Interview with Bart Campolo – Humanist Chaplain, University of Cincinnati

by | December 9, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Bart Campolo is the Humanist Chaplain at the University of Cincinnati. He is the host of the Humanizeme podcast. He is a former Christian and became a secular humanist circa 2011, at least in public.

Here we talk about his (well-documented) life, work, and views.

Scott Jacobsen: So, this is an interview with Bart Campolo. Let us start from the top, what were some pivotal moments in terms of your own humanist intellectual and life-stance development?

Bart Campolo: Wow, that is a big question, man, tell me the story of your life. What is interesting, I am at a stage in my life. My story is ridiculously documented. I wrote this book with my dad called, Why I left Where I Stayed, which is a chronicle of my journey into humanism, out of evangelical Christianity, which is where I grew up.

My dad’s a big, big time Christian leader to this day, and so a dialogue between us. This is what happened while we were writing that book, a friend of mine who is a documentary filmmaker, recorded some conversations between me and my dad. Because we thought that might be helpful for the book.

He ended up trying to make a documentary about it. Then they ended up making this documentary called Leaving My Father’s Faith, which was an interesting project. I did not make it, but it has been interesting to watch the final product.

Because it has Christians and atheists in it. Because it may be a certain model, for sure, in how it portrays how you can have an authentic relationship with somebody across those lines. The story of my life is fairly well documented.

I would say that the crucial moments are when I got into Christianity. I was a 15-year-old kid in high school who got swept up in a youth group. I had this experience of walking into this big, megachurch. Feeling I had walked into a club with nice people, it was the nicest people I had ever met.

People who are interested in making the world a better place. It had me at “Hello.” I was so attracted to the community. Since I grew up in a Christian family, I knew the line.

But I may not have been fanatical at that point, in the community, so I hang around. I found: if you hang around with a group of people who are so far sharing that worldview, loving you, and then you are doing good work together. Then you turn on to stuff.

Eventually, I am up on a retreat with the group. We are all out there one night. 300 kids sweating in music with our candles, saying, “I love the Lord.” I lift my voice. I felt something transcendent, what you would call a transcendent moment.

That moment I felt I got swept up into something bigger than myself. They had me. I was in. At that moment, feeling those feelings. I was like, “Oh, there is something happening here. That is God.” So then, I believed in God. I love the community.

So, once I believed in God, I was down for the program. That began my Christian journey, a hero to atheist people. People thinking, “Oh, he must be so embarrassed pretending that he felt the Holy Spirit or pretending that he heard the voice of God or something.” I do not know if I would explain it differently to you now.

I would explain that experience differently. But to any atheist, he says, “I do not believe the transcendent experience.”

“Wow, I am sorry. You must have had something. You have been locked up too” [Laughing]. “You used to do drugs. You have not fallen in love with the right partner.” It is well-documented. People would say they are happening in your brain.

But the narrative you are in when they happen, it confirms that narrative. So, if I would have had one of those transcendent moments, with all my Islamic friends in Afghanistan, I would probably be going, “Oh my gosh, that is Allah.”

I would have been in as a Muslim because, when you are in the community, it creates this plausibility structure around you, where it becomes possible to believe those things.

But then when you have experience in that context; it is easy. Christianity itself may be an irrational worldview. But becoming a Christian or believing in God isn’t irrational at all.

If you grow up surrounded by people who believe in God, and you have experiences that seem to validate that that worldview is rational as well. So, of course, it is evident here. Everybody will burn me and tell me that God is real to them.

So funny, that was the first thing or experience, which was entering a youth camp. For the next thirty years, to put it in short terms, my experience was that I became more and more committed to those values, loving relationships to make the world a better place for other people to build community.

I became less and less able to believe in the supernatural narrative. For acts of God and the Christian church, people rising from the dead and eternal heavens and things like that. So, that I thought was the second big moment within me; I was an involved Christian in the inner city missionary projects for many years.

I was a guy who spoke at large Christian events. So, I had this whole career as a professional Christian, as I am passing through every stage of heresy, trying to stay Christian because I love the community. I want to be a Christian.

But slowly changing my theology, and eventually, I had a bicycle accident in which I almost died. I had a pretty traumatic brain injury. It took me about a month to be able to think straight again.

When I recovered from that bike injury, I remember looking at my wife and saying, “I am going to die. I almost died out there.” My personality right here in my brain smashed against the tree at 40 miles an hour, which will change that when we die.

I won’t exist anymore. My identity will be gone. This is all we get. “You are right about this,” she said. “You should be getting a job. I do not think you can be a professional Christian anymore. There is nothing left.”

