Bart Campolo’s De-conversion
We’re in a cultural moment when many people are leaving an overt religious commitment either for a looser spirituality or non-theism entirely. A high profile example of this has been Bart Campolo, the son of a famous evangelist. A few years ago Bart “came out” as a non-theistic humanist to his family explaining why he still strives for his version of the common good but no longer believes in God or the Christian story. This interview done by the Christian organization Youth Specialities will give you a sense of the conversation.
He became a “humanist chaplain” at USC and has been counseling people to appreciate how amazing life is and how to enjoy it to the fullest.
Good Without God
He reflects quite openly on his conversion and then his de-conversion. He understands both in terms of a social and psychological process. He became a Christian as a early teen he says because he was surrounded by a lot of other good people who wanted to make an impact for good in this world. After decades of trying to bring shalom to the poor of the inner city he decided he didn’t need the story of Jesus or the stuff of the Bible to do this work. He believed it would all go better without all the religious baggage.
He came to the conclusion that these religious beliefs were things that you pick up as a function of your upbringing. If you’re raised in an Islamic household you’ll probably become a Muslim and if you’re raised in a Christian household or get in with a bunch of good Christian people you’ll probably find their stories and ways of thinking to be compelling and you’ll be like them. So he decided that these religious categories were unnecessary attachments and that in fact he could be a better person and do more good in the world without all these things that sometimes create walls and barriers between people and organizations.
This is a common story and one that you’ll find many people telling and embracing. One of the things that is seldom noticed in the telling of the story is that the person who steps out of the group they were raised an or indoctrinated into implicitly portrays themselves as the exception to the norm. While HE was raised a Christian he changed his mind and has “broken out” of that confining or un-examined or mindlessly assumed tribe and through his own insight, clarity or overcoming moral effort transcended the tribes and now sort of lives above it all.
We might as a matter of fact tell the story in a different way that he has in fact simply become subject to yet another example of sociology-of-knowledge-tribal-group and has been indoctrinated by the new tribe, the non-theistic humanists that believe his way and joined them. In other words he hasn’t necessarily left the confines of limited information or a smaller world for a larger one (as the story implicitly imagines) but rather simply switched rooms from one set of beliefs to another. In other words if you imagine you became a Christian because good, winsome and influential people around you were Christians and connected their attractive community and behavior with their Christianity, might it not also be the case that you have become a non-theistic humanist because you met good, winsome and influential people around you who were non-theistic humanists and you wanted to migrate your identity towards them.
Most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as adult subjects of sociological forces. We like to imagine ourselves as elevated and enlightened choosers of identities that have the independence, wisdom and good judgement to choose the good, the right and the truth against the claims competing for our attention and allegiance. We are, however, comfortable imagining that those of other identities and belief systems are subject to those sociological forces and therefore, less than ourselves, bound to those systems and in some ways innocent of some of the wrongs that those systems have brought upon them.
God Judging Among the Victims of Sociology
It is often the case when we imagine the Christian story where at the end of our lives or the end of time God will judge us according to what we have done with our lives, we like to say things like “Well God won’t certainly hold the religious beliefs of competing religions against them. Weren’t they victims of their own sociology of knowledge? Would it be right for God to just a person raised in a Muslim country for not being a Christian?”
This is a find an worthy point and there are parts of the Bible like Paul’s sermon in Athens that very much afford this kind of consideration.
Do we really fully buy into the sociology of knowledge defense of right and wrong?
We should also, however, note that neither we nor the Bible generally take that point all the way to its logical conclusions. We will agree that one’s assumptions about good, bad, right and wrong are surely influenced and sometimes even determined by your context growing up, we tend to give a pass to people for it, but not always and not for anything.
For example, if you grew up in American slave states before the Civil War you would likely think that enslaving people on the basis of the melanin in their skin was the right thing to do. You might even find justification for it in your Bible based on the curse of Ham, even though there is zero connection in the Bible between skin color and the curse of Ham.
Now most people don’t go all the way Bart Campolo does. Most people persistently continue to believe in God, or the universe, of the gods, or a higher power, or something like the force that pervades reality, etc. and they think nothing of invoking this spiritual reality to get them to ally with them in whatever endeavor they are pursuing according to their own lights as to what they consider “good”.
Now let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves, “does this scheme really work? Should we call this scheme good? If there actually IS a ‘higher power’ in the universe that is good should this being go along with our project? Should this being go along with our project unconditionally, meaning that this being always say ‘yes’ to our requests giving us what we want?”
What Americans Mostly Believe when it comes to Religion and Morality
A number of years ago a sociologist named Christian Smith surveyed young people across the religious spectrum and found that they in fact shared a moral and religious matrix. He entitled this moralistic, therapeutic deism and you’ve heard me talk about it often.
