Paul’s Christianity: Belief in Belief Itself, by John W. Loftus

I was honored to write the Foreword to Robert Conner's excellent new book The Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of the Last Days, which you can get on Amazon.

It was long, so understandedly Conner had to edit it down. Here it is in it's entirety.

Paul’s Christianity: Belief in Belief Itself

Citing plenty of Roman writers familiar with the early Jesus Cult, along with teasing out the true meaning from Christian sources, Robert Conner makes a solid case that “Christianity was a cult from its inception, a toxic brew of apocalyptic delusion, sexual phobias and fixations, with a hierarchy of control of women by men, of slaves by masters, and of society by the church.” It had an “irrational and antisocial nature” to it, and “its destructive features remain a clear and present danger today. Its greatest threat is the core feature of the Christian cult: belief in belief, the conviction that the Christian narrative is literally its own proof.”

To say I agree with Conner is a huge understatement. I love how he writes! Readers will find in his book a great amount of erudition combined with an unmatched use of rhetoric and even hilarity. I am honored and delighted to write this Foreword for another excellent book by him.

Connor says Christianity was nothing more than a cult “in the most pejorative sense of the word.” In the chapters to follow he makes his case, showing that religious cults share with Christianity “several familiar features” like “a fixation on sexual purity, bizarre interpretations of scripture, and often a preoccupation with End Times theology which leads members to interpret events through an apocalyptic lens.”

Paul’s Christianity

Religious cults “have charismatic leaders, living or dead, who have all the answers,” Conner writes, and/or direct communication from a god, goddess, angels, demons, or other divine beings of some kind. When it comes to the Christian faith the apostle Paul was that charismatic person. In the Gospels however, Jesus is presented as the originating charismatic leader, a prophet likened only to Moses, the long awaited Messiah, the son of God, co-creator of the universe, and divine redeemer of all flesh, who is supposed to return to reign on high forever, being joined to the hip—as it were—to the second person of the trinity.

It needs to be said that it’s doubtful whether such a Jesus character existed as a person in the past.[1] But even if the Jesus character was indeed a conglomerate mix of several real personages found in the Gospels, it would be false to say he was the founder of Christianity. New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann shows this decisively in his book, Paul: The Founder of Christianity (Prometheus Books, 2002). Here’s a brief book cover summary:
Lüdemann comes to the conclusion that Paul should be considered not only Christianity's most influential proselytizer but in truth deserves the title of founder of the religion that ostensibly originated with Jesus of Nazareth. Though other scholars have previously made the point that Paul's interpretation of the Christian message actually obscured the original teachings of Jesus, Lüdemann goes further. His painstaking historical research shows that Paul created the major tenets of the Christianity we know today and that his theology - an original synthesis of Hebrew and Greek belief systems - differs significantly from what we now know the historical Jesus to have preached.[2]
Conner previously argued that the founder of Christianity, Paul, was basically crazy.[3] After marshalling the evidence, some of which I’ll rehearse below, he concluded: “Modern psychology with superior investigative techniques and tools can now question whether Paul of Tarsus was functionally, if not clinically, insane—and whether the religion he championed is based on delusion.”[4]

For my part I can affirm with a great deal of confidence that Paul was functionally insane, if he were living among rational people (and perhaps that’s what Conner meant). But in a rational society Paul wouldn’t function well at all. He would be that homeless guy on the city street corner who proselytized with bullhorns and signs to no one, calling on people to “REPENT! FOR THE END IS NEAR!” But since there were likeminded reachable superstitious people in the ancient Roman world, Paul seemed to function fairly well. After all, he gained somewhat of a following by convincing enough people to believe what he said, and he was financially taken care of by his flock, while being persecuted. Whether someone is a functioning person has something to do with the kind of world, or society, or tribe one resides in. Paul was able to function in the ancient Roman world because that world is described by historian and philosopher Richard Carrier, as an age of Kooks and Quacks.[5]

However, I think Paul might be diagnosed as clinically insane in a real sense. Let’s go with this legal definition from “Insanity: mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.”[6]

Try this definition of psychosis from an authoritative mental health website from England:
Psychosis is when people lose some contact with reality. The two main symptoms of psychosis are:

--hallucinations – where a person hears, sees and, in some cases, feels, smells or tastes things that do not exist outside their mind but can feel very real to the person affected by them; a common hallucination is hearing voices

--delusions – where a person has strong beliefs that are not shared by others; a common delusion is someone believing there's a conspiracy to harm them.[7]
This sounds about right to me. Paul was clinically insane in some real sense, not necessarily functionally insane in the world he lived in.

