Sean recently had a public discussion with Bart Campolo, former evangelist and Christian social worker, who is now a leading secular humanist. They share and contrast their stories and discuss whether Christianity or secular humanism is the best explanation for moral values.
This is a bonus episode that first aired on Unbelievable? at Premier Christian Radio.
More About Our Guest
Bart Campolo is an American humanist speaker and writer. He is the son of Tony Campolo, and was a pastor before transitioning from Christianity to secular humanism. Campolo is the co-founder of Mission Year and the author of several books including Kingdom Works: True Stories of God and His People in Inner City America and Things We Wish We Had Said, which he co-wrote with his father. His most recent book, Why I Left, Why I Stayed, also co-written with his father, is a reflection on both men's "spiritual odysseys and how they evolved when their paths diverged." He was the first Humanist Chaplain at the University of Southern California. Campolo hosts a podcast called Humanize Me.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Well, today we're releasing a bonus episode based on a conversation I recently had with Bart Campolo. Now, you might recognize the name Campolo. Bart has been an evangelist and a speaker, and a worker in the inner city for decades. You also might recognize his father Tony Campolo, a Christian evangelist and professor, who's very well known for decades.
Well, Bart recently came out and announced that he is now a secular humanist. He's left his faith. And I actually remember as an undergrad at Biola in the mid to late '90s, hear him speak. And he announced it recently, and he and I got invited on to a show called Unbelievable Radio hosted by Justin Brierley, to kind of compare and contrast our stories and experiences, but really debate and discuss, does secular humanism or Christianity best explain reality and particular moral values?
I'm confident you'll enjoy this podcast, so take a listen, and if you do, consider sharing it with a friend.
Justin Brierley: Firstly, Bart is someone who hasn't featured on the program before. Do you want to just briefly spell out what the journey was for you, because I understand having had this sort of conversion in your youth, gradually you came to doubt more and more aspects of Christian faith as you'd understood them, and until at some point you realized, "I don't think I believe the whole story anymore."
Bart Campolo: Sure. I mean, like Sean, I grew up in Christendom, I grew up with my dad being Tony Campolo, the big evangelist. And the weird thing for me is, is that I grew up, I loved my folks, but I didn't believe in God. And it wasn't that I was rebellious or that I thought that everybody was a phony. It was just that the story, all those stories, didn't make sense to me. They didn't seem plausible to me.
I didn't actually become a Christian until I was in high school. And I was led to Christ by a kid on my soccer team, my football team, who brought me along to this Mega Church youth group. And I walked into this room, and there were like 300 kids, and a rock and roll band, and a laser light show, and there was all this energy. And when I walked into that room, I realized I was surrounded by 300 kids who really loved each other, and there was this quality of relationship at this community there that really turned me on.
I was a nice kid, and this felt like a club for nice kids who wanted to make things better for other people. So I was immediately attracted to it. When I figured out that they were all evangelical Christians, of course, growing up in my family, I knew how to fake it. I knew the right things to say, I knew how to act.
So I went along with that youth group for months just because I wanted to be part of it. And at some point in that kind of moment ... because, I mean, I love this group. It gave me a sense of identity, it gave a sense of purpose, it made me feel like part of a community.
And at one point we were out on a youth retreat, and you guys have been on youth retreats. You know there's hundreds of kids there, it's Saturday night, there's candlelight, and firelight, and everybody's singing, "Our God is an awesome God," and, "We love you Lord." And in the midst of that kind of environment, I had what I guess you would call a transcendent moment. I felt something, it felt like there was something happening that was bigger than the group, I felt like I was connecting to something. And in that moment, of course, that was God.
And it's funny because I hang around with atheist people now, or secular people of all different kinds, and some of them are so bitter and angry, and some of them will come to me and they'll say, "I bet you feel like a real jerk for having pretended that you heard the voice of God, or pretended that you felt the holy spirit." And I'm like, "Oh, no. I would have a very different explanation for those experiences, but I felt something. I heard something. That was real to me."
People that don't believe in transcendent experiences, I always think like, you haven't been to the right concert. Like, you haven't used the right drugs. You haven't fallen in love with the right partner. I mean, these experiences are real.
And I think whatever narrative you're in when you have one, it confirms that narrative. I mean, think about it if I had that same kind of transcendent moment with my friends in a mosque in Afghanistan, it would've confirmed Islam to me. But I was in the Christian world, so from that point on Jesus was real to me.
Justin Brierley: Because we don't have enough time, more time than I'd like to have to kind of talk through your story, if I could give a sort of potted history, and maybe we'll explore a bit more as we go through the program, obviously having had that experience, it did sort of set you on the Christian path, albeit obviously, I think one way you still immediately felt like there were huge questions for your faith, because you're talking to some children about-
Bart Campolo: The rest of the story I can tell you in two sentences.
Justin Brierley: Okay, go ahead.
