New York Times: The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing: The Son of a Famous Pastor, Bart Campolo Is Now a Rising Star of Atheism — Using the Skills He Learned in the World He Left Behind:
For most of his life, [Bart] Campolo had gone from success to success. His father, Tony, was one of the most important evangelical Christian preachers of the last 50 years, a prolific author and an erstwhile spiritual adviser to Bill Clinton. The younger Campolo had developed a reputation of his own, running successful inner-city missions in Philadelphia and Ohio and traveling widely as a guest preacher. An extreme extrovert, he was brilliant before a crowd and also at ease in private conversations, connecting with everyone from country-club suburbanites to the destitute souls he often fed in his own house. He was a role model for younger Christians looking to move beyond the culture wars over abortion or homosexuality and get back to Jesus’ original teachings. ...
Though Marty, his wife, had long entertained doubts about Christianity, Campolo had always done his job and, in his words, “brought her back.” But the truth was, he had been breaking up with God for a long time. ... It had been years since he made God or Jesus or the resurrection the centerpiece of the frequent fellowship dinners he and Marty hosted. Talk instead was always about love and friendship. In 2004, he performed a wedding for two close lesbian friends, and in 2006, he began teaching that everybody could be saved, that nobody would go to hell. To evangelicals, he already sounded more like a Unitarian Universalist than like any of them.
Now, after his near-death experience, his wife told him — more bluntly than she ever had — what she thought was going on. “You know,” Marty said, “I think you ought to stop being a professional Christian, since you don’t believe in God, and you don’t believe in heaven, and you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead three days after dying — and neither do I.” He knew that she was right, and he began telling friends that he was a “post-Christian.” They treated him like an obviously gay man coming out of the closet. “People were like, ‘Yeah, we’ve known this a long time,’ ” he says. “ ‘Why did it take you so long to figure it out?’ ”
For Campolo, admitting that he had totally lost his faith was oddly comforting — he could stop living a lie — but also confusing. He loved talking to people, caring for them, helping them. He loved everything about Christian ministry except the Christianity. Now that he had crossed the bridge to apostasy, he needed a new vocation.
But as he took stock of the rest of his life, Campolo decided that there was no reason an atheist couldn’t still be a minister too. Instead of comforting people with the good news of Jesus, he’d preach secular humanism, a kinder cousin of atheism. He’d help them accept that we’re all going to die, that this life is all there is and that therefore we have to make the most of our brief, glorious time on earth. And he would spread this message using the best evangelical techniques — the same ones he had mastered as a Christian.
Atheists and agnostics have long tried to rebottle religion: to get the community and the good works without the supernatural stuff. It has worked about as well as nonalcoholic beer. As with O’Doul’s, converts are few, and rarely do they end up having a very good time. ...
But quite recently, as young people have drifted from religious observance — according to a 2015 Pew survey, 36 percent of those born between 1990 and 1996 are religiously unaffiliated — both the Christian right and what we might call “big atheism” have lost influence. The energy now is not with the controversial author-celebrities but with start-up groups, many on college campuses, that have more gender balance and less strident rhetoric and are eager to do better than thumb their noses at believers. Crucially, these nonbelievers identify as humanist rather than atheist. That is, they’ve sided with a more welcoming version of nonbelief, focused on the joy and potential inherent in being human rather than on gainsaying others’ convictions. Their project is to talk about leading a good life without God.
This was the world that the Campolos began to explore after Bart’s accident. They visited meetings, in Chicago and Los Angeles, of a group called Sunday Assembly, which was founded in London by two comedians and now has roughly 70 branches. Despite the name, Sunday Assembly gathers monthly in informal meetings centered on lectures and singalongs of popular songs. Campolo was impressed by the message, but the meetings themselves left him cold. The singalongs didn’t really work, because radio hits aren’t written to be sung by groups. “And they meet once a month — once a month, if you’re trying to build a community!”
Campolo eventually came across a book called Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Believe, by Greg M. Epstein, the head of one of the most influential humanist groups in the country, Humanist Hub. The group began at Harvard and now has anywhere from 300 to 350 people at its weekly meetings, only a third of them students. Epstein, 39, its leader since 2005, has become a godfather to the movement, the anti-Dawkins. He doesn’t want to lecture people or talk them out of anything; he sits with them in circles, sips water from coffee mugs and listens. There are about a dozen humanist chaplaincies in the country, and of those, the chaplains at Yale, Stanford and Tufts all trained with Epstein. In July 2014 Campolo flew to Boston to talk with Epstein for three days about the future of humanism.
“I was sitting with Bart going over all of this, thinking about what the future needed to look like,” Epstein told me. “I told him if I wasn’t at Harvard, L.A. would be where I wanted to be.”
Campolo liked the idea of being on a campus. He was, in a sense, not unlike a college student himself: away from the only home he ever knew, ripped from his comforting traditions, trying to figure out who he was, now that he could be anything. He could relate to students. And while church attendance is collapsing among young people — only 27 percent of millennials attend religious services weekly — campuses have relatively vibrant religious scenes. Chaplains’ offices have resources and geographically circumscribed target audiences. Many religious-outreach groups, from evangelical Christians to the Chabad sect of Judaism, plant houses near campuses to minister to students, a potentially receptive audience. They may want to try on Christianity, or Buddhism, or whatever — even Wiccans at the United States Air Force Academy have an area set aside for worship.