Part of what he discovered is that Americans hold two contradictory views when it comes to these kinds of ideas.
Rule 1: American believe, as does Bart Campolo that our religious and ethical beliefs are constructed by the groups we are raised into and inhabited. Because of this there is a sort of a sort of presumption of moral innocence when it comes to judging people of other cultures. God shouldn’t condemn the Muslim person or the Hindu person for having the wrong religion. It’s not their fault, they were a victim of an accident of history, born in the wrong time and place.
Rule 2: The other belief American have is that moral ideas are self-evident and common-sensical. You don’t need a God or a book or an expert to tell you right from wrong. You probably got it from your parents but “everyone knows” when something is right or wrong. It’s just obvious. Even on questions that have flipped in very recent history we still hold that whatever we position we hold is simply the obvious choice.
Even though “it was just obvious” in 2011 for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that two people of the same sex can’t get married it became “just obvious” the other way after 2012 and 2013 respectively.
Even though “it’s just obvious” that intentionally ending a pregnancy is murder for some people “it’s just obvious” that every woman should have the right to do what she wants with her own body with others.
This is part of the reason certain debates simply seem intractable in American politics because both sides are claiming “it’s just obvious” when its pretty clear that people differ. If we ask why they differ they appeal to Rule 1 but they nuance it by declaring that in this case “moral innocence” status may not apply.
Let’s run a thought experiment with frames of reference.
Let’s imagine someone grew up in a Muslim household in a poor part of the world and they were led to believe that the forces of globalization were destroying their communities morally, culturally and economically. Let’s imagine that these are deeply religious people who believe that it is wrong to objectify women so in their cultures they have rather strict female dress codes so as to not excite lust among men who are visually stimulated. Let’s imagine that the globalized commercial forces of media are projecting programs like “Baywatch” into the houses of their youth corrupting them morally and that the governments of these countries are seen as dupes of the corrupting commercial interests collaborating in corrupting their culture and their way of life. It’s not hard to understand how a violent response to this perceived evil is justified and how such acts are often accompanied with religious cries such as “God is Greater!”
If I say it this way you all understand I’m talking about what we call “terrorism” and do you imagine Bart Campolo would be for it?
No he’s be against it, as would most of us. But does this work with Bart Campolo’s system of being out there for the greater good and that you don’t need revelation to know and do that?
But wait, this is about to get a whole lot stranger.
Let’s ponder for a moment the odds of actually being killed in a terrorist attack in America. Look at this chart.
Earlier this week there was an attack in NYC by a guy driving a rented Home Depot truck. Eight were killed and others injured. While he was attacking he was heard yelling “God is Greater!” in Arabic and everyone understood that to mean that he was motivated by this culture war against his people and religion and this attack was designed to strike “terror” into us and to force us to close down our society.
Right away when an attack like this happens the big question is “is this terrorism?” Again we understand terrorism to mean that the point of the attack is to instill fear on the general public and to disrupt our way of life with that fear. The Mayor and the President, regardless of the political party will come on TV and say “this will not disrupt our way of life. We won’t let them win” but if you watch nearly all the news coverage you get the distinct impression by the graphics, the tone of urgency by the news people, the pictures of wounded and crying people, that the TV new really does want us to feel fear and to have the fear motivate us to watch more. They want us to watch more because the more we watch higher their ratings and the more money they make. We might be led to imagine that the TV news and this poor guy from the Islamic world are together in some strange conspiracy and the real winner of the conspiracy is the news media. The country the guy comes from gets a travel ban or maybe invaded or bombed or something, and the news people get high Western salaries, bonuses, and those of us who have stock in companies like Disney that owns ABC News get dividends and more money for retirement.
How would the scenario have been different if the guy driving the Home Depot truck had yelling “Lowes is Greater!” in English instead of “God is Greater” in Arabic? He’d likely be characterized as a nut instead of a terrorist.
Given that smoking contributes the death of way more people than terrorism does in the US how would it be different if the guy at AM/PM said “God is Greater” in Arabic to each customer he sold cigarettes to?
Given that fast food contributes to cancer, stroke and heart disease what if the McDonald’s server said “God is Greater” in Arabic to everyone that bought a burger, Coke and fries?
Our Strange Spirituality
So we on one hand say that all moral and religious beliefs are socially conditioned and so therefore we and God shouldn’t really hold people accountable for them. On the other we say that these beliefs are self-evident and “it’s obvious” and when someone does something wrong, something hurtful, “well that’s just wrong” and we and God should do something about it. Now you might jettison the “god-talk” but it really doesn’t address the problem at all.
