May 17, 2023

Why I'm a Humanist, Why I'm a Christian with Bart Campolo

Inside This Episode

It’s Justin Brierley’s debut episode as guest host of Maybe God! Justin begins by moderating a lively discussion between Secular Humanist Bart Campolo and Maybe God host and Christian pastor Eric Huffman. Bart Campolo, son of famous pastor Tony Campolo, was the very first guest on Maybe God five years ago, but the conversation didn’t quite go as the Maybe God team had hoped. With Justin’s help, round two is much more fruitful; both Bart and Eric explore what caused them to completely changed their worldviews about 10 years ago and what challenges them most about the other’s current worldview. 

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Julie Mirlicourtois: Hey everyone. Welcome back to the show. My name is Julie Mirlicourtois and I'm the producer of both the Maybe God podcast and our first-ever documentary series that's based on an episode of the podcast. The four-part series is called Across. And it's the story of what happens when American Christians set aside their politics and witness the humanity and unwavering faith of Central American asylum seekers firsthand. Across has already won multiple awards, and this very timely Docuseries will be released on June 20th, 2023 for World Refugee Day.

If you'd like to learn more, the official trailer is now live on our website, that's, and also on Maybe God's YouTube channel. We'd be so grateful if everyone listening today would watch the trailer, share it with friends and subscribe to our email list for updates on the June release. Special screening events we'll be hosting later in the summer. Thanks in advance for your support of this huge nearly four-year undertaking. Now enjoy this episode of Maybe God.


Justin Brierley: Hello, and welcome back to the Maybe God Podcast. I'm Justin Brierley, and I'm absolutely thrilled to be guest-hosting this week's edition of the show. And today I'm back in my sweet spot really, hosting a dialogue on Christianity and humanism. Eric Huffman, your usual host is going to be in the guest seat this time explaining why he's a Christian, opposite humanist guest Bart Campolo.

Now longtime listeners of this show may know that Bart was the very first guest on the Maybe God podcast some five years ago. But his dialogue with Eric went a little bit off the rails or so I've heard. They can tell us more about that. So I'm here to moderate a round two, if you will. So welcome to Bart and Eric. Thank you both for joining me on the show today.

Eric Huffman: Thank you.

Bart Campolo: You're welcome. So that's why you're here, Justin because the last one went badly?

Justin Brierley: Well, I'm gonna hear from Eric. I'm gonna get Eric's point of view on this, just how he thinks it went. But let me just give a bit of an intro to both of you before we hear what happened last time round. Eric obviously is the pastor of The Story Church, Houston. Regular listeners of Maybe God will know his story. But although Eric has been in church ministry most of his life, he says it was only actually about 10 years ago that he truly came to believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He'll be explaining today why he finds the Christian story to be the most compelling explanation of reality, and why he calls himself a Christian.

Bart is of course the son of famous preacher and church leader Tony Campolo and was himself involved in church ministry for many years. However, again, about 10 years ago, he publicly announced his deconversion. Bart has since worked in humanist chaplaincy and hosts the podcast Humanize Me. He'll be explaining why he believes atheism makes best sense of reality and why he calls himself a humanist.

I'll make sure, of course, that there are links to both of my guests as well in the links with today's show. So Eric and Bart, again, welcome to the show. And as I said, this is a bit of a replay or a rematch, if you will. Though, I don't think we're looking for fisticuffs or anything combative today.

Eric, maybe just fill us in on what happened last time, some five years ago, the very first episode of the Maybe God podcast. What are your recollections of your dialogue with Bart that day?

Eric Huffman: Well, I have relived it many times over and I'm sure that Bart has not. Bart does many, many interviews and he gives more interviews than I could ever do myself. And I think that's a wonderful thing. But because it was our first episode and it was my first interview, it has stuck in my memory. And I'll be honest, it hasn't always or even it hasn't ever been a good memory for me as I look back. That's not because of Bart. I think that's mostly because of me.

Not really knowing what I was doing as a podcaster, I sort of positioned myself both as interviewer and defender of Christianity. So I was kind of trying to fill two roles at once. I also think I might have, in many ways, underestimated Bart's worldview and his ability to articulate that worldview really persuasively and beautifully in many instances. So I was, admittedly, on my heels.

And yes, Bart, the answer to your question, the short answer is, yes, that is the reason that Justin is here is because I've been carrying this around even though you probably have very little, if any, recollection of that conversation. I've carried it around for five years now. Not so much haunted by it, but just feeling troubled by how I maybe came across to you and to any of our listeners.

Bart Campolo: Wow.

Eric Huffman: I think I was a bit combative. I think I fell short of the kind of character that I would expect of my kids or people in my church to have in a situation like that. I was not quick to listen. I was way quicker to speak than to listen. And I just kind of wanted a chance to say, in a way, you know, I'm sorry for that. I know you get a lot of flak and a lot of stuff from Christians that tend to be not very Christian in the way they come across. I just regret pouring any more fuel on that fire and hope we can have a more fruitful conversation today.

Bart Campolo: Oh, wow. That's such a beautiful and very human experience, isn't it? I mean, I think all of us have five or ten encounters in our lives, you know, or maybe more or less that we go like, "Oh, that didn't go the way I wanted it to?" or "Oh, if I could do that conversation over again."

I mean, I remember encounters in high school where I said something and watched somebody's face kind of fall and realized I had hurt their feelings, and they haunt me to this day. I actually went to my 30th high school reunion and a kid who had bullied me when I was 12 years old later became my friend, and we never spoke to the bullying again and then we didn't see each other for 30 years.

He said, "Hey, do you remember when we were little kids?" And he burst into tears, and he said, "I do. I'm so sorry." And he sort of explained to me what was going on for him as a kid at that time and his family and everything. I think we all have these experiences of a conversation. It might not be a momentous one, but like something that sits wrong with us. So I'm glad to have the opportunity to be back.

Justin Brierley: Well, I'm glad you're back and I'm glad to have the privilege of moderating this second dialogue. I did actually go back and listen to it, as I said, Eric, and I think you were maybe a little bit hard on yourself. I thought you didn't come across as uncivil in any way to me. But I'll let listeners go and listen back in the archive, if they want to, to be the judge of that. But-

Eric Huffman: Well, yes, I will also add that the full interview didn't make the final episode. There were parts of it where our producers were like, "No, we're not putting that out there." So I was probably more vitriolic throughout the interview than the listeners might know.

Justin Brierley: Hopefully there won't have to be too much editing of today's discussion in that case.

Eric Huffman: I agree.

Justin Brierley: Let's talk a little bit. It's great to hear those recollections of what happened five years ago. Five years is a long time though. So Bart fill us in a little bit on your journey. Because obviously the last time you were on you obviously spelled out your story, which you've told in various locations about your own deconversion and so on at the time. As well you had written a book with your father, there was a documentary as well about the different directions you'd gone as it were. I know that the last few years have been tough, though. I know that Tony had a stroke in 2020, didn't he?

Bart Campolo: Yeah, yeah. Right at the beginning of COVID, my folks were doing really well. Like what's interesting is I would call them and they would say, "This lockdown thing isn't so bad for us." They were living in a retirement community. They had never spent a tremendous amount of time, extended time together. He would always be traveling somewhere. They would come and go and meet up.

They were always like, "Our relationship sort of depended on, you know, sort of being episodic," and they were surprised at how well they were enjoying just being together all the time until my dad had a stroke. And the stroke really was a pretty devastating blow. I mean, he ended up in a wheelchair. His speech wasn't... It still isn't. I mean, it's much better now than it was the beginning. But his speech wasn't flowing. And there was a long period of time where he was not sure how far he could come back. And he was determined to come back and wanting to walk again, wanting to preach again, wanting to be out there again.

