Baptizing the Dead Is Not a Big Deal

Americablog’s John Aravosis is up in arms over the news that the Mormon church reportedly staged a “posthumous baptism” ceremony last year for President Barack Obama’s deceased mother:

What else to call the Mormon’s laughable statement today that their posthumous baptism last year of President Obama’s mother was a “rare” mistake that might have been done by “pranksters.”

…Yes, all one big unfortunate “rare” mistake. Kind of like a clerical error. Except instead of giving you the wrong change, they just stole your mother’s soul.

Look – as ridiculous and cultish as I find the Mormon notion of “baptism for the dead”, this response is kind of over the top. “Stole your mother’s soul”? Aren’t we being just a little bit shrill here?

Yes, this belief is patronizing and offensive. It’s especially insulting and clumsy when the Mormons claim to be baptizing Holocaust victims. But it’s not as if they’re kidnapping living people and forcibly converting them; all they’re actually doing is staging a superstitious little ceremony and then claiming that the deceased now has the opportunity to enter Heaven. If the Mormons are guilty of arrogance for saying that they have the sole power to determine who is saved, almost every other world religion is equally guilty of arrogance for the same reason!

Absurd as this practice is, it doesn’t do any real harm to anyone. The only thing the Mormon church is actually accomplishing is making itself a target for ridicule. “Baptism for the dead”? This reminds me more than a little of the cult leader Sun Myung Moon’s claim that Jesus, Buddha, Confucius and Mohammed have all posthumously converted and are issuing statements from the afterlife instructing their followers to become Moonies. It just makes them look silly and ridiculous. Who do they imagine they’re fooling?

If we want to criticize Mormonism (or any other church), we should focus our fire on actions they take that cause real harm to real human beings. The Mormons’ dumping $20 million into fighting marriage equality in California, for instance, is a much more serious misdeed that shows a disdain for the liberty of their fellow people and a regressive, theocratic belief that their religion gives them the right to dictate the course of other people’s lives. As far as I’m concerned, whatever the Mormons do in the privacy of their temple is their own business – but they should learn to respect other people’s choices to determine the course of their lives.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • CSN

    Just another correctly interpreted consequence of an absurd belief system, like subjugating women, blowing oneself up in a crowd of innocents, or forbidding abortion for 8-year-old rape victims. Rather than being marginalized as a somewhat offensive oddity of a weird sect it should be recognized as part of the whole that the mainstream religious would rather sweep under the carpet. Like the “Little Known Bible Verses” series aims to do, I think it is well worth dragging every one of these little atrocities into the light for inspection and denouncement. After all, it’s easy enough for the mainstream believers to distance themselves from the bigger wrongs as being the product of human evil without the belief itself being cast into doubt.

    When I abandoned my belief it wasn’t because of the problem of evil or the wrongs being done in the name of religion, it was a result of the little absurdities making me take a look at the whole system ‘from the outside in’ and realizing that it was all a “house built upon the sand.”

  • AnonaMiss

    I slightly disagree. While it’s obviously ludicrous to talk about stealing souls from our naturalistic viewpoint, I think those who still believe in souls have every right to be angry and horrified. Baptism for the dead is a posthumous version of the Catholic baptism of the near-dead that Mother Teresa has taken so much flack for (and rightfully so IMO) since the allegations of her questionable practices came out: it’s a religious ceremony performed without the subject’s consent by a person with volitional power upon a person with no power to stop them. Ultimately from our naturalistic point of view neither ceremony actually changes anything – but I think everyone can agree that performing religious rituals upon a living person without their consent is wrong, and a sign of utmost disrespect to that person.

    To people who believe that a soul continues after death, the state of death is the ultimate form of powerlessness and inability to consent to things that happen on earth – it’s equivalent to a person being in a coma. And even from a naturalistic viewpoint, a dead person cannot give consent (because they have ceased to exist as a person), so performing rituals “on” them is still a grave sign of disrespect (if only for their memories).

  • http://debaptized.com Tom

    You could always just have them debaptized! Joseph Smith has even been debaptized. You don’t even have to wait for people to die!

  • http://www.secularplanet.org Secular Planet

    @AnonaMiss

    If you’re a believer but not a Mormon, then you still shouldn’t think that the Mormon baptism for the dead has any effect on the souls of the dead. That would be acknowledging the truth of the Mormon religion, which you, as a non-Mormon have rejected. When I was a Catholic, I never thought people who were following a false religion could do anything with their own ceremonies.

  • http://cranialhhyperossification.blogspot.com GDad

    In sort of a related vein, the Catholic practice of selling indulgences for the dead in the Middle Ages supported a lot of the corruption that set the stage for the Protestant Reformation.

    A lot of good *that* did.

  • Kevin

    And just a bit further down the scale of questionable practices – the baptism of any infant child. I was baptised by the catholic church as a baby – as my parents joined in the belief that if I died my soul would go to limbo (a notion no longer supported by the church). If one thinks of the anxiety of the religious parent – one can surely accept that it is a natural (if paternalistic) approach to extend it to other ‘incapable’ souls. Perhaps the next natural step is to extend this baptism to those that refuse it in this life?

