Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

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I was talking about posthumous Mormon baptism in an interfaith discussion group (I don’t object to it, see here: “The Mormons Try for a Mitzvah“), and someone asked why many of us have a strong, knee-jerk objection to proxy baptism of the dead, but don’t see anything odd about baptizing children.

In both cases, you’re inducting someone who cannot consent, and Christian baptism of the living (a sacrament of initiation that makes a seal that cannot be broken) is arguably a lot more intrusive than baptism of the dead (which is just supposed to allow them to convert in the afterlife, if they want to). At any rate, both involve trying to define someone’s identity.

For this reason, Richard Dawkins claims it’s abuse to raise children in a religion, or to talk about ‘Catholic children’ or ‘Jewish children.’ One should only say ‘children raised by Catholics’ until the kids are old enough to decide for themselves.

I don’t think this is a particularly useful framework. Parents can’t (and shouldn’t) raise children in a vacuum. Not just because they’d suffocate, but because it’s hard to teach anyone moral reasoning or epistemology totally in the abstract, divorced from its conclusions.  You can’t  teach a way of reasoning or questioning without giving some examples of right answers and explaining how you recognize them as correct.

The objection to baptism or religious education is just a particular case of the general objection to parents passing on false beliefs and biases to their children. And there’s not a perfect solution to this instantiation of problem any more than there’s a good way to make sure that parents don’t raise their children sexist.  Telling them not to ever talk about gender would not be a solution.

You can put up some safeguards against blatant emotional abuse, but any restrictions (cultural or legal) strong enough to deter parents who are just miseducating their kids with the best of intentions are going to completely undermine the institution of the family.  Parents should want their kids to grow up loving the Good and the True.  It’s not worth waging war on that expectation just because many parents have a skewed idea of how to get there.

So my least-bad solution is still just public school.  I can’t (and shouldn’t) stop parents from having wrong beliefs they genuinely want to pass on, but I can try and make it possible for the kids to know that some people disagree early on and get a chance to get pitched by the other side before they start thinking of those incorrect beliefs as essential parts of their identity.  To do this properly, the public schools should do more problem-solving and critical thinking work and less NCLB-mandated testing drills, but now we’re reforming education, not families.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

    Hm, I’d have to quibble with your characterization of LDS baptism for the dead as “inducting someone who cannot consent” – if you ask any Mormon about the practice, you’ll find that there’s no concept in LDS doctrine that the deceased for whom we are baptized by proxy *automatically* become Mormon as a result. We believe that they still exist and have the ability to choose to accept the rite done on their behalf – or reject it. It’s the theological equivalent of going up to someone’s door, knocking, and (with lessons) offering them baptism; however, since we have no way of ascertaining their acceptance or rejection, we simply take upon ourselves the quixotic quest of performing baptisms for everyone.

    Moreover, any records kept of those for whom posthumous baptism has been performed is an attempt to streamline the process and reduce duplication, and are not used as membership rolls or the like.

    • leahlibresco

      They don’t consent to the *baptism.* But I’d argue that this kind of baptism isn’t the kind of thing you’re required to obtain consent for anymore than you would for a party invitation.

  • http://not-atamelion.blogspot.com Michael H.

    (Of course, this brings up the debate of whether in-group or out-group perceptions of a practice should be more honored in public discourse.)

  • anodognosic

    Minor point: if I recall, Dawkins didn’t consider a religious upbringing per se child abuse; it was inculcating beliefs about hell which he argued, convincingly in my opinion (and personal experience), causes enough mental torment to qualify as emotional abuse.

    As for the argument about raising a child in religion itself, it always struck me as far more a matter of changing attitudes rather than bringing government authority into it. And perhaps it is an attitude worth changing–not in the direction of parents not imparting their sincerely-held religious beliefs onto their kids, but in identifying the child as being of that religion, which is more specifically what Dawkins was referring to. In fact, the identity is often taught before beliefs themselves. Beliefs tied up with identity tend to be especially sticky, so there’s an argument for trying to keep them somewhat separate. Perhaps they are inextricable in religion, or certain religions, but I know that I certainly wouldn’t presume to teach my child that xe is an atheist child.

