Baptism and Default Religious Identity

Scot McKnight posted about infant baptism, which is apparently the subject of his new book, It Takes a Church to Baptize. In a series of upcoming blog posts he will talk about how and why he has shifted away from believer’s baptism to favoring infant baptism.

I happen to have been baptized twice, which gives me an interesting perspective on this topic. The first time was as an infant in a Roman Catholic church, and the second was as a teenager in a Pentecostal church. I grew up in the former but drifted away, and then after having a born again experience, I became persuaded that baptism ought to reflect a personal decision and so underwent a believer’s baptism.

I appreciate Scot’s analogy to citizenship – in a post from more than a decade ago on “Why I Am a Christian,” I use the analogy myself. But is faith more like citizenship or like marriage (as understood in most of the English-speaking world), something where the default is presence or absence? Of course, one can always renounce citizenship, and one can arrange marriages from infancy. This is a question about the “default setting,” as it were.

Those who object to infant baptism often do so based on how they perceive it detracting from the individual’s freedom to choose their own religious path. For some, this is just a desire to see the absence of religiosity become the default position. For others, the emphasis is on personal commitment as opposed to nominalism.

What is often missed in discussions of this topic is the fact that baptists broadly defined (i.e. those denominations that subscribe to believer’s baptism) must put more effort into cultivating commitment on the part of the individual. It is doubtful that extensive Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, camps, clubs, and other aspects typical of Evangelicalism in particular constrain an individual’s choice less than say infant baptism (accompanied in many instances by a merely formal mouthing of a commitment to foster faith by parents and godparents) and mere church attendance.

There is no way that a human being will fail to be influenced and to some extent constrained by our upbringing, whatever form it takes. That isn’t an argument for either approach to be baptism. But it is making a point relevant to both those who prefer to baptize infants and those who leave it for a later personal decision. There is no sense in which one approach or the other either leaves the matter entirely in the hands of the adult individual or places the decision firmly in the hands of family and community. Baptists and Catholics, agnostics and atheists too, all seek to instill their values in their children – whether those values be “stay true to our tradition” or “make up your own mind when you are old enough.” Both approaches are found among the religious and the non-religious alike.

What are your views on baptism and religious upbringing?  What has your own experience been, and how does it relate to this topic?

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I was also baptized twice, but both times were by the same denomination – once at 7 and once at 13. Because of the close connection to a personal decision, I decided at 13 that I hadn’t really made a commitment at 7 and wanted to be baptized again, so they did.

    When I hooked up with Reformed theology, I went all infant baptism and I’d say that’s still my loosely held default.

    But over time, I’ve come back around to appreciating connecting baptism with the personal commitment insofar as baptism represents a “sealing” of that commitment, sort of like the marriage ceremony. I sometimes wonder if my sons, should they decide to continue in the Christian faith as they get older, will miss that opportunity to experience the metaphorical death and resurrection unto a new life that you can only see with more informed eyes.

    Baptism just covers such a wide range of potential meaning – some of which seems more appropriate to infants born into the faith while other aspects fo meaning seem more appropriate to a person’s decision.

    • John MacDonald

      It’s my birthday! Yay, I’m 42. Anyway, I was baptized in the United Church as an infant because that’s what my grandmother wanted., but I never went to church growing up or read the bible (I did say The Lord’s Prayer in School), so I guess I ended up agnostic by default. Theism and atheism simply weren’t addressed in my house growing up. God simply wasn’t a topic. I know that some secular people have undergone “un-baptism” ceremonies as a kind of official declaration that no one had any right to force baptism and ideology on them as an infant.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Happy birthday!

        • John MacDonald

          Thanks so much! My favorite gift I got was a framed picture of the Justice League (Batman, Wonder Woman, etc) for my Man Cave. I still want to get a picture of Emperor Palpatine, and one of The Joker.

          Did you hear that Patrick Stewart is reprising his role as Jean Luc Picard in a new Star Trek spin off? I’m excited! Ewan McGregor has also said he would be willing to do an Obi Wan Kenobi Star Wars Movie. There is the gap between the end of episode 3 and the beginning of episode 4 where we don’t know what Ben Kenobi was up to.

          • Happy birthday, John!

          • John MacDonald

            You should see the ice cream cake I was given. Cookie dough. Yumm

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Nice. Are those pictures from the movies or illustrations?

            I would love to have a framed picture of the Secret Six, but as we’ve already discussed, it’d be hard to nail down who should be in that picture. Catman, Deadshot, Scandal, Ragdoll, and *mumble* *mumble*.

          • John MacDonald

            The picture is from the movie (Gal Gadot, Henry Caville, etc). It actually has the emblems for the different heroes surrounding the photo, and little plaques underneath the emblems with each of the actors signatures (although I’m guessing the autographs are just copies because the picture didn’t cost thousands of dollars, lol)

    • Matthew

      I have been baptized three times. Once as an infant, once as an adult in a bathtub, and once in the Jordan River.