Epstein told Campolo about Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at U.S.C., and in 2014 Campolo began talking with Soni on the phone. After a few conversations, Campolo had been offered an office, an email account and a title: humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. No salary, but it was a start. ...
At U.S.C., Campolo’s Secular Student Fellowship now comprises between 75 and 100 students, although not all come to every meeting. Last year I attended one of their dinners, in a nondescript meeting room in the chaplain’s building: folding tables, metal chairs, industrial carpet, the whole institutional works. Roughly 25 students were there, most of them pleasantly nerdy and inquisitive. Several told me they were lapsed Christians who were afraid to come out to their parents. After they had all filled their plates with the chili that Campolo and his wife cooked, Campolo began to talk. He did his best to stay seated on his stackable metal chair, but when he made a particularly emphatic point, he bounced to his feet, like the preacher he used to be.
The topic was friendship, and Campolo’s text was The Friendship Factor, Alan Loy McGinnis’s 1979 megaselling self-help book. There was a reason he turned to it. When Campolo arrived on the U.S.C. campus, in the fall of 2014, he quickly discovered that the fundamental problem of many students was loneliness. He hypothesizes that their focus as high-school students on résumé-building and test-taking, so crucial to getting into college now, has left many of them socially adrift once they arrive. “Kids who show up at college on the other end of that rat race are very good at networking,” he says. “But they are not always very good at deeper connections.” The grown-ups in their lives are also primarily focused on achievement and rarely steer them toward the important questions.
Campolo told me that when students come to talk about a job they’ve been offered, he asks questions like: “What’s the culture like at that place? The guy who interviewed you — would you want to end up like him, with the kind of marriage he has and the kind of friendships he has?” Campolo went on: “And they say, ‘Huh, I never thought about that.’ And you want to say: ‘Where are your parents? Or your pastor? What is your Uncle Joe doing? Why is nobody asking value-oriented questions about your life?’ ”
“The Friendship Factor” is “the hokiest book you will ever read,” Campolo told his flock. But, he said, it brings a hopeful message: that friendship, like eating well or getting fit, isn’t a matter of luck. Expecting fulfilling relationships to materialize magically was, he said, “its own form of supernatural woo-woo.” The book’s message was a distillation of his larger project: Happiness, connection and community, which many people attend church to find, can be achieved through human agency. It’s a modest claim but profoundly empowering, in a way that ancient stories may not be, especially when they come from traditions that few young people take literally.
Besides, while Campolo believes that life can be meaningful with or without a god, his work these days is less about grandiose metaphysical claims than about simple acts of hand-holding. To 100 or so students, Campolo is a confidant, a stand-in parent, but one who doesn’t expect anything of them. “Over the last two weeks,” Campolo says, “I got an email from a young woman saying, ‘A friend told me I should talk to you because I am a senior, graduating, and have no idea what to do with my life.’ Another student comes to me, ‘I got sexually assaulted and don’t know what to do now.’ ” Perhaps these young adults are looking for a humanist community, but surely many of them just need a grown-up who isn’t grading them, isn’t interviewing them and wants to listen. “I don’t know these kids well,” he says. “This is just what happens when you are available.”
His role became particularly clear to him after the presidential election. At U.S.C., many students were distraught. Some of them probably marched; others prayed. U.S.C. is huge, one of the five largest private schools in the country, and some of its most popular concentrations include finance, accounting, management and marketing — which is to say, the undergraduates, when faced with questions about what kind of world they want to build and what their role could be, might not think of their professors, if they even knew them, as having much guidance to offer. So Campolo suspected that some students would want to talk to him. He emailed his list, offering office hours at a picnic table on campus. Over the next week, about 15 students sought him out. “A lot of people went running to their pastors,” Campolo says. “And my kids did the same.”
Patheos, This Profile of Bart Campolo Shows How the Best Parts of Religion Can Still Work Without God:
Bart and his father will be publishing a book this February called Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son. I had a chance to read an early version of it and it’s fantastic. It’s the sort of book that gives both men a chance to explain where they’re coming from without the animosity that we normally expect from those conversations.
Bestselling Christian author, activist, and scholar Tony Campolo and his son Bart, an avowed Humanist, debate their spiritual differences and explore similarities involving faith, belief, and hope that they share.
Over a Thanksgiving dinner, fifty-year-old Bart Campolo announced to his Evangelical pastor father, Tony Campolo, that after a lifetime immersed in the Christian faith, he no longer believed in God. The revelation shook the Campolo family dynamic and forced father and son to each reconsider his own personal journey of faith—dual spiritual investigations into theology, faith, and Humanism that eventually led Bart and Tony back to one another.
In Why I Left, Why I Stayed, the Campolos reflect on their individual spiritual odysseys and how they evolved when their paths diverged. Tony, a renowned Christian teacher and pastor, recounts his experience, from the initial heartbreak of discovering Bart’s change in faith, to the subsequent healing he found in his own self-examination, to his embracing of his son’s point of view. Bart, an author and Humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California, considers his faith journey from Progressive Christianity to Humanism, revealing how it affected his outlook and transformed his relationship with his father.
As Why I Left, Why I Stayed makes clear, a painful schism between father and son that could have divided them irreparably became instead an opening that offered each an invaluable look not only at what separated them, but more importantly, what they shared.