Often a big reason that people like Bart Campolo decide they’d rather jettison God is that it all seems easier without God, people who say they believe in God, and especially the Bible. It’s become very fashionable to say “well God in that book really doesn’t come off so well” and in fact, if like me you spend a lot of time reading that book you’ll actually have WAY more examples of it than people who know next to nothing about it but simply dismiss is on their low resolution take from their sociology of knowledge. All the cool people around them feel this way about the Bible so therefore they do to.
The Lord Enables Israel to keep her Cousin Enslaved
Here’s a story that is filled with objections. 2 Kings 3.
The story begins with the vassal state of Moab revolting from its bondage to the more dominant state of Israel under Ahab. Ahab was a strong king and when his second son Joram took over Moab decided to test her slavery. Now when we hear this we automatically thing “well that sounds like a good thing, we’re all about liberation from slavery…” Moab was seen as a sort of cousin to Israel. If you read the book of Genesis Moab is one of the sons of Lot and his daughter in an icky incident after the destruction of Sodom. Israel made claims on Moab. At times Moab made claims on Israel. This was “normal’ life in their moral-cultural world.
So Joram tries to enlist the help of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah. This story is actually told in a way that is designed to remind us of a previous story in 1 Kings 22 where Ahab asks Jehoshaphat for help. The story plays out in the same way that Jehoshaphat basically says “we’re brothers and I’ll go along with you but shouldn’t we ask God for help?”
Now as we’ve seen there’s be a difference here. Joram and the northern kingdom has been more “spiritual but not religious” in that they look for spiritual help and information while the southern kingdom has been more particularist. They insist of asking one God, the LORD for help. It kind of seems sort of like regular semi-religious folks vs religious folks who go to church, synagogue or mosque who have some very definite views about how important it is to God to be particular in this.
Anyway, this actually doesn’t happen in the story until the campaign has gone terribly wrong already, which is usually about the time many in the the “spiritual but not religious” camp as well as the “pray to only one God” camp decides to think about prayer. So they seek out Elisha and he makes the uncomfortable to Joram, again.
In the end, however he says that God will give them success. They will totally dominate Moab, subjugating them again just as they want.
Should God be a part of this? Should we show any allegiance to a God like this or representations of such a God?
But now we pause there to ask ourselves, “Should God be taking sides in this conflict? And shouldn’t God be wanting the liberation of people not their subjugation? Shouldn’t God be on the side of Moab being free from the economics subjugation of their cousin Israel?”
I think Bart Campolo would certainly agree with this as would most Americans who are not biased by their tribal loyalty to their Biblical religion or the Bible. In fact this story is just the kind of story that causes many to pull back and say “see how bad religion is. Here this God is participating, aiding and abetting the subjugation of a sovereign people. A good God would be against this kind of thing or at least be on the side of the oppressed, in other words fighting for Moab. Surely this would be proper morality or ethics!”
Now something funny happens in the story. The drought which had panicked Joram and Jehoshaphat turned into a deluge, so they and their animals had plenty of water to drink, but the Moabites were confused in seeing the water and thought it was blood and that Israel and Judah had somehow been slaughtered and so they cried out “to the plunder!”
Now a minute ago we were tempted to cast the Moabites as innocent victims in this but what we see is that now that the tide seems to have turned they are just as mercenary and interested in my economics welfare at the expense of my Israelite cousins as the other side was. They foolishly charge headlong into the Israelite camp only to be slaughtered. And again our implicit, assumedly self-evident moral compass casts judgment on God for being involved in the entire mess, even though we all know that to call on spiritual powers for good fortune in battle is about as basic and assumed as the whole “no atheist in foxholes” line makes common-sensical.
And then at the end of the story we see one more tidbit that might throw off all the too-easy moral assumptions we’ve been developing. As the armies of Israel and Judah near the fortress of Moab the king of Moab, more spiritual but not religious decides he’ll make on last heroic attempt to get his god or the universe on his side to turn the tide, he sacrifices his own son.
How do you feel about Moab? How about Robert E Lee?
The US has just been having a conversation about confederate war memorials, specifically memorials to Robert E Lee. Should we celebrate a General who fought on the side for the subjugation of people based on the color of their skin.
One side in the argument says it’s simple. Slavery was wrong and therefore who condoned it or tried to perpetuate it should not be celebrated today. Just recently the church where both George Washington and Robert E Lee used to worship took down the plaques noting their family pews.
Now this debate in our press gets immediately politicized and becomes a matter of Democrats and Republicans, those morally pure with respect to racism verses the unenlightened bigots, etc.
The other side of the argument, we should note, adopts the Bart Campolo take on religious morality that if you grew in a context it would be wrong for us, or God to judge you on the beliefs you inherit from your context because all of us are shaped by those beliefs so why should we be judged according to them.
