But I don’t wanna be a Christian!

debaptismWhile tmatt has his guilt folder, as the child of a Catholic and a Jew I simply have guilt. And I’ve felt an unbearable weight for more than a month now to write this post about news coverage of those de-baptism ceremonies.

If you’re not familiar, in the past year or so, atheists and agnostics have held a few ceremonies in the United States and Britain to publicly “de-baptize” those who no longer are or want to be known as a follower of Christ. Here’s an example from Religion News Service. It opens with Jennifer Gray, a 32-year-old who had been baptized as a child:

In a type of mock ceremony that’s now been performed in at least four states, a robed “priest” used a hairdryer marked “reason” in an apparent bid to blow away the waters of baptism once and for all. Several dozen participants then fed on a “de-sacrament” (crackers with peanut butter) and received certificates assuring they had “freely renounced a previous mistake, and accepted Reason over Superstition.”

For Gray, the lighthearted spirit of last summer’s Atheist Coming Out Party and De-Baptism Bash in suburban Westerville, Ohio, served a higher purpose than merely spoofing a Christian rite.

“It was very therapeutic,” Gray said in an interview. “It was a chance to laugh at the silly things I used to believe as a child. It helped me admit that it was OK to think the way I think and to not have any religious beliefs.”

This story is oh-so better than one on the Westerville de-baptisms last summer. That one of the AFP was cliched and pre-packaged. This one from, Religion News Service, is detailed and well reported. Most impressive, if only because it is such a rarity in religion stories, reporter G. Jeffrey MacDonald actually does a theological comparison:

Atheist Gary Mueller recently mailed his de-baptism certificate to St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Concord, Calif., and asked to be dropped from its baptismal record. The church told him, in effect, that he was all wet.

“While we do not remove a name/person from a Baptism register, we can note alongside your name that ‘you have left the Roman Catholic Church,’ ” the Rev. Richard Mangini replied in an e-mail. “I hope that God surprises you one day and lets you know that He is quite well.”

In Christian theology, baptism can’t be undone. If a Southern Baptist renounces his or her baptism, then that person is usually presumed to have never received an authentic baptism in the first place, according to Nathan Finn, assistant professor of Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

For mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians, baptism is commonly understood as a sign or means of grace and a covenant that God maintains even when humans turn away, said Laurence Stookey, professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. He said “de-baptizers” misunderstand baptism when they caricature it as an attempt at magic.

That we needed a story about people renouncing the Christianity of their childhood to actually discuss what different Christians believe is more tragic than ironic.

But MacDonald is often a reporter to look to for stories that outshine the competition. Maybe I’m still deferring to him for placing ahead of me in the American Academy of Religion’s newswriting contest last year, but I’m hard pressed to think of a MacDonald story that I’ve had a problem with. Maybe he’s found an upside to fulltime freelancing: You don’t have the luxury of growing soft and lazy.

A certificate of debaptism from Britain’s National Secular Society. The headline, of course, is a reference to “The Puffy Shirt

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  • Dave

    The reporter should not have referred to a “mock ceremony.” It was a real ceremony, albeit light-hearted. By degrading it to a mock ceremony the reporter, who should be neutral and objective, is buying into the position of one side that baptism is forever.

  • Steve

    We have just finished reading Dostyoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in our book club, and if there is one book I would recommend to those who characterise their loss of faith as merely choosing “reason over superstition” it would be this one. Dostyoevsky obliterates that pernicious myth . . .

  • Christina

    McDonald makes the mistake of lumping together the baptismal theologies of “mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox” traditions. In fact, the Catholic belief regarding Baptism is that it leaves an indelible mark on one’s soul, and so cannot be undone. It is not a sign, but an effective means of grace which both washes away Original Sin and makes one a member of the Church. It is effective in and of itself, regardless of the interior disposition or mental capacity of the person being baptized. Obviously, the grace only bears fruit in a person’s life if he/she cooperates and sincerely follows Christ.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Good point, Christina.

  • http://ilovedogma.blogspot.com David Charkowsky

    I wonder, why did the participants such a superstitious ceremony to express their assent of reason and disparagement of superstition?

  • http://ilovedogma.blogspot.com David Charkowsky

    I wonder, why did the participants *need* such a superstitious ceremony to express their assent of reason and disparagement of superstition?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Perhaps the people behind these groups ought to think through their symbolism a bit more. Reason = a lot of hot air? Of course, they could always reply that Christians are wet behind the ears.

  • bob

    It reminds one a little of Julian the Apostate (the godfather of the ceremonies above) encouraging his pagan cohorts to pray 3 times a day to the gods, to feed the poor…It’s rough being a born-again unbeliever when every last assumption about good living is completely based on the religion you think you just ditched. As for the de-sacrament, well plenty of “emergent” congregations like to re-invent communion with anything handy. Missed again. They’ll have a hard time keeping from backsliding into all sorts of good ideas.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I can’t let this conversation wander much more. Any thoughts on how this and related secular developments are being reported?

  • Stoo

    Well I’ve been baptised and haven’t really any idea what it’s meant to mean so I’m all for the media helping me out on that one.

    Dave: one of the atheist chaps themselves in that article called these ceremonies satire. Where does the line between “mock” and “light-hearted” lie?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Gotta admit, from an atheist perspective it’s awfully hard to tell the difference between ‘baptism’ and ritual ‘magic’, no matter how Stookey might protest. Either way, it’s humans asking for supernatural intervention to accomplish something.