And as you can imagine, for somebody like my dad whose whole life has been about being that guy, it's been a pretty hard, a bitter pill to swallow and to like not be that guy anymore and not be able to travel and speak. It's really interesting. My dad had this great sermon years ago about what he learned from the hippies. And one of the lines I remember he said, "Who you are is more important than what you do." And I talked to him about that since, and I said, "You know, Dad, I know this great sermon you really need to listen to." Because he's really struggled with that. His identity was really caught up with what he did.

Justin Brierley: There's always a difference between the theory and the practice. That's for sure. But please do send him our love and our best wishes because I have a real soft spot for Tony. I've interacted with him at least a couple of times in my professional capacity over the years, and I've always enjoyed his speaking and his radio shows, and so on. So yeah, do send him my love.

Bart Campolo: I will. And you know, I'll tell you this, I mean, just because there's probably people listening to this podcast, the older ones who, you know, kind of sort of remember, he spoke in my youth camp, or, you know, he spoke at our convention. And I would say my dad still... Like, what's inside, like his mind is still there. He and I still have a lot. We talk every day. We have lots of really interesting conversations.

And you might think like, "Should I send Tony Campolo an email or a card? Should I track down his address and stuff like that?" I'm like, "You should?"

Justin Brierley: Yeah, absolutely.

Bart Campolo: You're just like, "I always wanted to ask Tony Campo to pray for me about this." Now would be a good time to ask him. He wants to be relevant in the kingdom of God still. So if you ever have a thought, like, I want to... And I think it's not just Tony Campolo. I think there are a lot of people that you go like, "Oh, they probably wouldn't want to hear from me." I think like, they probably would.

Justin Brierley: The encouragement never gets old, that's for sure. Eric, I'm sure you have benefited yourself over the years from Tony's ministry.

Eric Huffman: Absolutely. I mean, I grew up in the Bible Belt, the son and grandson and great-grandson of preachers and lots of tent revivals in my upbringing, and things like that. We had cassette tapes of Tony Campolo's sermons. I, to this day, will make a Tony Campolo joke almost every week, almost every Friday, because maybe his most famous sermon is "It's Friday, but Sunday's Coming," which is meant to be a word of hope, and exuberance for the average listener.

But when you're a preacher and you've got a sermon that's due by Sunday, "it's Friday but Sunday is coming" takes a different meaning. My wife and I will keep that one around that every week because I'm a procrastinator. But I have long appreciated Tony, and I hope you'll give Him our best.

Bart Campolo: I sure will.

Eric Huffman: And I do encourage all our listeners to reach out. Maybe in our show notes we can put an email address or something if we can track that down for folks to reach out.

Bart Campolo: Yeah, yeah, that would be great.

Justin Brierley: Let's talk about your journey again. And I guess for the benefit of those who maybe haven't heard it, maybe you could give a really quick potted history of what happened with yourself, the fact that you were obviously in urban ministry for a long time, youth ministry, but that all kind of gradually started to come apart. As I say, it was about 10 years ago that you finally announced your deconversion. Tell us sort of some of the key factors that led up to that particular moment.

Bart Campolo: I will. As you intimated, Justin, if anyone wants to know my story, it is ridiculously well-documented out there in the world. So you could Google my name and you will find it. So I won't belabor you with all these details. I mean, the bottom line is I grew up in the household of Tony Campolo. And sometimes people would assume that if you're the son of a great Baptist evangelist that I sort of sprang from the womb praising Jesus.

And the truth of the matter is, is as a young person growing up, I really loved and admired my dad, and I was around the church stuff all the time. I sincerely believed that my dad believed in God. I thought it was all neat. I wasn't like this rebellious preacher's kid who thought, you know, it's all garbage. I just didn't find it compelling. I just didn't believe in the narrative. It didn't make sense to me. But I didn't say very much about that. You know, I just kind of went along.

And as I got older, when I was in high school, I was a soccer player, I didn't... Soccer took me farther and farther away from going to church on Sundays and stuff like that. My parents sort of wisely let it go. They were sort of like, "We're not going to force this guy down his throat."

But when I was in high school on the soccer team, a kid on my high school took me to his youth group. And it was one of these big mega-church youth groups with rock and roll bands and lots of excitement and lots of energy. I was overwhelmed to walk into this room. That seemed to me like a club for nice people. These are the nicest kids I've ever met. Everybody was warm and kind and loving to each other.

And as a high school kid, I was just like, "Wow, I want to be part of this group." I was really attracted to the community. You know, it doesn't take you long to figure out that they're evangelical Christians. Of course, I knew that language. And so I kind of went along. You know, hung out with those people, did the thing.

And somewhere in that process, you know, you're hanging out with the Christian youth group sort of faking it till you make it and you end up on some retreat, standing around a campfire with 300 kids singing our God is an awesome God, and I kind of had a transcendent moment where I felt like, "This is real." I felt something. It came alive for me and God became real to me. Of course, you know, I was at a Christian retreat when I had this transcendent moment as it sort of confirmed Christianity to me, and I was in. And then I was in for a long time.

Justin Brierley: Yeah, you were. The 30 years or so of ministry. I think I remember, you know, having spoken to you about this in the past, it was obviously a gradual process, but it was, I think, around 2011 when you had an accident that kind of naturalistic or atheistic worldview became for you suddenly a real option on the table. I think you'd had lots of intellectual doubts up to that point about Christianity. You'd struggled with various doctrines and so on. You had probably moved more and more into a kind of progressive view of Christianity. But there was a point at which I think you decided, no, I think I have to get out altogether. I mean, can you kind of pinpoint? Was there a point where you just decided, no, I don't think I can believe in God anymore? Was that what it boiled down to?

Bart Campolo: Yeah. I mean, I think people sometimes ask me, When did you begin losing your faith in God? I started struggling with Orthodox Christian theology about five minutes after I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I mean, all the doctrines, all the supernatural stuff, heaven, hell, you know, people rising from the dead, flying off into heaven, all that stuff, that was never the attraction of Christianity to me. That was the price of admission. Like, you get to be a part of this community that's promoting loving kindness as a way of life and it's trying to reach out to people and bring them into community, but you gotta believe this. And it was always hard for me to believe that stuff.

And then very quickly I got caught up in urban ministry. I was like the first stage in my Christian journey. And from then on I was in a lot of neighborhoods where we would pray for really basic stuff. God stopped that little girl from getting gang raped at home. Get this woman off the streets and homelessness. Save that kid from the gunshot wound. So that long process was kind of in some ways... yeah, there were theological things and parts of the Bible that didn't make sense to me, that didn't seem to fit together. But there was also kind of a thousand and one answered prayers.

So gradually sort of I stopped... But I didn't just quit. I just kept changing my theology to sort of match the reality I saw around me. But that bike accident, after years of sort of drifting and like, "Okay, I think God's okay with gay people. And okay, I think everybody is gonna go to heaven. I don't think the health thing really makes sense..." I became more and more liberal, more and more progressive in my Christianity. And I always tell people, the last God I believed in, He was perfect. He agreed with me on everything. We were in lockstep. I mean, He didn't do anything but He was really wonderful. And He wasn't responsible for anything.

So what happened was I just kept dialing back the supernaturalism. But when I had this bike crash and I almost got killed on this bike, and I had a brain injury and for about a month I couldn't think straight, when I recovered, it didn't change anything about my belief system. But I just looked at my wife and I was thinking, like, "I almost died and I'm gonna die." Like death became... You know, theoretically, I knew I was gonna die, but I'm gonna die.

And I was also like, "and I think my identity is right here in my brain. Like you smash it against a tree at 40 miles an hour, it changes." And I think that when it breaks down, I'll be dead, I won't exist anymore. This is it. And then my wife was like, "Look, man, there's nothing left for you of Christianity. There's nothing like it. You don't believe in any of it."

