Fundamentalist Christians will sometimes warn that any deviation from historic evangelical beliefs (however small) is a stepping stone toward full-blown atheism. In other words, Christians must accept that hell is eternal, the Bible is inerrant and God created everything in six literal 24 hour days. If you remove any of these doctrines, it won’t be long before you’re denying your faith altogether!
Younger evangelicals like myself tend to reject this way of thinking. We see legitimate room to differ on how to interpret doctrines like creation and sovereignty. It's often only the core creedal statements about the existence of God and Christ's resurrection or divinity which are non-negotiable. Whether because of pressure from culture, or an honest re-reading of scripture, we’re susceptible to changing our minds on other doctrines that previous generations of Christians have held dear.
But what’s surprising is it turns out our older fundamentalist friends aren’t the only people who think progressive Christianity can be a stepping stone to atheism. At least one atheist agrees with this theory!
Bart Campolo’s story
Tony Campolo’s son Bart is well known for his rejection of the Christian faith. Although he doesn’t like the term 'atheist', he no longer believes in God and currently works as a Humanist Chaplain.
Speaking on a recent episode of the 'Holy Heretics' podcast, Bart explained his journey away from Christianity began when he was exposed to urban poverty.
“It messed with my theology,” he explains. “I had a theology that said God could intervene and do stuff.” But after a period of unanswered prayer, Bart admits: “I had to change my understanding of God. Sovereignty had to get dialed down a bit.”
Campolo admitted that changing his view of God’s sovereignty was “the beginning of the end” of his faith. Why?
“Because once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression. So over the course of the next 30 years…my ability to believe in a supernatural narrative or a God who intervenes and does anything died a death of a thousand unanswered prayers”.
Campolo continued: “I passed through every stage of heresy. It starts out with sovereignty goes, then biblical authority goes, then I’m a universalist, now I’m marrying gay people. Pretty soon I don’t actually believe Jesus actually rose from the dead in a bodily way.”
How Christians become atheists
Campolo doesn’t think he’s a special case. On the contrary, he believes the current world of ‘progressive Christianity’ (what he calls “the ragged edge” of Christianity) is heading towards full-blown unbelief. Speaking during the Wild Goose Festival (the American version of Greenbelt) Bart was clear: “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.”
Campolo is predicting that as many as 40% of progressive Christians will become atheists over the next decade. In his view, the process of abandoning Christian doctrines is almost addictive. Once you start, you don’t know where to stop. It might begin with “dialing down” your view of God’s sovereignty, but it could easily end with unbelief.
“When you get to this ragged edge of Christianity when people say ‘God’ they sort of mean ‘the universe’ and when they say ‘Jesus’ they sort of mean ‘redemption’ – they’re so progressive they don’t actually count on any supernatural stuff to happen, they’ve dialed it down in the same way I did.”
When Campolo changed his theology to match his experience, it was the beginning of the end
Bart says he’s “skipped over” the “progressive re-vamping” of Christianity and gone straight to the logical conclusion that God doesn’t exist. He reckons that Progressive Christians should stop pretending God exists in the form of “the universe” or other wishy-washy language.
Campolo says there’s a world of podcasts, books, events and more aimed at young evangelicals who are re-thinking historic evangelical doctrines on hell, sovereignty, biblical infallibility, sexuality etc. He believes progressive Christians have plenty of “neat, cool, fuzzy” leaders to follow and cites Rob Bell and Donald Miller as examples. But as a humanist chaplain, Campolo wants to offer similar guidance and help for young people who have rejected the entire concept of God.
“Out there in the world is a growing and increasing number of young people who don’t believe in God…They have no communities or groups. They need chaplains, community builders, songwriters. They need someone to help them define this way of life that makes it possible for them to share with other people.”
What the Church can learn
There’s a lesson for Christians in Campolo’s words. His statement “Once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression” should make all of us think.
The conclusion Campolo came to was if “the reality” in front of you conflicts with your faith, then it’s your faith which is wrong and must change in some way. But there are other explanations. What if your perception of “the reality” is wrong? What if “reality” as you perceive it isn’t the whole truth? Maybe there’s truth beyond what you and I experience.
I would argue that Bart has merely swapped one form of faith for another in embracing the ideology of secular humanism. He confidently states that we came from nowhere and are the chance product of an otherwise meaningless universe. That takes faith to believe. He asserts that since we only have one life then the best way a human can spend it is to maximise the welfare of others. Again, it's an article of faith since this belief of Bart's (and by no means shared universally) is dictated neither by science or logic.
I believe that any affinity we find in ourselves for love, goodness, beauty and truth aren't an accidental byproduct of an undirected evolutionary process but signs within us of the image of the God that Bart no longer believes in. I would argue that God is real both when I do experience him and when I don’t experience him. My subjective experience doesn’t lessen the objective reality.
When Campolo changed his theology to match his experience, it was the beginning of the end. This should serve as a warning to Christians, whether progressives or not. Adjusting your theology to match your experience might sound like an attractive idea, but it isn’t always as wise as it might sound.
Plenty of progressive evangelicals will balk at what Campolo is implying. They’ll argue they’re a million miles away from atheism. But perhaps there’s two equal and opposite dangers. Perhaps conservative evangelicals run the risk of being needlessly dogmatic on some issues, thereby alienating the next generation, while progressives are in danger of giving up so much historic doctrine that their faith is starting to look more like Campolo’s humanism than historic Christianity.
Faith stripped of its fundamentals is looking increasingly anaemic. But perhaps that has always been the case. Bart Campolo believes his newly-embraced 'godless religion' of humanism allows him to love people better than his Christian faith did. That may be true for Bart, but in practise most of the good that gets done in the world is carried out by people who believe there's a God who made a world worth saving.
As CS Lewis put it: "If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next”. Unusual beliefs about heaven, hell and eternity didn't stop Christians from righting wrongs in this world. Quite the opposite! So if progressive Christians want to get on with serving the poor and loving our neighbours, then history implies they should continue to hold fast to historic Christian doctrines - including the ones which are unpalatable to some in today's Western culture.