Hearing and heeding imaginary voices in one’s head as if they came from someone else, a god, angel, or deity, is not the mark of a sane person. Period. This insanity should be acknowledged if the voices command things that are harmful and dangerous, deceptive and false, and control much of a person’s life. That’s what we see throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament we often read how “The word of the Lord came to me” or them. Take notice when you see this claim made by Abraham, Elijah, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Jonah, Joel, Hosea, Obadiah, and some others. Just imagine the story of Abraham who is told to sacrifice his son Isaac. He was really going to kill his son! Three major monotheistic religions heap high praise on father Abraham for obeying the voices in his head, or does anyone seriously think a god needed to test him with such a barbaric deed when he already knew in advance what Abraham would do? That’s insane! Every court of a sane country based in law would agree. The only sane defense would be insanity.

There are plenty of others. Think of what the gospel according to Matthew says of Joseph, the alleged father of Jesus. He was convinced by a dream that Mary, who was believed by him to be a virgin, was pregnant as the result of divine impregnation. Yes, a dream (1:19–24)! On this point believers are faced with a fatal dilemma to their faith. For if this is the kind of “evidence” that went into writing the gospels, we shouldn’t believe anything else they say without corroborating objective evidence. But if providing evidence was unnecessary for writing their gospels—because they were divinely inspired—why do gospel writers give us the pretense of having researched into it (see Luke 1:1–4)? Why not simply say their stories are true due to divine inspiration and be done with the pretense? Of course, then the gig would be up, the sham uncovered.

Paul and the Corinthian believers were visionaries, as a “fulfillment” of the prophecy of Joel 2:28, as quoted in Acts 2:17: “Your sons and daughters will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” They were convinced they were receiving divine messages from Jesus, and expressed these revelations in church worship through the “spiritual gifts” of divine “wisdom,” “knowledge,” “prophecy,” or “tongues” (1 Cor. 12:7–10). The book of Acts describes several of Paul’s visions in 16:9–10; 18:9; 22:17–18; and 23:11, that showed him where to travel next, who to talk to, and what to say. We read of one in Galatians 2:1-2 where his god told him to go meet “privately” with esteemed leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Would a god really micromanage Paul’s life like that? Only deranged people, clinically insane people in a real sense, believe that an almighty creator and ruler of the universe pays specific attention to the details of their travels enough, when people in the rest of the world are killing each other. Did god help you find a parking spot? Praise him! Now can he do something about several possible existential threats like climate change?[8]

Paul repeatedly speaks of “revelations” that he passed down to the church (1 Cor. 2:13; 7:40; 14:37). He even says he learned the details of the Lord’s Supper the night he was betrayed from “the Lord” himself (1 Cor. 11:23). Rationalist philosopher G. A. Wells comments, “According, then, to Paul, the risen Jesus personally told him that he, Jesus, had, during his earthly life, instituted the Eucharist in this way.” Wells go on to state the obvious: “One can easily envisage how all manner of rulings and doctrines could have emerged on such a basis, and in time be ascribed not to the risen Jesus but to the earthly Jesus.”[9] And this is what we find. The apostle Peter reports he was in a trance (Acts 10:10; 11:5-7) [10] when he saw a vision imparting a major change of theology, which allowed for the Gentiles to be acceptable to their new religion without being circumcised.

Conner adds, “what makes Paul’s private revelations from Jesus any more trustworthy than the revelations given Zarathushtra by Vohu Manah, or Muhammad’s revelations from the angel Gabriel, or Moroni’s private revelations to Joseph Smith, or for that matter the “mahatma” Koot Hoomi’s disclosures of divine secrets to Helena Blavatsky. After all, by the time of Paul, spirits had been whispering secrets to mediums for millennia as evidenced by the Old Testament tale of Saul and the medium of En Dor149” (1 Samuel 28:1-20).