Justin Brierley: That's interesting. So in a way, it was your wife who sort of said, "Look, let's just accept this is kind of no longer a thing." Obviously, there was that change, as you've written elsewhere, a kind of materialist view of the world that we are, in the end, just-

Bart Campolo: I think this is all there is.

Justin Brierley: ...and there really is nothing else. Well, look, thank you for kind of spelling the story out perhaps for those who haven't been so familiar with it. We're kind of doing this in two parts. We're kind of hearing your story and then we're going to hear Eric's story now because I want to kind of use this as an opportunity to really compare and contrast the two different stories you have. And then we'll do some interaction between you both on the different aspects of this.

What struck me quite forcefully, though, Eric, as I sort of mentioned in the intro was that just as Bart kind of had his deconversion moment around 10 years ago, it was around 10 years ago, you kind of had your conversion moment interestingly. Again, I know a lot of Maybe God listeners will have heard this story too.

Eric Huffman: I don't think.

Justin Brierley: But just briefly sketch this one out, especially for all the new listeners who will be coming for Justin as well for this episode who maybe don't know your story. But seriously, just tell us what happened and why the trajectory went in a different direction for you.

Eric Huffman: Sure. No, I love Bart's story. And I love comparing our stories because they're so similar in almost every respect. The same storylines, just in opposite directions. I find that fascinating on some level. So I grew up as Christian as you can be. I don't think I knew anyone who didn't call themself a Christian, you know, for the first 10 years of my life in Red Lick, Texas. You were you just Christian. There was only one box to check. You know, it's just the way it was.

So I sort of accepted it all, hook, line, and sinker. I wasn't a doubtful kid. I mean, I asked questions at church, but our church was a Methodist Church. It wasn't like a hardcore, you know, sort of a fundamentalist church where you couldn't ask questions. I was allowed to ask questions. And, you know, some of the answers I got were really satisfactory and others weren't. But I was a kid and I just trusted God and I trusted the people who taught me about God but I didn't really understand, at that point, how limited, I guess, that worldview was until, you know, age-old story, kid from a small town, Christian kid goes off to college and gets corrupted. I know it's a little bit overplayed, but it's part of my story.

And just like Bart experienced a sort of aha moment at that church event camp he talked about with the worship and all of the show and everything was going on, I experienced something very similar in that it was this novel community of intellectuals on my college campus led by some very persuasive professors in the religion and philosophy departments of that school, where there was a different kind of acceptance and a different standard of what is good and what works and what we talked about and what we're all about.

And it was an eye-opening thing. I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be the smart guy in the room. I didn't want to be like all those people back home. You know, there's a lot of very typical college rebelliousness going on in that narrative. But it wasn't just a momentary thing. It was the first domino to fall in many others.

And over the next 13 years, from age 20 to age 33 or so, I was, I think, I guess, a Christian atheist. I still called myself Christ follower. I refused to call myself a Christian. I just thought that was an abrasive and undesirable brand. The white conservative Christians that I knew were sort of like the bane of my existence. I protested against them and everything they stood for. I organized sort of social protests and marches in favor of, you know, everything from a woman's right to choose to open border and more compassionate immigration policies and things like that, and some things I still believe in, other things I don't. But the point is I was very socially active-

Justin Brierley: Bart wants to come in. Yes, go ahead, Bart.

Bart Campolo: Were you in the church at that time or were you doing some other job?

Eric Huffman: I was a United Methodist student pastor and then an ordained pastor during that time. I was pretty good at telling people why the Bible shouldn't be trusted and why we can take parts of the Bible but let's not get crazy and talk about it being completely true. I spent a lot of time preaching angry sermons talking about why Christians are missing the point and why conservatives especially are way off. They're the Pharisees of today and all that stuff.

And yet, toward the end of that part of my journey, I began, just like Bart, began to see problems with the Christian perspective. He was sort of awash in and living in. I began to see problems with this sort of secular liberal world that I was a part of then. Having left a deep south small town that was 99.9% White and very conservative and all that, I thought I had escaped things like bigotry and racism. I thought going into intellectual sort of secular mindset and community was where, you know, all those things went to die.

But I began to pick up on things that bothered me. Like in the liberal Methodist circles I was in at the time, there was a dispute in the church about LGBTQ marriage and ordination that was really picking up steam in those days, and my liberal friends would sort of initially behind closed doors, but eventually they came out of the closet with this, so to speak. It was this idea that because we're a global church, we need the votes from the African constituency to pass what we wanted, which at that point in my life, I wanted a full inclusion in terms of ordination and marriage of LGBT people. But we need Africa to get on board.

And the narrative within the liberal circles was, well, those people, they'll catch up, eventually. If we'll just give them time, if we'll educate them in our understanding and our ways of the world, eventually, those sort of rudimentary thinking people, those sort of, you know... it was a very condescending perspective that us White liberal, supposedly open-minded people that were the inclusive ones were taking in terms of our African brothers and sisters, was very much ego centric, it was very much sort of White western centered thinking. And it struck me as arrogant.

There were other examples of just what one person, I think it was maybe George W. Bush, who I hated at that time in my life, and here I am quoting him. But he coined the phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations" I started to pick up on that and other sins of the secular left that I had called home.

And then as those sorts of doubts were simmering, I ended up on a trip to the Holy Land, my first ever trip to the Holy Land, where I was, frankly, I guess, I was sort of ready for it after having doubted some of my preconceptions going into that trip. But I was absolutely floored by what I saw and was taught on the ground on in the Holy Land, especially in Galilee, the realities of Jesus' historical existence, the undeniable sort of historical reality of His existence: that He walked the earth, that He died on a Roman cross, seems to be a pretty undeniable, historical fact. And that in the aftermath of his death, there were devout Jewish people in small towns worshipping Him, not just as a man but as God.

I was presented with really compelling evidence of that third fact, especially in Capernaum. I had what Bart called the transcendent experience that really brought me to my knees. It was overwhelming conversion moment, a Damascus Road moment, I won't deny that. And yeah, still had years of working things out to do. I'm still working through some of my things. And we're all in evolutionary process in terms of our faith and understanding, I agree with Bart on that, and yet, in some ways, everything changed for me that day in 2013.

Justin Brierley: It's really interesting, as I say, to hear both of your stories and the different trajectories they've been on. You've both really helpfully explained, you know, the journey that took you, in your case, Bart to atheism. Though, I don't know about whether you describe yourself as an atheist. I'm not sure that's a label you're particularly keen on. Do you prefer just going with a humanist? What's your preferred preference?

Bart Campolo: I mean, I think that atheist is... it's even non-theist I would be a little more comfortable with. But in terms of atheist in our common parlance, it almost seems like somebody who's against theism or against belief.

Justin Brierley: So is it the baggage that comes with that term that you're wary of?

Bart Campolo: I think, you know, technically speaking, just intellectually speaking, the most I would ever call myself is an agnostic. You can't prove a negative. So I can't prove to you that there's no God. God might be hiding on the other side of Venus in a thimble, you know, waiting to come out. Well, I'm agnostic in the sense of like I don't know.

But the reason I call myself a humanist is because I don't want to be defined so much... But I mean, for all practical purposes, I'm an atheist. I'm also agnostic about whether or not, you know, Justin Bieber has deposited a million dollars in a bank account with my name on it but I don't live like a millionaire. I'm agnostic about God, but I don't make any decisions based on God's reality or intervention in my life. But what I will say is I don't want to be defined by what I don't believe in. I want to be defined by what I am committed to.

Justin Brierley: And that's where the humanism comes in, I guess. So in a nutshell, would you kind of just very briefly describe what being a humanist involves?

Bart Campolo: It's a little bit asking somebody like, You know, what does it mean to be a Christian? It depends on what Christian you talk to. So I don't pretend to sort of define humanism for everybody or like it's this monolithic thing. But I say, yeah, for me, when I was at USC, as the humanist chaplain at USC, we used to put a sign out on the green that said, "Are you a humanist?" And students will come over and go like, "What do you mean? What's a humanist? I don't know."