Bart Campolo: The rest of the story is, the first thing anybody asked me to do for Jesus was to work in an inner city summer camp with really poor kids in the ghetto. And for the next 30 years I was an inner city missionary. And over those 30 years, my commitment to loving relationships, and to social justice, and to community building, grew, and grew, and grew, and my ability to believe in a supernatural God that actually does anything in the world, died the death of a thousand cuts, you know, the death of a thousand unanswered prayers.
I was in the midst of a really, really difficult world, and we would call on God regularly to do stuff that any good and loving God should want to do, and he didn't show up very often.
Justin Brierley: Let's talk to Sean before we start to examine more of your story, Bart. Thank you for joining me on the program today. Good of you to be here and to tell your own story. I'm sure you're telling it a lot at the moment anyway.
But Sean, coming to you. Do you want to just remind us of your story for those who haven't heard it, because you also grew up in a sense with a well-known Christian father and Christian ministry. But when did faith kind of get tested for you, and what was your response along that journey?
Sean McDowell: Yeah. I grew up in a Christian home in a small town in the mountains of San Diego. And honestly as I look back, I don't even remember the first time I came to faith. People will tell their testimonies of these traumatic experiences, and I always remember thinking, gosh, I don't know. I just always believed. It made sense to me.
In fact, looking back, I would've expressed it this way, but I probably thought people weren't Christians because they just didn't read evidence that demands a verdict, or More Than a Carpenter. I probably would have thought, it's easy. Just, read the book.
And then really getting into college, about 19, 20, I think my sophomore year, this is early and mid '90s, I was fishing around on the internet, and I don't think there was Google yet, but it's the first time you could find blogs and interact with people. And I remember reading these extensive sites.
In fact, I've learned since then that the secular web really began responding chapter by chapter to evidence that demands a verdict. They had doctors, lawyers, historians. I got in there and started reading this stuff and was really taken back. Like, wow, they're raising contradictions in the Bible, they're saying Jesus didn't even exist, they're saying science disproves faith. And my parents had raised me to ask questions, to seek after truth, and never had a sense of burying doubter, or my questions, but this really hit me.
I remember feeling like a tornado, like, oh my goodness, my parents mean well. I've committed my life to this, but what if this is wrong? And it wasn't just intellectual exercise. I remember staying up late just feeling a little bit going, man, what if I give this up?
And I don't think I ever gave it up, but I remember it was, again around my sophomore year, we're in Breckenridge, Colorado, a little ski town couple hours outside of Denver up in the mountains. And I told my dad, I said, "Dad, can we go get some coffee? I have something I want to share with you." And he goes, "Sure." So we go to coffee, and I remember looking at him and I just said, "Dad, I want you to know I'm not sure that I believe this Christian stuff. I got a lot of questions."
And you know, you talk about people being the glass half full half empty. My dad's like the glass is 95% full. He's like the consummate optimist. He just looks at me and goes, "Son, I think that's great." And I paused. I'm like, "Did you hear anything I just said? Are you writing a talk in your head or something?" And he goes, "No. I think it's great. You can't live on my convictions. You have to decide if you think this is true. Follow the evidence wherever it leads."
And I remember he said to me, he goes, "I really think if you do follow the evidence, you will be led to Jesus because Jesus is the truth." And then he said, "Don't reject the things you've learned growing up just to rebel or just to reject. Only walk away from something if you think it's not true." And then he said something affective, "Your mom and I will love you no matter what."
In the big picture in my life, I don't want to over dramatize this, but it was deftly a turning point in my life, where I guess I started to read other religious texts. Read a number of atheist books just trying to ask myself, why do I believe? Does this make sense? Is it reasonable to explain the world, and can I bank my life on this?
And there wasn't one just defining moment, where it was like, alright, I got this. It was just through time, through conversations, through reading that I really began to think that Christianity was true and worthy of following.
That's kind of the quick snippet of it I guess.
Justin Brierley: And in a way, I guess the kind of conversation that Sean had with his father about, is one where you would say good advice on the part of Josh, "Don't do it because you're rebelling, don't do it without thinking it through, but if it isn't true I do want you to believe it" in a sense. And I guess that's good advice wherever you stand on this, Bart.
Bart Campolo: It's funny. I know this will sound really funny, but I'm not sure that I would tell somebody ... like for me, what I'm most concerned about with other people is what works, what causes them to thrive, what causes them to flourish? And sometimes I meet Christian young people. I work on a college campus with college students, and sometimes a Christian kid will come to talk to me about their faith.
And they'll say, "I'm struggling with Christianity." And I'll say, "Well, what are you struggling with?" And they'll tell me and it will be some kind of minor thing that a guy like Sean could put straight in three seconds. And I'll say, "Hey, have you looked at this Bible verse? Have you looked at that? That's not a problem. There's a way around that," and I'll try to sort of give them an apologetic argument.
And sometimes they'll look at me and say, "Well, why are you trying to help me stay a Christian? You don't even think it's true." And I said, "No, but you do, and your family does, and your girlfriend does, and it works for you, and it's causing you to become a better person."
