Hey Bart, progressive Christians aren’t the only ones on the road to atheism

You might have seen various conservative Christian bloggers and websites reporting on Bart Campolo’s recent announcement that progressive Christians are on the road toward atheism.

Bart Campolo is a “humanist chaplain” at the University of Southern California, where he says he inspires and supports non-believers to “band together to actively pursue goodness in an openly secular way”.  In a recent podcast and an interview, he made the claim that so-called progressive Christianity is merely a doorway to unbelief.

This was Campolo’s own journey, at least. The son of well-known evangelical leader, Tony Campolo, Bart says he started tweaking his theology to account for the poverty and suffering he encountered in urban ministry. When his prayers for the poor went unanswered, he eventually rejected the whole idea of an interventionist god, which in turn led to his flirtation with progressive Christianity.

But rather than providing a way to remain a Christian, progressive Christianity was the doorway toward his current atheism.

Campolo explained, “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.”

But Campolo wasn’t only reflecting on his own experience. He thinks progressive Christianity is the last stop on the journey away of faith for many Christians.

Indeed, he claims that 30-40% of those who currently claim to be progressive Christians will become atheists in the near future (although how he comes up with that formula is unclear).



Progressive Christianity is a tricky thing to define, and pinning down a list of progressive Christian beliefs is tough. As a loose movement it draws together mainline Protestants, emergent Christians, and post-evangelicals. Generally, progressives are assumed to have a big emphasis on social justice and care for the poor, an acceptance of human diversity, and a commitment to ecology as an act of stewardship. This leads to a focus on promoting values such as compassion, justice, mercy, and tolerance, often through political activism.

The differences between progressive Christianity and liberal Christianity aren’t easy to distinguish either. Some progressives, while leaning to the left politically, can be quite theologically conservative.

In other words, the definitions aren’t very clear.

Nonetheless, I’ve known many people who have found themselves on the same trajectory as Bart Campolo, landing briefly on a kind of progressive Christianity as the last stop before giving the whole religious faith thing away altogether. Campolo’s description of abandoning prayer, then rejecting God’s sovereignty, before renegotiating belief in biblical authority, embracing universalism, and eventually identifying as an atheist isn’t unheard of.

And that trajectory only confirms all those conservative evangelical leaders’ dire warnings that any deviation from historic doctrines is a slippery slope toward atheism.

Don’t listen to Rob Bell, they warn. Don’t read Brian McLaren. Don’t follow Rachel Held Evans on twitter. Don’t attend the Wild Goose festival.

Believe in eternal suffering in hell, embrace inerrancy and six-day creation, practice complementarianism, reject homosexuality, and stay away from social justice because it will divert you from evangelism. If you abandon any of these core beliefs it will send you on a tailspin toward a shipwrecked faith (yeah, I know I mixed my metaphors there, but hey it’s not my argument).



The fact is, though, that I’ve also known just as many people who have rejected religious faith after being burned by Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. Raised in homes where any kind of healthy scepticism or genuine questioning is shut down as ungodly doubt, some young conservatives buckle quickly when they leave home and encounter the first meaningful objections to their faith.

The numbers of young adults abandoning faith in college can be partly attributed to this. Extreme conservatism can make its adherents as vulnerable to unbelief as progressive Christianity.

Recently, I was speaking to one former conservative Christian who is barely holding on to her faith. She told me that recent events like the support for Donald Trump by conservative evangelicals, and the rise of “Christian” white supremacists, had rocked her belief. In a short space of time she went from strong believer to questioning a religion she felt was racist, misogynistic, homophobic and incompatible with democracy.

And this woman isn’t an isolated case. Many younger conservatives are becoming repulsed by the gospel of individual salvation they grew up on. They embraced it as children because it told them they were special and loved by God, but in adulthood they discovered its outworkings included a functional ethic of acquisitive individualism that has had devastating social consequences. Unable to understand their faith aside from the “Jesus and Me” theology of their childhood some abandon it altogether.



Frankly, I don’t think we can conclude that either conservatism nor liberalism will inherently incline you toward atheism. I know many devoted, kind, beautiful, lifelong liberals and conservatives. They have flourished in their respective faith traditions and remain generative, humble souls, seeking earnestly to serve God and others.

While some people make very intentional and open-eyed steps from faith toward atheism, I think the common theme to the loss of faith among many progressives and conservatives is laziness.