And I'd say, "Well, you know, for us in our little community, what it means is, is that we're committed to building loving relationships and we're committed to doing work that makes things better for other people and we're committed to cultivating gratitude for the wonder of human consciousness and life, like for the opportunity to be here at all. And we don't believe in anything supernatural."

Justin Brierley: I just gonna say up to that last premise, you know, many Christians probably have agreed with you. But then obviously it's the final one that makes you a secular humanist, in that sense.

Bart Campolo: Yeah. Then you sort of go like, We've come to the conclusion that love is a better way of life on the basis of evidence, science, reason, contemplation, human experience. Like this seems to us the best way to go. And I've got a lot of data to back up the idea that it's a good way to go. But you say like, "But you guys don't believe in God." And most of the students would say, "Golly, I guess I'm a hu... if that's what it means to be a humanist, that you don't believe in God but you're committed to these values, sign me up."

Justin Brierley: Well, that's really helpful. I mean, I wonder whether we could start there, Eric, maybe with you kind of engaging with the humanism that Bart has just described there? I mean, on the surface of it, it's very good, I guess. What's not to like?

Bart Campolo: What's not to like?

Justin Brierley: And to some extent, probably a lot of what Bart just described, you could sign up to as well, Eric.

Eric Huffman: Of course.

Justin Brierley: What difference does it make the bit at the end, that we don't believe that there's a God behind any of those aspirations to live this good life?

Eric Huffman: Well, first, I would just say, again, I'm really glad to be having this conversation and I'm glad that Bart's having this conversation with us again. Because I think that, Bart, your take on your perspective is very compelling. And I think we have more in common in terms of what we value and the kind of world we hope to help create for our kids and their kids and to be a part of. I think we share a lot in common.

At the same time, at the risk of... I don't want us to devolve into sort of that same old, combative, you know, back and forth. But at the same time, I do wonder about the ontological underpinnings of your claims. You make absolute truth claims, but you don't believe in absolute truth. One thing in the past I found a little frustrating about listening to you in debates and hearing as compelling as you are of a speaker, it almost makes it more frustrating that we can't seem to pin you down on that seeming contradiction between making absolute truth claims like love is the best way to go or love is a better way to live your life. That implies a spectrum of morality or a spectrum of goodness, that you believe in and use talk as if that should be true for everyone. But at the same time, you want to hold back and say, Hey, this is just what I think and to each their own.

Bart Campolo: Absolute is a big word for any truth claim. Even the most rigid scientific mindset will sort of go like, this is the best narrative we have, this is the best explanation we have of why there's lightning, or of, you know, how moss grows, or of where the stars come from. For a long time, Galileo's vision of the universe was the top of the line science. And then Newton came along and said, "Actually..." And you go like, "What if you believed in Galileo." And you're like, "Oh, well, then you just change your mind." You go like, "Oh, that's a better explanation. That explains the facts more clearly. I'm switching over to that one."

What I would say is the evidence I've seen so far is that human beings evolved as a tribal species. We're literally one hardwired in our brains to thrive in cooperative relationships. That we don't do well as a species in isolation, that we don't do well alone. That there are chemicals in our brains that drop when we see a member of our tribes do well, that reward us for that kind of emotional connection with other people.

I just think like the longest-running sort of human trial of this stuff is what's known as the Harvard Study, where they took a bunch of young men at Harvard—this is like seven years ago—and they started studying them. Some of them were working class, some of them were upper class, some of them were students. Some of them were guys just that lived in Boston. And they just followed these people throughout their lives. And they sort of charted who lives the longest, who registers the highest degree of happiness, whose marriages stayed together.

And what they found was that, you know, it wasn't about who is the smartest or who was the richest, or who is this. The people that registered the highest degree of satisfaction were those that had a handful of close and connected, loving relationships, that were doing some work with their lives, that they felt like they make things better for other people, and that had sort of some kind of ritual or some kind of practice of gratitude and celebration for just being alive. And you're like, okay, just seems to work.

Justin Brierley: Just handing it back to you then, Eric, in that sense it's quite a practical kind of equation that Bart's worked out there. Essentially, it works. People on average are happier, more productive, healthier when they live in these, you know, happy close relationships.

Bart Campolo: Including Christian people. I mean, Christian people... One of the great reasons that I think the church has sustained for so long is because it's an incredibly well-oiled machine at providing loving relationships, work that makes a difference and practices of gratitude.

Justin Brierley: Yeah. Well, all of the stats tell us that on average people who are in a religious community do better on all of those metrics you just outlined.

Bart Campolo: Exactly.

Justin Brierley: So I don't think anyone's disputing any of that. I guess, coming back to you, though, Eric, the question is, why is just that kind of if you like practical fact of the fact that it looks better when people are doing this, not enough to kind of satisfy this sort of objective criteria that you seem to say we also need to come down to?

Eric Huffman: I appreciate that question. Bart's view of love sounds practical, but I think it can also be highly impractical in another sense to say that love because it has been useful to the human experience, to human flourishing, let's say, to borrow a term from, you know, Bart's [inaudible 00:38:02] is because it's been a helpful tool, then it's something that's worth carrying forward, then it's something that's good for us and something we should do and promote others to do as well. Because love is an evolutionary tool, then that's why it's good.

But the problem with it in my view, and Bart help me, man, because I'm listening, the problem with it is that you could replace love with lots of other things that have been helpful to the great human experience and to human flourishing that aren't as nice as love. You know, things like hate has been helpful at times to keeping humans alive and around to certain tribes in terms of them prevailing and surviving. Bigotry has been... uniformity. You could look at some of the dominant cultures in some parts of the world today that value uniformity over love, and they are flourishing according to some of the same metrics that you are lifting up.

You know, you could replace love in your equation with indifference, you could replace love with fundamentalism, or the fundamentalist religion and say, Hey, because it's helped us and it's worked in the past to promote human flourishing in whatever metric you're using to describe human flourishing, then we should continue on with that. And I just wonder why choose love if there's, you know, lots of others that you could have chosen as well.

Bart Campolo: That's interesting. I think we all think of situations in which in the short run the utility of selfishness or the utility of violence or the utility of things. And again, once you step out of a kind of a revealed narrative or revealed way of understanding where the world comes from, like Adam and Eve or however you understand kind of the origins of the universe, when you just get to a scientific one, it's a really long narrative. It's like 13 billion years old. And even the human narrative is a pretty long narrative.

And when you think about how evolution works, what happens is, is that whatever species you have, mutations appear. Like somebody has a little bit longer tail, somebody has a little bit sharper teeth. And sometimes those mutations work out really poorly. And that one just doesn't adapt very well, it dies off. And sometimes that mutation works really well and they gain some sort of evolutionary advantage or survival advantage and then it sort of establishes itself.

And I'm not a great scientific explainer of evolution, but most people sort of understand the basic mechanics there. So what happens is, is that, you know, what ultimately gets through is the stuff that works for life. So in a sense, you said like, if hate really was super adaptive and hate was a way that reliably caused your DNA to move forward and to reproduce itself, then that would be an adaptation that would emerge psychopathy, for instance, would emerge... And the psychopath would do better than the cooperators. And eventually, the cooperators would die out and psychopaths would thrive.

But what seems to happen over and over again, especially among mammals, is that what works is when a baby is born, if the mother is flooded with hormones, that make her think it's the cutest and most wonderful baby alive and she wants to protect it at all costs. That what causes people to fight for their tribe against outside invaders or against natural disasters is a kind of a sense of like, We're in this together, and I care about you, and I'll put my life on... I'll even sacrifice my life for the good of the tribe. So what I would say is, like, I don't think it's willy nilly that you go like, "I just picked love. Lots of things work, I just like love better. I think I like love better because it works.

