About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The problem with baptisms

by Michael De Dora

Last week I received an invitation to a baptism. Usually mail of this sort would not merit enough consideration for an essay on a blog devoted to philosophical and scientific discussion. You might even consider it a normal part of life. Indeed, this was at least the 10th invitation of this sort I’ve received from relatives over the past couple of years, and I expect to start receiving them from friends in the near future.

Yet this time around, things were different. While I have accepted some invitations in the past, my living situation has often prevented me from even considering going to most. However, this latest baptism is being  held at a time when I would be able to go. But I am not going. Given that my decision to decline has drawn questioning, and that I plan to continue not attending baptisms moving forward, I think it’s worth explaining my position in a public forum. This will allow both others and myself the opportunity to make sense of this surprisingly heated issue. 

Before moving forward, let me paint a quick picture of what goes on at these gatherings, at least in my experience. The baptisms to which I am invited typically take place in a Christian church, usually Roman Catholic, somewhere on Long Island, New York. Attendees dress in their nicest clothes and gather at the selected church to watch a (supposedly) holy man lead a religious ceremony, some more sectarian than others, which concludes with the crowd rejoicing over a newborn being blessed. Depending on your religious beliefs, you might think God or Jesus Christ is present. When the proceedings conclude, everyone heads to a local restaurant for a celebratory meal. 

This might sound innocuous to most Americans, but I think there are a couple of significant problems that I can best illustrate by considering some common questions I receive regarding my opposition:
  • Are you so rabid about your atheism that you would be offended attending a religious ceremony?
  • Are you saying parents shouldn’t make decisions for their kids? 
  • Isn’t baptism just one small, meaningless ceremony? 
  • Why would you sit out a family event? What do you think you’re accomplishing? Isn’t that being intolerant?

Allow me to take these one-by-one. 

Simply put, no, I have not been personally offended when attending religious ceremonies such as baptisms. I do find them a waste of my time – usually I sit and read the Bible in an attempt to pull some education from the lengthy service – but I am rarely offended. That said, to focus on my experience is to miss the point. The reason why I am uncomfortable with baptisms is not because I am personally offended; it’s because I am offended by what is happening to the child.

To me, a baptism represents, at least in part, a parent forcing his or her religious heritage on a child unable to approve or reject the gesture. It labels a baby with a certain religious affiliation, and enters him or her into that religion, or else puts him or her on the path toward that religion. My presence at a baptism condones the practice of basing your child’s beliefs on yours. But as a person who values freedom of conscience, I reject in full the idea of parents passing their religious beliefs onto their children by default. I believe we should not label or push a child regarding religion – atheist, Christian, Muslim, or anything else – until he or she can make up his or her mind about the matter. I believe parents should provide their children a neutral and informative perspective rather than an indoctrinating and closed-minded one.

In this sense, baptisms categorically differ from other religious ceremonies that I have attended and will continue to attend. For instance, several of my friends have been married in churches, through religious ceremonies. I have attended each one and will continue doing so. Why? Because they are two grown adults deciding they, and only they, want to get married in a religious ceremony at a church. While I would certainly choose a different setting for myself, at least they have thought about it, and consented to the final decision (unless, of course, their family has coerced their decision, in which case I say shame on the family). 

But back to baptisms. Some people have responded to my previous line of argument by stating that, “you know, parents need to make decisions for their children. They don’t have a choice.” In a certain respect, I agree. Clearly parents need to keep after their children, and ensure their safety, health, and happiness. A good and generally agreeable example is that a parent has to make decisions regarding a child’s dietary habits (though I say generally, because clearly parents do not have an absolute right to instruct their children as they wish, an issue I’d like to take up in another essay). But a baptism has nothing to do with the direct safety, health, and happiness of the baby. A baptism is the act of deciding for a child something that is irrelevant to the child’s immediate well-being. It is not akin to telling your child to eat his or her greens; it is an effort to plan and control the development of the child’s beliefs and values, especially regarding religion.