When I told people that when I told her, I told my friends, “I am not a Christian anymore. I am a post-Christian. I am done.” They are all acting as if I was coming out gay, “I do not believe in God.” They were like, “We knew you did not believe in God. We wondered when you’d figure it out.”

“You are trying so hard to stay in; you have not believed in a God that does anything for a long time.” So, that was my moment of realization. Then the question that comes, “Do you still love loving relationships, and community building?”

If you still believe in making the world a better place, if you think that is the best way to live, how do you do that in a secular way? Where the secular community of people, of nice people, that want to get together and help each other, become more loving and do more good and make the world a better place, I went looking for that community.

That was the beginning of my humanist journey.

Jacobsen: How did your way of looking at the world, and speaking about the world, change when you had the confirmation from people outside of you who affirmed that lack of former belief?

Campolo: At that point, you have a choice if you are a guy like me. There are tremendous numbers of Christian ministers, who stop believing in the supernatural God, and take on a more materialistic worldview.

But they continue the Christian language, so when they say, “God, the universal Jesus, the general idea of Love and Redemption.” They wrapped their secular worldview in Christian language, so that they can stay in the church.

Someone has to make a wise decision. You got families. You got jobs. They are not in a position to be openly secular. There are real, and even moral, concerns that devastate people. They will put our people’s lives at risk; they will put themselves at risk.

For me, I was in a position where that is the one option. One option is you. You become one of these people that were there for Rob Bell, or my friend Mike Charge, or people that are in that world like Rachel Held Evans who recently died. She was one of those.

She would even say, “Some days, some days, I do not know.” She loved the Christian community and wanted to stay in it. I knew about those people. I knew there were lots of those people. What I was aware of is, first, that wasn’t going to work for me because I am not a person who does well at holding my tongue, or speaking in the cheerful language.

My rap as a Christian minister was, “Oh, that is the guy who’s authentic. He’ll tell you what he thinks. That is why my theology is always changing. I would change my mind. That is what I am talking about now.”

So, it wasn’t an option for me to extend the radar. But the other thing, as I started to be open about being secular, I would meet lots and lots of people who would say, “I used to be a Christian too. I am secular. I miss it. I miss the music. I miss youth group trips. I miss getting together with a bunch of nice people once a week and encouraging each other to be more loving.”

They missed the community. They miss the community that would say, “Hey man, ‘Couldn’t you build a community like that? Couldn’t you build a church for people who do not believe in God?’” That became a real fixation for me.

There are people who, even tose within the ultra-progressive form of Christianity, who do not believe that supernaturalism is an option for them. Sometimes, they say what they mean. Sometimes, they have been hurt by that structure or marginalized by the structure in a way that feels too painful. They have all sorts of bad associations for me.

So, I was for the one or two people of the secular because I wanted to try to figure out what openly secular communities of people who pursue love as a way of life looks like, as enacted in the real world. That is what I want to work on, now.

100 years from now, the vast majority of people are going to have a hard time believing in that kind of supernaturalism. But those people are still going to need a community. Those people are still going to need pastoral care. Those people are still going to need somebody to help them figure out how and what they believe, as a worldview translates into everyday life: “If you believe this, you should live this way. This is logical. This is the content. If this is true, then this is the only sensible way to pursue something.”

Not everybody thinks that we never figured that out. So, throughout history, people have organized, “You are pretty good at articulating those ideas. That’ll help the rest of us get on with our lives.” So, I was interested in what would it mean to be one of those people that articulates the idea of loving kindness.

Not only have a response to the reality of human finitude, but perhaps the most promising vision. Certainly, that is best for me. But I am sure there is a bell curve and loving-kindness isn’t going to work as a way of life for everybody [Laughing], but the vast majority of people are in that bell curve.

That is human tribalism. We are a pack animal. We do not do well in isolation. We need to feel connected. There are certain practices and techniques and messages that have, historically, not been in Christianity, but across all cultures.

If you research stuff, then you get this stuff that works for most people. People need this ritual. They need some structure. They need a sense of mission, a sense of doing something, within their part of something bigger than themselves.

So, I am interested in trying to figure out how do you organize people in such a way that they thrive. Because human thriving is the thing I care about the most now.

Jacobsen: How does this translate into the work, in terms of the humanist chaplaincy at the University of Cincinnati?

Campolo: I got inspired. What happened to me, I was looking around, “What do you do if you are a minister who no longer believes in God? What do you do if you still want to interact with people in that way?”

Where you are trying to help people get through life, help them work through relationship problems, and help them find meaning and purpose, a friend of mine handed me a book, Good Without God by Greg Epstein.