Religious cults make these types of claims all the time. Braco “the Gazer” is believed to heal people by simply gazing into their eyes. Do you believe these things just because they say so? Of course you don’t. That’s because when it comes to religious sects you were not indoctrinated to believe, you demand sufficient evidence before belief. But when it comes to the religious sect you were indoctrinated to believe, you don’t demand any proof at all. This is because you were likely taught to believe at the age of four years old, along with other imaginary beings like Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. The threat of hell as a punishment in the afterlife reinforced your early childhood indoctrinated faith by searing it into your mind. The effect is like cattle rustlers using the technique of branding their cows. Once seared into the child’s mind the child will be deathly afraid of questioning their indoctrination.

Then in the last book of the Bible, one that wasn’t accepted very early into the canon of the New Testament, the author claimed to write his whole book based on a revelation by Jesus (1:1-2). Hence it was called the book of Revelation. Included were seven divinely dictated letters to seven early churches, taking up two whole chapters (chapters 2–3). Anyone could claim such things. Why should we believe anyone who makes these kinds of unevidenced unsubstantiated extraordinary claims? If Jesus is so smart why didn’t he write his own book?

If Paul and others writing the Old and New Testaments should not be taken seriously due to being clinically insane in some real sense, so also is everyone who believes their words are god’s words.[11]

Belief in Belief Itself

This leads me to the issue of “belief in belief” which Conner correctly says is “the core feature of the Christian cult” and “the most alarming part about Christianity.” Belief in belief itself, to remind you, “is the conviction that the Christian narrative is literally its own proof” as believers read it devotionally. But in the last few decades psychopathology has discovered overwhelming conclusive evidence “that radical disconfirmation often has little effect on cult members; some may be peeled away by dramatically failed predictions, revelations of financial fraud, or blatant moral hypocrisy, but even irrefutable evidence of criminality will often cause true believers to simply dig in.”

Michael Shermer highlights this fact about belief in belief:
Most of us most of the time come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning…Rather, such variables as genetic predispositions, parental predilections, sibling influences, peer pressures, educational experiences, and life impressions all shape the personality preferences and emotional inclinations that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to make certain belief choices. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weight them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed. Instead, the facts of the world come to us through the colored filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through our lifetime. We then sort through the body of data and select those most confirming what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that are disconfirming.[12]
This malaise in human beings is hard-wired into our brains. Psychologist Gregory W. Lester explains:
Because senses and beliefs are both tools for survival and have evolved to augment one another, our brain considers them to be separate but equally important purveyors of survival information....This means that beliefs are designed to operate independent of sensory data. In fact, the whole survival value of beliefs is based on their ability to persist in the face of contradictory evidence. Beliefs are not supposed to change easily or simply in response to disconfirming evidence. If they did, they would be virtually useless as tools for survival....Skeptical thinkers must realize that because of the survival value of beliefs, disconfirming evidence will rarely, if ever, be sufficient to change beliefs, even in “otherwise intelligent” people....[S]keptics must always appreciate how hard it is for people to have their beliefs challenged. It is, quite literally, a threat to their brain’s sense of survival. It is entirely normal for people to be defensive in such situations. The brain feels it is fighting for its should be comforting to all skeptics to remember that the truly amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or that people can be so irrational, but that anyone’s beliefs ever change at all. Skeptics’ ability to alter their own beliefs in response to data is a true gift; a unique, powerful, and precious ability. It is genuinely a “higher brain function” in that it goes against some of the most natural and fundamental biological urges.[13]
Guy P. Harrison put it this way. If a skeptic disputes a psychic’s readings, then “the believer’s brain is likely to instinctively go into siege mode. The drawbridge is raised, crocodiles are released into the mote, and defenders man the walls.” He goes on to explain, “The worst part of all this is that the believer usually doesn’t recognize how biased and close-minded he is being. He likely feels that he is completely rational and fair. It doesn’t happen just with fans of psychics. We are all vulnerable to this distorted way of thinking.”[14]

This process happens whenever the brain feels threatened by contrary data, and it’s not just religious beliefs we’re talking about. The brain feels physically attacked when confronted with ideas that challenge it, and will do what it takes to deflect that attack. Dr. Jonas Kaplan is an assistant research professor of psychology at University of Southern California. He and his research team studied the brain scans of people while being challenged about their political beliefs. The study uncovered a correlation: When a belief is directly challenged by new information, the brain kicks into defensive mode exactly as if it was being physically threatened. Kaplan: “The brain can be thought of as a very sophisticated self-defense machine. If there is a belief that the brain considers part of who we are, it turns on its self-defense mode to protect that belief.”[15]

I was talking with a friend named Tod who believes various governments conspired to produce the Covid-19 virus to kill off massive numbers of people on the planet, and that vaccines are not designed to help us. They’re doing this because in eighty years this planet cannot sustain 10-15 billion people.