Justin Brierley: But in the end, it is part of basically adaptive evolution. It's kind of the way in which, you know... So in a sense, it's not that love is some rule written in the universe. In fact, it could be boiled down to those hormones you talked about in the brain of a mother. And I guess, Eric-

Bart Campolo: Yeah. But if it's in the hormones of the mother, it's written in the universe.

Justin Brierley: Well, that's an interesting perspective.

Bart Campolo: There's an unfolding of history and it appears that love is the most excellent way. I don't know if you've ever heard that.

Eric Huffman: I've heard those words before.

Bart Campolo: Yeah. And it appears that that's really good science, as well as poetic scripture.

Justin Brierley: Well, I'd love to hear Eric's response to that then. Because Eric, I guess, where I want to hear from you, I guess, is to land why God is necessary in this process and why God, presumably you believe, is more than just an evolutionary adaptive process.

Eric Huffman: One thing that I've heard Bart speak effectively to in other venues and speeches that he's given to mostly secular humanist crowds, as he has in past years tried to rally the troops in a way to get secondary humanist communities to take root and to basically provide all the frills and bells and whistles that a church would offer, but without God and all that stuff. Bart, I'd love to hear how that is going and how that movement has taken shape over the last few years.

But one of the most powerful talks that you give in those contexts is, Hey, we need to know our why. We need to know our why. So we know the how and the what, hey, we want community we want to gather in solidarity, we want a better world, we want to be better people. That's the how and the what. But what's our why? I guess I hear you saying or suggesting that, and correct me if I'm wrong, that are why should be love?

Bart Campolo: It's maybe even more basic than that, Eric.

Eric Huffman: Okay.

Bart Campolo: I think the one thing that every species, every life form, plant, animal, you name it, the one thing that we all have in common from our original common DNA, that first cell that emerged into life is a desire to propagate life into the future. That's the most basic thing. If a species doesn't have that, it won't last very long. It's like the Shaker Christian community. Remember the Shakers who believed that sex will was completely against God's will? And you're like, yeah, why didn't that movement take off? Because they all died and there were none left because they didn't have sex.

In a sense, if you don't have, life must go forward, if you don't have this kind of built-in loyalty to the DNA moving ahead, you're going to die out. So in a sense, life is the original value of all living things—the propagation of life. Love is simply our strategy. It's not the only strategy.

Lizards have a different strategy. They propagate their DNA forward, not by loving their children. They will eat their children. They have a whole different game going on there. But we mammals, and especially the higher mammals and especially the humans, for us, our strategy isn't to be the biggest and strongest, the biggest teeth, the fastest. It's to be the most cooperative. It's to care for our young for so long that they can be born with brains that can barely do anything and we'll just take care of them until the brains catch up.

Eric Huffman: So I appreciate that and I can agree with a lot of what you just said, Bart. I guess to me, it sounds like when you speak of love, it is either an evolutionary tool that sounds to me like it's something of borderline like an illusion, something we just buy into. Like it's an idea that may or may not be rooted in ontological truth, or it's a feeling. And it's a feeling that leads to good outcomes. I guess the question is-

Bart Campolo: I got another word for you. Take the feeling, put in instinct.

Eric Huffman: All right, that's fine. And that kind of goes back again to the biological evolutionary component to this.

Bart Campolo: Yeah.

Eric Huffman: But I guess I would ask, what do we do with the generation of young people who more than any generation before are saying that, for us, to love the next generation after us is to not have kids, is to not bring kids into this messed up world or is to, you know, make things like abortion and other possible sort of outs from pregnancies possible so that we don't burden the next generation of kids just by not having them.

Justin Brierley: Are you talking about the antinatalist?

Eric Huffman: Yeah. It's a growing movement. Statistically, it's really picking up among millennials and Gen Z. And I guess the reason for bringing that up is, I guess, without a firm ontological base on which to stand and define love, anybody gets to define love. And somebody's definition of love could look a lot like hate to you. And who are you to say that they're wrong and you're right, you know? I guess that's what I'm going for is a little more clarity on what you mean when you say love and how you can say that other people should see it the way you do.

Bart Campolo: I mean, first of all, I spend very little time trying to convince other people to see it the way I do. You know, there are a lot of people that... These days, I make my living as a therapist. So I'm maybe more aware than most people have how many people out there are lonely and sad and depressed and anxious. So I don't often have to convince somebody of anything.

There are a lot of people out there that are desperately looking for a path that would be more meaningful to them than the life that they're living. They're looking for a connection. And the difficulty that a lot of them have, the younger ones especially, is that they really struggle to climb into the narratives of traditional religions. It's hard for them to believe in Jesus rising from the dead, it's hard for them to believe in a real hell, it's hard for them to believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, but they still are desperate for a meaningful life. So I don't really have to convince them. I don't have to talk them out of hate. They're just like, "Could you show me a way to connect? I want to connect. I want to feel like I'm part of something. I want to feel it my life is meaningful and has value.

Eric Huffman: Because hate is wrong.

Bart Campolo: Yes. And you say like, Who says? I'm gonna go like, Hate doesn't work. Hate doesn't cause human beings to flourish?

Eric Huffman: What if I think it does work for me?

Justin Brierley: Then history will prove you wrong, just like history proved Shakers wrong. You go like, Are there people that will choose a pathway in life? And I'll say, "I think this is better. I mean, this is a better path?" And you go like, Yes, there are. And you go like, "How will you know if they're right or wrong? And you go like, That's the weird thing is it shows up.

Eric Huffman: So when someone is full of hate or a movement of people they're full of hate, I mean, in this perspective, I guess our only recourse would be just to wait and let history prove them wrong? Like we don't have any leg to stand on to-

Bart Campolo: I mean, it's interesting you say that, Eric. Because I think about the people at Fred Phelps' church who were preaching hate. You know, that God hates fags people and stuff. And you think like, Well, Bart, you sound like the kind of guy that's just like yeah, you know just let history... that movement won't take off. That's not going to have legs. Let it go.

And I go like, Yeah, I would do that if I didn't have a gay friend getting off an airplane after the Iraq War and being told that God wishes he was dead or God hates fag. And you go like, That's the only time I'm going to resist a movement that I think is mistaken or wrongheaded is when it crosses over to hurting other people, to harming people.

Then my protective instinct kicks in and I go like, I'm gonna have to challenge that. That's like, I don't mess with progressive Christians. The only Christians that I ever have any problem with are those that are like trying to teach little kids that if they don't believe in Jesus they're gonna burn in hell and eternal torment forever. And I go like, That's kind of child abuse. You go like, if you just want to teach kids like that Methodist God stuff, about the lovely nice God who wants everyone to be friends... And you go like, Bart, do you think that's true? And I go like, No, but like, it's not harmful. But there are some Christian beliefs that get harmful, there are some Islamic beliefs that get harmful. There are some secular beliefs that get harmful.

Justin Brierley: I'm gonna pass it back to Eric for a quick response and then I'd love to kind of maybe move to some of your reasons for believing in God.

Bart Campolo: Justin, are you saying I talk too much?

Justin Brierley: I wish we had two hours for these podcasts rather than just the one.

Bart Campolo: I'm gonna be quiet.

Justin Brierley: But let's hear Eric. Just a quick response, then I'd love to move maybe the conversation on to some of your other reasons for why you believe in God.

Eric Huffman: I just think it comes down to the question of the why. And I steal that from one of the talks I heard from Bart. And I just want to say we agree on the concept, I'm not sure we agree on its execution. Because I think the why behind the love is everything. And if it's just because it feels right or because history will prove that it's right or that it works in our view and not because it's fundamentally universally right to love and not hate, then I just don't know how that actually is practical and how that actually works in the fleshing out of daily life.

Justin Brierley: If we get time we'll come back to this.

Bart Campolo: I'm not saying anything. I'm not saying anything. I just look like I want to say something.