He was the humanist chaplain at Harvard. I read it. I thought, “Oh man, it sounds like something I could wrap my head around or something. I can get behind this.” I called him up. I said, “Hey, can I come out there and talk to Harvard and spend a weekend?”

It sounded like every youth group. I was around a bunch of nice kids, hugging each other, pulling out books and reading them, and swapping ideas about how these books can be applied to the business of being a good person.

They were going on trips to help those who are less fortunate. Craig was good at this. So, he ended up introducing me to the humanist chaplain at USC campus in the California University system.  That guy said, “Man, we want to have a humanist chaplain here. I cannot pay you, but I can give you an office.”

So, I moved to LA. I became a humanist chaplain at USC for three years. It was a wonderful experience. I loved it. Then ultimately, my wife said, “I would rather live at home with our friends in Cincinnati. Can we do this back home?”

We ended up moving back to Cincinnati. When I first showed up at USC, the religious groups were on campus. I was there to debate them.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Campolo: They thought, “Oh slithered, he comes.” They thought I was going to be an angry atheist club where we get out there and have signs, “Graveyards of the gods,” and make fun of people who believe in God and point out the ridiculousness of that business.

I have no interest in reconverting all these Christians that are running around. Half of the campus does not believe in God at all. I am not sure how to convince Christians to give up their belief in God.

I am here to convince secular people that they should do something more important than making rich people rich for the rest of their lives. If this is the only life that you have, there are implications. How can I maximize life? How can I die if I invested in the most wonderful way?

So, I wasn’t trying to convert Christians to secularism. I was trying to convert secular people into meaning, purpose, and love as a way of life. Our little secular fellowship became a place where the conversation was not, “How do we undermine Christianity?”

It became a place where it is, “How do we make the most of this life? How can we use this to build better relationships? How can we use that to make the world a better place for other people? How can we use this information to help be more thankful and more grateful for the privilege of being a human being?”

Data suggests: people who are grateful, who make a difference in the world, who have loving relationships, end up thriving and having a great sense of well-being and flourishing in every way.

For me, my pursuit of this stuff is driven by my conviction that this life is all we have. I am obsessed with the question, “How do we make the most of this life?” The interesting thing is as my hero Robert Ingersoll once said, “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so.”

There is a set of data to suggest that mirror neurons are natural. We are hardwired. When we feel that we are meaningfully contributing to the tribe, we have a sense of peace, well-being, purpose, and value.

Jacobsen: How do you work within that context now, where the community is more built for humanists on the University of Cincinnati campus?

Campolo: In the simplest analysis, you go out to campus with a table. You put up a sign that says, “Are you a humanist?” Kids walk by and they go, “I do not know. What is a humanist?” You go, “You give us your definition of human.”

When I was in Christianity, I was so embarrassed by the other Christians, sometimes. These Christians are burning down this and they are doing that, because I am not that Christian. I am not one of those.

There are many different kinds of Christians. It is the same with humanism or atheism. There are many different kinds. So, when they say to me, “Are you humanist?” For me, humanism means that you are pursuing all these values, but you do not believe in God. They state the values. Half of the time the kid goes, “Oh my gosh, that is me. I do not believe in God, but those values are important to me.”

We say, “Oh, you should join our gang.” All the data would suggest that you can have the finest values in the world, but you are only to live them now. Whether it is working out, political activism, or losing weight, people need to band together to try to pursue their values together.

They are more successful together than in isolation, “Hey, you should band together with us. If those are your values, let us pursue them together.” It is someone going, “I am too busy for that,” compared to someone going, “That sounds great.”

That is enough, So, ultimately, on a campus like the University of Cincinnati, the main thing needed is putting up a flag and saying, “This is what we are doing over here. Anybody want to do this with us?’

It is Organizing 101. It is not complicated. The question is, “When they show up in the meeting, can we organize a meeting that makes people train leaders?” In that, when somebody walks into the meeting, they feel, “Oh my gosh, I like these people.”

This group with these people is making me a better person. Because, ultimately, whether people do not go to church, mosque, synagogue, or anywhere for long, they must feel some benefit out of it.

Of the secular groups met by me, they say, “We are promoting this idea.” How long can the idea keep people engaged? At some level, people want to be part of something that makes their life better.

So, you have to build a group offering friendship, meaning, and an opportunity to serve, where people think, “Oh my gosh, this is going to help me now. That is going to help me in my life.” It is not hard to provide this for people. Then they have some friend whose life is floundering.

They can say, “You should come to this group. They are nice. It helped me. That is how a group grows organically. It is not by putting up a million posters. It is by pulling people together in a joyful way for them. It is them saying, “Hey, does anybody else want to enjoy the same experience? Bring them along.”

