Leaving Religion—for ‘Religion’

Tom Flynn

Why I Left / Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son, by Tony Campolo and Bart Campolo (San Francisco: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017, ISBN 978-0062415370). 160 pp. Hardcover, $24.99.

If you’re going to move to a strange country, it never hurts to learn the language. The failure to do so by Bart Campolo, who did the moving, and his father Tony Campolo, who ought to have known better, seats a profound error at the heart of Why I Left / Why I Stayed. It is an otherwise valuable short book.

Tony Campolo is a sociologist, a liberal evangelical Baptist pastor, a best-selling author, a social-justice activist, and a onetime spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton. He is progressive enough (by Baptist standards) to have once been informally tried for heresy. Bart Campolo is Tony’s son. For decades a near-theological clone of his father, Bart lost his faith in middle age. Though now an explicit naturalist and nontheist, he retains his commitment to ministry, serving as humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California (USC).

It was on Thanksgiving 2014 that Bart broke the news to his parents that he no longer believed in God. An encounter that could have sparked recrimination led instead to dialogue and ultimately to this book. Tony and Bart write alternating chapters, presenting contrasting views of the issues that divide them and their interpretations of one another’s stances. They coauthor the closing chapter.

Their breezy style should ring familiar if one has read any of the brisk “uplift” books by, say, Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. It’s clearly aimed first at Christian believers searching for guidance when a family member or close friend gives up the faith—as must be increasingly common when the fastest-growing religious orientation is “None.” The book’s secondary target is Christians on the brink of abandoning their faiths. Even so, humanist and atheist readers can find much of interest in this volume.

But, oh, that error.

Father and son, the Campolos agree on two major things. The first is hard to argue with: “Love is the most excellent way.” This principle, too often marginalized in judgmental evangelical rhetoric, is why the Campolos kept their lines of communication open. The second thing on which they agree, unfortunately, embodies that profound error I mentioned. Bart declares that “secular humanism is my religion.” Tony, too, describes his son as a secular humanist, yet also as “spiritual but not religious.” Bart writes of “secular spirituality” and describes his ministry at USC as serving “post-Christians” who “missed the music. They missed the hymn sings and potluck dinners. . . . In other words, they missed the church.” On the same page, Bart credits Harvard humanist chaplain Greg Epstein’s book God without God as introducing him to “the logic and language of secular humanism.”

Epstein’s 2009 book has many virtues, as I said when I reviewed it (FI, February/March 2010). But no one should regard it as an introduction to secular humanism. Good without God launched, pardon the expression, a revival of religious Humanism, from which soon emerged a third major strain of organized humanism: congregational humanism. Congregational humanism retains a focus on the communal life echoing that of a church or synagogue congregation but explicitly denies that it is in any meaningful way religious.

Properly understood, secular human­ ism stands in contrast to all of this. While all humanists share a naturalistic viewpoint and a conviction that human needs and interests are uniquely mor­ ally compelling, secular humanists see their life stance as separated both from dogma and from the currents of congregational life. They are as deeply repelled by ritual and the sub­ mersion of the individual into a usually unchosen community as they are by supernaturalism and calls for blind faith. Secular humanists neither seek out ministers nor minister to others in a clerical style. They grasp that there is no such thing as spirit or “being spiritual.” They see Bart Campolo’s claim that “secular humanism is my religion” as an oxymoron; after all, secular humanism not only rejects all religions but rejects religion itself, cat­ egorically.

Secular humanism can never be a religion itself. It is what people who live without religion do instead.

Both Campolos are deeply intel­ligent and highly educated. Having been motivated to pen a book largely by Bart’s turn to humanism, why couldn’t one of them—or at worst, some enterprising editor at HarperOne—have explored human­ ist sources to see what key terms in movement parlance really mean? (They might have begun with Free Inquiry’s October/November 2013 cover feature setting forth the dis­tinctions between secular humanism, religious Humanism, and the then­ new phenomenon of congregational humanism, to which Greg Epstein and I, among others, contributed.)

Bart Campolo is simply, thump­ ingly, not a secular humanist. The question is whether he should properly be considered a religious Humanist or a congregational humanist. The fact that Bart claims to have a reli­ gion (never mind, for now, that the religion he claims to have is a non­ religion) lends preliminary weight to the proposition that he might be a religious Humanist. But he writes at length—and I must say, with pellucid clarity—about what he now believes. His worldview is solidly naturalistic and eschews any resort to assent beyond the evidence. Though he accepts the reality and psychological power of so­called “transcendental” experiences, he understands them naturalistically. His testimony, to bor­ row an evangelical term, is uncompro­ misingly nonreligious.

I conclude that Bart is a not a religious Humanist but rather a con­ gregational humanist. Surely it would not have unduly burdened either him or his father to say so!

Its mistreatment of secular human­ ism aside, the book has many virtues. Bart’s chapters constitute one of the most powerful accounts one will read anywhere of how it feels, from both the intellectual and emotional per­ spectives, to jettison one’s faith and embrace life without religion. For their part, Tony’s chapters evince a sincere and compassionate effort to under­ stand Bart’s unbelief, albeit from an unwaveringly faithful perspective.

But Tony’s writing also presents some of the weaknesses and contra­ dictions that plague liberal evangel­ icalism. For example, his speculative effort to reconcile the mysteries of the Crucifixion with modern sensitivities leads him to combine Kierkegaardian existentialism with Einstein’s theory of relativity (yes, really), with pre­ dictably absurd results. Thanks to a time­dilation effect somehow linked to Jesus’s divinity, the poor man­god is always writhing on his cross—eter­ nally available at the most lurid peak of his agonies for Tony to dump sins onto, or just for Tony’s contemplation before drifting off to the sleep of the just. In this bizarre, imagined con­ tinuum, it’s always Good Friday (or Groundhog Day). It’s all quite appall­ ing—but amazingly, it arose out of Tony’s effort to find a more palatable way of understanding the Crucifixion than the traditional dogma of sub­ stitutionary atonement, which many (Bart among them) find too cruel.

Despite such lacunae, Why I Left / Why I Stayed is intriguing and in many ways worthwhile. What it is not, how­ ever, is a book about abandoning evangelical Christianity for secular humanism.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Review of Why I Left / Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son, by Tony Campolo and Bart Campolo.

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