Some thoughts on baptism

photobomb that guy - Here Be Demonz

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.

I explain all that because I think it adds context to my “meh” reaction to two big controversies (at least in atheist circles) relating to baptism: “debaptism” ceremonies, and baptisms for the dead.

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.

Leave a comment


  1. Questioning

     /  February 10, 2011 at 8:23 am

    Sigh…this has been on my mind lately. We’re currently pregnant with our first (yay!), and while my husband is kind of semi-on board with where I’m at, there’s all that family pressure. (For the record, he doesn’t seem to have lost his faith as much as me, but he’s very disillusioned with church and “the system” of Christianity. But I digress.) I’m not sure he even knows what he believes about infant baptism. He grew up believing in it, and I came to the conclusion later in life. Honestly, even if I could reconcile everything else in Christianity, I see just as much evidence for infant baptism as I do against it. That’s the funny thing about the bible…you can use it to justify totally opposing viewpoints.

    So now we’re at this place where we’re trying to figure out, do we just baptize the kid to keep everyone else from getting all up in a tizzy? I mean, if it doesn’t mean anything, am I really hurting my kid to sprinkle some water on his/her face that he/she will never remember? I certainly think it’s less harmful than trying to convince him/her to “ask Jesus in her heart” when she’s 4. That whole thing was all kinds of damaging for me.

    Or do we stand on our principles, and say no, that would be dishonest, and we don’t want to disrespect our child, or the devout Christians that would be part of the ceremony, by participating in something that others view as sacred, when we don’t believe in it.

    Not exactly the scope of your post, but I’d appreciate any input!

  2. My understanding of why baptisms are an issue is that they are used to falsely inflate the church’s numbers. All of the people the Mormons have posthumously baptized are part of the 5,000,000 or so Mormons they claim in the US alone. So who knows how many there really are. But claiming such high numbers gives them political clout.

    Same with the Catholics. I was baptized Catholic, as were both of my non-practicing parents (my sister wasn’t. She represents the point when they both stopped trying to please my very devout grandmother). How many more atheists, agnostics, and wishy-washy “well I am spiritual but no longer believe in organized religion” folks are claimed by the Vatican? There is probably no way of knowing, and they make you jump through a ridiculous amount of hoops to be struck off their rolls.

    So while I have always been kind of “meh” about my own baptism as well, and in no way do I think it has any meaning or effect on my non-existent soul, I can see why it is important to many, if only to distance yourself from an institution you have come to find abhorrent.

  3. @Questioning: First: congratulations! 🙂 As far as the whether to baptize issue, that’s tough … I think if I was in your place it would depend on what I expected the ramifications would be from extended family (mild irritation and disapproval, or complete ostracism?) as well as how I expected the child to be raised. Ultimately I hope the latter part is something you and your husband are discussing and working on a clear answer to. I can’t tell from your comment how much you and he are on the same page there.

    Being baptized made basically zero impact on my life because I spent such a small portion of my childhood in that church and/or being taught Christian doctrine. (My only memory of that place, until my grandmother’s funeral which was held there, is of singing that “clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere” song at the end of a preschool Sunday school session.) I don’t think there’s much of a problem with that way of doing things, especially if it will save the entire family from a lot of fighting. But if baptism establishes the expectation that the child then has to be raised in that church, or something along those lines, I’d be more hesitant.

    There are some Jewish ceremonies that my husband and I have participated in and/or are considering participating in when (hopefully) we have children in the future. We’re both atheists and kind of go back and forth on it, but at this point in time at least justify it to ourselves as cultural tradition that’s meaningful for its connection to one’s heritage even if we don’t believe the superstitions tied to it. Similar to how some people with Native American ancestry learn their tribe’s traditional dances, even though they’re mostly Christian (I think) today.

    Those are just my thoughts. I don’t really know what the scope of this post is 😉 so I hope you and others feel free to continue the conversation here.

    @Jen: Whoa-ho! Really? I thought that the whole “you can decide in the afterlife to accept it or not” policy would preclude counting posthumously baptized people as Mormon. That makes it way more problematic.

  4. @Questioning:

    I went through a similar period of questioning when my first son was born almost three years ago. My wife is not particularly religious, but she’s not a self-proclaimed atheist like I am. She was keen on a baptism, and I was pretty much on the fence, although somewhat against it (the baptism, not the fence :-).

    In a rather ironic twist of fate, we asked my dad, who is a retired Methodist minister, to perform a sort of blessing, meant as an expression of gratitude, for our new son (it was done over Thanksgiving). What’s ironic about this is that my dad himself later told me that he had pretty much lost his faith over the years as well, which probably explains why he didn’t seem concerned about our decision not to have a full baptism.

    I don’t know if my story will be of any real help to you, but I guess my point is that you might be able to find some sort of compromise that isn’t proper baptism, but which has the sorts of symbolism that you and your partner can agree on, and which may satisfy the need for traditional expression that your other family members have.

  5. Questioning

     /  February 11, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Thanks for the advice, guys! Keith, I like that idea of an expression of gratitude for your son. Even if there’s no one to be thankful to (and the jury is still out on that for me), I still *feel* a sense of gratitude for this child, and I actually kind of like the idea of some sort of symbolism for that.

    We’re Protestant (well, I don’t know what we are right now, but we’re not Catholic or Mormon), so the ceremony is not as binding as if we were Catholics. It is something we’re discussing. Even though we’re not totally on the same page spiritually, my husband totally gets why I am where I am, and we have a really great marriage. It was hard for him at first to see me lose this thing that we held so in common, but when we left our last church it got a little ugly, and I think that really disillusioned him.

    Anyway, thanks again for the advice and the congrats. 🙂

  6. Please get rid of the picture. Am I the only one who thinks the poor positioning of that one particular candle makes it look like the kid is tossing up his cookies–in green?


  7. Eugh, I definitely didn’t see that until you mentioned it. Sorry! (Maybe it’s something about the camera focus, but I actually didn’t even really notice that candle at all, I just looked right past it.)

    The picture is the only at-all-timely aspect of the post, so I’m going to leave it in, but you can rest assured it will be pushed far down the front page in short order.

  8. My $0.00002:

    I think it’s possible that some of the backlash against “debaptism” is the perception of the ceremony being a direct and very disrespectful jab at what is for most Christians a very central part of the faith. Kind of like how some US citizens would react/have reacted against flag burnings; baptism for a lot of Christians is the symbol for public affirmation of their faith.

    I can’t speak for every group of Christians, but I can say that in my (non-denominational Protestant) congregation, baptism is conceived of as something that must be chosen by the individual, and again is a public confession of a faith they’ve already chosen, not something that “saves” a person in of itself; it would definitely not be performed on babies without their consent, though couples can and do have dedications where they promise to raising the child according to the tenets of the faith, and the congregation promises to help as it can. I seem to remember one of my Catholic friends telling me that that was more or less the idea behind their infant baptism, but I could definitely be wrong.

    I don’t have much to say on baptism of the dead. It seems silly to me on the outset, and doing it simply to inflate numbers seems downright fraudulent, but I simply don’t know that much about it.

  9. NFQ, you’re forgiven. I’ll just say as an aside that the videos of babies barfing and snotting over themselves (and others) is the reason that I absolutely refuse to watch _America’s Funniest Home Videos_ any longer.

    I’d rather watch cat videos on YouTube. 😉

  10. I view baptism for the dead about being just as much about the living person doing the ordinance, as about the dead person themselves.

    It’s a ritual whereby I can research my ancestors, think about them, feel a connection with them, and then welcome them into one of the most important aspects of my life.

    What’s not to like?

    The question of whether we’re going to numerically cover all of them, or whether it’s going to literally change them, is not really something I worry about.

  11. @Seth:

    “What’s not to like?”

    What’s not to like is that in these ancestral baptisms, people are not respecting the basic rights their ancestors had to hold their own beliefs.

    A Mormon who tries to baptize her Jewish great grandfather into the Mormon church is not “welcoming [him] into one of the most important aspects of [her] life”. Instead, she is stating publicly that she is not satisfied with the beliefs her great grandfather held, and that these beliefs ought, in some bizarre posthumous sense, to be changed without his consent. This is both selfish and utterly daft at the same time.

    If a Mormon (or whomever) wishes to respect her ancestor, she should celebrate him as he was, not as she would like him to have been.

  12. Keith, if someone’s Jewish great, great, great grandmother wants to become a Mormon in her OWN afterlife,

    Then frankly that’s her business, and none of her grandkids’ business. And it’s certainly none of your business.

    LDS Baptisms for the dead do not automatically make a deceased person a Mormon – nor do any active Mormons I know see it otherwise. We view it as pretty much the equivalent of offering something to someone that they are then perfectly free to accept or reject.

    So no problems there either.

    No one is being coerced here.

    Except perhaps faithful Mormons who are being yelled at by angry grandchildren who think they ought to own a monopoly on how EVERYONE else views their ancestors.

  13. @Seth:

    “We view it as pretty much the equivalent of offering something to someone that they are then perfectly free to accept or reject.”

    If that’s the case, then you ought to lobby to have the Wikipedia description of Mormon baptism changed, since it states that “Baptism is seen as symbolic both of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection and is also symbolic of the baptized individual putting off of the natural or sinful man and becoming spiritually reborn as a disciple of Jesus.”

  14. Right. Baptism symbolizes those things.

    So, what does that have to do with whether the deceased person ACCEPTS the ordinance or not?

    Note: Incidentally, it wouldn’t matter what I said to try and get the Wikipedia description page changed. All Wikipedia pages on Mormonism are moderated and controlled by a John Foxe – who is currently a faculty member at the ultra conservative Baptist college Bob Jones University. He heavily edits and moderates all submissions to the Mormon pages and makes sure that all articles on the page maintain a slightly anti-Mormon slant.

    It would be the the equivalent of letting Kenneth Star moderate all the Wikipedia pages on the Democratic Party. We’ve tried to get him kicked off the moderator panel before – but he appears to be there to stay.

    So Mormons just have to put up with having an ultra conservative Southern Baptist as the gatekeeper to all Wikipedia knowledge about us.

    Life sucks that way.

  15. Seth — if it all comes down to the person’s decision about whether to accept the baptism or not (which they can presumably make after having found out the truth about the afterlife) why does the baptism matter? It seems like a totally trivial and useless charade.

  16. It’s not useless to me.

    It’s a wonderful spiritual and personal connection for me when I do this stuff.

  17. A question – do you understand the value in symbols in general?

  18. Well, I didn’t mean that it’s impossible to derive any personal benefit from it — just that it seems pretty silly for God to require some people on Earth to pretend to baptize someone that isn’t there, when he’s just going to ask the person themselves if they want to accept it, and go by that answer. If the proxy baptism happens, then the person goes to heaven or doesn’t based on their answer there in the afterlife. (Presumably, if Mormonism is right, they’ll accept it and go to heaven. Easy peasy.) And if the proxy baptism doesn’t happen, it seems sort of mean to punish the dead person for something they have no control over. (I realize we’re talking about Christianity here, but bear with me.) Why have the baptism at all — why not just ask a person in the afterlife: “Hey there, here’s how it all works, would you like to go up or down?”

    (I’m sorry, I know the Mormon afterlife is a lot more complicated than I’m making it out to be, and I don’t know all the details. I don’t mean to imply it’s just like how I’m describing it, it’s just a simplification for ease of discussion.)

  19. Your dispute seems to be more with ritual itself, than with this particular ritual.

    Are you claiming that there is no legitimate role for symbolism and ritual in theology?

  20. Seth:

    Excuse me for hopping into the conversation again, but I think both NFQ’s and my arguments are based on the premise that you, as a practicing Mormon, actually believe that the rituals you practice have some sort of actual effect in the particular spiritual realm you believe in. In other words, while they may have symbolic and ritualistic value, they also have a certain literal truth to them: they actually achieve the things they claim, rather than simply pretending to (as an actor might pretend to murder a character on stage, even though no actual murder takes place).

    It is the nature of these actual effects that we claim does not make sense, not the symbolic or ritualistic aspects.

  21. They do have an impact.

    They offer a real ordinance to people. Who are then free to accept it. Participation in the required rituals are part of the humility and openness required to become one with God.

Leave a Reply