Wednesday, September 7, 2016


   Jesus loves me—this I know,
   For the Bible tells me so.

“Jesus Loves Me,” is among the most familiar and most powerful songs in the Christian hymnbook and was one of the first songs that I learned as a young child.  The hymn’s power comes from the simplicity both of its language and of its melody, making it easy for young children to learn.  Like virtually everyone else who grew up in a Christian faith, I sang the song scores of times, at a point in my childhood when my mind was especially plastic and uncluttered by competing ideas.
It’s undoubtedly true that, as young children, virtually none of us spent time parsing the meaning of the hymn’s words.  None of us questioned whether Jesus really loved us or even if he actually lived.  And none of us questioned whether the Bible really said that Jesus loved us or, perhaps most importantly, whether the Bible was actually true.  Instead, we just learned the words and accepted them as truth, along with virtually everything else our elders taught us.

Before a certain age we simply have not developed the cognitive tools to enable us to think critically about the things that we are told.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, we have not had the variety of experience that would allow us properly to evaluate what we are taught, to judge by other life experiences the truth value of what we are told.  Second, we are, I suspect, evolutionarily hardwired, at least during our early years, to accept what our elders teach us.  There has to be a survival advantage in accepting without question in early childhood the instructions of one’s elders.

But even though it is natural for us to accept in our early years what we are taught by our parents and others in authority, we do in time develop critical thinking skills, as our experiences expand.  As a result, we discard many of our early beliefs—but not our religious beliefs.  To illustrate, let’s contrast the course of belief in Jesus with the course of belief in another myth, Santa Claus.

Nearly all children raised in Western Christian culture are taught to believe in Santa Claus, just as they are taught to believe in Jesus.  At some point virtually all children abandon their belief in Santa Claus.  But few of those raised in a Christian faith abandon their belief in the Jesus story, at least not during their youth.  Why is that?

Most parents foster belief by their children in Santa Claus.  It’s fun to see the excitement that children experience in thinking that Santa Claus will bring them gifts at Christmas time.  And for a time parents encourage the belief, even as their children begin to develop critical thinking skills.  If a child points out that not all Santas look alike, the parent might explain that not all Santas are the true Santa; some are just “helpers.”  There are also the questions of how Santa can distribute gifts all over the world in just one night or of how he gets down the chimney.  But eventually parents no longer support the myth, allowing the child to come to the realization that Santa doesn’t actually exist.  After all, no parent wants their child to grow up still believing in Santa.  Encouraging belief in the Santa myth and then allowing it to fail can be a good thing, as it helps the child to realize the value of independent, skeptical thought.

But that is not how Christian communities handle the Jesus myth.  Instead of encouraging children to ask questions and to develop their critical thinking skills in the context of religious belief, parents and others in authority discourage skeptical thought.  Parents do not encourage their children to question why we should accept the writings of men who lived two to three thousand years ago and why those writings should be accepted as true when other mythologies of similar vintage are understood simply as myth.  Instead, parents and religious leaders place such scriptures in a separate exalted category.  Nor do parents encourage their children to question why Jesus’s death should somehow serve to redeem mankind from a perdition to which God had otherwise consigned them.  And then there is “Jesus Loves Me,” as well as all the other hymns and rituals designed to perpetuate the myth.

Having said that, I am not placing special blame on Christian parents.  They are simply doing their best to raise their children by repeating what their parents did in the prior generation.  But I would ask the following:  If the Christian story is true, then why not encourage children to question all beliefs, including those of religion?  Why not handle belief in Jesus in the same manner as belief in Santa Claus?  

© 2016 John M. Phillips


  1. John, this is the trial of posting under "anonymous to see if it works...Dennise

    1. It works, but there must be a way to get set up under your name. Other people have, including Pam (I think). I tried on my wife's iPad, but she is already set up under her name, so I'm still not sure how this works.

  2. Hi John

    Always good to encounter another atheist/skeptic. And you write well, too. Apparently you were SDA. No wonder you ended up "out in the cold." The North American continent is the greatest incubator of religious goofiness ever known, but fortunately it has mostly happened fairly recently, so there are embarrassing paper trails. I have hugely enjoyed the farcical sequence from Ellen G White's bump on the head to her early writings on masturbation, then her mentoring of Dr John Harvey Kellogg, to his invention of cornflakes as anti-masturbation food, to his ultimate excommunication in 1907. Have you seen the film "The Road to Wellville"? Hilarious.

    Love your photography, which I ran across in the process of constructing my enormous collection of photos of religious architecture and stained glass.

    In recent years my skepticism has been polished by the videos of Rabbi Michael Skobac, an Orthodox Jew who methodically dismantles Christianity, showing it up for the abysmally dishonest knockoff of Judaism that it is. Mind you, I don't buy the Jewish fairytale, either, but it's way better than the Christian or Islamic ones.

    I look forward to becoming more familiar with your work.


  3. John

    The towering theologian Karl Barth remarked that those few words from the hymn were the summation of all his work.


    1. Tom, I find the comment process on Blogger to be both deficient and frustrating. Since it appears that you have commented on my blog a few times, it might be helpful to find out more about who you are. If you want to introduce yourself in a less public fashion, you can reply by email, as I am sending these remarks to the email address you posted as well as stating them here.

      As to the Karl Barth comment, as you may understand, I am not particularly persuaded by statements made by individuals merely by reason of who those individuals are or what their reputation might be. To quote myself in another essay on which you commented: "Statements should not be accepted—or rejected—simply on the basis of their source." I do not know that much about Barth other than that he was a prominent theologian. But I would be interested in why you think his statement is significant.

      Thanks for your kind remarks regarding my photography and my writing. Much appreciated.