Doubting the Apostle Paul: my slippery slope
I recently adopted the skeptic’s approach to life, the universe and everything.
I had been struggling to reconcile morality (as I knew it by observation and experience) with the moral code of the evangelical Christian culture I had always identified with. One big question for me: Why were evangelicals treating Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality as a moral absolute while casually dismissing other policies found in his letters – such as his prohibition on women opening their mouths in church? I had never really believed that Paul’s writings were inspired in any way; they had always struck me as the rants of an opinionated and conceited man who may have sincerely believed in Jesus but who spoke only for himself. The church’s waffling just reinforced that impression.
So I got curious about who else might be less than reverent toward Paul. I did a little web research and was amused to find that some Christian groups reject Paul outright on the grounds that he contradicts Jesus. (Example: Liberals Like Christ.)
That discovery made me wonder what else in my belief system might be ill-founded. Searching on the historicity of the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, I discovered “The Jesus Puzzle” by Earl Doherty – a well-argued work whose premises I found easy to verify. It demonstrated that the gospels and Acts were not firsthand accounts written by people who knew Jesus (although, by contrast, most of the Pauline letters were likely written by Paul); further, it presented a different “best possible explanation” of how those writings developed and (with other books) were adopted as the canon for most Christian sects.
My whole Christian faith had been based on the historicity of the gospels and Acts. Those books, for me, were the evidence of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, which in turn were the basis of the “salvation by faith” doctrine. Now those books were off the table, leaving me no basis for belief in any of the claims of Christianity.
To say I’ve become an atheist is to miss the point. Atheism is a conclusion, and conclusions are subject to revision based on new evidence. I don’t want or need to commit to the conclusion that there are no gods.
By contrast, skepticism – an insistence on rational inquiry, an insistence on testing claims by examining evidence – is something I can commit to indefinitely. And I am committing to it.
Intellectually, my ‘conversion’ has been a relief because there is no more conflict between what I ‘believe’ and what I observe. But my ‘conversion’ will probably grieve many people I care about.