The laziness of conservatism is the refusal to do the hard work of interpreting Scripture beyond a literal reading. There’s a fear that if we take seriously any objections to our beliefs we will be led astray. It’s easier to outsource the hard work of understanding the Bible, tradition, and scholarship to our preferred preachers. That way we don’t have to think for ourselves. And not thinking for yourself is the ultimate form of laziness.

And the laziness of progressive Christianity lies in the mistaken assumption that rethinking old positions always leads to letting beliefs go. When a belief gets tough to hold in the face of personal experience there’s value in fighting for it, rather than simply abandoning it. You might modify beliefs or rethink your experience. But rethinking faith shouldn’t always lead to letting it go.

In his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James says religious people can find themselves in one of two categories: “once-born” and “twice-born”. The once-born coast through life untroubled by circumstance. Nothing has challenged their faith. It’s still simple, untested, one-dimensional.

But James was particularly interested in the twice-born souls. They are people who nearly lose their faith but regain it, but their faith is now very different from the kind they nearly lost. To fight for faith – to double down on your study of the Bible, to re-engage with spiritual disciplines, to submit to spiritual direction, to seek after God – produces a new kind of faith. The twice-born (whether they started as progressives or conservatives) discover a richer, more robust faith than the version they lazily considered abandoning.

Harold Kushner, the rabbi who nearly lost his faith after the death of his son, wrote of the twice-born this way:

Instead of seeing a world flooded with sunshine, as the once-born always do, they see a world where the sun struggles to come out after the storm but always manages to reappear. Theirs is a less cheerful, less confident, more realistic outlook. God is no longer the parent who keeps them safe and dry; He is the power that enables them to keep going in a stormy and dangerous world. And like the bone that breaks and heals stronger at the broken place, like the string that is stronger where it broke and was knotted, it is a stronger faith than it was before, because it has learned it can survive the loss of faith.

Progressives might be sliding leftwards out of faith, while conservatives slip out of the fold to the right, but there’s a place closer to the center where the twice-born can draw strength from each other, urging each other on to the fight for faith, and the discipline of our convictions.

When conservatives gloat that Bart Campolo thinks progressive Christianity leads to atheism they are being blind to the dangers of unreflective conservatism and unhelpful to those progressives yearning to discover a twice-born faith of their own.



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22 thoughts on “Hey Bart, progressive Christians aren’t the only ones on the road to atheism

  1. As a Christian who was converted by a triune God outside of the church and then drawn into Christian community there might be another way. The extremes of belief either conservative or progressive help if we use then reflectively. I did appreciate your comment that laziness is the undoing of faith commitment. Where I was lucky was as part of my conversion experiences was a call to ministry that was heard by the church and so led to a very young faith being tested in the academy very early on. God is not only at work in the church but in the world as I can atest. Yes laziness in anything leads to a loss of skill , art, conviction….. thank you this thought has given me much to think about.

    1. Thank you, Ann. All our journeys are different and unique. Thanks for sharing part of yours with us.

  2. Wonderful article Mike. Encouraging and much appreciated.

  3. can i just add and Amen to your article, thank you for summarizing the steps to my own faith built in adversity and questioning

  4. Hey mike I really appreciated this article. I also loved the thought that laziness is the root cause. Not sure I fully agree…yet. What is striking to me is that when people let go of faith it is often in reaction to something…a circumstance, a person, an experience. The most troubling part of all of this is the lack of places to have genuine conversations within the church about the painful and disconcerting process of being twice-born. Craig

    1. I agree that not all moves away from faith are lazy. Some people make open-eyed and intentional steps to abandon religious faith (Bart Campolo might be an example). But for many others the loss of faith can be an unconscious drift, an unintentional letting go. I definitely agree with your point about the need for places to have genuine conversation about the process of being twice-born.

      1. Thanks for that comment Michael. I have recently come back to God after 10 years of committed atheism. It is really difficult to find those places to have those deep conversations to work through all my conflict thoughts.

      2. Thanks Mike and commenters who with for a safe space to talk within the church. The danger is …who is leading that conversation. If the wrong leader leads or has an ego to be so unique and different.. so leads people further from the truth, it could be worse. this a very tough subject and time to live in spiritually…but Jesus said it would get this way until only a remnant is left. The good news is He is the Truth as is His Word and to hunker down studying it will help anyone. If we pray and ask God to show us the Truth, He promises He will. He also promised the gates of hell will not win this battle. Thank God for you as I often confront these issues speaking with people, but you are an eloquent speaker of truth on these issues. Stay true, brother.