My first question was why didn’t they just conspire to produce a virus that would make women infertile? But he ignored that. Nonetheless, Tod started citing how governments have done bad things, and they have. But I said he should treat his beliefs as if they are being tried in court. A judge would dismiss all the bad deeds done by governments in the past as irrelevant to whether they are doing this one particular evil deed. Tod objected of course, but I said “doing so is the best and only way to find out if we are misinformed and misled.” So I asked him, “What objective evidence is there that governments are conspiring to kill us off with the Covid-19 virus and its variants?” His silence was my answer. Without objective evidence he should reject conspiracy theories like these. If the brain is the disease then sufficient reliable evidence is the antidote. We know the human brain doesn’t function quite properly from objective evidence. We are all infected with some insanity as human beings!

The job of the evolved human brain is not primarily to get at the truth. Its primary job is to protect us from harm by keeping us in a socially acceptable caring tribal grouping with whom we feel support, and can turn to for help in times of need. This means the brain makes us conform to one’s own tribe. Nonconformists could be kicked out of the tribe, and that was dangerous. I asked one woman whether she honestly wanted to know if her faith was false. She said she didn’t, that she was happy, and that was that. She knew the implications if she concluded it was false. It would involve some adverse social repercussions she didn’t want, so she chose not even to consider whether she was wrong.

That being acknowledged, we know the two-step solution!

The first step is to acknowledge this problem as a very serious one. Compare it to Alcoholics Anonymous, whose first step is to admit they are alcoholics. The problem is the evolved brain won’t allow us to seriously entertain facts that disrupt our personal, social and tribal comfort zone. So it will do everything it can to reject them.

The second step is to resolve to disarm the brain, to bring it to heel. The rational side of the brain should take over and reject what the irrational reptilian side of our brain wants. It should demand sufficient evidence, objective evidence, and scientific evidence if possible, for what we will accept as true about the world we live in, its nature, its workings and it origins, along with which religion is true, if there is one. Not dogma, reinforced by and creed or nationalism.

Right now your indoctrinated brain is coming up with all kinds of excuses not to see the logic of what I say. But if you’ll honestly read my book on it, and peel away the non-sequiturs, faulty logic, special pleadings, red-herrings, and double-standards, you just might see the logic of it.[16] The main excuse you might hit me with is a known informal fallacy. “You Too Loftus. You must question what you believe as an atheist too, so we can call it a wash.” Not so fast. While I admit I need to do likewise, you can’t skirt your responsibility to honestly to get at the truth by saying I have the same responsibility.

In addition, there is a difference that makes all the difference. I know what does not count as sufficient evidence for the miracle claims in the Bible. Second- third- fourth-hand hearsay testimonial evidence doesn’t count, nor circumstantial evidence, nor anecdotal evidence as reported in documents that are centuries later than the supposed events, which were copied by scribes and theologians who had no qualms about including forgeries. I also know that subjective feelings or experiences or inner voices don’t count as extraordinary evidence, nor someone who tells others his writings are inspired, nor divine communication through dreams, or visions. If we can agree with this we agree on a lot.

To honestly examine your faith you need to take the outsider test for faith (OTF). You should do this as outsiders—nonbelievers—as much as possible, by applying the same objective standards to your own religious sect as you do to the many other religious sects you reject. If you’re a Christian, treat your faith as if you’re non-Christian, and if you’re a Muslim, treat your faith as if you’re a non-Muslim, and so forth. Hypothetically become a nonbeliever. See what it looks like to someone who does not believe in it, at all. Treat them all as an agnostic would, which I call the default position. For if it doesn’t convince nonbelievers, it won’t convince anyone else either.

