October 5, 2008

Today's Second Religious Question

Let's say you have a couple of people who have a child. This couple are atheists. But their parents are actively-believing Christians -- Catholics, to be precise. So you have parents who are atheists, but grandparents who very much want to see their grandchild baptized. Should the atheist parents allow their child to be baptized?

(No, Mom and Dad, we're not pregnant. This is just a hypothetical. More accurately, it's someone else's problem, a problem that interests me.)

Normally, I'd think, "Dunking the kid's head in water is a ritual, nothing more. Won't hurt the kid. Wipe the kid's head off with a towel, grandma and grandpa are happy, and that's the end of it." But the ritual of baptism is aimed at the parents (and godparents) of the child, as well as the child herself. The parents and godparents have to publicly promise to raise the child within the tenets of Roman Catholicism. So what the baptism is really doing is forcing the atheist parents to raise their child to be a Catholic.

Now, one option would be for the parents themselves to opt out of participating in the ceremony, and allow the grandparents to stand in as godparents to the child. The grandparents make the promises, the parents don't participate. That mitigates it a little bit, to be sure. But it also of necessity involves the grandparents in that case promising to interfere with their children's decisions about how to raise the kid. And it may start with a baptism, which is a harmless enough ritual, but then it turns in to confirmation and first communion and then going to church every Sunday when the kid ought to be watching professional football like a good American should.

In mitigation, I think that the promises made in a baptismal ritual are not the sorts of promises that are widely expected to be followed. Most people understand that this is a ritual with words and phrases left over from the medieval period and they expect modern ideas about child-rearing to prevail. That includes substantial deference to the parents on matters of instruction about religion and morals. So maybe to them, it's just a nice ritual, a benchmark ceremony to denote the beginning of their grandchild's life. In which case, why not?

But it would seem not, if the grandparents are insistent on the ceremony. They must attach some meaning to it, or they wouldn't be pushing for it. What the grandparents are looking for, if they don't take the promise seriously but do attribute meaning to the ceremony, is "soul insurance." For Catholics, this means that if something happens to the child between its baptism and young adulthood, the child is accepted by God into the family of Christians in heaven rather than being relegated to limbo, with other unbaptized souls. (Actually, I think limbo is now out of Catholic theology again, but the point is, if you're baptized, you're better-off than not.)

Now, I've always thought Protestants got this one right as compared to the Catholics. Given a) the existence of a soul and b) the need for that soul to be redeemed via baptism, it seems that an adult baptism, made as a result of a conscious choice, would be more virtuous and worthy of recognition than something done to an infant, who obviously has no choice in the matter. As an atheist, I question both predicates, of course; but if those two are taken on faith rather than subjected to rational analysis, the Protestant tradition of adult baptism makes more sense than the Catholic tradition of infant baptism.

The thing is, for a Catholic, the promises to raise the child to be Catholic are still there and an integral part of the ceremony. In a very real sense, dunking the kid's head in the water is irrelevant. The promises of the adults to see to it that the child is inculcated in the mythology of Catholicism is the operative and important part of this ritual. It is not, at the end of the day, an excuse to say that people don't expect others to follow through on those promises. The promises are made and if the ritual is taken seriously, then so are the promises that are incorporated into it.

Allowing their child to be baptized is giving license to other people, mainly the grandparents, to interfere in the way the parents choose to raise their child. So on balance, I think the parents of the child should a polite but firm way to tell their own parents to back off and respect their wishes about the kid. It's not that dunking the kid's head in water matters -- it's what that represents, and it's what it portends for the future. I can understand how awkward saying "no baptism" might be, but if that line is going to be drawn, better that it be drawn firmly, clearly, and early.


Pamela said...

In the protestant faith, baptism is viewed strictly as an outward symbol of someone's inward decision to follow Christ. In most of the protestant sects that I am aware of, it (baptism) is not considered a means of salvation at all. The mere act of believing in Christ's death and resurrection, as well as the trinity, is where salvation is found. Children are thought to be pardoned from judgement as they are not old enough to be accountable yet for their "sins." I believe that the traditional term for it is called the "age of accountability." I'm not sure where this idea began (I don't believe that it is actually found in scripture), perhaps it has some link to the Jewish tradition of the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, a kind of coming into age and conscience type of thing.
Anyway, I'm with you in the opinion that it should ultimately be up to the parents to make this decision. It doesn't make sense to participate in an important ritual such as a Catholic Baptism/Christening only to appease someone else, even if that someone else happens to be a grandparent. This is especially true since the parents don't align themselves with the traditions of the church. I believe that the parents need to draw the line on where they stand right from the start (as you stated), or else things are bound to get very complicated later on.

DaveBuck said...

My wife and I are atheists and this happened to us (except parents/inlaws are Lutheran). It was a big deal to them so we met with their pastor to hash this out- four hand-wringing grandparents (one is a retired pastor even!), two atheist parents and one little baby. We explained that we can't pledge to raise our kid to be a Christian and they can't either. We explained that our parents can teach our kid about their beliefs but not teach them as facts.

The pastor offered to alter the ceremony to reflect that desire. My wife and I didn't participate but let the grandparents do the 'baptism-lite'. My mom is especially happy that her (two because we had another) grandkids are 'baptized' and logged as 'members' of a church (even though they are little atheists). It doesn't take much to placate grandparents and yet not be a hypocrite or dishonest in this scenario.