It may surprise you to learn that I was baptized when I was a baby. My family attended a Protestant church before we became a part of a UU congregation, so when I was born, baptism was the thing to do. I don’t remember it (obviously), and it wasn’t a big thing in my immediate family so I almost never thought about it. But since I saw this “photobomb” picture from a baptism ceremony for an apparently quite distraught infant, it’s been percolating in the back of my mind.
I do remember my aunt being concerned at one point that, as a UU and an atheist at that, I might face discrimination from religious people. No doubt she was thinking of the persecution endured by previous generations of our family and wondering how far society had progressed. She suggested that, if it became necessary (or if I changed my mind about my beliefs in the future), I could claim in good conscience to be a Christian or a Jew, since my baptism made me Christian according to some denominations and my matrilineal ancestry made me Jewish according to some traditions. More than anything, I think it made the whole notion of religion look even more absurd to me — obviously I was neither Christian nor Jewish by any sensible definition — but that was probably the height of my awareness of having been baptized, as a child.
A debaptism sounds like an amusing thing to do on a lark, and if one was happening at an event I was attending, I would probably participate for a laugh. I obviously don’t think it has any actual effect, just like I don’t think putting some water on my head when I was a baby had any actual effect. I do see some nonzero symbolic value in it for people who were raised in more religious environments than I was; it’s cathartic to make any kind of public renunciation of your former faith, and most denominations don’t have a form you can fill out to make it official (as far as I know).
What I really never understood about the debaptism controversy was the outrage from Christians. I mean, sure, they’ll see it as an upsetting gesture because they’re upset any time someone openly disagrees with Christianity, but these people who were getting “debaptized” were already atheists. They already thought and said things that were directly opposed to their old religious beliefs. At this particular event I linked to above, they were at an “Atheist Coming-Out Party.” It’s not as though somehow the act of pointing a hair dryer at someone’s face was the tipping point, the moment when they came to the conclusion that Christianity is nonsense. And doesn’t it seem a bit odd for Christians to consider this quasi-ceremony at all significant? I mean, do they worry that they get un-baptized any time they walk outside on a windy day? The water on your face evaporated years ago, guys.
Baptizing the dead is sort of the reverse controversy. Rather than having non-Christians pretending to remove a baptism they didn’t want, we have Christians pretending to baptize people who aren’t there and never indicated that they wanted such a thing. (Well. I consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to be a Christian denomination, but I know some people have concocted reasons why they don’t count. Whatever.) This latter case does at least seem more rude to me, insofar as the people that the pointless ritual is being done for don’t have any choice in the matter. But let’s say you’re a Jewish family member of a Holocaust victim. Why should you care whether some Mormons read your grandfather’s name out loud and then dunked someone in a tub? That seems bizarre and stupid, and it shows that they disagree with your religious beliefs, but … where’s the surprise there? At the point at which most Christians already think you’re going to hell for eternity (or, not going to the Celestial Kingdom, or whatnot) for not sharing their particular implausible superstitions, isn’t this level of rudeness just a drop in the bucket?
And from the perspective of the Mormons — I just have a hard time understanding how you buy into this thing enough to go through all the trouble. You believe that baptism is so crucial, but you also believe that God is happy to consider you baptized if someone else, well, gets dunked in a tub after your name is read aloud. Doesn’t that seem sort of goofy? I guess it is not the goofiest of all LDS beliefs … but still. I feel like, if you believe God will admit even Adolph Hitler into the Celestial Kingdom as long as you perform all the proper rites for him decades after his death, don’t you have some bigger theological issues to be tackling?
Just to add a small tidbit to the all-around absurdity: apparently the LDS Church teaches that in the afterlife, people receive these ordinances and have the opportunity to accept or reject them. So it’s not like they’re forcing Mormonism on them or anything, right? And on the other hand, many Jews were offended by the practice of baptizing Holocaust victims (and perpetrators) in part because Jewish law forbids attempting to communicate with the dead. Buh? Were Mormons extremely scrupulous about it before?
I don’t know, all of this stuff just seems to ridiculous to care about. If I never get “debaptized,” I won’t mind a bit, but I also don’t see why Christians get their knickers in a twist about it. I think it’s ridiculous that Mormons (and some other Christians) baptize people in absentia, but I think most of their beliefs are ridiculous so this one doesn’t stand out, and I don’t see why it’s more offensive than anything else they believe so I can’t get that worked up.