Rene Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy. He said: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life, you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” This should be a rite of passage into adulthood. Philosopher Stephen Law explains what we have to overcome to get at the truth: “Anything based on faith, no matter how ludicrous, can be made to be consistent with the available evidence, given a little patience and ingenuity.”[17] Theists have had about 2000 years to do this. Anthropologist James Houk agrees, that “virtually anything and everything, no matter how absurd, inane, or ridiculous, has been believed or claimed to be true at one time or another by somebody, somewhere in the name of faith.”[18] I’m arguing along with atheist author George Smith that “faith as an alleged method of acquiring knowledge, is totally invalid.”[19] It’s not just your religious dogmas that are unreasonable. It’s how you arrive at and maintain them. For as Peter Boghossian has argued, “Belief in god is not the problem. Belief without evidence is the problem. Warrantless, dogged confidence is the problem.” He adds, “The most charitable thing we can say about faith is that it’s likely to be false.”[20]

Belief has no method for acquiring objective knowledge. Faith is folly. Reasonable people should all think exclusively in terms of the probabilities by “proportioning their conclusions according to the strength of the evidence”, as philosopher par excellence David Hume said. When you do that you’ll see why religious faith is unreasonable.

The OTF is the type of test geared to test religious faith just as geologists test the age of the earth with rock samples, just as neurologists test brain states with CAT scans, just as economists test economical theories with the results of economical policies. You cannot test the age of the earth with a CAT scan, nor can you test economical theories with rock samples. We develop appropriate tests for each different truth claim being tested. The goal of the OTF is to help eliminate cognitive biases so people of faith can clearly and honestly evaluate their religion. It’s that simple.

The outsider test is designed to help believers see the need for requiring sufficient objective evidence. Believers can play lip service to this requirement by saying they accept it. But what is meant isn’t always readily apparent. So the test also helps them see what is meant by sufficient objective evidence. That’s it. In other words, the outsider test helps believers twice-over. It’s both a test and a teaching tool. The test helps believers to accept the requirement for sufficient objective evidence (all by itself a hard task!). But it goes on to teach believers what it means by forcing them to consider how they reasonably examine the other religious faiths they reject. It teaches them to apply the same single standard across the board to their own religious faith.

John W. Loftus

June 2022


[1] One can see the various mythicist theories in my co-edited book with Robert M. Price, Varieties of Jesus Mythicism (Hypatia Press, 2021). For the latest view of how the Jesus character developed see Bart Willruth’s two essays “Reassessing Paul’s Timeline” at

[2] Lüdemann’s home page:

[3] Conner, “Paul’s Christianity” in Loftus, The Case against Miracles (Hypatia Press, 2019). For a good summary read David Madison, “The Biggest Bible Embarrassment of All?”: Madison says of it, “I would say this essay is essential reading for those assembling arguments to discredit the ancient cult.”

[4] Conner, “Paul’s Christianity” p. 545.

[5] Carrier, “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels” at

[6] Insanity:

[7] Psychosis:

[8] On possible endings of the world see Phil Torres, The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us about the Apocalypse (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016)

[9] G. A. Wells, Cutting Jesus Down to Size: What Higher Criticism Has Achieved and Where It Leaves Christianity (Chicago: Open Court, 2009), pp. 8-9.

[10] ekstatsis is the state of mind that falls on Peter (hence the English word “ecstatsy”) – one is being thrown out of his normal mind.

[11] I have defended an aphorism by Christopher Hitchens in chapter 1 titled, “In Defense of Hitchens’s Razor” in God and Horrendous Suffering (GCRR publishing, 2021). “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” There is no relevant objective evidence for any of the miracle claims in the Bible.

[12] Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things 2nd ed., (New York: Henry Holt and Company), 2002, pp. 283-284, and 299.

[13] “Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die” at

[14] Think: Why You Should Question Everything (Prometheus Books, 2013), p. 67.

[15] See “The brain treats questions about beliefs like physical threats. Can we learn to disarm it?” at

[16] Loftus, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to know which Religion is True (Prometheus Books, 2013).

[17] Stephen Law, Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole (Prometheus Books, 2011), p. 75.

[18] James T. Houk, The Illusion of Certainty (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2017), p. 16.

[19] George A. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Prometheus Books, 1979),p. 120).

[20] Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013) p. 77.


John W. Loftus is a philosopher and counter-apologist credited with 12 critically acclaimed books, including The Case against Miracles, God and Horrendous Suffering, and Varieties of Jesus Mythicism. Please support DC by sharing our posts, or by subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon. As an Amazon Associate John earns a small amount of money from purchases made from Amazon. Buying anything through them helps fund my work here, and is greatly appreciated!