So for me, I'm not at all interested in undermining anybody's faith just for the fun of it, or just because I don't think that it's true. The only people that I want to sort of draw into my humanist world or my humans community, are people who are struggling.
Sean McDowell: I'm sitting in my office doing this recording right now, and I was here that I got a text from a mutual friend of ours, Bart, and he said, "Hey, did you see Bart became a humanist?" And I'll be honest, it's like I froze and I got a tear in my eye. I really did. And that's because Bart's had a huge influence on my life.
And I've told you this before, Bart. I spent a year working in the inner city because of your encouragement. I remember when you came in spoke in chapel my junior year, and we went out for a meal, you sent me your book. Just the idea of somebody a decade plus, I'll be generous, who was going through a similar ... just had a similar father, similar processes like that I did, you helped me process a lot of those kind of questions and issues that would arise, having kind of a rockstar evangelical father.
We stayed in touch through those couple decades, and then when I saw this film in particular, that scene was powerful. I saw it through it your eyes, Bart. I imagined myself going, "What if I really sat down with my parents and I told them, 'I don't believe anymore?'" We've written books together, we've spoken together. I paused and just thought, man, that would be one of the hardest conversations I could ever have.
And now that I'm a father and I have three kids, I also saw it through the eyes of your dad. And you could just see on his eyes, just the pain and the hurt, and he's questioning himself. I mean, a million things are going through his mind.
So, the movie just captured that power. I think any parent, anybody with kids and relationships would see I think the tenderness with which you shared with your parents, but I think also the commitment, you said that you need to be authentic. And I think that part of the film was really valuable.
I do think one thing that came through the film that's just interesting, that might highlight just one difference about how we approach faith. Earlier, Justin, you asked Bart about his thoughts on my dad's advice, and Bart said in particular. Really the question I'm asking is, what kind of works in practice? As I read your book and looked to the film, I noticed something that your dad said. He said, "I'm a mystic. I feel the presence of God, I sense God leading me. I can not prove God is leading me, but I feel his presence in my life." Now, on page 31 of the book, he said, "The primary foundation of my faith is not what I know, but what I feel."
And then I noticed in the documentary, Bart, you said something similar. You said, "I'm praying, going through the emotions and at some point it started to feel real to me. I felt like this was it." The impression that I got, and you could totally correct me if I'm wrong, is that your dad and yourself take a very practical, experiential approach to faith, whereas my dad, I guess maybe having a Crusade background was very different. Crusade has this famous train where the front of it is fact, in the middle says faith and then the caboose is feeling.
And one thing my father always just hammered home was, it's not about your feelings, it's not about your experience. Don't process truth by your experience. Process experience by your truth. And even my father's tagline is telling the world the truth.
So the primary question that has always been in the back of my mind is, is this true? Is secular humanism true? Is the Bible true? Si Christianity true? And what does the evidence show? Now, I don't think it's about proving it beyond a shadow of a doubt. I certainly have some doubts in my life, I always have. I think it's part of just being wired the way that I am, but the primary question that has been in the back of my mind is always, is it true? And follow the truth no matter what it costs.
So that might just be a little bit of a different way we've come to look at faith, and I'd be really curious to what you think about, Bart.
Bart Campolo: It's interesting because in my own Christian journey, very early on, as I started to read the Bible, I would find these things that were really difficult. Like the genocide in the Old Testament, or Jesus saying, "I have come to turn children against their parents," and all that stuff, and I would think this doesn't make sense.
And whenever I would go to my youth pastors and I would ask them about that, they would say, "Look, look, look, the holy spirit will make this clear to you," but what they would say is, is the Gospel is foolishness to those you don't believe. But then in a sense, from the inside it makes sense, but from the outside, even Paul knew that these were some extraordinary claims. People rising from the dead, floating up into heaven, Red Sea's parting, that this kind of stuff only made sense from within. If God gave you the faith to believe in that we're saved by grace through faith, and this not of yourself lest any man should boast, it's a gift of God, that you need faith in order to appropriate the Gospel, and you can't generate that with all the evidence in the world.
So for me, the notion that sort of apologetics will get you there ... I mean, I said this to you, Sean. I'm like, apologetics are really important to show Christians that their faith is not irrational and that they can hold it, they hold their heads high as they go out in the world of ideas. But I said the idea that you can talk somebody into believing that God is real, it's not very compelling to me because I haven't seen it work that way.
Justin Brierley: Sean, go ahead.
Sean McDowell: Yeah. I guess I would say I have a number of friends in particular I could list off who, as skeptics and nonbelievers examine the Gospels, examine the scientific evidence, found it compelling even before they understood what the Gospel itself meant.
And I'm not saying that's the norm for everybody. I think you're right that we do have a certain element of faith in a certain belief system, and then things make sense after we adopt it.
Bart Campolo: I mean, Sean, you grew up in San Diego Hills with Josh McDowell. Do you really think if you either grown up in Kabul, Afghanistan, and your father had said you, "Follow the truth," that you would've found your way into Christianity?
