Bart Campolo on life after faith

Q&A | The evangelical preacher’s son talks candidly about why he’s not a Christian anymore, and what’s next
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 10/17/15, 08:41 am

Bart Campolo’s name, at least his last name, may be familiar to you. He’s the son of famous evangelical leader, Tony Campolo, and for many years, he followed in his father’s footsteps, writing books for evangelical publishers and speaking in evangelical churches and conferences. But Campolo began to have doubts about Christian beliefs, and those doubts eventually turned into open disbelief. 

About five years ago he left Christianity all together, and a year ago he turned up as the first humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I met Campolo in his office on campus, where we had this conversation.

What is a humanist chaplain? A humanist chaplain is not unlike what most of your listeners would associate [with] a Southern Baptist chaplain. When I first came here … I was talking to the dean of religious life about moving to Los Angeles and trying to establish some kind of a community for people who wanted to pursue goodness but didn’t believe in God. He said, “Man, if you want to start a community like that, you should come here. USC is the most religiously diverse campus in the country. We have 90 ministries on this campus. We’ve got Buddhist, we’ve got Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Jain, Jewish. We have 50 different Christian groups alone—every flavor of Christian. A significant proportion of our student body, like half the students here, don’t believe in God at all, and there’s nobody looking after their spiritual lives.”

What spiritual nurturing would someone who doesn’t believe in a spiritual life need? It’s interesting that you should ask, because here’s the thing. If somebody came to the conclusion, as I did a number of years ago, “I think this life is all there is. I think that when I die I’ll be dead,” the most immediate question that came to me was, if this is it, how do you make the most of it? I have this wonderful opportunity to be a sentient human being, to be able to think and feel and understand and fall in love and have relationships. How do you make the most of this life? I think that, for a lot of people, they say, “Make a lot of money, buy a lot of stuff,” but if you check the data, what you’ll find is that people who make a lot of money and buy a lot of stuff don’t necessarily, at the end of their lives, have the greatest sense of well-being, or the sense that they invested their lives well, or they don’t have the greatest sense of joy and happiness.

You say, “Well, then use a lot of drugs.” Statistically speaking, that doesn’t work out too well, either. “Well, have sex with as many people as possible,” and you go, “Yeah, it doesn’t prove out.” You’re still like, “Well, who does end up with the best life? Who ends up feeling the most fulfilled?” It’s people that have loving relationships, and who do work that they feel makes the world a better place, and who cultivate a sense of gratitude and a sense of wonder at just the amazingness of being alive and living in this universe with all its beauty and all of its stuff. Spiritual life for people like that would say, “OK, I want to pursue that. I want to live that way, how do I do that?”

Why bother to influence toward a subjective definition of what the good life is? If you’re trying to influence people who don’t believe in God, by what definition do you identify something as “good”? The first thing I would say to you is that sometimes when people hear you’re a humanist chaplain at USC, they think that I’m running around trying to convince all the Christians not to believe in God, and the answer is, no. If people are happily thriving in their spiritual lives, I want to leave them alone. Good for them.

The fact of the matter is that the majority of the students I encounter here don’t believe in God, and some of them … grew up in Christian households, and Christianity didn’t make sense to them, or it used to make sense to them and then it stopped making sense to them for any number of reasons. They found stuff in the Bible that didn’t jive with them. They’re gay or they have homosexual friends, and the whole evangelical anti-homosexual thing, they just go, “If God doesn’t like gay people, I think the Bible is wrong about the gay thing. Therefore, I think the Bible’s wrong about everything.”

How did you become a Christian in the first place? Although I was raised in Tony Campolo’s household, I didn’t become a Christian myself until I was 15. I became a Christian through a guy on my soccer team who brought me along to his youth group. It was like this 300-member youth group with a rock ’n’ roll band, and there was all this energy, but the main thing was it was the nicest group of kids I had ever encountered. They were loving each other, and they were reaching out to other kids, and they were doing missions trips. I was a nice kid, and this community felt like a club for nice people, and I wanted to be a part of it. I quickly realized that this was a Christian group, and, of course, from my family background, I knew how to talk that language.

The truth of the matter is that, for me, all the supernatural dogma, the eternal life, the heaven and hell, Jesus rising from the dead—all the fantastic things that you have to believe to be a Christian—that wasn’t the attraction for me. I didn’t become a Christian because I wanted to go to heaven. I wanted to be part of this wonderful community, and so, for me, the dogma was the price of admission, not the attraction.

You never believed it, or you believed it for a season? What happens is that you climb into that kind of a community, and you’re surrounded by people, and you’re singing the songs, and I wanted to be a good member of the group, so I prayed in the mornings, and I went to the prayer meetings, and I went to church. At some point, when you’re surrounded by everybody else believing, and you’re singing these songs, and you’re staying up late talking about it, it becomes real to you, and it became real to me.

Sometimes now people say, “Gosh, I bet you’re embarrassed that you used to preach sermons in which you said that God spoke to you, or you heard the voice of God, or you felt led by the Holy Spirit,” and I say, “Oh, no, that happened. I heard voices. I felt led.” Those transcendent moments of spirituality, they were real.