    Not only that, he says God “can’t” renounce people, but God’s supposed to renounce a whole lot of people in the Bible. Damned souls, at the very least…

    And besides that, it would seem Stookey misses the broader point – the ceremonies aren’t just making fun of the specific concept of baptism but religious ceremonies in general, too. To answer David Charkowsky, it’s not that the participants think that the ceremonies are efficacious in any ‘superstitious’ sense – they are making the point that, so far as they can see, ‘baptism ceremonies’ are no more efficacious.

  • Dave

    Stoo, I’m a Pagan and I believe that rituals have effects, even if one does not literally believe in magick. In this view no ceremony is a mock ceremony, especially if it fosters ends sought by the celebrants.

    One of my favorite Pagan stories is about a group of young Pagans who were going to compose a false ritual to mislead a vistor whom they deemed hostile. Their elders, who had never imposed any orthodoxy upon them theretofore, strongly counseled them against it, on the grounds that there is no such thing as a false ritual; what you summon under those circumstances is just as real as what you sommon when you’re serious.

  • str

    Is this really true:

    “If a Southern Baptist renounces his or her baptism, then that person is usually presumed to have never received an authentic baptism in the first place, according to Nathan Finn, assistant professor of Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.”

    Seems pretty scandalous to me. I don’t want to step on any Baptist toes but if this assertion is true it again confirms my suspicion that the Baptists are named after a not-so-important element of their faith.

    The reporter was right to speak of a mock-ceremony as the things these people did made no sense except in mockery of Christian rites.

  • str

    Ray,

    whoever said God wouldn’t renounce them? Only they cannot debaptise themselves, they can only apostasise.

    Dave,

    I won’t speculate on what these “mock” rites actually do.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Str – Stookey said “they cannot renounce you”, and “they” included God. If you have an argument, take it up with him (or possibly the reporter who misquoted him).

  • chris g

    I like the irony Dave mentions about ceremonies always having some type of pragmatic meaning. In that light, I think the good reporting could have gone even further by alluding to parallels between de-baptism and baptism. Christina’s point about indelible marking is very relevant here.

    Its too bad he didn’t follow up the one sentence paragraph “even so, he said, de-baptisms may serve a cathartic function for some participants, as well as a political one,” with an additional pointed statement about the irony of catharsis. You get the great intro, the bit about Europeans being ambivalent, but you miss the full circle return by those who take atheism too seriously and are, in a way quasi-religious.

  • http://www.ascendrecovery.com Drug Recovery

    The baptism in the bible is simply a public display of your decision to follow Christ. By being baptized one does not get to go to Heaven, this is also in the Bible. By his name alone is someone saved. So, if someone wants to be de-baptized that is fine by me as a Christian, (a follower of Christ with a personal relationship with him) Not a baptist, or Lutheran or any other name used to classify a religion. If these people so choose to take part in the ceremony their denouncing has already happened in God’s eye. The decision was made in their heart before they carried out the act.

  • Brian Walden

    “a robed “priest” used a hairdryer marked “reason” in an apparent bid to blow away the waters of baptism once and for all”

    I don’t want to tell other religions how they should perform their liturgy, but if you need to label your sacramentals people know what they symbolize you’re probably doing it wrong.

    As others have mentioned, this article seemingly unknowingly, points out a lot of differences among Christian beliefs in baptism. I know it’s outside of the scope of the article but I’d love to see the pursued further as well as the beliefs of those renouncing their baptism – like why do they need to renounce something that (I assume) they believe has no effect other than temporarily making someone wet. And Holy Simony, where’s the outrage that debaptism certificates are being sold over the internet.

  • MichaelV

    Ray –
    I’m not sure if this is the place to debate what Laurence Stookey believes. Since the Stookey quote contained that parenthetic aside it seems like it was edited or spoken off the cuff in a way that had to be fixed up, so maybe it’s not the clearest expression of what he wanted to say. I understood his point to be that many Christians believe the relationship we enter into with God in baptism to be like an earthly parent-child relationship in that it is permanent. A good parent isn’t going to renounce their child. A child is free to utterly ignore his parents, of course, and a parent might allow a child to do that until he or she might decide to come back.

  • Dave

    I don’t want to tell other religions how they should perform their liturgy, but if you need to label your sacramentals people know what they symbolize you’re probably doing it wrong.

    As a long-time liturgical writer I’d say that it means they are just beginning to develop the sacramentals and don’t have the emotional associations that comes with lifelong acquaintance.

    why do they need to renounce something that (I assume) they believe has no effect other than temporarily making someone wet

    Because belief and feeling are two very different things. The person may feel out of kilter with life having had the one ceremony and nothing to balance it off.

    It’s like why veterans sometimes revisit their old battlefields long after the war is over. They aren’t going to change anything, but they need to be there again when it’s peaceful.

  • str

    Ray,

    “Stookey said “they cannot renounce you”, and “they” included God.”

    Indeed there is an argument with him, as parents can just as much renounce their children as children can renounce their parents. Only they still remain parents and children.

    Still a lone voice doesn’t justify your enunciations.

  • str

    Drug,

    “The baptism in the bible is simply a public display of your decision to follow Christ.”

    Another example of why most sentences including “simply” or “basically” are wrong.

    “So, if someone wants to be de-baptized that is fine by me as a Christian, … The decision was made in their heart before they carried out the act.”

    So you applaud somebody apostasising?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Str – Go ahead and read my comment, #11, again. I said nothing about Christianity per se – everything I wrote was regarding Stookey’s comments. My “enunciations” were about a “lone voice”.

    If you share Stookey’s doctrines, I guess you might take issue with what I said. Since you apparently don’t, I’m having trouble understanding what your beef with me is…