Sean McDowell: Well, maybe. I mean, I'm not going to say-
Bart Campolo: But isn't it kind of curious to you that most of the kids that grow up in Christian households end up finding the truth in Jesus? And most of the kids that grow up in Muslim households find it in Islam? And most of the kids that grow up in Buddhist households ... I mean, everybody's telling their kid to follow the truth, but it is kind of weird, isn't it?
Sean McDowell: I don't think everybody's telling their kids to follow the truth. I really don't, Bart. I mean, on every single issue, one of the things my father would hammer home with me, he'd go on politics, he'd say, "Son, have you read both sides?" And history, on theology, he would ask me more questions than he would give me answers. He'd encourage me to read perspectives different than my own, whether it was religious texts, or books outside of it. My father was never threatened by beliefs that were different than his.
So you're certainly right there's a corelation that's there, but I have Muslim friends who change their faith, I have Christian friends like yourself who changed their faith. Just because there's a corelation, maybe shows Jesus is right that we're sheep, that we tend to just believe that which is presented to us. But you're a clear example of somebody who said, "Gosh, I was raised in this, didn't work for me and I changed," so I think it can happen.
And one of the values that was hammered home for me, if I went to my dad with questions about the Bible like you mention, he wouldn't say, "Well, just have faith." He'd say, "Well, what do you think? Let's open it up. Does it make sene? Why would God allow this to happen? Is there an explanation for this?" and we would talk about it.
So that's something that was hammered home in me, and I think it's actually not a lot of people approach faith from any religion with that kind of critical thought.
Bart Campolo: You may be right. The interesting thing is, as I was telling you my story, I don't know that I would've questioned the sovereignty of God if I hadn't been close to so many people who were going through such terrible suffering.
And maybe if I hadn't gone to the inner city, if I would've stayed where I grew up, in the lily white suburbs of the mainline of Philadelphia, unless my mother got a terrible form of bone cancer, or unless something horrible happened ... I mean, my experience was that for me, what called into question the veracity of the Scriptures wasn't just cold argumentation. It was lived experience, that I would have these experiences that just almost made a mockery of the idea that there was a good and loving God who is capable of healing people from cancer, but he just chose not to in this instance.
Justin Brierley: It sounds a lot, Bart, in that sense, that it was a very old-fashioned in a sense objection to Christianity, the problem of evil and suffering, but experienced in a very direct way, in what you saw going on around you that obviously was certainly the main thing if you like that shook your faith from the-
Bart Campolo: That was a big part, but the other part. The other part it was like, I had gay roommates when I was in college.
Justin Brierley: Sure. So does that-
Bart Campolo: Guys who have been born gay, grown up gay, and I love those guys and the in the 1980s when I was in college, the clear understanding was they were abominations before God. Their behavior was prohibited, and they were perverse. I remember right then just going like, "I think the Bible is wrong on this."
Justin Brierley: Let me bring Sean back in here, because, Sean, you've obviously read this and seen the film, so you know the progression that Bart story took in this respect. What do you say?
Obviously Bart was doing amazingly good work, but he didn't feel like God was kind of keeping his end of the bargain in a sense of there wasn't enough supernatural intervention in cases where obviously Bart just felt God shouldn't be allowing these kinds of situations to flourish. Obviously you've got these other issues going on as well in terms of him finding that he couldn't accept what the Bible said about homosexuality, the way that he read it.
So where do you go with all of that aspect of the reasons that Bart ultimately lost his faith, Sean?
Sean McDowell: Well I think for all of us, and I think you would agree with me, Bart, there is a combination of experience, and in terms of what we think it's true. I mean, you share in the book about this professor, Doctor Bahr and his Old Testament class, raising questions about internal contradictions and errors in the Bible, and the different inconsistencies in the conversion of Paul. You raised that as an example as well as this experience within the sovereignty of God working in the inner city. So it's probably some combination of both I would think.
For me, when I worked in the inner city for that year, I was 20 ... gosh. Probably 22, 23, out of college, and it rocked me. I remember seeing, I worked with kids in gangs, saw a lot of the same type of stuff, just homelessness, brokenness, all the kind of sins you describe poignantly in the film and in the book.
And I think the way processed it differently was, it didn't cause me to question my faith at that stage. At that stage I already had reasons why I understood that God was sovereign, reasons why I believed that the Bible was true, and I saw God working in different ways through people. I mean, I guess maybe part of it is a story I brought to the table with my father going through sexual abuse, going through a father who's an alcoholic, and just seeing him come out of that and use it for good, even the immeasurable pain that my father went through.
In fact, we asked him a few years ago sitting around as a family. My sister goes, "Dad, share a good memory you have being a kid," and he pauses, he goes, "I don't even have one. I don't even have one good memory as a kid. It was so painful."
So I guess going into the inner city and seeing a lot of that pain and brokenness, I had wrestled with why I thought the Bible is true. I had wrestled with why I thought that God exists. I had seen at least in my father's life pretty poignantly, and many other people I worked with in the inner city, goodness come out of suffering and pain. So it didn't honestly cause me to question my faith.