Which brings me to the next question, regarding baptisms being a single and small instance of parents’ intrusion. I admit this, and do not believe baptisms in themselves represent a severe or pressing moral problem. You might even point out that children in Islamic societies undergo far worse methods of indoctrination, and I would agree. However, the fact that these experiences are different doesn’t make either of them good or desirable. Nor does it alter the fact that these experiences are all part of a broader landscape of behaviors in which parents are pressing their religious beliefs onto children, without giving the children a chance to think things through from an objective standpoint. Some rituals might be worse than others, yes, and it would be short-sighted to pick on only one specific behavior at the expense of others. But I do reject them all, I just happen to think that rejecting baptisms in particular is a worthy focus in the U.S., since they are often the beginning of a lifelong trend for the child.

In regard to my family and friends, I think it’s misleading to claim that sitting out a baptism is akin to sitting out a family event. To me, a family event is one where the family comes together to celebrate the family. A baptism is an event focused almost solely on religion. There is no other reason to gather on the day of a baptism but to celebrate the child’s induction into a certain religion. Hence, I am not missing a family event; I am missing a religious event attended by my family. There is a difference.

Even so, I do not sit out baptisms to offend my family members (or friends), nor should my absence necessarily offend them. I wrote above that the focus of this discussion should not be about my feelings as a secular person. It also should not be about my feelings for family members and other loved ones, which are irrelevant and unquestionably strong – I value my family members and friends, and try to spend as much time with them as possible. The focus here should be on the child. And in my estimation, the child is being wronged. 

In closing, I would argue that the simple act of sitting out baptisms does actually serve a purpose. Historically speaking, one of the only ways that tradition has ever changed is when certain people stand up and proclaim, “wait a minute; something isn’t right here; we have some issues with what’s being practiced.” This allows other people who might share in this dissent to see some safe ground on which to plant their feet. Perhaps, as a result of my actions, one of my relatives (doubtful) or friends (more likely) will find the courage to not baptize their child. At least I can hope so.

Even if I fail to convince anyone else, I see no reason why my secular and others’ religious opinions cannot coexist within a framework of tolerance. Certainly I am disagreeing with a long-practiced tradition. But I am not organizing anti-baptism protests outside of churches, or lobbying for laws banning baptisms. I am simply stating that I would prefer not to attend baptisms because I consider them a harmful practice, or at least part of a broader spectrum of harmful practices. How is that intolerant? Tolerance doesn’t mean going with the flow or keeping one’s mouth shut for the sake of tradition. Tolerance means being respectful toward others. There’s nothing intolerant about sitting out a religious ceremony that is contrary to your values, or providing honest answers when asked a question about your decision. If anything, it is the vocal criticism of my right to not attend such ceremonies that betrays a degree of intolerance.


  1. Well argued, however when you say "But a baptism has nothing to do with the direct safety, health, and happiness of the baby. A baptism is the act of deciding for a child something that is irrelevant to the child’s immediate well-being" it shows you do not fully understand the religious/christian mind.

    By baptizing their child they believe they are looking after their child's safety & well-being through their "spiritual" health. This is often as important, if not more important, to them than the child's physical health. So, from their perspective it is absolutely their duty to do this, just as it is to monitor their child's diet.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I think Michael is conflating the idea of claiming dominion over a child's mind with the idea of "inducting a child into a certain religion," as he aptly puts it. To say that a Baptism represents the former is nonsensical: babies do not have the ability to form religious beliefs, so how could a parent be trying to sculpt those beliefs at a Baptism?

    Instead, a Baptism represents an induction into a religion. This simply means that society will tend to regard the child as a member of that religion UNTIL SUCH TIME AS (S)HE DECIDES OTHERWISE. This is still problematic, but I think most would agree that it is not as insidious a practice as trying to enforce a certain belief system. (Of course, many religious people do this as well, but I don't think a Baptism is an example of that.)

    Of course, this reason in itself may be important enough to justify boycotting a baptism, but that line of reasoning would probably also rule out religious weddings. (Unless perhaps you find weddings to be so much fun that the cost-benefit analysis still demands you attend, which is a consideration that is probably less relevant for baptisms.)

    1. Perhaps a baptism itself does not "claim dominion over the child's mind" but surely, it is a symbol of how early religious practices and (excuse the word) indoctrination do? And thus the boycotter is doing so because of what it symbolises?

  4. Michael, having had the same issue myself, I completely agree with your position and arguments. (One quibble: to the argument "isn't babtism just one small, meaningless ceremony" the answer should be "exactly" ;-) ).

    Of course, as Keith says, baptism is not equal to enforcing a belief system; on the face of it it is more akin to joining a club. The problem is more that (involuntarily) joining the religion is still largely seen as a commitment by the child, with subsequent pressure when it does decide otherwise. Even in secular societies, leaving ones religion is not made that easy.

    What strikes me as strange is when you compare to the discussion we are currently having over here (Germany) about the recent court decision contra circumcision. If it's a matter of degrees, why are the arguments there (the pro ones) pretty much exactly the same as in the baptism case?

    If it's no big deal, just wait until the child is old enough to decide on its own. A religion that is confident of it's tenets should have no problem with that.

  5. Michael, I've almost always agreed with you, but this special pleading is almost amusing. You could construct a much better argument (and several other pieces of your argument are good), but this is terrible:

    To me, a baptism represents, at least in part, a parent forcing his or her religious heritage on a child unable to approve or reject the gesture. It labels a baby with a certain religious affiliation, and enters him or her into that religion, or else puts him or her on the path toward that religion. My presence at a baptism condones the practice of basing your child’s beliefs on yours. But as a person who values freedom of conscience, I reject in full the idea of parents passing their religious beliefs onto their children by default.

    What about names? What about attitudes? What about community? What about school? What about friends? Children base ALL BELIEFS on their caregivers. They then grow and develop from that beginning.

    Parents decide or influence EVERYTHING about a child's life and mental and social development. You dislike this one thing, in particular, which you can probably justify. But your attempted generalization is bad, and weakens your overall argument.

  6. I was raised in (and eventually left) a church that was against infant baptism for a lot of these reasons...namely, the lack of a free will choice about religious belief. They did, however, have infant dedications which were dedications of the congregation to watch out for the child and to help buide him in the faith, etc.

  7. Excellent post, Michael. Good for you. I fully agree.

  8. I am not sure if there really is a neutral alternative to baptism. It seems that if atheists care about the well-being of their children, they ought to raise their kids as atheists. If religious beliefs are false and damaging, one ought not to let their child get mixed up with such things. After all, there is peer pressure at school, and there are a lot of Christians, in particular Evangelicals, in American schools. It seems that parents are rarely neutral about such weighty affairs. We do not wait until children achieve autonomy to let them decide if it is right or wrong to be tolerant, for example. It seems that if you are an atheist, because you care for the well-being of you child, which I would think includes encouraging the cultivation of intellectual virtues, you ought to raise your child as an atheist. Theists, I suppose, ought to do the same. Let's not forget that Catholics practice what is called 'confirmation,' wherein the individual makes what should be a conscious thoughtful commitment to the Church, or take the option of avoiding the sacrament altogether. One might argue that by the time a Catholic is of age to be confirmed, he or she has already been brainwashed or indoctrinated such that the decision is already made, but this would involve an impoverished view of human agency and the power the human animal has to use reason.

  9. I have to agree. I was twice baptised. Once as a Congregationalist by my Protestant father and once as a Catholic by my Catholic mother. I, of course remember neither of these auspicious occasions. Later when told of them I was sworn to secrecy by each parent – neither of whom was aware of the nefarious ceremony arranged by the other. It has affected me all of my life but I must say not to the same extent as being en-cultured into arithmetic and later algebra. Forced to engage in both of these useless activities against my will, I was taken away from natural boyhood proclivities such as playing cowboy and Indians (I know, shows my age) and football. Now I never much think about whether there is a God or not but every day of my life is governed by that accursed brainwashing and no amount of delving into the philosophies of Pythagoras and Plato will rid me of this affliction. There should be a law against it.