      Truth be told, I still struggle greatly with the theology surrounding baptism and I can see arguments for infant baptism
      as well as adult believer´s baptism.

      Lord have mercy.

  • Alden Swan

    I was raised Lutheran, so was baptized as an infant. Thought I spent most of my life in non-liturgical churches, I have held to a Lutheran view on baptism, and we had all of our children baptized as infants (my wife was baptized twice and regrets the 2nd one). To me, the issue has nothing to do with human responsibility—baptism is a work of God, as is salvation. In my view, either you view baptism as a sacrament, or it’s relatively meaningless and unessential. Geoffrey Bromiley’s “Children of Promise” is a great look at the issue, which is now back in print.

  • Etranger

    Having been forced into religion without my choice by virtue of being baptised as an infant and then sent to Catholic school, I definitely favor letting people choose their religion at a later date. If one feels compelled to search out a religious community (maybe in teenage years) then one can do it. To force religion on a child (with most times extremely weird fantasies that come along with it) is tantamount to child abuse in my book.

    • John MacDonald

      Etranger said:

      To force religion on a child (with most times extremely weird fantasies that come along with it) is tantamount to child abuse in my book.

      Would you say it’s akin to brainwashing? After all, a child’s ability to reason about religion is questionable. The University of Rochester Medical Center Health Encyclopedia says:

      The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so. In fact, recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.

      • Etranger

        I believe it is brainwashing. It works too – even logical, rational adults still cling to religion oftentimes even when they realize the stories are myth.

        • John MacDonald

          Adults are often sentimental for things they were inculcated in as children (which could be anything: religion, culture/customs, etc.), and so persist in them even though there are no rational reasons for doing so. My dad played Oldies music (50’s-70’s) constantly when I was growing up, and I still get a warm feeling every time one of the old songs comes on the radio (and I detest my dad, lol) Mythicist and former Evangelical Robert M. Price still identifies as a Christian atheist even though he doesn’t believe in God, and still likes attending church service.

          • Etranger

            I agree with what you wrote, but that is different from actively supporting and towing the line. I love visiting Catholic cathedrals and churches in Europe. I love listening still to certain hymns. I do not believe in the holy trinity or that Jesus is the portal to eternal life.

          • John MacDonald

            I really liked the movie “Leap of Faith” with Steve Martin when I was a kid about a charlatan faith healer going around to desolate towns and promising the people miracles. There was a lot of the worship type gospel music in the movie. The whole atmosphere was like what you would find in certain types of Pentecostal churches. It wouldn’t be unusual, when I was in my late 20’s, to find me in a Pentecostal church enjoying the worship experience, even though I didn’t believe in God or the supernatural.

  • Susan Ray

    I wasn’t baptized as a child (our Evangelical denomination didn’t believe in infant baptism). I was christened (or “dedicated”) as a baby. My parents (and the congregation) promised to raise me in the faith–the same promises made by parents (and the congregation) at an infant baptism. The decision to be baptized was left to me to make when I felt ready for that step. In my case, I was 17. My son chose it at the age of 10. My husband at 35. I am no longer a part of any evangelical church, but our Presbyterian congregation does practice infant baptism, with Confirmation classes for those who choose to take them offered in Middle School. The one part of infant baptism that makes me a little sad is when, at every infant baptism, our pastor says “…..will not remember his/her baptism, but will be told of it often.” I have no recollection of my christening, but I DO have a very clear memory of my baptism because it was something that I chose to do–it was a very personal acknowledgement of my choosing to belong to Christ. Maybe the memory of their Confirmation is just as vivid for the kids in our church, but to me it seems almost an afterthought.

  • Tom

    I, also, have been Baptized twice – as an infant in the Anglican Church then as a teen in an Evangelical parish. I see both sides of the issue and acknowledge both as having very valid supports for their tradition. However, in the case of infant Baptism, my thoughts are less about the infant than they are about those who are making vows regarding their raising of the child, who willingly do so having no intention of honouring those vows. Also, I could see any contemporary outsider cast a leery glance at any “club” that holds one’s soul hostage through a ritual that nobody appears to take seriously beyond the ritual itself.

  • Neil Brown

    Unlike most of the other commenters, I haven’t been baptised twice…. though I think that having a formal ceremony for welcoming an infant into a church would be valuable, and should not be seen as conflicting with, or replacing, a ceremony for a believer to express their own faith and commitment.
    One thing I have seen a few times and which bothers me, is people not wanting to be baptised “again” because they already did it once, and doing it again might somehow negative what they did before. If there is a good reason to get baptised, just do it. Maybe if everybody just got baptised every year, whether they needed it or not….