And I think that's what we saw for example, in people like Nabeel Qureshi. I mean, somebody who was a Muslim, who became a Christian, had a vision of Jesus, examined the evidence, thought it was true. He writes these videos.
I know a lot of your listeners are familiar with this, but he writes these videos towards the end of his life, and he describes how he believed God was going to heal him. And it gets to the end and he doesn't. And he says, "I didn't stop believing because I knew something can't come from nothing. I knew the fine-tuned universe pointed towards a fine tuner. I knew the origin of life points towards a mind, the origin of consciousness points towards a consciousness, existence of objective reality, the evidence for Jesus."
So he had this belief system in place, by which he could process the suffering and the pain when it was very personal for him. So I do think it's a combination of both, but if we have a worldview in place and we have reasons why we think that worldview is true, it gives us I think the platform and the ability to process these really difficult questions that you experienced, Bart, about suffering, and unanswered prayer, and some of the evil that we see in the world.
Bart Campolo: I think you're right. I guess to me, I changed my theology 87 times, trying to stay a Christian. So I found that there were all different veins of Christianity, and the difference between Christian groups were, one group would underline one set of verses and ignore another set, and you could make Christianity support women's rights, or you could make it support men always being in charge, you can make it support slavery, you can make it support the abolition of slavery. And what I felt like I experiencing was, is that there was the sense in which, everybody was bending the Scriptures and bending their theology to try to stay in the game, and I was doing the same thing.
The last God I believed in before I gave it up was perfect. He agreed with everything I liked. He cared about everything I cared about, but he was a product of my own invention. So when I saw all this shifting and moving, and different people making God what they wanted and be, it felt to me like in my own life and in the life of people around me that, that there was this deep desire to stay Christian, and we kind of worked ourselves around to find a way to do that.
Justin Brierley: Just before Sean comes back, because I just find this very interesting, I'm sure Sean what's to respond, what interesting to me to some extent, Bart, in your stories, is that obviously you didn't feel you can hold on to Christianity in the end, having had a lot of movement and so on. Did you consciously embrace atheism? I mean, did you come to the belief that there is no God?
Even if you don't believe the Bible is internally consistent to whatever you might say, it doesn't necessarily lead to the conclusion that there's no God, or there's no ultimate purpose to life, that all that exists is matter in motion and we live in an ultimately naturalistic universe. But did you arrive at that point of view, or you're kind of agnostic in that sense?
Bart Campolo: You know what happened? Once I got in a bike crash and I almost died, and I had a big head injury and I couldn't think straight for a month. And when I recovered, the strongest feeling I had, it didn't change my belief system, but it made me aware of the fact that I was pretty well convinced by that point that this life was all we have, that when I died and my brain broke down, that my consciousness would break down with it, that I was in my brain, in my body, and that when my body was gone, I would be gone.
And what swept over me was this sense of, my goodness, this life is all we have. How do we make the most of it? And that was what you ... so I never was kind of like I don't believe in God. What happened to me was, as I was a sort of ... I think this life is everything that we have and it's amazing, and it's a privilege, and how do I make the most of it? And I quickly came to the conclusion that the way to make the most of this life was by loving other people, was by making the world better for other people, was by cultivating a sense of gratitude and wonder for just the privilege of being alive in the first place.
My dad and those other people were like, "You don't seem much different now than when you were following Jesus." Well, Jesus was saying that we should love other people and make the most of this life too.
I think the thing that was really important to me was just that I came to the conviction that this life was everything we have.
Justin Brierley: Sean, that was the place that Bart found himself. What do you make of this journey he had going back to the fact that you obviously felt that in the end he didn't feel you could really ... anyone could make what they wanted of Scripture and so on.
And ultimately, this accident led him to this place where he kind of, for some reason, just felt like, when my body goes, I will be gone. I've got to make the most of it. And that led, I think, to cut a long story short, to the humanist sort of principles that Bart now espouses as a humanist chaplain. Just your thoughts on that, Sean, before we go to a break.
Sean McDowell: Yeah. I think we're similar, Bart, in that I certainly wanted to hold onto my faith when I've had these questions, and I do want to hold onto my faith. If I didn't admit that I'd be disingenuous. But similar, when you came out to your parents you said, "I just have to be authentic." The same is true with me.
I'm not a Christian because I have a career in this, or because people expect me to. I'm a Christian because I really think it's true. So I think there can be authenticity. People will say it make sense and I believe it, and there can be authenticity in people who walk away.
Now, is there a tendency to take Scripture and twist it to what we want? Yeah. I can tell you I try to fight that and ask myself, am I doing that, or am I really look into what the text teaches? So when I look on that, you mentioned the issue of homosexuality, if you look in Leviticus 18, or anywhere in the Scriptures, it never says that gay people are an abomination. In fact, if anything, it says everyone is an abomination because the sin list in Romans three in Mark chapter seven describes behavior-
Bart Campolo: That original sin thing is another thing I've got a bone to pick with.
Sean McDowell: Sure. Yeah. You write that in your book. We can come back to that. But you got to have to take these one at a time. The Bible doesn't say gay people are an abomination. They're made in the image of God with intrinsic dignity and value and worth. And I don't see how you get worth for gay people or anybody apart from being made in the image of God.
So as I look at that issue, I have friends with same sex attraction Christians and not, and I might differ with them over what I think is moral, as I do a lot of people, but the Bible doesn't say that they're an abomination. That's exactly what the Scripture teaches. They have infinite dignity and value and worth.
Bart Campolo: You're right. But Sean, on an issue like that, does it not bother you, don't you think if there is a God, why couldn't he be more clear? There's all these people suffering. Why couldn't he say exactly what he wants on that issue?
Sean McDowell: He did say exactly what-
Bart Campolo: Then why do you and all your Christian friends disagree on what's moral?
Sean McDowell: Bart, nothing follows from disagreement. Nothing follows about the clarity of truth. I think you said it clearly. Even disagreeing with your dad, you said it wasn't Jesus that led you to believe this. You came to the conclusion that homosexuality is fine, and found Scripture to support it. That's why I think his explanation of Romans chapter 1 totally does not take the context into consideration. I've spent hours and hours reading this. I can tell you honestly. I wrote a book on this where I talk-
Bart Campolo: So you think the Bible isn't crystal clear and that all the Christians who disagree with you are just missing the point.
Sean McDowell: Crystal clear, you're putting words in my mouth.
Bart Campolo: No, because I'm just saying, they all think the same thing about you. All, my mother and her gay Christian community, they think you are misreading the Scripture.
Sean McDowell: Here's what I would do. I just had a public dialogue with Matthew Vines, one of the leading "Gay Christians," and we talk about the text. You got to go back to the text, look in the context, look at what it's teaching, and ask yourself what did Jesus, what did Paul, what did Moses mean by this? And there's a reason why for nearly 2000 years there's been a unanimous perspective on what marriage is and God's design for marriage.
So I do think, I would say unequivocally, that other people who are Christians, who say that the Bible is fine with same-sex unions are mistaken.
Bart Campolo: But like slavery, couldn't God have been clear about slavery? It would've saved us so much trouble in the Civil War if he would have just said slavery is always wrong. Don't you wish God was clearer?
Sean McDowell: I don't think it's quite that simple. When you look at slavery in the Old Testament, it's totally different from slavery in the Civil War. For number one, the Bible says you cannot kidnap. Don't kidnap, and that's what slavery in the US was based on. so that seems pretty clear to me.
Bart Campolo: So if there's no kidnapping, then slavery is okay?
Sean McDowell: No, no. I'm not saying that. I'm simply saying-
Bart Campolo: Then why didn't God just say, slavery under all circumstances is wrong? Because that's what you believe, isn't it, Sean?
Sean McDowell: The kind of slavery that you have in the Old Testament was very different-
Bart Campolo: Do you believe any slavery is right?
Sean McDowell: Okay, look. If you go back to the Old Testament, God is taking a broken people, a broken institution, and redeeming it for good. He takes it and humanizes it, he improves it, and he starts to add rights that didn't exist anywhere in the world, ultimately to the point of liberating people from slavery.
So it's not quite that simple as the way you put it out. And I would also say, I don't understand on what basis you're pushing me to defend something being morally right. In the book you distinctly say morality is something that changes. It's not objective. It's not real outside of us. I mean, you distinctly say that. So pressing me on these kind of issues, kind of makes my point that there is a real right and wrong, that humans actually have value and we know it.
Bart Campolo: I think on some level, values really are preferences. We say we value something, what we're saying is I love that thing, or I want that thing more, or I'll pay more for that thing. And I think ultimately, nature does a great job of clarifying the ultimate value, because ultimately, from the moment that living things emerged, from the moment ... and we have a great story of what happened one second after the Big Bang.
We know a lot about gravity, and forces and exploding stars, and the formation of planets and galaxies, but we don't know what happened in that one second beforehand, and we have a great story for what happens after you get single celled organisms, how they evolve into more complex creatures, and finally into social creatures, and into creatures with consciousness, and into human beings.
I can't say a whole lot about where that first cell started yet, but I will tell you this, is that the one thing that we learned from studying nature is that every living thing wants to live, and wants to propagate itself forward. The DNA in us just wants to go on and all of life wants to live. And as a matter fact, if a life form emerges that doesn't value life, it simply doesn't last. That all living things want to live, and so on some level, life is the ultimate value.
So then the question for me becomes, I'm alive and I want to live, but more than that as a conscious creature, I want to thrive. And we've evolved as creatures in such a way that we thrive by cooperating, that we thrive by loving each other, that literally that is our human beings, that's kind of our great adaptation, is that we're not stronger, we don't have bigger teeth, we can't fly or jump higher, but we think and work together, and we care about each other in such a way that enables us to build and fashion lives of meaning and purpose.
So on some level if you say to me, "Why not be selfish?" I would look you right in the eye and say, listen, I've got a lot of science and data that being selfish won't cause you to thrive, that ultimately the people that live the longest and that register the highest degrees of satisfaction with their lives are those that commit themselves to loving relationships, that invest themself in making things better for the rest of the community, that cultivate a sense of wonder and gratitude for the privilege of being here in the first place.
So it's not so much that I would say to you it's evil or it's wrong. I would simply say it doesn't work. It's not the way it is.
Justin Brierley: It's kind of the biological story of how we evolved to be cooperative in order to get on and propagate our DNA.
Bart Campolo: To quote Charles Darwin who talks about natural selection, what I would say is, to paraphrase, I would say, "Love naturally selects."
Justin Brierley: Okay. That's interesting. Okay. I'm sure you're familiar with this way of understanding why we want to cooperate and get on with each other and so. What's your problem with it, Sean, ultimately? Why is that not a satisfactory way of getting to a kind of a grounding of why we should treat each other in the kinds of ways that are quite naturally Bart does want to treat people around him.
Sean McDowell: Twice in the book Bart goes out of his way to describe that he's a materialist, that only physical things like matter and energy exist. It's interesting that when you talk about thriving in the universe, that it's things like love and meaning that get us to thrive. I think it's worth asking the question, why do we live in a universe in which love and meaning themselves are the vehicles by which we thrive the most? Could that be a clue to there actually being a universe ... we live in a universe in which there is really love, in which there is really meaning?
I think that's a question that has to be asked, that to me would point towards those things being objectively true. But beyond that, at the beginning, I think one difference that I would have is you said, "Values are personal. I will pay for this or I won't pay for that." There's a difference between instrumental value, stuff that has value to me or has value to you, Bart, or to somebody else, and something that has intrinsic value because of the kind of thing that it is.
And I find in the explanation that you gave, which I think is as good of an explanation as somebody can give from the humanist standpoint, I really do, but I think I fall short because if you don't have human intrinsic value ... throughout the book you talked about things like love, which aren't physical, goodness, fairness, justice, beauty, gratitude, integrity, all of these processes, as if they are real and we're supposed to follow them.
In fact on page 112, after you say there's distinctly no purpose or meaning, you say, "What's important-
Bart Campolo: No. Wait, wait, wait. No purpose to the universe. There's plenty of purpose in the universe.
Sean McDowell: Okay. "There's no objective purpose to the universe, but we can create or invent meaning," is the term you use, right?
Bart Campolo: Exaclt.y exactly. That's right. That's what we do.
Sean McDowell: So to me, I don't understand what it means when you write. Let me give a couple of these and you can obviously come back.
You talk about people becoming a better person, you talk about intrinsic goodness on page 94, you criticize people who had the fantasy of heaven because, "It distracts people from the most important reality of life on earth." And then you say at page 72, what is it me to dedicate your life as a secular humanist, "To making your verse a truly good one."
I guess the tension to me is, you talk about morality and meaning, not being inherent in the universe itself, talk about how we can invent them, but then you speak like there's truly goodness, there's truly being a better purpose, there's real justice and there's mercy, as if they're features of the universe itself.
Bart Campolo: It's almost as if I project my own values onto the universe, which is exactly what I ... that's the most human thing in the world to do.
Sean McDowell: Then I guess that raises the question, if you're projecting your values, why can't I project mine? What if I don't care about thriving in the way you describe driving, since that's not an objectively better way to live? You can't really say that you're a better person for doing that. You can't talk about committing your life as a secular humanist to a truly good one. You can just say, "Here's just a good one I decided that-
Bart Campolo: Right. The best I can do is I can stand over here and say, heres a way of life that I find to be incredibly meaningful. If your way of life isn't working for you, come on over and try this one. We're all going to love each other, and we're going to seek to do good things for other people, and we're going to cultivate a sense of wonder and gratitude, see how that works out for you. And if you don't like it, go somewhere else and try something else.
You're right, I can't objectively say your way of life isn't working. All I can say is, this way of life is really working for me and my people.
Sean McDowell: And I think you know where this is going. I think then the response is, if you can't say it's objectively good, you can't make any objective moral condemnations of any behavior anybody else does. You can just say, the Holocaust, I don't like it. Hey, if that's working for you, do it, but it's not working for me. I mean, that's the price, and maybe you're willing to just bite the bullet and say that's the way it is, but to me, I guess I find that just to be a profoundly unsatisfactory-
Justin Brierley: Is that what you're saying, I mean, are you saying, Bart, that Hitler, well, he just found his way of expressing himself in the world, and it worked for him. I don't like it, it's not my preference, but if that's your preference, that's the way it goes.
Bart Campolo: No. No, that's not what I'm saying.
Justin Brierley: So are you saying there are objectively right and wrong things in the world then, things that you shouldn't be doing, things that people should be held to account for? It's not just about preference, because it sounds like you're saying on one hand it's preference, but on the other hand, no, there's definite things people should and shouldn't be doing.