  5. Mike, I think the theme of laziness might well contribute to the departure from faith, but I see a larger cultural influence in the picture; egocentrism, “me-ism,” or self-centeredness. What you are talking about on both ends of the spectrum is a lack of humility, steadfastness, endurance and tenacity that is vital to following Christ. I believe this shift in belief has more to do with a lack of fully understanding the cruciform nature of following Jesus and grasping the enormity of the Kingship of Jesus Christ.

    I believe people are leaving the faith because they have been sold a cheap faith and they don’t really understand or internalize the gospel. Most people think Jesus came to save them—personally—from sin so they can go to heaven some day. Jesus’ gospel is much bigger than that. Jesus came for the redemption of the entire cosmos. AND He has invited us to join Him in living a difficult life, contrary to the world around us… who would think that would be easy?! Hard work and tenacity are woven into being a disciple of our King and savior Jesus Christ. And when we fully understand that then leaving the faith over current political issues or equality issues just doesn’t make sense.

    We all need pray the mantra set long ago, “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.”

    I think this is more of a gospel fluency/praxis issue, and/or serious theological miscommunication and understanding issue more than laziness.

    1. Yeah, I might not have explained it clearly (I try to keep these posts down to under 1000 words), but by ‘laziness’ I meant the disinterest in struggling through the very issues you raise. As you say (nicely), following Jesus requires humility, steadfastness, endurance and tenacity.

      1. Got it! 🙂

      2. Agreed. There are also so many pastors engaging in sinful lifestyles, many who are narcissists fed by all the attention and sometimes fame and power of leading that it is completing confusing and discrediting the faith…i.e., the deeper or real commitment to faith and loss of self is waning. “We must decrease, Jesus must increase” mentality is rare in church leadership and people, believers and unbelievers, see this…..and are disgusted, confused and just turn away…lazy or discontented without enough energy to fight for the faith or the truth, especially if those leading don’t have it to offer.

  6. Thanks once again for your reflection Mike and I found the comments enlightening too.

  7. This somewhat describes my journey. I found mainstream Christianity wanting and experimenting with increasingly progressive varieties. Ultimately what I had left – the only way I could find a faith that stood up to scrutiny – was so watered down as to be effectively meaningless.

    In regards to laziness, I did start reading and researching, but decided in the end it was all a storm in a tea cup, people talking a lot about something that didn’t seem to really matter, very academic arguments. So ultimately my exit was a kind of calculated semi-lazy one.

    Anyway I appreciate your post!

  8. Thanks Michael. Helpful reflections.
    I consider growth and ongoing maturity to necessitate a kind of moving beyond previously held beliefs. This does not need to end in atheism – but the move from what I once believed and the delay in working out my new way of holding things may rightly be described as a moved to/through atheism. Relinquishing what we once held dear in order to believe in new ways is a thing!

  9. Hey Mike, I have been thinking on this a bit more and I do have some thoughts to bounce off you. Is it possible that the “leap from faith” has to do with societal/cultural issues that are a bit deeper than they appear? I think consumerism has a large influence on the exit from church. If people are always asking, “what’s in it for me?” and they don’t feel as though whatever brand of Christianity they have chosen is working for them, then they leave. Or perhaps individualism, if someone in the “collective” group demonstrates a behavior or ethic that is distasteful, then why not jump ship?

    I get concerned a bit when we allow the behaviors of other Christians to define and form how we display the love and heart of Jesus to the world around us. If someone is a white supremacist, and calls himself or herself a Christian, I do not fold or give up, but work all the harder for the people I interact with to see Jesus’ heart in everything I do. If someone is ethically and morally irresponsible and calls himself or herself a Christian, I work all the harder to have people understand that the image of God is imprinted on each and every living soul and I choose to honor that.

    I guess I just don’t get giving up on Jesus. I will say, that I grapple long and hard with my faith and test it often. I am a cynical misfit who is not afraid to bring my doubts before the Almighty Creator. And I do agree with you, Mike, that untested faith is weak and wonky. On the contrary, a faith that is honest and pure should have times of serious contemplation, doubt and questioning. So, maybe it IS laziness that causes folks to say, “no thanks to Christianity,” but I believe that laziness is brought about partly by certain cultural norms like consumerism and individualism that so permeate the Western world.

    …I may very well be wrong!