Justin Brierley: I can see you're ready to get in. Let's leave that one there. Let's par-

Eric Huffman: Can I just real quick put a bow on that?

Justin Brierley: Yeah. On the other hand, you know, we look to this supreme being of the universe that we call God in the Bible, who is unequivocally described as love. I think that is those three words, that three-word verse God is love is one of the most radical statements maybe ever made in history, that God Himself is love, and that we can see that love embodied in flesh in Jesus Himself.

And not only that He came to teach us and walk among us and be tempted like us and all of that, but to die for us and rise and show us what His plans are for us. I just think that is a stronger ontological foundation on which to stand and proclaim that not only that I want to know what it means to love, I want to be a more loving person, but that everyone should. And I think without that, it's hard to justify the use of words like should and ought, and those sorts of big words that imply my way is better than whatever way other people are living.

Bart Campolo: It's funny, the verse that came to my mind is in 1 John. It says, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and all those who love are born of God and know God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love." And I just think like, yeah, there's this sense in which in almost every religion in the world there ends up being some kind of an ethic that says, "Look, you want to really understand this thing, love each other." Like Jesus says, all the other commands, everything, just love each other. Like, there's this sense in which like, look, it's really basic.

Just love each other. And what I would say is that if you go to the narrative the epic of evolution, the story of science, what science tells us about things, in the end, you know, what science ends up telling us about human beings is just love each other. If you want to stay alive, just love each other. Your evolution, you're hardwired to love each other. Like you're gonna get sick if you don't love each other. It is written on our hearts, it is written in our brains, is written in every scripture of every religion that actually help the culture move forward. It's that basic. It's the "why" of humanity.

Justin Brierley: Eric, it's been a fascinating and change on this whole area. In a way, one of the reasons I think that you've been kind of pressing in on this, Eric, is because you do believe that to have that kind of objective idea of right and wrong, good and evil, some ways of living being better than others, you do need this ultimate standard by which you judge that which God is the originator of. But I just want to kind of, I guess, ask the specific question why you are a Christian, Eric. That might be a kind of, you know, an interesting, important philosophical argument for the existence of God, what sometimes called the moral argument. And you started to talk about it just then, I think. But why specifically Christianity is the instantiation that you find the most compelling explanation of reality in that way?

Eric Huffman: I think there's two different questions when it comes to belief in God that everybody should ask. And the first is, why should I believe in any God? And the second is, which God should I believe in? And I think those go in that order, typically. I had enough evidence scientifically. I think the science actually supports belief in some god better than the science supports belief in the Christian God.

I think just based on the evidence available to us scientifically, it's possible to make a case for the existence of a creator, a first cause, you know, designer, a programmer, if you want to use that kind of language that's popular these days, some mind behind the universe. I think you can present evidence either way. And I think it comes down to faith. If you're an atheist or if you're a believer, you're making assumptions and hedging your bets in one way or another.

For why I'm a Christian, it really comes down to Jesus Himself. And before when I would hesitate to describe myself as a Christian, much less than Evangelical, which also I am continuing to cling to that word, although it's being dragged through the mud daily by well evangelicals, and by the media in different ways, I just believe not only that Jesus is God in the flesh and the fullness of God dwells in Him, but also that if we know Him, and if we have experienced that relationship with Him, then it is absolutely natural for us then to share it with the world, to tell the whole world about the love of God in Jesus Christ and how in Christ that God has come to us, met us on this turf on which we stand, not to condemn, but to forgive and to love us and to save us.

I think that's a message the whole world needs to hear. I think we are just drowning in unforgiveness and resentment. I think resentment is leading to depression and suicide. I think resentment is leading to divorce and relationship breakdowns. And the antidote to resentment is forgiveness, its grace. And I don't find anything close to Jesus when I look elsewhere, respectfully, even in other religions and other worldviews to deal with our problem, which is sin in an effective way that brings liberation, that brings freedom, the freedom that comes through real forgiveness.

You know, I think about Bart's story earlier about the... you know, he was responding to the shame I carried around with me after our first conversation and he talked about having, you know, spoken in a way to kids in high school that he still regrets to this day and having been bullied and everybody, you know, experiences, things like that, where we get out of line or someone else does.

The question, I think, in a purely secular worldview is, unless there's some kind of financial recompense or rectification of that wrong, how do you ever know that it's right? How do you ever know you're forgiven, you know, when someone you've wronged doesn't extend you that forgiveness, for example? You asked for it even, they don't extend it to you. Do you carry that to your grave? How do you ever have peace of mind without construct like we have in Christianity of God Himself coming and becoming the recompense not just for the sins I've already committed and repented of, but for all sins ever committed anywhere and any condemnation that remains is us condemning ourselves? I can't find anything more beautiful or more true than that.

So that's sort of the ground on which I stand. It's Jesus that is the reason for my Christianity, which might be the most simplest way of saying that. But that's as close to a short answer that can be.

Justin Brierley: Feel free to kind of engage that, Bart. Where would you begin with kind of engaging Eric's case there for why he thinks the person of Jesus and Christianity kind of makes sense of us, I guess, as people in need of a Savior ultimately?

Bart Campolo: Sure, sure. I think the first thing I would say is, from the outside, you know, that sounds like mythology. That sounds like foolishness to me. And you go like, "Don't be offended. That's what Paul said." Paul said, "If you don't believe in a supernatural God, the gospel is gonna sound like foolishness to you." I don't mean it as an insult. It's beautiful foolishness. It's motivational foolishness. But the evidence that...

When you talk about, like, what's the ontological ground or what's the evidence, I go like, my problem with that narrative isn't that it isn't beautiful. And the idea that like that there is ultimate forgiveness for every wrong, that everything will be put right, that everybody will be okay, that we'll all live forever in happiest perfection is not that that isn't a beautiful thought. My real problem with it is simply that I just don't see any evidence of it. I don't see any compelling evidence of it. And you go like, Well, I do. I went to the Holy Land and I saw this stuff and it compelled me to believe this. And I go like, "I believe you."

So when somebody is compelled to believe a story that motivates them to live for love and kindness, I am not prone to disabuse them of that story. Like you go like, "How would you attack that story?" I wouldn't. I would say, go with God, you know. Keep the faith. Go do it. And you say, Well, doesn't it bother you that somebody would have a belief that you don't think is empirically verifiable? And I go like, not at all. I just can't climb into it myself anymore.

Justin Brierley: Eric.

Bart Campolo: And sometimes I wish I could. I would have kept my job. I would make my parents happy. Would have been a much simpler life for me if I could have climb back into that way of thinking. But the fact that I don't find it compelling, doesn't mean I feel like it's important for me to undermine you.

Justin Brierley: To that extent, you are not a quote-unquote, "new atheist", Bart, in the sense that, you know, there is a brand of atheism that does seek to tear down other people's beliefs and so on. In a sense, though-

Bart Campolo: And I understand that motivation. I understand that motivation. I really do. Because it's like the harm and all that stuff. And I make an exception when it comes to people that are indoctrinating children into original sin thinking. But the reason I don't is because not only do I don't think it's necessarily kind. If I disabused Eric of Christianity right now, which I could not do, but if I did, you go like, "Well, what would be the harm? And I go, Well, Eric is part of a community that loves him, he's in the whole system. And you're like, well, he could just join that other community of like warm, loving, secular humanists. I go like, No, there's no community like that for him in his town. So it's like, I cannot take him away from his world view as long as it's compelling and be a good man.

Justin Brierley: Eric, I have a feeling you would be delighted if you could persuade Bart to abandon his atheism and become a Christian again.

Eric Huffman: Oh, I'm not ashamed to admit nothing would delight me more, because Bart would be an absolute weapon in the kingdom of God to bring thousands to faith in Christ just by his rhetorical skills alone. And his heart, man. I really do respect so much of what you say and where it comes from, Bart. It's almost agony, though, to see someone so gifted and so well versed in Scripture and from the family stock you come from and everything.