    1. Forget about baptisms. There should be a law against reading Pythagoras and Plato.

    2. Michael,

      I am hesitant to comment as it is one of your least cogent pieces. Of the comments here, BubbaRich's comment is spot on: parents have an unavoidable & pervasive influence on the cognitive and social development of their children. If you want to construe baptisms as something akin to brainwashing or forcing a set of religious beliefs on a child, then teaching a child to play chess, appreciate Plato (god forbid!) and democracy, or any other thing under the sun, would have to be construed as 'forcing a heritage' intellectual or otherwise onto a child. Unless baptisms cause physical harm or are strongly correlated with aberrant cognitive development, I cannot see upon what grounds we should impugn the practice.

      In addition, baptisms have a significant cultural and aesthetic value that plays a far more important role than any religious connotation associated with the practice. In my honest opinion, I think you should get off of your self-righteous pedestal and socialize with either your friends or family on what for them is an important and joyous event.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. A baptism is the act of deciding for a child something that is irrelevant to the child’s immediate well-being.

    As the first commenter already pointed out, that is of course completely wrong from the perspective of a believer. If you believe that a person is doomed to go to hell if they die unbaptized, this procedure is much more relevant to their immediate well-being than eating their greens.

    I might add that in my home country, Germany, being baptized means that you are made an official member of an organization without being asked about it. The point being: a membership fees paying member, a fact that becomes relevant the moment you start earning a salary because, unbelievable as it may appear from a USAn perspective, the state collects the major churches' membership fees with the taxes (they don't do that for Buddhists or Hindus, of course, thanks for asking).

    And here is the kicker: When you are, say, 19 years old and decide to leave, say, the Catholic church, you have to pay a fee to be allowed to do so. That means your parents' decision earlier in your life directly costs you money...

  12. What's the substantive difference between a single event baptism and participating in any religious activity that imprints a sense of membership in a child? Or even simply taking a child to religious instruction (where they will receive no exposure to competing or alternative belief systems)?

  13. Very interesting post. I'm sympathetic to your approach. Here are my two thoughts.

    1) Being an atheist frees you from certain concerns. If you really don't believe in magic, then you don't need to be upset about magical pronouncements. Whether or not Mormons retroactively baptize, whether or not a prayer is made in Jesus's name -- if you are committed to your atheism, then these are unimportant matters.

    2) There aught to be a positive value to your atheism. You aught to have a larger moral perspective in which you identify important things, such as, Separation of Church and State, the autonomy of the individual, etc. From this positive moral stance you can criticize things like genital mutilation, school prayer and misrepresenting reality to children. While your atheism surely informs your morality, it can be common ground even with believers.

    For me, Baptism is low on the list of religious offenses. Circumcision is a little higher.

  14. I agree wholeheadely. (See what I just did there?) I can't see affirming such a transparent celebration of religious indoctrination.

  15. As a secularist who comes from a family of multiple Protestant ministers and church workers, I totally agree with everything you said, Michael. Lutheranism being like Catholicism, I face/will face similar ceremonial issues. So far, I've been too far away to be asked to attend any baptisms, but there are still confirmations. And given the age of children at confirmation, and the degree of active and passive parental coercion involved, no, I wouldn't attend one of them, either

  16. Well, if you don't want to go to a baptism, by all means don't go. But why rationalize your decision any further?

    Do you attend religious funerals or funeral masses? I'm not sure why you would, as the mourners are clearly imposing their religious beliefs or heritage on the dead, who presumably are no more aware of what is taking place than the infant is at a baptism. The mourners may be comforted by the ceremony and appreciate the presence of friends and relatives, but their feelings and beliefs are certainly of no more significance than those of parents who believe baptism is necessary to their child's salvation (it must take place early to account for Original Sin, with which we're all born according to Catholic doctrine) and would appreciate the presence of friends and relatives at a ceremony by which their child's salvation is at least contingently assured.

    1. This is a non-sequitur in extremis. The dead are, by definition, beyond any further coercion and under no imposition.

      Now, the living in attendance who are heirs, especially juvenile ones, are indeed under coercion of some sort. But, that's not the argument you made.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.