prayer is not recited daily, as it was in my school days. The vague grip of Christianity is weakened, and young people are not as susceptible to Alpha’s desired faith gear-change from a cultural Christian to a practising one.
But the power is bewitching. At this year’s Nine Lessons, I plan to up the ante, and hope you’ll join me in chugging on glasses of New Humanist Kool-Aid before ascent to the next plane. Happy Christmas, sinners! ■
They say atheists are always trying to steal Christmas, so that’s what comedian Robin Ince decided to do. His idea? A godless Christmas cabaret aimed at celebrating the wonders of science alongside the joys of comedy and song. To date, Nine Lessons has seen 82 performers play to 14,000 ticket-holders.
2008 The first run was two nights at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, followed by a grand finale at the Hammersmith Apollo. It featured a dizzying diversity of talent, from Richard Dawkins to Ricky Gervais via Jarvis Cocker, with a detour round Josie Long and a quick stop for a pasty and a pee at Dara O’Briain.
Memorable moment: “Storm”, Tim Minchin’s nine-minute beat poem take-down of new age nonsense.
2009 The second year saw an extended five-night run at the Bloomsbury plus Apollo finale (filmed by the BBC), and featured another amazing line-up of eggheads, warblers and clowns, among them Al Murray, comic book legend Alan Moore and a cherub-faced physicist called Brian Cox.
Memorable moment: Johnny Ball’s ill-advised attribution of global warming to spider farts (resulting in his being booed off stage).
2010 Sold-out seven-night run at the Bloomsbury featuring a galaxy of stars from Professors Marcus du Sautoy and Jim Al-Khalili to jokesters Ed Byrne and Isy Suttie.
Memorable moment: The marriage proposal Simon Singh delivered from the stage on behalf of Nine Lessons regular Markus Engbrecht (she said “yes”).
2011 The fourth year sees another fabulous line-up mixing veterans like Stewart Lee and Helen Arney with newbies like singers Neal Hannon and David McAlmont and comedian Alexei Sayle.
Nine Lessons 2011 is at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, 18-23 December. Tickets are available online, or from the box office on 020 7388 8822. Tickets for 23 December are already sold out - book now for other nights to avoid disappointment.