Bart Campolo: That's what my dad says.

Eric Huffman: I know. I know. I don't need to rub it in. But man, the potential that's there. Of course, I would love to bring Bart into faith and back into the fold. Bart, the door's always open.

Bart Campolo: My son always says, "Dad, if the money ever really gets tight, I know where you can make a lot of money." He said, "On back tour."

Eric Huffman: Oh, I'm not so sure about that one. But I haven't found the golden... the honeypot yet, but maybe it's out there somewhere. No, I think as much as I appreciate that you have such a way with words, you know, I still find it somewhat unsatisfying, I guess, in the end knowing that taking on the whole, Bart, you seem to want to sort of habit both ways and say, "Hey, I don't want to talk anyone out of Christianity."

Bart Campolo: Unless it's hurting me.

Eric Huffman: Okay, well, I can find hours of talks of yours online where it seems like you're very intent on getting people at least into secular humanist community. But there's also examples of you wanting to... Like, for example, when you frame Christianity as a terrorist sort of worldview, it is a form of terrorism, or when in the past you've said that... You know, just the recent past, five minutes ago, you said, "My explanation of my faith is just mythology." And I would say-

Bart Campolo: That's how it seems from the outside.

Eric Huffman: Okay, sure. Ten minutes ago you said, "Hey, if anyone believes something that hurts a friend of mine who's gay, then I'm going to come out swinging." Well, I think a case could be made that your LGBT friends and other people that believe other things that might not jive with, you know, traditional Christianity might feel initially, at least or in some way, hurt by traditional Christian worldview.

Bart Campolo: Sure. Women-

Eric Huffman: So what keeps you from actually just being, I guess, more honest and bold about coming out and saying, Hey, this is wrong?

Bart Campolo: That is a great question. That is a great question. And I'm going to be really honest with you. The main reason is that my experience, especially early on in the faith, and maybe you experienced this five years ago when you were talking to me, or early on in my leaving the faith, when you're early in a new worldview, excitement, you really do want to convince everybody, and you really do want to attack the worldview that you came out of and show people... And what you're really mad at is that you ever were in it. You're like, How can I believe that?

Eric Huffman: Yeah.

Bart Campolo: So the truth is what I discovered is that directly attacking somebody else's belief system generally causes that person only to double down. It just puts them on the defensive and it makes them... So you say like, why don't you attack Christians, Christianity? And I go like, it doesn't work. It doesn't work. I've seen all those debates.

I did that one apologetic debate with Sean McDowell and I never did another one after that. Because you know what happens at apologetics debates? The secular people listen to the secular person and they say to them afterwards, "You busted that guy. You showed him." And the Christian get behind the Christian person, like, "Yeah, we showed them."

Apologetics tend to be most useful not to convince other people outsiders to join your worldview, but to confirm to people that are in the worldview that they have good rational reasons for staying in the worldview. I'm not prone to attack people or make them defend their worldview. Again, I'm sort of like, the proof is in the pudding. If your worldview is working for you and making you a loving and happy person, that's all I care about. And you go like, I'm not worried that when you die you're going to wake up in eternal torment and I should have told you differently. Like, I think you'll live your life and you'll die and that'll be it.

So I'm really only interested in disabusing somebody of a worldview when it hurts them. And so yeah, I have had a lot of gay kids come to me on college campuses who are struggling with Christianity. And sometimes I'm like, "Look, you know there's forms of Christianity that are totally cool with gay people. So if you want to stay Christian, I can show you a way to do that. I can show you a way to interpret the scriptures that way." And they're like, "Yeah, and..." You know, but sometimes I undermine their competence in the whole game. And I'm like, well, if you still want to pursue loving kindness, there's another way to do that, too. So I'm very practical about this. And the reason I don't attack Christianity in a kind of an organized way is because it doesn't work.

Justin Brierley: Let's hear from you again, Eric and then I'm going to start to wind things up with a final question for you both. But yeah, go ahead, Eric.

Eric Huffman: Thank you. Just a couple of questions about things you said earlier, Bart. I'm just genuinely curious when you say you had a transcendent experience, what did you transcend? And when you say one of the values that you espouse and you lead others in your community to espouse is something like I think you said gratitude for the privilege of being alive. To whom are you grateful?

Bart Campolo: Those are two questions. I'll answer them really quickly. Whenever my secular friends say, "You must be embarrassed that you say you had a transcendent experience because you know better now," I go like, "Oh, no, that was real." If you don't believe in transcendent experiences where you are overwhelmed by the presence of an invisible other, I'm like, you haven't been to the right rock concert, you haven't used the right drugs, you haven't fallen in love with the right partner. Transcendent experiences happen.

One of my favorite authors is a woman named TM Luhrmann. Her latest book is called How God Becomes Real. And she's an anthropologist who spend time with people in all different kinds of belief systems. And she's like, These people are having authentic experiences. These are real experiences. They don't just happen out of nowhere.

People fast, they pray, they go through ablutions, they're together in community, she was like, but human beings can generate these experiences of the invisible other. She said the real question is... She said the fact that we can generate them that we have to do work to generate them, it doesn't mean that God isn't real or that He is real. It just means that some people are willing to do that work and other people aren't.

So when you say what happened, I think it wasn't a thing that happened in my brain. I think it was what Durkheim would have called collective effervescence. It was a mob mentality in a really positive way. But people get swept up in moments all the time.

Eric Huffman: Do they transcend nature?

Bart Campolo: What they transcend is their mundane, everyday experience of reality. So like when you're on a psychedelic drug, when you're on LSD, it's like you're on a different frequency than your normal, everyday life. And so like you see the world differently, and you feel it differently, and you experience it. And then when the drug wears off, and your brain starts functioning the old way, your old sensibilities come back to you. You transcend your everyday experience of reality. That's what I would say.

Now, on your second question, where you say, like, Who are you grateful to? And I go, like, I know, it sounds crazy to think that gratitude needs an object or a subject. But the truth of the matter is, is that I think it is almost empirically verifiable that the human consciousness is a pretty marvelous thing. That most people, even when they are in pain, even when they are old, even when they are in danger, will fight to stay alive. Like there's some kind of instinctual thing that says, "This is good. I want more of it," you know?

So, if you say to me, like, why am I grateful to be alive? Why am I grateful to be conscious, I'm really aware that most of the matter and energy in the universe never achieves consciousness let alone sentience, let alone love, let alone friendship, let alone knowing two nice guys like you. Of all the matter and all the energy in the universe, this is incredibly weird, and temporary arrangement here. And I'm just grateful to be in it. And you're still like, who you're grateful to? I'm grateful to whatever star process caused it to happen.

Justin Brierley: Can I ask a question on the back of that, Bart? Does it ever make you doubt your atheism? The fact that in matter went to all the trouble of creating conscious loving people, does the kind of the serendipity of that ever strike you as like, "Oh, my goodness, why did it go in this direction? What on earth made, you know, atoms and electrons just turn into you and me and Eric having this conversation?

Bart Campolo: It's amazing that you asked that question at this moment, because 10 minutes from now when I'm done with you, I am going to be interviewing somebody. I'm going to be interviewing the author that's meant the most to me over the last 10 years, a woman I thought was dead. I mean, I read her book and I thought she was dead. It's a woman named Ursula Goodenough. And this is her book. It's called The Sacred Depths of Nature. And Ursula Goodenough is what they call a religious naturalist.

Basically, she's a biologist and she studied how life evolves and where it comes from, and how it works. And she's just like, If you look at the process carefully enough, it's so miraculous, it's so improbable, it's so wondrous, that you kind of can't help but fall down before it in gratitude and praise. And she doesn't believe in a supernatural. She just says it's amazingly wonderful. It's also, in some sense, amazingly improbable on one hand. And what she would say is biologically inevitable on the other. Like, this is the way it works. What's sad for me, Justin, is I think that inevitably what also happens is that life emerges to the point where it can create technology.

