The USC campus boasts more than 80 religious organizations for students, with chaplains to supervise nearly all of them, but only one caters to the ever-growing community of nonbelievers.
The Secular Student Fellowship of USC, which meets at 7 p.m. every Monday in room 203B at the University Religious Center, is a “friendly, diverse community of undergraduates and graduate students engaged in an ongoing conversation about how to apply reason and science to live better lives and build better societies,” according to its page on the Office of Religious Life’s website. The group’s adviser is Bart Campolo, USC’s first Humanist Chaplain, a volunteer position he created two years ago.
In his role as Humanist Chaplain, Campolo counsels students who don’t believe in God. He is on campus most days of the week, in his office at URC 203A. On any given day he interacts with about three or four students.
“I’m like the rabbi/priest/minister/imam to all the students who don’t believe in God,” Campolo said. “If someone’s dad gets diagnosed with cancer and they’re trying to make sense of it, or someone’s having a hard time making friends on campus, or a senior doesn’t know what they’re going to do after they graduate, they come talk to me.”
Campolo, 53, is the son of famous evangelical preacher Tony Campolo, who served as former President Bill Clinton’s spiritual adviser. Bart Campolo himself spent many years as a public and influential evangelical Christian leader, but began having doubts about his own faith. After suffering a concussion from a bike accident, he decided at age 51 that he no longer believed in God. He has since devoted himself to secular humanism, which he defines as “creating a community where people pursue love and goodness collectively on the basis of reason.”
“My position is supervised by the dean of religious life because he wants me here,” Campolo said. “The dean understands that I’m trying to help students answer some of life’s ultimate questions using science and reason instead of supernaturalism, but that I’m still a religious leader. I’m still pursuing: ‘Where do we come from? What happens when we die? What’s the basis of good and evil? What makes something right or wrong? How do you make the most of this life? How do you deal with your finitude in the midst of a huge universe?’”
A recent Pew Research Center study found that more Americans than ever are increasingly becoming less religious, especially millennials. While no data currently exists for how many people on campus are religious versus nonreligious according to the Office of Religious Life, Campolo said his anecdotal experience tells him that about half of the students he talks to around campus don’t identify with a religion or don’t believe in God.
“How many people here believe in a magical god who actually intervenes in the lives of human beings? I’m going to guess about 40 to 50 percent,” Campolo said. “USC tends to skew more towards the religious, and yet, the faculty is a whole other story. Very few professors are people of faith, and yet very many of them are professors because they want to contribute to the advancement of life.”
Campolo said that his goal on campus is not to criticize religions or religious people, but rather to create a positive community for those who don’t happen to believe in God.
“A lot of atheist groups I researched had very negative agendas,” said Campolo. “They were like, ‘Let’s talk about another reason it’s stupid to believe in God,’ or ‘Let’s really focus on the separation of church and state because I’m sick of ‘In God we trust’ on the currency.’ You can’t build a movement around all this negative stuff. Ridiculing religion only gets people to double down. Maybe it’d be better if we go build a community where people could pursue love and goodness in a rational way and don’t have to believe in anything.”
Now in his third year as Humanist Chaplain, Campolo has found that many students are discovering and valuing his services.
“USC is a big, busy place,” Campolo said. “A lot of people don’t feel like they have a lot of friends on campus. They don’t feel connected. They don’t feel like anybody really cares.”
That’s why Campolo and his wife started hosting dinners for the secular community on campus in the URC dining room every other Sunday, a tradition that continues this semester.
“Since ‘non-religious’ is the fastest growing demographic in the United States, we think it’s important that a community like this exists to bring us together to pursue goodness without a god, which for many people is a novel concept,” said Katie Bolton, a junior majoring in environmental studies and NGOs and social change who serves as one of the leaders of the Secular Student Fellowship. “Bart is a true pioneer of this movement; he is able to inspire people like few others. I hope that more people will have the chance to know him like I do, because he has something to offer everyone. He just beams goodness to all who cross his path.”
Fellow SSF leader Joseph Krieger, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, said having a Humanist Chaplain and a secular student organization on campus is “a huge comfort.”
“There are so many people on campus who don’t believe in a god, but want to have conversations about how to make the world a better place, either through improving interpersonal relationships or supporting causes that we believe in,” Krieger said. “Bart’s intuition, foresight and understanding of how people think make him a master of relationships.”
Campolo is also working with Irshad Manji, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, to create a chapter of her Moral Courage Project on campus.
Filmmaker John Wright is currently wrapping up a documentary about Campolo’s relationship with his father Tony following the revelation that he was no longer a Christian. The film, With Whom I Am Well Pleased, is expected to be released by the end of the year. The two Campolos are also working on a book together based on the same idea, due out early next year.
“All these religions have endured for thousands of years, not because their narratives make any sense at all, because they don’t, but because they get together every week, they have cool rituals, they sing really well and they take care of each other,” Campolo said. “They endure despite their crazy narratives, not because of them. Secular humanists have a much better narrative, and every fact that gets discovered affirms that narrative. But we’ve got to build a better community.”