The Evangelical Scion Who Stopped Believing

The son of a famous pastor, Bart Campolo is now a rising star of atheism — using the skills he learned in the world he left behind.

But as he took stock of the rest of his life, Campolo decided that there was no reason an atheist couldn’t still be a minister too. Instead of comforting people with the good news of Jesus, he’d preach secular humanism, a kinder cousin of atheism. He’d help them accept that we’re all going to die, that this life is all there is and that therefore we have to make the most of our brief, glorious time on earth. And he would spread this message using the best evangelical techniques — the same ones he had mastered as a Christian.

 

One morning in the summer of 2011 Bart Campolo left his house in Cincinnati for a long bicycle ride. Goateed and bald, but still trim and fit at 48, Campolo was the envy of his generation of evangelical pastors. That morning, Campolo was, as usual, a little self-conscious about his attire. “I feel ridiculous in my spandex,” he says. Years of pickup basketball had wrecked his ankles, leaving regular bicycle treks as his only form of exercise. But he was excited to do 30 or 40 miles through the rolling southern Ohio hills.

Normally his bike rides were his time to think — about his family, his ministry and his increasingly complex relationship with his Christian faith. But he has no memory of his thoughts that day. He left the house, and the next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital. “And I don’t remember anything else,” he says.

He was later able to piece together bits of what happened. There were skid marks on the hill where he was found, and these suggested he had crossed a lane of traffic. The speedometer he was wearing recorded his velocity at that moment: 40 miles per hour. His helmet was cracked in four spots, and his bicycle had been left, undamaged, on the side of the road. It seems he hit a patch of soft dirt and flew headfirst into a tree. A fellow cyclist found him wandering in the middle of the road. When he got to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, a doctor asked him who was president. He said George Bush — meaning the father, not the son.

For most of his life, Campolo had gone from success to success. His father, Tony, was one of the most important evangelical Christian preachers of the last 50 years, a prolific author and an erstwhile spiritual adviser to Bill Clinton. The younger Campolo had developed a reputation of his own, running successful inner-city missions in Philadelphia and Ohio and traveling widely as a guest preacher. An extreme extrovert, he was brilliant before a crowd and also at ease in private conversations, connecting with everyone from country-club suburbanites to the destitute souls he often fed in his own house. He was a role model for younger Christians looking to move beyond the culture wars over abortion or homosexuality and get back to Jesus’ original teachings. Now, lying in a hospital bed, he wasn’t sure what he believed any more.

For weeks, he cried constantly. He had lost whole patches of memory. When he finally healed, after about a month, he had a thought about life — or, rather, the afterlife. The thought was: There is no afterlife. “After the bike crash,” Campolo says, “I was like, ‘A, this is it, and B, you don’t know how much of it you’ve got.’ ”

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