Justin Brierley: Well, that is the great danger.

Bart Campolo: And the technologies then creates-

Justin Brierley: It feels like we're maybe living in those times as AI or whatever starts to get-

Bart Campolo: Yeah, exactly. That our ability to create technology outpaces our ability for self-control. So I think that -

Justin Brierley: Let me hand it back to you, Eric, because we should start to wrap things up. I mean, you've asked these questions, you've heard some responses from Bart. Where do you want to start to kind of draw this together?

Eric Huffman: I mean, Bart, I love you and I'm grateful for you. I'm grateful to God for you, and for creating you in His image. God loves you. I know that you've probably heard that a thousand times. I hope you know how loved you are. I think, like you would probably say about me and my worldview, I see glaring problems with or deficiencies or inconsistencies in a worldview like the one you espouse, you know. And I've shared some of those, like, sort of the insistence on the natural world being all that there is. You're a very insistent naturalist, but you also believe in the power of something esoteric like love. And, you know, being materialist, you talk so much about meaning.

There's some area there that just seems unclear. And maybe you're just like the rest of us, you're just in a process of working through some of those inconsistencies where there's lack of clarity. But I think one more thing I would add, is, in the past, on several occasions, I've heard you, and you said this to me in our conversation in 2018, that Christians in today's world should at least be aware and acknowledge that the main reason we're Christian is because of when and where we were born. And our context is really what gave rise to our Christianity and we are just basically products of when and where we are routed.

And I've not heard anyone address you or ask you that same question in response. Have you responded to the possibility that you know, if you look in the mirror, Bart, and see... I wanted to say atheist, but you said you don't describe. So non-theistic humanist, secular humanist. When and where else in history would a non-theistic secular humanist ever have emerged, if not for in a white, Western, wealthy, super privileged, educated, you know, liberal established education and with emerging communities that support you and incentivize you in that regard? I just wonder if when you levy those kinds of arguments you think about it in terms of your own faith, too.

And I don't say that to suggest what you seem to suggest about Christians being that somehow delegitimizes the core beliefs of Christians, you know, just having been born in a Christian culture, of course, you're a Christian. I'm actually saying the opposite of that, which is-

Bart Campolo: I hear you.

Eric Huffman: You do? Okay.

Bart Campolo: Yeah, I think I hear you. And it's interesting because the community that I'm a part of here in Cincinnati, a little small group of people that get together and sort of try to encourage each other to build more loving relationships and to do work that makes a difference and to cultivate gratitude for the privilege of life. Those were our three core values until we thought about it longer, and we spent more time with other people. And then we added a fourth core value.

And the fourth core value is something we call worldview humility. And what worldview of humility basically says is that, of course, I think that my worldview is the correct one and that yours is wrong. If you're seeing more compelling to me, I would change my mind and adopt it. So, of course, I think I'm right. But even as I think I'm right, what I need to bear in mind is... And I may be right. But even if I am right, that's not why I believe it. I believe it because of who I grew up around and what I read and what influenced me and the experiences that I had.

And if I had grown up in your town, and gone on the trips that you went on and experienced the things that you experienced, I would believe what you believe. So there's a sense in which humility says, I genuinely think I'm right but I need to hold that thought with the idea that that's not real. You didn't exhaustively check out every worldview in the world and pick this one because it was the most compelling. You picked it for a whole set of other reasons and then you use your big brain to come up with reasons to justify why you believe it. But that it's a gut-level choice that you made. You just don't believe in Christianity, you just don't believe in supernaturalism and then you come up with all the reasons around it.

I think that that's a really good question is, have I come to the place where as easy as it is for me to see that in your existential moment you went looking in the Holy Land rather than going to Mecca? And I'm like, I think if you'd have grown up somewhere else, you probably would have been in Mecca checking that out. And maybe you would have had your transcendent experience there.

And you go like, yeah, you could see that about Eric, you can see that about Muhammad, you can see that about, you know, the Buddhists, you can see that about everybody else. Can you not see that about yourself? And I'm going like, You know what, it took me a long time. But yeah, I see that about myself too.

Justin Brierley: I'm sort of impressed at the humility that you have there. But I think that the idea of worldview humility is a great principle that we could all do with, with having a bit more of. Eric, where did you want to go as you started to kind of ask that question and as we start to wind up this conversation?

Eric Huffman: I just remain hopeful for not just this conversation with Bart, and I pray Bart, in the least condescending way possible, man, that you just-

Bart Campolo: I love it when Christians pray for me. That's a way of saying I love you.

Eric Huffman: No, it is. And I mean it. You know, I think you have so much to offer and you're already helping so many people. I see so many of your talks. I want to talk to you after everyone. You know, when you talk about the main reason for falling away from the faith or losing your faith or whatever language you put around it being all those unanswered prayers. I think what you might be missing there is all the ways in which through your ministry you were an answer to someone else's prayers, man. What kind of work did you do in the inner city as a Christian minister?

Bart Campolo: Oh, you know, it's funny, I'm looking at the time and we're up against it. And I'd love to tell you that story. But the truth is like, there's no... if some people wonder, do I look back at my Christian ministry and regret it, the answer is there are parts of it I surely regret. But there's a lot of it that I'm really, really grateful for. And there are a lot of people that I helped into the Christian faith that are probably better off than I helped them into the Christian faith.

Eric Huffman: Well, all I wanted to say is I've done many years of inner city ministry to in Kansas City. And, man, I'm telling you, the kind of work you do in those contexts is daily an answer to someone's prayers. And I just don't want you to discount that even as you deal with your own heartbreak of not having your prayers directly answered. We never know really who was praying for what and what it means to have prayers answered.

Justin Brierley: Look, it sounds like we should probably have around three at some point where we talk about those issues-

Eric Huffman: Let's do it.

Justin Brierley: more detail because there were other things we would have loved to chat with you about on this, Bart.

Bart Campolo: Justin, it was such a delight.

Justin Brierley: But so good to have you with us.

Bart Campolo: Thank you so much.

Justin Brierley: Thank you very much for coming on the Maybe God podcast five years later and having another conversation with Eric.

Eric Huffman: Thank you, Bart.

Bart Campolo: A humanist blessing on both your heads. Thanks so much. I'll talk to you later.

Eric Huffman: Thank you.

Bart Campolo: Bye-bye.

Eric Huffman: Bye, bye.

Justin Brierley: Well, as we close out today's show, Eric, thank you as well for being in the guest seat. I hope that you found this to be-

Eric Huffman: Thank you, Justin.

Justin Brierley: ...kind of a fruitful round two when it comes to this discussion with Bart.

Eric Huffman: I did. I did. There's so much more I'd love to talk about with Bart. We both have that preacher vibe about us so we make everything longer than it needs to be. But I will sleep better tonight than I have in five years. So I feel really good about that. So thank you.

Justin Brierley: Thank you so much for allowing me to be in between you both and to moderate the discussion. As ever, if you want to find out more, you can find out more over at the website to links with today's show, or go directly to Eric's website, for more on his ministry, for more about Bart. For now, thank you so much for being with us for this Maybe God podcast. I'm really looking forward to returning to the host seat as well for some interesting conversations in coming months. But for now, God bless, and see you next time.


Julie Mirlicourtois: This episode of Maybe God was produced by Justin Brierley, Julie Mirlicourtois, and Eric and Geovanna Huffman. Our editor is Justin Mayer and our technical director for this episode was Donald Kilgore. Our social media team is Kat Brough and Justin Keller. For more information about Maybe God and to sign up for exclusive updates and content, head to today. And don't forget to follow and engage with us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Thanks for listening, everyone.