But you just no longer believe that it was God. I would explain them very differently now. I would say to you, I could take you up on Mount Everest, get you oxygen deprived and put you under a lot of stress, and you would sense a presence next to you. People have these experiences. I could recreate that in a laboratory. What I would say is, I don’t think there’s really a supernatural presence talking to you, but I think you really hear something. People that don’t believe in transcendent experiences, they haven’t been to the right concerts. They haven’t used the right drugs. We can induce these kinds of experiences. Indeed, as a secular chaplain, I often try to create experiences where people will feel connected to everybody else. …

What I found was, is that Christianity really became real to me, and the community was important to me and the mission, the idea that we were going out there and helping people. I very quickly got involved in inner-city missions, and I was working in ghettos with kids, and trying to bring them into the fold, and I became really committed to social justice, and to loving relationships, and all this stuff. 

For about 30 years, I became more and more committed to social justice, and loving relationships, and trying to heal broken people’s lives. In the context particularly of the inner city, I became less and less convinced that there was any supernatural reality. My prayers didn’t get answered. People had cancer and they died. Miracles in my neighborhood were very few and far between. But loving people was very real. ... Also, some of these biblical things that you’ll hear people talk about, like inconsistencies in the Bible, the weirdness of the genocide, the anti-gay stuff in the Bible—that stuff was hard for me, because I had a lot of gay friends.

It ultimately got you to the point where you said you could just no longer believe this. The narrative was always hard for me, and over time, lots of experiences, lots of unanswered prayers, lots of questions like, why does God heal so many people of cancer but never an amputee grows his limb back? I came to this place where I was like, over time, I don’t think that the core narrative is true. My ability to believe in supernatural forces—I became a naturalist, and the culmination was I had a bicycle accident. In the bike accident, I had a bad concussion, and for about a month I wasn’t myself. When I finally came back and could think straight again, I remember thinking two things. No. 1, I almost died, and I’m going to die someday. The second thing is, I think my identity is in my brain, and when I die, I think I’ll be gone. 

I talked to my wife about it, and she and I had been having these conversations forever, and she said, “I think we’re done. I think you’ve got to stop being a professional Christian. You don’t believe in God anymore.”

What was that conversation like with your dad about this moment where you said, “I no longer believe this stuff, and I can’t keep acting like I do? I spent three years working on that stuff. I ended up figuring out what I was going to do, and all that stuff, but I’m not writing articles. I’m not printing books. I’m not a public person at this point. I sort of vanished from the scene. 

At some point you sit down with your parents. In my case, it was after Thanksgiving dinner one year. We were always talking about our faith. We were always talking about what we’re doing in the kingdom and always talking about the mission work that we were on. I worked closely with my dad over many years. At some point I sat him down and he’s like, “What’s going on?” I was like, “Here’s the thing. I’m not a liberal Christian anymore. I’m not a progressive Christian. I’m not a red-letter Christian. I’m a post-Christian. I’m done.” He said, “Well, what do you mean by that?” I was like, “I don’t believe in a supernatural God. I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead after three days. I don’t think bodies do that. I don’t believe the core fundamentals of the faith anymore.”

You could see in both my parents, just a real deep disappointment. They were sad, and I knew they would be sad. They were sad on two levels. I think the most visceral, the most immediate level was, “Oh, no, this is so embarrassing.” If you’re an identifiable Christian leader and your son just abandons the cause, what does this say? There was a sense in which they were sad on the level of this is embarrassing, but more importantly, “I like having Bart on my team. He’s a good player. I like us working together on all this stuff, and now, he’s not going to be able to work with me on this stuff.” There was a sense of loss. “This is my son, and we were in this, and we were doing this thing together, and now he’s leaving the team.” There was all of that.

Then there’s just the pure father thing, which I think was even deeper. I still remember him looking at me and going, “What are you going to do now?” He didn’t just mean what are you going to do for a living. He was like, “What’s the meaning of your life? What are you going to be about? What’s going to happen to you? Your whole life has been built around loving people and trying to transform lives, and you’ve had this sense of mission and focus, what now?”

You said one of the key reasons you left the faith is that you no longer found the idea of a God, the idea of a supernatural life or supernatural reality convincing. What would it take to convince you? I’ll tell you. I sometimes joke around. My dad asked me that question. I said, “Dad, just bring me an amputee here. Pray over him, and let me watch his leg grow back. In all the years of all the miracles that God’s done, all the amazing things, I got no amputees. What’s God got against amputees?” A clear and compelling miracle—that would be a big start for me.

If you saw this clear and compelling miracle, you’re not so heavily invested in your point of view that you wouldn’t change your mind? That’s the thing about being rational, like being a rationalist, as being a scientific method, is that you go, “What do scientists do if they discover evidence that contradicts their old theory?” And they go, “Oh, they just change their mind.” 

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and ask, oh, no, what if I’m wrong? I never do. I wake up in the middle of the night and I think, oh, no, I’m another day closer. I love this life. I loved growing up. I love eating food. I loved falling in love with my wife. I love having sex. I love raising my kids. I love the friendships that I have. Life is so beautiful to me, and it’s very precious to me, and so, if I think I’ve wasted a day, those are the things that keep me up.

The truth of the matter is I never do wonder if I’m wrong.

Listen to Warren Smith’s interview with Bart Campolo on Listening In.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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