“Listen. I gotta break it to you . . . I’m post-Christian. . . . I don’t believe it anymore. I don’t believe any of it.”
These are the words former Christian minister Bart Campolo recalls speaking to his famous evangelist father, Tony Campolo, after leaving the faith of his youth. He explained that his journey to secular humanism was a 30-year process of passing through every stage of heresy. In other words, his theology “progressed” from conservative to liberal to entirely secular.
He predicted that in 10 years, 30 percent to 40 percent of so-called progressive Christians will also become atheists. Progressive Christianity is tough to define, because there isn’t a creed or list of beliefs that progressive Christians officially unite around. However, progressive Christians tend to reject the historic biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality, and generally deny or redefine doctrines such as the atonement and biblical authority.
As a result, Campolo believes that for the most part, progressives have already abandoned Christianity, simply redefining terms in an effort to hold on to some semblance of their faith. He believes the generation behind them will recognize the shallowness of this new theology—and, with nothing invested in remaining a Christian, they’ll basically say, “Let’s just call it what it is,” and leave the faith altogether.
The trajectory Campolo identifies isn’t difficult to spot. Husband-and-wife Christian recording duo Gungor recently made headlines when Lisa described her husband’s year-long conversion to atheism in a Buzzfeed video titled, “I Stopped Believing in God after Pastoring a MegaChurch.” The video highlighted the couple’s spiritual evolution from faith to “heretical” to unbelieving . . . and back to belief. Although Lisa’s own atheism lasted only a day, the faith she and Michael have finally come to embrace looks little like historic Christianity. After stating he no longer feels “spiritually homeless,” Michael identified himself as an “Apophatic mystic Hindu pantheist Christian Buddhist skeptic with a penchant for nihilistic progressive existentialism.”
The Gungors aren’t alone in this pattern. Mike McHargue, better known as “Science Mike,” tells a similar story of deconstruction, temporary atheism, and a return to a faith that is foreign to the Christianity he previously practiced. He told Relevant magazine that after he started blogging and podcasting his story, he received thousands of emails from people who share the same experience. Even the famously skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman passed through a progressive Christian phase on his way out of evangelical Christianity and into atheism. He now believes “it is possible to be both an agnostic and an atheist. And that’s how I understand myself.”
Bands like Caedmon’s Call composed the soundtrack for many evangelical youth. That’s why it’s especially sad to learn that former member Derek Webb recently announced he’s walked away from his faith, finding the Christian narrative to “not be true.” He describes his latest album, Fingers Crossed, as a “tale of two divorces,” referencing the divorce from his wife, and from God. The album features a song called “Goodbye for Now,” which laments,
So either you aren’t real
or I am just not chosen
maybe I’ll never know
Either way my heart is broken.
So goodbye for now.
These “de-conversion stories” (see “Jen Hatmaker and the Power of De-Conversion Stories”) have become almost a rite of passage in the progressive church, giving rise to podcasts, websites, and conferences entirely devoted to the process of deconstruction. In fact, Webb’s album has been described as “an anthem for deconstruction,” inspiring a podcast called The Airing of Grief, where listeners can share their de-conversion stories.
The two belief systems have some significant underlying beliefs in common.
Time will tell if Campolo’s theory that progressive Christianity leads to atheism is valid. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it’s worth noting that the two belief systems have some significant underlying beliefs in common.
Here are three atheistic ideas that some progressive Christians espouse and may lead them into full-blown atheism.
1. They May Adopt a Belief That the Bible Is Unreliable
“[The Bible is] a profoundly human book” (Rob Bell).
“If we are fixed on the Bible as a book that has to get history ‘right,’ the Gospels become a crippling problem” (Peter Enns).
“Anything in the Bible that looks miraculous or contrary to the normal functions of the natural world is not factual, but rather is mythological” (James Burklo).
“What business do I have describing as ‘inerrant’ and ‘infallible’ a text that presumes a flat and stationary earth, takes slavery for granted, and presupposes patriarchal norms like polygamy?” (Rachel Held Evans).
Think these are the musings of hardened skeptics? The declarations of atheists bent on destroying Christianity? No. These are actually the words of progressive Christian writers and scholars about their own holy Book.
No one would think twice if they heard an atheist deride the supernatural stories in Scripture. But they might be surprised to learn that progressive Christians share this skepticism. Progressive Christian writers David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy consider it a given that the virgin birth, Jesus’s healing miracles, and the resurrection are metaphorical. Progressive author Rachel Held Evans suggests that Christians should be less concerned about the historical validity of these miracle stories, and more focused on the theological points they teach.