    I agree that there are far worse things that the Mormons do – this just makes them look stupid, and it seems that it is performed in a sheepish fashion which means they know it.

  • http://superstitionfree.blogspot.com/ Robert Madewell

    Ebonmuse,
    I agree with you. The ritual is silly, absurd and ridiculous, but harmless. I don’t even know why it was considered newsworthy.

    Hey, for those pascal’s wager users out there, it should seem like a great idea!

  • Stacey Melissa

    This reminds me of PZ Myers and all those sneaky Jews surreptitiously kidnapping Jesus during Mass, then torturing his body instead of chowing down on it. The reaction from the fundie Catholics was eerily similar.

  • Adam Howard

    As much as I hate to admit it, from a certain point of view posthumous baptism is the only moral thing for a Mormon to do. The Mormons really believe that they have a way to save people from eternal torment. All they have to do is stage a little ceremony. They don’t need the involvement of family members or even the bodily remains! Given that belief, it seems immoral to withhold baptism from anyone that the Mormons could give it to.

    Of course, as a non-believer in souls and afterlives, I find the practice bizarre, pointless, and more than a little creepy, but, for a believing Mormon, baptizing as many people as possible is really the only moral choice available–even if mainstream America giggles or shudders.

  • http://dergeis.livejournal.com Geis

    The functional question is what do they do with the list of names of people they have baptized? Do they use those numbers of baptisms to inflate church membership numbers to leverage concessions from government officials? Do they use those numbers to impress church members into donating more money? If they squeeze some functional benefit from society by using those numbers then the unethical practice should be opposed.

    If, on the other hand, it just makes them feel righteous then they should merely be ridiculed.

  • Christine

    If we want to criticize Mormonism (or any other church), we should focus our fire on actions they take that cause real harm to real human beings.

    I agree with your larger point here, that many of the other actions the Mormon church has taken are far more harmful, but I would argue that there is some real harm being done to the families of people that the Mormons do this to, especially when the families are notified of it. I, for one, would be furious if they felt the need to disrespect my mother’s life and beliefs by posthumously baptizing her into their idiotic religion. It’s a much smaller crime against human decency than many of the other things they’ve done, but it still hurts living people and still tears open old (or in Obama’s case, not-so-old) wounds.

  • http://holyprepuce.blogspot.com Holy Prepuce!

    I think it’s sort of like why we have laws against defiling corpses or desecrating graves — it’s not that the law is taking a position on whether the dead person has a soul that cares one way or the other; it’s that surviving relatives or descendants take a special interest in the remains of their loved ones or ancestors, and on the whole we want to protect them from malicious or pointless assaults on their feelings.

    So even though as an atheist I don’t personally believe that, say, someone who died in the holocaust because they were a Jew is harmed by a posthumous Mormon baptism, I can see why their relatives who remain religious might be offended by the practice.

  • Ric

    As an atheist, it still offends me a bit. Living people do care about the memories of their dead. If the Mormons baptized my deceased father, an atheist, into their church, I’d be offended. Actually, it’s not the baptizing that offends me. That is harmless. If they did it behind closed doors and no one ever found out, I’d say big deal. It’s that presumptuous self-righteousness that offends me. It’s not much different than other churches, as you’ve indicated, except that they are doing it to a person who can’t denounce it.

  • Polly

    It’s actually an extension of every afterlife-believer’s attitude. The Mormons are claiming that they saved your dead relatives while other Xians are telling you that your dead relatives are burning in Hell or enjoying Heaven.

    Either way, they are just spouting off about something they have no clue about, other people’s post-mortem states.

    I’m offended by every believer that tells me I’m going to burn in Hell. I’m offended when my former youth pastor sheds tears for his Jewish neighbor ’cause she’s going to Hell. I’m offended when preachers preach on the radio that if you’re not a member of the I-Love-Luther club of Protestantism, god is NOT listening to your prayers no matter how heart-felt.

    Let them say what they want. They are a lousy, maggot-minded, fanatic crew. :)

  • Wedge

    Polly at #14,

    I mostly agree with you but just wanted to point out that this:

    Let them say what they want. They are a lousy, maggot-minded, fanatic crew. :)

    isn’t really true. One of the things that saddens me the most about hell-believing Christians is that they tend not to get the idea that the people they love, people they know, are the ones that they are saying will be in hell. There are no books or discussions out there about what to do if your beloved daughter/wife/husband/whatever is an unbeliever and dies; I think it’s assumed that if they are hell-bound, obviously you can’t really think they’re worth being upset over. (I had a Christian say to me once, ‘Once you’re in heaven, you won’t care that your father is in hell’ and think that that was something that would help convert me.)

    And all the people who think that unbelievers are going to burn in hell, or that post-mortem baptism is a good thing, aren’t lousy, maggot-minded fanatics, either. They’re wives and husbands and daughters and friends, and some are just parrots and some are trapped, and some sincerely believe that the good parts of their religion mean that they have to accept the terrifying ones as well.