Jacobsen: What are some issues of students who come to the humanist chaplaincy at the University of Cincinnati when it comes to personal problems, academic problems, and worldview problems?

Campolo: They are the personal problems of saying, “My whole life: my mother’s dying of cancer. My boyfriend broke up with me. I do not know what to do after graduation. I am flunking this course. I am struggling with drugs and alcohol.”

It is this human stuff to address those questions differently than a Christian or a Muslim chaplain. A different way of addressing those kinds of problems. “I got raped.” Those happen on college campuses. When you are a caring adult who is hanging out your sign and saying, “I am interested. I’d like to hear about your life.”

It isn’t hard to find kids who do not look for somebody who cares about the life of kids who come from families that are not super supportive. So, that problem is exacerbated if you are growing up in Cincinnati, or in the Midwest of the United States, which is a fairly conservative area.

So, if these kids come to school, and if they come from Christian families, and if they are geeks who do not believe, then when they have those problems; they have another problem, which is the system.

They begin to think, “The way of thinking that I used to use to solve these problems does not work for me anymore. So, I need a new framework for the other things. My parents are talking to me,” or, “I do not know how to talk to my parents.”

“How do we bridge this gap at Thanksgiving this year?”, or, “I am gay. My Christian family does not have a space for me,” or, “I am gay. He does not have a space for me, but they are always praying for me in a way that makes me uncomfortable.”

So, for my students, it is navigating their relationships with believers in a way that is both, loving and kind, on the one hand, but also authentic and not demeaning. Those are challenges. We spent a lot of time talking about that stuff.

Academically, stuff comes up in the classroom. However, the fact of the matter is most classes and most public universities are taught from a fairly secular perspective. Everybody might be a Christian, but when they are teaching macroeconomics or neurobiology; that stuff does not enter into it.

So, most of the academic problems are run of the mill. Their relational problems are often specific to a secular person living in the Christian world.

Jacobsen: How do you expect the humanist chaplaincy at the University of Cincinnati and other American universities to grow into the near future?

Campolo: Very, slowly.

Jacobsen: How so?

Campolo: There is no money in it. Most of the money that is available to people in organized secular stuff is for church and state separation and to bash Christian stuff. It is New Atheism oriented.

This is community building. When I was in the USC, I was trying to raise money for it. People ask, “Why would you want to pay somebody to create meaningful experiences for kids who are already the most privileged kids in the world?”

I can understand that. Eventually, it dawned on me. The only people that are going to support my work, my ministry to students at USC, are humanists who graduated from USC, who were touched by this work.

So, it takes a while before you can have enough graduates that they become alumni donors. However, that is how all campus organizations work in terms of finances. It has always been financed by people for whom the stuff was meaningful while they were there.

Then they turn around and finance it for other people. So, we do not have enough of a track record. Not too many people are looking over their shoulders and paying it backwards. I make my living as a podcaster doing counselling and coaching for people via Skype.

All over the world. People who are going through religious transitions, working through relational issues. I do not make a living as a humanist chaplain. It is an identity that I value. I do it as a volunteer.

So, it’ll grow slowly, but, ultimately, there will be humanist communities that will look at college campuses and say, “Oh my gosh, if there is ever a moment in a person’s life when we should try to influence them, and turn it into a force for good in the world, then it is while they are in college.”

Every other movement knows this. Eventually, humanists will figure this out, “Oh my gosh, if we turn those kids on to this way of life, they would be humanists for life.” They would make a difference in the world.

Jacobsen: Any recommended speakers or authors?

Campolo: Ultimately, the single person that has been the most influential on me as a humanist is Robert Ingersoll, who lived some hundred years ago, the great agnostic around Lincoln’s time. Ingersoll was the first person I encountered that took a secular worldview and made it sing.

He recognized our land has the best story in the world to tell, but hitherto we have not told it in a way that is compelling emotionally. Ingersoll understood that: if you are rational, then you’d be smart enough to realize that you cannot speak to people’s reason.

But the way to move people into different kinds of behaviours is not to speak to the reasons, but to speak to their hearts. So, he was the first person who said to me, “Hey, a guy you who can tell a story, who can hold crowd, and who can throw a party that makes people feel welcome, to touch people and reach them in that way. There is a need for that on the secular side of things.”

Because, ultimately, I do not think you win people to a better way of life by winning the argument and few people are married to doing what they are doing, because they did some cost-benefit analysis and it proved to be that was the rational choice.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Campolo: That is in behavioural economics. People are rational actors. So, if you want to make a difference in the world, if you want to help people into a better way of life, and a better way of thinking, you better learn to speak to their hearts. Ingersoll was my dude for that.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Bart.

Campolo: Hey, thanks for talking to me.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

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