Tony Campolo has been a significant figure in christianity over the past few decades. As a sociologist, teacher, speaker, writer and social justice activist, he championed a form of christianity which balanced spirituality and social concern.
So when several years ago his son Bart moved from supporting his father’s form of christianity to being a secular humanist, some people wondered what had happened. Some interesting issues arise from his story.
I have drawn on several reports to piece together Bart’s journey from christianity to secular humanism.
Despite having a famous christian leader for a father, Bart apparently didn’t make a commitment to christian belief until well into his teens. And then, on his own admission, it wasn’t christian belief about Jesus and salvation that attracted him but the loving inclusiveness of the youth group he was attending. He went on to get involved in, or begin, social welfare ministries “designed to rescue suffering people from unemployment, addiction, sex slavery and other ills.”
But almost right from the start, his belief was challenged.
- Meeting a girl who had been gang-raped at age 9 challenged his belief that God was in charge of the world.
- Having two college room-mates come out as gay challenged his view that God condemned homosexuality.
- These and other challenges caused him to be very selective about what Bible passages he took account of, eventually destroying the Bible’s authority for him.
- He eventually came to believe in universalism – that in the end God will accept every person.
- Belief in Jesus’ resurrection was next to go.
- Even while still nominally a christian, he had ceased to teach about God, Jesus or the resurrection.
- Finally, in 2011, in his late forties, after a bicycle accident that put him into hospital, he realised he no longer believed in an afterlife, and that this life is all we have – and he’d almost lost it.
And so, Bart says, his faith “died the death of a thousand unanswered prayers”. He and his wife held dinners for neighbours, including some on the fringes of society, and he came to the conclusion that he couldn’t and shouldn’t try to convert them or change them, but he should just love them.
Coming out as a secular humanist
It was about three years later that he finally broke the news to his dad, and withdrew from any pretence of being a christian. While he has given up any belief in God and Jesus, he has retained many of the ethical values that he had as a christian – love, acceptance, happiness, friendship as an antidote to loneliness, purpose and caring for those who are suffering – and is enthusiastic to see others living with these values.
Bart is currently a humanist chaplain at a university, and apparently encourages students with all the evangelistic fervour he had as a christian. He doesn’t call himself an atheist, preferring the term secular humanist. Unlike many other former christians, Bart doesn’t seem to have become antagonistic to his christianity. He has written a book with his dad, and soon a film will be released about how the two see each other’s beliefs.
Christian (and other) reflections on Bart’s deconversion
Ed Stetzer pondered whether the type of christianity a person is raised in affects the likelihood of deconversion down the track. He thought the statistics suggest that children raised in mainline denominations, which are generally more traditional than conservative, are most likely to quit their faith, but recognised that Bart isn’t the only prominent child of evangelical parents who had deconverted.
But a 2015 survey by Pew showed that both the religious right and “big atheism” have lost influence recently, and those leaving christianity are more likely, like Bart, to end up as less strident secular humanists who are more intent on their positive agenda than critiquing christianity.
Sam Hailes, apparently writing from a mildly conservative christian viewpoint, suggests that Bart’s change of direction illustrates the danger that “progressive Christians turn into atheists”. He points out that, historically, evangelical christians have a good record in areas of social justice, and urges that activist christians “continue to hold fast to historic Christian doctrines”.
Speaking at a christian festival, Bart said: “What I know is if there’s 1,000 people at Wild Goose today, then in 10 years from now three or four hundred of those people won’t be in the game anymore.” However I have known many conservative christians who have been deeply challenged by problems that more progressive christians have addressed – some became atheists, others found progressive christianity was allowed them to keep on believing. I would be not far from that myself.
Rob Asghar thinks that maintaining religious faith creates too many pressures for many people to hold it together. Mark Oppenheimer suggests that humanism may provide younger people with the friendship and community they crave “in a way that ancient stories may not”.
Reason and feelings
It seems to me, from what I have read, that Bart’s initial conversion was more to helping and loving people than to belief in Jesus. Christianity was the form in which he found and expressed that humanist ethic, but after a while, Bart found it wasn’t needed (for him, at any rate).
So when his doubts grew, he appears to have had little reason to sustain any belief. There is a revealing moment in the trailer for his soon-to-be-released movie with his dad, Far From the Tree (not to be confused with another 2017 movie of the same name), where Bart says quite vehemently and emotionally: “You couldn’t possibly believe what you’re telling me. You couldn’t possibly really believe that.” To which his father replies: “Yes I do believe it.”
This is the most surprising part of this story for me. I know of thoughtful atheists who see christianity as plausible even though they don’t believe it. For Bart to grow up in a christian family, to live for decades as an active christian and to know the depth and strength of his father’s belief, and yet still not see that someone could honestly believe in Jesus, his resurrection and the afterlife, is quite amazing to me.
I can’t help wondering why he believed for so long. If he had reason to believe then, couldn’t he understand that now even if he no longer agreed with those reasons? But perhaps he never really had good reason to believe the supernatural core of christianity?
We can think that some Biblical teachings, especially in the Old Testament, are conditioned by and applicable to their time, but need to be differently understood today. But that doesn’t negate the historical evidence of the life of Jesus in the gospels. That should be the basis of our faith, and doesn’t change whether we are conservative or progressive christians.
I think the reasons to believe in Jesus still stand up to scrutiny, but I think too few young christians are encouraged to explore them.
The future for the church …. and christianity
The church is generally declining in numbers in most western countries, except where the decline has gone on for so long it has bottomed out. People under about 40 are generally much less likely to be part of a church than older people were at the same age. Younger people may be more interested in spirituality, or a less dogmatic religion.
Varun Soni, the University of Southern California’s Dean of Religious Life says: “I think there’s a hunger for an engaged and active secular humanist community. I think the future is going to be less about traditional doctrines and practices and more about people wrestling together with things like significance, identity and how to contribute to society. It’s a broader definition of religion, faith and spirituality.”
But the numbers of christian believers isn’t dropping nearly as fast – many leave the church but stay christians. The future of christianity in the west, in the next few decades, may include looser outward forms of christianity (what Pete Ward called “liquid church”) which nevertheless retain the core beliefs about Jesus and God, emphasise social justice and community welfare, but are less concerned about the detailed theological arguments (and sometimes pedantry) that is rife in some forms of christianity today. I am confident christian faith will continue in the west, but likely in a less dogmatic and organised form for many.
Both secular humanism and christianity address the value-oriented questions of friendship, loneliness, purpose, community and happiness that Bart still finds important. I think christianity has a stronger basis and more staying power, but that obviously isn’t the way Bart sees it.
Read more about Bart
- Bart Campolo website
- The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing. New York Times, 2016
- Bart Campolo’s Heretical–And Liberating–Leadership Journey. Forbes, 2014
- Bart Campolo, Humanist Chaplain, On The Moment He ‘Came Out’ Humanist To His Famous Evangelical Father. HuffPost 2014
- Deconversion: Some Thoughts on Bart Campolo’s Departure from Christianity. Christianity Today 2014
- Bart Campolo says progressive Christians turn into atheists. Maybe he’s right. Premier Christianity 2017
Photo of Bart Campolo taken from his website