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).
SURE, SOME PROGRESSIVES DO ABANDON FAITH
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).
CONSERVATISM SENDS SOME PEOPLE TOWARD ATHEISM TOO
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.
FIGHTING FOR FAITH IN EITHER CAMP
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.