    I’m just saying–us vs. them isn’t realistic. People are a hell of a lot more complicated and inconsistent than that.

  • http://www.shadowmanor.com/blog/ Cobwebs

    I agree that John Aravosis is hammering the point a bit too hard, but I have seen what seems like a reasonable argument from the Jewish community about posthumous baptism of Holocaust victims. Their complaint is that the victims died due to their religion, so sneaking up and pretending to change it cheapens their memory.

    The whole thing is a little silly.

  • Polar Bond

    I find it somewhat interesting that the Mormons try to save the souls of non-Mormons posthumously rather than giving up and just sending all unbelievers to hell; it’s a kinder view on the subject of the afterlife than most branches of Christianity, that’s for sure. It’s still pointless and basically silly, but at least they’re trying to do a good thing, from their point of view.

  • Leum

    The unsaved don’t go to Hell (called the Outer Darkness) in Mormon theology. They go to the Telestial Kingdom after a thousand years in Purgatory (called Hell). The Outer Darkness is reserved for apostates.

  • Polly

    The Outer Darkness is reserved for apostates.

    Aaaaand Hitler.
    Do they baptize for Hitler or any SS, I wonder?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse
  • Mathew Wilder

    I think this is silly and should be ridiculed, but I don’t care other than as a laugh opportunity.

    Regarding laws about defiling corpses, I bet the only reason we have them IS because of afterlife beliefs. I mean, think about Achilles and how insulting it was for him to drag Hector’s body around the city. Or about Antigone disobeying Creon to bury her brother. It was necessary for ancient cultures to bury their dead properly to ensure their place before the gods or in the afterlife. I don’t think our culture is so different, even though most people would like to think so.

  • abusedbypenguins

    What does one have to do before mormons won’t have anything to do with that person? How about all of the other freak shows?

  • Scotlyn

    This post-humous “do-good” wish, strangely enough, does add up to the creation of a fantastic geneology resource… don’t forget to include a stop there if you decide to “find your roots.”

  • http://friendlyhumanist.blogspot.com Timothy Mills

    It should be remembered that Mormon baptisms for the dead only offer the dead a chance to join the Mormon fold. They do not equal conversion; even if you buy into all the supernatural business of life after death, the Mormons are only extending an invitation to the dead.

    So all the fuss is over a misinterpretation of a silly made-up superstition that the offended people don’t believe in.

    Sorry, not much sympathy from this quarter.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    I tend to agree with AnonaMiss and CSN and Christine and Holy Prepuce! and Cobwebs, and I give an honorary rationalist’s salute to Adam Howard.

    Ebonmuse,

    Who made you the arbiter of well-placed criticism and real harm? You say Mormons “should learn to respect other people’s choices,” and I wholeheartedly agree, yet they baptize the deceased irrespective of their choices. I didn’t think Avarosis’ mockery was shrill or over-the-top at all, and I’m actually suprised that you would plead so specially. After all, you extend shrill mockery towards religious beliefs that truly don’t cause any real harm to any real person yourself, and I’ve heard you brazenly affirm the notion that shrill mockery can accomplish positive strides in the war against religion.

    Wedge,

    Does the comment system just automatically recognize quality, or what?

    When you tell us “There are no books or discussions out there about what to do if your beloved daughter/wife/husband/whatever is an unbeliever and dies,” yet .25 seconds on Google tell us otherwise, I can’t call that quality. On the other hand, your last four sentences are among the most well-reasoned I’ve read on DA, and deserving of a bravo that dwarfs the previous quibble.

    Secular Planet,

    ..[AnonaMiss] shouldn’t think that the Mormon baptism for the dead has any effect on the souls of the dead.

    Yet just an hour before you said this, AnonaMiss said,

    Ultimately from our naturalistic point of view neither ceremony actually changes anything..

    Perhaps you misread AnonaMiss? Or am I misreading you?

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com chanson

    I agree completely. This question (the offensiveness of baptizing people for the dead) comes up all the time in the Exmo community. As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather worry about real harm being done to live people. Sure the practice may be offensive, but I’ve got higher items on my priority list than worrying about whether religions are offending one another.

  • prase

    Something is wrong with numbering of comments. It is apparently possible that a reply appears above the comment it refers to. And the comments don’t retain their numbers. See Wedge’s reply (now #1) refering to Polly’s comment (now #16, but refered to as #8). It looks strange. Could anything be done to fix it?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    I’m not quite sure how Wedge’s comment got promoted to the top of the thread. (The numberings just go by timestamp.) I can fix it with a little database tinkering, though – the thread should be more sensible now.

  • http://www.secularplanet.org Secular Planet

    @cl

    Perhaps you misread AnonaMiss? Or am I misreading you?

    You’re misreading me. I was responding to this:

    While it’s obviously ludicrous to talk about stealing souls from our naturalistic viewpoint, I think those who still believe in souls have every right to be angry and horrified.

    If you’re an atheist, you think the ceremony does nothing. If you’re a non-Mormon Christian, you still should think the ceremony does nothing. That means believers should be no more upset than non-believers over this.