Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2002

This article is based on John Rose’s essay A critique of the Alpha course’s attitude towards homosexuality, which he presented recently at Derwent College, University of York. The complete essay, along with a condensed version, can be found on GALHA’s website.

Alphabet Soup: how words can mangle meaning

an edited version of a longer essay by John Rose

The Alpha course is advertised as a method to “Discover the meaning of life” but is, in fact, designed to convert rather than discuss. The main aim of the Alpha course is to convert groups of people to evangelical Christianity within ten weeks – a kind of fast-track route to God. It has received much criticism from various quarters, not least for its attitude towards homosexuality, AIDS and the “healing” of homosexuality.

The Alpha course takes a misinformed view of homosexuality. In his Alpha course sessions, Alpha’s spiritual leader Nicky Gumbel compares homosexuality to paedophilia. In a Guardian article that has since been much referred to (“Catch me if you can”, 21 October 2000) Gumbel was asked what was so sinful about a homosexual friend who, since he was a child, had found himself attracted to other boys. Gumbel replied: “If a paedophile said, ‘Ever since I was a child I found myself attracted to children’, we wouldn’t say that was normal, would we? ... Now, I am not for a moment comparing homosexuals with paedophiles ...” However, he quite blatantly is, and, furthermore, it places the comparison into people’s minds, with the pretence that it is a reasonable argument.

In his book Searching Issues, Gumbel outlines what he perceives as Christianity’s objections to homosexuality, and concentrates on the sinfulness of homosexuality, AIDS as a judgment from God and the exorcising of homosexuality. He starts by ignoring biological facts, and asserting for sure: “He [God] did not design our bodies for homosexual intercourse.” The truth is that we have no idea whether our bodies were created for homosexual sex as pleasure. Gumbel admits that sex is designed to be fun – “We saw that God designed sex for our enjoyment” – and homosexual men who partake in homosexual intercourse have fun.

Alpha advocates the idea that homosexuality involves “shameful lusts,” and labels homosexuals as “homosexual offenders”. Not only does the course condemn homosexuals: it also condemns those who “approve of those who practise” homosexual acts. In this way, any of us who accept homosexuals into our lives without “loving the sinner, hating the sin” are condemned.

The Alpha course text sends out a very strong message about homosexuality and AIDS, using a very confused argument. Take this passage from page 82 of Searching Issues: “Statistically, AIDS is still correlated to homosexual practice. Over three quarters of those who have died from AIDS probably acquired the virus as a result of homosexual intercourse. There is still, therefore, a strong link between homosexuality and AIDS in popular thinking in this country.” This provides a very poor argument on closer inspection.

First, “AIDS is still correlated to homosexual practice” is a loaded statement. Statistically in the UK, there are more heterosexual transmissions than homosexual transmissions. Gumbel then places assumption and ambiguity into the argument: “Over three quarters of those who have died from AIDS probably acquired the virus as a result of homosexual intercourse” (my italics). He has not provided any empirical evidence for this assertion. This produces ambiguity, and the more ambiguous and leading the statement is, the easier he can leap to the conclusion, “There is still, therefore, a strong link between homosexuality and AIDS in popular thinking in this country.” This conclusion is unrelated to the premise, unless you read the conclusion as, “There is still a strong link between homosexuality and AIDS”. This is the desired result: ambiguity. Moreover, the argument opposes what people the world over have been trying to remove: the idea that AIDS is a gay plague.

Gumbel uses nonobjective articles as sources – all written before homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organisation’s list of diseases, and some from before homosexuality was legal – and places in “facts” that are no more than opinions based on very dubious arguments and analogies. “AIDS is still correlated to homosexual practice” and “This is due to the way we are made and designed to live” are prime examples.

The text then advocates a course of action that even practitioners of it have turned against: the “curing” of homosexuality. Gumbel incorrectly states: “There is a great deal of evidence that homosexual orientation is something that is acquired or learned.” There is not. There are theories, as presented by Freud and others, but that is all.

Gumbel wants the reader to believe him on this, as he wants to make it seem that, if homosexuality can be learned, it can be unlearned. Homosexuality, according to the Alpha course, is caused by one of the following issues: “lack of love and affirmation from a same sex parent; a dominant, controlling or overprotective and possessive mother; a weak, ineffective or rejecting father; incest or sexual abuse”. None of this can be substantiated. The argument is presented in such a way as to exploit the potential vulnerability of those attending the course.

The Alpha course not only encourages homosexuals to suppress their sexual urges, but encourages homosexuals to be “healed”. Gumbel advocates “healing” people when they are young: “The older a person is, the harder it is to change. Like any behavioural pattern, the more it is followed, the more it will become fixed.” This is not a case of “stopping people before it is too late”: it is a case of targeting people when they are most vulnerable, when they are just coming out. By advertising the Alpha course to students – who are usually at this point in their lives – and placing it on campus, Alpha is targeting students directly.

Students are an ideal target for the Alpha course, and I do not use the term “target” lightly. As a student, you are encouraged to join every society going to make new friends. Alpha sells itself on companionship and a ready-made network of friends. There are those who may have joined the Alpha course to make new friends in a new area of interest, and will have found themselves in a very vulnerable situation.

We live in a highly diverse, multicultural, multiethnic, multifaith, multisexuality community and we must respect this diversity. When it comes to the Alpha course, there is a straight choice: the choice between allowing them to take advantage of vulnerable students who might be exploited, and standing firm with gay students who feel affronted at being called abominations. This is not a matter of freedom of religion or freedom of speech. Rather, it is a matter of freedom of thought and our responsibilities to fellow students.

The Alpha course is not about “preaching to the converted”: it is actively targeting vulnerable people and turning them into evangelical Christians who do not question the validity of the arguments with which they are presented.

It has been argued that the Alpha course no longer looks to the Bible for spiritual leadership, but to the writings of Nicky Gumbel. His core texts and the accompanying supplementary texts have sold well over two million copies worldwide. Instead of preaching for respect and harmony, it claims a monopoly of truth, disguising opinions as facts, and encouraging people actively to judge others.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-05-05 / Last updated : Monday, 2008-03-31
Brett Humphreys :