Lee and Washington we should note are particularly interesting figures in this debate because it seems both men had moral qualms about the institution of slavery. Both men intended upon their death to emancipate their slaves. but because of economic considerations and the decisions of his family Washington’s weren’t and Lee’s were because he, of course, lost the war at Gettysburg.
We should also note that even Lincoln while it seems generally opposed to slavery didn’t fight the civil war to free the slaves as much as to save the union. His motivation wasn’t really all that different from Joram’s. Also we should note that Lincoln in the emancipation proclamation only freed the slaves in the rebellious states and didn’t in the border states leading to the complaint about it “where he couldn’t he would, and where he could he wouldn’t”.
Now we easily and readily endorse what some in the south still call “the war or northern aggression” as justifiable because it was done to free the slaves, even only to a very small political group at the time of abolitionists. We’d easily count and desire God to be on our side in this effort, something Lincoln shied away from in one of his greatest speeches at the second inaugural, but we are upset that God would afford the unworthy Northern king Joram victory over Moab who traded in the “spiritual” practice of child sacrifice, something that the nation would employ for better crops, or a better economy, or all the kinds of reasons both the religious and the “spiritual but not religious” employ today.
How Reliable ARE our own Lights?
Now I have just spent the last few minutes putting your moral world in a blender. The complaint often against Christians is that “they think they know the will of God” and that is true. But you don’t need to be religious to think you know right from wrong. That’s the whole point of the “Good without god” camp and the “spiritual but not religious” camp also doesn’t seem to have any trouble asserting what they believe is right and wrong based on their own lights. In fact all of humanity can’t help but act in this world according to their own lights. We all can’t help but approach the world and say “good according to me”.
In fact if we believe in a god or some kind of spiritual reality we imagine that this God not only agrees with us but we call upon him or it to support our efforts in it.
Two World Saving Strategies That come to Mind
As I’ve mentioned before this tends to take a couple of predictable tracks.
One is “kill or marginalize the bad people”. Let’s imagine God says “OK, I’ll read the suggestions you’re putting in the box” and goes ahead with it. That’s essentially the story of Noah’s flood. God saves only the best man on earth and drowns the rest because he looks down to see that the world is full of violence and everyone is basically acting on their self-interest against the interests of their neighbors and this reduces the world to violence. Does that world sound familiar?
Second, let’s say God reaches into his suggestion box once more and picks out “Give the people good laws and rules because otherwise they make up arbitrary ones that simply align with their own self-interests. Then enforce them. So if they do good you bless them and if they do wrong you curse them and bring bad things into their lives.”
God says “ok, karma in other words…”
So God picks a people, rescues them from slavery, because isn’t it the case that former slaves would know the pain of slavery and not dare to subjugate other people into slaver? He sends them into a moral re-programming project out in the desert, maybe not to our standards of morality, but again, Bart Campolo, and in the book of Deuteronomy basically says “karma”. How does that work?
Well the rest of the Old Testament basically says that they can’t keep the rules because they finally don’t believe and they don’t want to.
Now you might say “well the rules weren’t very good” so I’ll simply ask you. Does knowing that smoking is bad for you make people not smoke? Does knowing that eating poorly prevent everyone from eating poorly?” We don’t care if they say “God is Greater” or not.
Then suddenly we get back to the morass of “how should we know what to eat?!” and we’re back again to the contradiction of “morality is common sense” and “morality is culturally relative and programmed by sociology of knowledge”.
Why I’m Still a Christian
So I process all of this stuff and I find that sure my commitments are socially constructed by so are everyone else’s. I find that my morality IS subject to my experience and the tradition in which I was raised but I also believe we all should be held accountable to them.
If God decides he has to get rid of the source of evil in the world he’ll have to get rid of me.
If God sets up a law, almost any law, even a law that I agree with 100% I find that I can’t even keep it. I can’t even live up to my own standards.
If you say “well pastor you’re a pretty good person” I’d have to say that on one hand I feel myself, like Bart Campolo to some how be above the sociology of knowledge, but that this is likely a delusional bias on my part. I’m not that smart or that disconnected from all that impacts and constructs me.
I need to put my trust in someone beyond myself. If I pick the wrong God or if there is no God, well then it’s all a wash.
So what can God do with us?
If there is a creator God He can decide to walk away and not be involved and to let us destroy ourselves. Or he can try to something invade our situation and demonstrate, in the most costly way you would imagine that he not only wants us to learn what is right but also is willing to invest himself in the most costly way.
Do you understand what is central to Christianity? That his God becomes one of us, does not wrong, is hated by us and becomes our victim. In doing so he pays the penalty we deserve for things we can hardly even understand, he prays for our forgiveness based on ignorance while we are killing him, and rises on the third day to inaugurate a new world.
You want to believe? You want to participate? Then the table is set for you.