2. They May Have an Unresolved Answer to the Problem of Evil
For atheists, one of the most consistent defeaters of belief in God is the reality of evil and suffering. Throughout the ages, even many Christians have wrestled with this ancient dilemma: If God is good, why is there evil? If he’s all powerful, why doesn’t he do something about it? Sadly, when someone can’t come to a place of resolve and peace with these questions, the temptation is to redefine the faith they’ve held—or to leave it altogether.
In an interview on a popular Irish television show, atheist Stephen Fry was asked what he might say to God if he died and discovered he did indeed exist. He responded, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right.” Fry ended by saying if God exists, he’s an “utter maniac.”
Instead of saying ‘Just have faith’ or ‘You shouldn’t question your faith,’ we should provide a safe place for people to ask tough questions and process their doubts.
Similarly, when addressing his recent conversion from Christianity to atheism, Derek Webb said, “Either it’s all chaos—or there is a god who is both all-loving and all-powerful, and he’s just a f***ing a**hole. It’s got to be one of the two.”
Lisa Gungor expressed that one of the tipping points in her own faith deconstruction was a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Shortly after, while processing her cousin’s bout with cancer, she described hitting rock bottom. Her temporary atheism circled back to a kind of faith after the birth of her second child. Although she doesn’t use a label to describe her current belief system, she refers to God as “Divine Mother,” saying: “I love the way of Jesus. I don’t have a definition for that.”
Former atheist C. S. Lewis wrote:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?
For Lewis, the problem of evil led him to faith in God. But in the case of progressive Christians and atheists, it often leads to further deconstruction and unbelief.
3. They May Affirm a Culture-Adapting Morality
Many atheists believe an action is moral or immoral based on its effect on the well-being of humanity. With no need to bring God into the picture, this view of morality ends up following certain societal norms.
It’s not so different for progressive Christianity. With the Bible evicted from its seat of authority, that authority will generally shift onto self. Personal conscience, opinion, and preference becomes the lens through which life and morality is evaluated and interpreted—and this will usually be informed by the current cultural milieu.
In 2016, Jen Hatmaker sent shockwaves through American Christian culture by announcing she now affirms same-sex marriage. LGBT activist Matthew Vines tweeted that this made her “one of the highest-profile evangelicals” to do so. She’s hardly the only self-professed evangelical who no longer holds to the historic Christian position on sexuality and marriage.
For atheists, morality has never been informed by the Bible, and for progressives, the Bible is being renovated to accommodate some of our culture’s moral standards.
Atheists in the Making?
After his conversion to secular humanism, Campolo decided he still had something to offer as a minister. But instead of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, he now teaches the tenets of humanism as University of Cinncinatti’s humanist chaplain. Using the skills he cultivated as a Christian minister, he operates much like any other chaplain, meeting with students to give guidance and advice.
If Campolo is right, many progressive Christians are on a path to full-blown atheism. And he’ll be there to offer the de-converted support and friendship in a world without God.
The teachings of the Bible aren’t progressive—they’re eternal.
This isn’t to say that every Christian who holds progressive views on certain issues is on a direct route to atheism. Progressive Christianity covers a spectrum. But as Campolo describes, letting go of historical doctrines can be addictive. He explains, “Once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression.”
For Campolo, sovereignty was the first to go. For others, it’s a belief in biblical norms regarding sexuality and gender, or the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Whatever it may be, once a person makes their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions the authoritative source for truth, their spirituality will reflect what they prefer, rather than what’s true. And the farther a Christian walks down this path, the farther they get from a genuine relationship with God. Tim Keller aptly notes,
What happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.
So what can we do to prevent this from happening in our churches and families?
As Natasha Crain recently pointed out, committed Christians in America are now a minority, and we need to prepare ourselves and our kids for that reality. We need to truly understand what it means to take the narrow road and fix our gaze on the beautiful reward that awaits those who walk it. We need to thoughtfully and intelligently interact with questions of faith with compassion and clarity. Instead of saying “Just have faith” or “You shouldn’t question your faith,” we should provide a safe place for people to ask tough questions and process their doubts.
Truly following Jesus has been countercultural since the first century. Christians have always had to stand up against the spirit of the age, and when we fail to do so, it can be a step toward unbelief. The teachings of the Bible aren’t progressive—they’re eternal. So we must “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).
After all, the contemporary views that many people call “progressive” aren’t progressive anyway: they’re very old, echoes of that primordial question, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1), signs of the most wicked rebellion imaginable. And we all know where that ends up.