  10. Thank you. The commonality in what you termed “progressive” and “conservative” is that both exercise a faith where God is not free. In both, God is subject to the frames of whatever foundation or worldview serves as background to God’s foreground action. A considerable amount of conservative weltanschauung is merely a popularized form of scientific anthropology from the first half of the 20th century, not anything that fell from the heavens. Progressives are much better at adapting to changes in these background structures, but give them an undue authority–progressives are just hip foundationalists.

    What is really needed is a doctrine of creation where Jesus Christ is really its Lord. He is free to inhabit worldviews and even utilize them, but not be subject to them. By their very nature, our understanding of cosmological structures, from subatomic particles to the far expanses of space, is all provisional. God is free to use our provisionality to serve the heavenly purposes of Jesus Christ (just read Genesis 1–a Babylonian worldview is utilized, exhausted, and then discarded once it has served God’s purposes in narrating the creation).

    As someone once said, “The options are Karl Barth or Bart Ehrman (or I guest Bart Campolo has the right name as well)–if the thinking evangelical does not read or comprehend the former then he or she will most certainly become the latter.”

  11. Thanks Mike. From the time I first read The Shaping of Things to Come you have been able to put into words what my spirit is saying to me. This article describes and illuminates my own ongoing journey through conservative belief to a resilient faith. I’ve had to struggle through the issues you mention, but you encourage me to keep going wherever it leads. It might all make sense in the end.

  12. Mike, appreciate this article, especially the insights of James and Kushner. I very much agree with Craig and the need for space in our faith communities for authentic conversations about faith struggles. There are people in any church at any point in time who are ‘wrestling with God’ and their struggles are not necessarily just theological. Advice to ‘get over it’ communicates that the struggle itself is somehow wrong, shuts down the conversation and leads to massive loneliness. As one friend commented recently: “if I’d lost a limb, it’s more likely that people would have some patience with me.”

    As people of the Book, we recite the Psalms of lament and cries of ‘why God why’. We retell stories of patriarchs and prophets who spent time in caves, wadis, wildernesses, pits and prison cells. We retell stories of people of God wrestling with God and his ways. If Scripture gives space to the struggles of great people, then there’s a place for us to give space to the struggles of the great people in our midst.

    A critical verse for me, in re-claiming faith, was Isaiah 42:3. It was grasping that when I felt like a fragile bruised reed and a smoldering wick, God didn’t despise me but gave me hope by promising to faithfully bring forth justice. God doesn’t “come in after the battle and bayonet the wounded”. The journey to being ‘twice-born’ is often slow and will not necessarily happen in isolation from others. Maybe, as faith communities, we need to discover a discipline of imitating God by gently binding each other’s wounds and patiently fanning faith back to a full flame.

  13. Its strange that some just assume that Athiesm needs to be the final denstination and not just another step on a journey of faith.

  14. Late to the game here, but found your article and resonate with the observations and reflections. Thank You for your writing them here. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist Christian church and primary school, attended a very liberal university, and graduated from a moderate evangelical seminary, decades in my Faith has brought me an open-eyed realization that there is very little honesty, i.e. truth, in regards to errors, lack of archaeology, or humble admission of sin in the Church overall, as well troubling matters pertaining to the Bible. { EX: Why on earth would Protestants have the nerve to delete The Apocrypha from the Bible? } I committed the “sin” of using my own reason and common sense to surmise that some passages in the Scriptures are troubling and/or outright at its face, perhaps, evil? I either have to firmly re-frame the Bible as fundamentally tainted and flawed by human minds/hands OR completely unlearn who I thought “God” was. Or both.

    I digress. I’ve had my moments where I wondered if I should logically identify as Atheist, but I truly don’t find that “leap” convincing, though…I, like Bart, have changed opinion on hell, the Bible, homosexuality, God. Part of the problem is that I’ve been royally burned by Conservatives who are proud and scared to truthfully admit their doubts and sins, really. Yet, I am fully turned off by Progressives who one-dimensionally pigeonhole Jesus into Socialism. I can understand why Christians voted for Trump, and did not. Both sides are often rather narrow-minded extremists, to be frank.

    And my closer Christian friends are too scared to relate with me in my Journey. They’d rather hide in fake “miracles” and superstitions while interacting with their own idea of “God” that is not too well thought out. They let teachers and preachers do their thinking for them, and of course, don’t admit to it. Net result: It can be rough striving for intellectual dishonesty when “Christians” choose to lie. I thought lying was a sin. Alas, we all have our lists of what sins are bad, and which are ok. Further digression.

    If there is any way to connect with like-minded individuals here, it would be a “godsend”. 😉

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