A common journey to unbelief

I was interested in this story about Bart Campolo, the son of Tony Campolo. The father is described as an “influential evangelical leader and author who is famous for having been a spiritual adviser to former President Bill Clinton” but the son now says that he is an agnostic humanist. I suspect that Bart’s deconversion story is mirrored in many people who were once believers, even devout ones, but then lost the faith.

Bart started out following in his father’s footsteps and became a fervent Christian in his teens and began his own ministry and encountered a 9-year old child who had been gang-raped and “who rejected Christianity after her Sunday school teacher said God could have stopped the act but allowed it for a reason.” Bart struggled with this issue and concluded that this was not acceptable and the only way to understand this horrible experience was to conclude that god could not totally control everything that happened.

Giving up belief in god’s omnipotence started the slide.

Next he encountered gay roommates in college and decided that they could not be evil whatever the Bible said. So he had abandoned the authority of the Bible too.

The last step was when he could not accept that his nonbeliever friends would suffer in hell for eternity. So he became a universalist who thinks that everyone is saved.

But his triad of heresies made him unwelcome in evangelical circles and led to the final straw.

“I started rejecting the supernatural stuff, the orthodoxy. I no longer believed God does miracles or that Jesus was raised from the dead or that other religions were false,” he said. “My Christianity had died the death of a thousand nicks and cuts.”

But it wasn’t until the biking accident in 2011 that Bart lost whatever remained of his tattered faith. “While recovering, I thought, ‘When this body dies, I think that will be the end of Bart Campolo. I don’t think I will be going anywhere. I don’t believe in eternal life in that way anymore.’”

I suspect that this killing of faith by slowly abandoning one doctrine after another because they are incompatible with one’s values is a very common path to nonbelief.


  1. says

    It’s certainly the way I came to unbelief. I was struck by how similar my own path was to Campolo’s, minus perhaps the accident. (I did have that moment of realization that I just didn’t believe anymore.)

  2. DonDueed says

    I was a preacher’s kid, so I was heavily exposed to (relatively liberal) Christianity from birth on. I remember having some religious feelings of my own, but never very deep or intense ones. For example, I never prayed on my own, only in social contexts (in church, at the dinner table, and so on).

    So I was very much irreligious long before I ever left home, and once I was off to college I never even thought about attending church. My folks noticed, of course. I continued to attend Christmas services and other special events with the family — after all, before his retirement Dad was the minister! But I stopped taking communion, a fact that was hard to miss.

    For much of my adult life I had a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation with the family. There was one confrontation initiated by my parents after I left school and was living on my own. It was difficult — Mom was tearful and mentioned how sad she was that she wouldn’t see me again after death. (Yeah, that was quite a moment.) But other than that episode they didn’t pressure me.

    I feel lucky that way. Kids raised in a fundie environment have it much tougher if they leave the church.

    Incidentally, I have an older brother who remained churched for a lot longer than I did, but he now identifies as “not religious”. I think he kept up the pretense so as not to disappoint Mom and Dad but they’re both gone now. It was quite a joy for me when I finally caught on that I could be openly atheist with my surviving family.

    To return to the theme of the journey to unbelief, I’d have to say mine happened early on and so long ago that I don’t recall too many details of the process. But there was one time when I was maybe 13 when I found myself saying to another kid, “Hey, isn’t it lucky that we just happened to be brought up in the right religion?” and suddenly thought, “Hey, wait a second…”


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