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 notbe 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.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking