Bart Campolo, Son of Famous Pastor Tony Campolo, Now a Rising Star of Atheism

Campolo with some of his flock. (Damon Casarez for The New York Times)
Campolo with some of his flock. (Damon Casarez for The New York Times)

One morning in the summer of 2011 Bart Campolo left his house in Cincinnati for a long bicycle ride. Goateed and bald, but still trim and fit at 48, Campolo was the envy of his generation of evangelical pastors. That morning, Campolo was, as usual, a little self-conscious about his attire. “I feel ridiculous in my spandex,” he says. Years of pickup basketball had wrecked his ankles, leaving regular bicycle treks as his only form of exercise. But he was excited to do 30 or 40 miles through the rolling southern Ohio hills.

Normally his bike rides were his time to think — about his family, his ministry and his increasingly complex relationship with his Christian faith. But he has no memory of his thoughts that day. He left the house, and the next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital. “And I don’t remember anything else,” he says.

He was later able to piece together bits of what happened. There were skid marks on the hill where he was found, and these suggested he had crossed a lane of traffic. The speedometer he was wearing recorded his velocity at that moment: 40 miles per hour. His helmet was cracked in four spots, and his bicycle had been left, undamaged, on the side of the road. It seems he hit a patch of soft dirt and flew headfirst into a tree. A fellow cyclist found him wandering in the middle of the road. When he got to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, a doctor asked him who was president. He said George Bush — meaning the father, not the son.

For most of his life, 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. Now, lying in a hospital bed, he wasn’t sure what he believed any more.

For weeks, he cried constantly. He had lost whole patches of memory. When he finally healed, after about a month, he had a thought about life — or, rather, the afterlife. The thought was: There is no afterlife. “After the bike crash,” Campolo says, “I was like, ‘A, this is it, and B, you don’t know how much of it you’ve got.’ ”

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. “When I took off on the bicycle that day,” Campolo says, “the supernaturalism in my faith was dialed so far down you could barely notice it.” 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. In post-Revolution France, with its Enlightenment antipathy toward the church, the philosopher Auguste Comte created the Religion of Humanity, which had three pillars (altruism, order and progress), nine sacraments (including marriage, retirement and “separation,” a sort of secular Last Rites) and a priesthood. Comte had admirers, including George Eliot, but almost no practitioners. In 1876, nearly 20 years after Comte’s death, Felix Adler founded the New York Society of Ethical Culture, which taught Judaism as one of the many guides to secular ethics. Today there are 22 Ethical Culture societies in the United States, ten of them in or around New York City.

In the United States, since World War II, atheist activism has been located mainly in local skeptics’ clubs, whose members also gravitated toward science fiction and other walks of geek life. The clubs developed a culture of conferences: hotel-ballroom events with lots of men attending mostly-male panels, followed by book signings.

Over the last 30 years or so, these conferences have grown in tandem with the rise of the Christian right and megachurch evangelicalism, as atheists sought comfort in a parallel world. Best-selling authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens drew huge crowds at these “cons.” In their books, lectures and television appearances, these atheists preach an uncompromising scientism, exalt Darwin and barely conceal a sentiment that believers deserve mockery or, if one is feeling generous, pity.

To this day, atheist gatherings remain overwhelmingly male, and public perception of the movement has been tainted by a steady drip of misogynistic episodes: harassment of female attendees at the conventions; online trolling of those who have spoken out against the sexism; and the notorious tweets of Dawkins, the British biologist whose 2006 book, “The God Delusion,” has become the bible of many young atheists. (One example, from 2014: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knife point is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.”)

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.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Mark Oppenheimer

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