Bart Campolo: What I'm saying is, is that whether we're talking about wolves or elephants or human beings, all social animals develop codes that enable them to thrive and survive. And those codes are not what's good for me, or what's good for you, or what I want, or what you want. They're what's good for the group [crosstalk 00:44:18]-
Justin Brierley: But isn't what you're describing simply the way things are rather the way things should be? I don't know. I mean, in gorilla circles, infanticide occurs sometimes. That's just the way things are, but you're not saying that that's kind of the way things should be.
Bart Campolo: I think one of the things is, is that sometimes people would say to me, "But listen, how do we get to a perfect universe by your way, and I would say like, "I think the world can always get better. I don't think it can ever be perfect." I think it is the nature of humanity to struggle with some very real fears and some for some very real terrors. We survive by cooperating, but we also survive by competing. We're caught in a world of limited resources.
So there's always going to be struggle, there's always going to be competition. I understand the desire to believe in a good and loving God who will take us all the way to a magical utopia where we'll live forever in perfect harmony and nothing bad will ever happen. It's not that I don't see the appeal of the Christian narrative, it's just it doesn't seem very plausible to me.
Justin Brierley: Sean, we're going to have to draw it to a closing, but what I'm hearing you say on this is that you just don't feel that while obviously Bart has rejected Christianity, he's still holding on to some fundamental things that work in Christianity but don't work in an atheist framework as far as you're concerned.
Sean McDowell: I think that's my biggest difference with this. At the beginning of your book you talk about how when you're an atheist ... I'm sorry you're a humanist and you left, your values were still in place, and the question was, right here I think on page 23, the real question was how we are going to justify that lifestyle to ourselves, to our kids, to our Christian faith, and especially to other people without faith, without claiming to believe in God. And then you wrote, "As soon as I faced of the fact that I no longer believe in Christianity, the first I want to do is work at a new philosophical foundation for a way of life I already knew worked in practice."
I think if you began by assuming goodness and caring for people and love are part of the universe, you can find a justification to fit that. But if we began by saying, which explanation of life best matches up with human experience, our belief and fairness, our belief in justice, or talk about love, all these immaterial supernatural kind of phenomena, I don't see how you get there without there being a God to ground it.
So I think, obviously Bart can push back on this, but I think he's borrowing so much from this Christian narrative and its heritage, which doesn't find a home within the secular worldview itself. And the last point I'll say is, I think you're talking about goodness, but I think there's an equivocation on goodness. You're right that evolution could explain why certain behavior is good towards our survival, but that's a different kind of good than moral good, because if our morality evolved by evolution, then it doesn't mean justice is good and we should love our neighbor.
Michael Ruse, the atheist philosopher said these are just tricks played on us by the process of evolution, to get us to survive and cooperate. So at best I think evolution could give us good in the sense of helping us survive, but it doesn't give us moral goodness, and justice, and beauty, and gratitude, and integrity, and authenticity. These immaterial things that I think do make sense from a theistic standpoint.
Justin Brierley: We're going to have to start to draw it to a close, so-
Bart Campolo: You got to let me say one thing.
Justin Brierley: I'm going to let you respond, I'm going to let you respond, but I'm just going to ask for you both to just keep it to just a minute or two each, and we'll draw things to a close then. Go on.
Bart Campolo: I think what Sean said is lovely. My only response would be that I think that you're right, that my humanism bars a great deal for my Christian experience and from Christianity itself. And what I would say is, is that Christianity itself emerged out of something much deeper, which is the human experience of life itself.
So what I would say is, is that all the values that brought me into Christianity, the reason I was attracted to Christianity, was because it was a great reflection of love, and love is natural.
Justin Brierley: And how do you want to end up? I'll give you the last word on this one, Sean.
Sean McDowell: Well, love is natural, a human's hate is natural, a human's greed is natural, a human's divisiveness is natural. "We have all different kind of instincts," C.S. Lewis famously said.
Unless a standard outside of us, unless there's an intrinsic way we're supposed to live, we cannot say any of those are good and any of those are bad. And I think Christianity gives us the basis to make those kind of distinctions, which to me, ultimately matches the deepest desire we have.
I think ultimately Bart has a desire for kind of as good of a world as we can have, and I think we agree with that. I think that desire we have is ultimately going to be found in heaven.
Justin Brierley: Thank you so much for both taking part today. It turned into a bit of a debate towards the end, but it was good to hear such a good back and forth across the whole of today's program.
Bart, if people want to find out more, Bartcampolofilm.com is the place to go. That's correct?
Bart Campolo: No, no, no. It's Campolofilm.com for the movie, Bartcampolo.org is for me and my podcast, Humanize Me.
Justin Brierley: That's the one. So those are the places to go for more about Bart.
Sean McDowell is at Seanmcdowell.org.
Sean and Bart, thank you so much for joining me on the program today.
Bart Campolo: Thank you, Justin. Thank you, Sean.
Sean McDowell: Thanks guys.
Bart Campolo: I do love you so much, man.
Sean McDowell: Me too, buddy.