  • @b

    The objection to baptism or religious education is just a particular case of the general objection to parents passing on false beliefs and biases to their children.

    Really? I think child baptism is primarily about identity. It’s ethical questionable because religious affiliation is divisive.

    Whereas when a parent is passing on their (mistaken) beliefs and biases to their child, it doesn’t seem to matter ethically if we’ve classified that belief/bias as “religious” or something else. Our ethical objection can only be made (their mistake identified) because the fact of the matter can be judged by some trustworthy authority (hopefully academia).

    • @b

      As for Dawkins’ example (scaring a child with descriptions of Hell) we don’t need to judge whether or not those tortures are happening – just how scary is in fact too scary for particular that age group.

  • Will

    I read in the news that the Secular Humanist Declaration (the one Asimov signed) pronounces it “immoral” to baptize children. I find this odd, since I am sure most of the signatories would dismiss any claim that fornication or homosexuality is “immoral”; and I suspect most of them take the line (or claim to) that anything is ok “as long as you don’t hurt anyone”. I am still waiting for an explanation of how I was harmed by something I can not remember, and was followed by a purposive ABSENCE of any religious education.

    For my parents dealt with the problem of “mixed marriage” by sweeping it under the rug. What any fool should have been able to anticipate is that while they pretended they were “letting us choose for ourselves when we grew up”, I was all along getting the message loud and clear that religion is something shameful, that nice people don’t even talk about it, that even being interested requires an EXCUSE. Perhaps Dawkins thinks this is desirable. I do not, and I will not be party to inflicting it on anyone else.

    Which is why I was gobsmacked when I heard Marion Zimmer Bradley make the dunderheaded pronouncement that “children should be raised in a religious vacuum”… which isn’t POSSIBLE. Do you know how it feels hearing someone you have looked up to for twenty years say “I know just how you feel”, when she obviously has not heard a word you have been saying?

  • http://whatloveteaches.blogspot.com/ Slow Learner

    @anodognosic, I think that your point about identifying before understanding is very apt. I did just that as a child; for example, when reciting the Nicene Creed, I did not say the word ‘catholic’, because…well, because we were Anglicans, right? And Anglicanism was a kind of Protestant, not Catholic, and Catholics were wrong, so we shouldn’t be saying we believed in one holy, catholic and apostolic church, just a holy and apostolic church.
    All that from being told, now and then, that we were Anglican and going to a mild CofE service occasionally.

  • http://paraphasic.blogspot.com Elliot

    Just a minor point about baptism being intrusive. From a non-religious standpoint baptism is just washing a baby’s forehead in an overly ornamented building. It’s only from the religious perspective that one gets the idea of a sacramental “seal” which indelibly marks the soul of the child and joins him or her to the body of Christ. But given this sacramental interpretation of baptism, what is actually done there (aside from the water on the forehead) is done by grace, through the work of the holy spirit. And since the Holy Spirit is God, who creates and sustains all things, and by whose power the intellect and will of human men and women are moved to know and pursue the good for which they were created, nothing could be more natural than that activity. Grace perfects and does not destroy nature. It works with the will, granting it a share of its true (although theretofore unrecognized) desire. Baptism, like every instance of grace, is more a liberation than an intrusion.

  • Daniel A. Duran

    Can you guys enlighten me? Do any Christians get upset about post-Morten baptism? what about Catholics? I have not heard of those two groups complaining about it, certainly not Catholics.

    • Andrew

      Because it’s silly.

    • http://paraphasic.blogspot.com Elliot

      Catholics consider Mormons to be polytheists, and thus mormon baptisms are invalid on the whole. Even for the living. So basically catholics care about it about as much as they care about the E-Meter readings done by Scientologists. Or maybe a little more because it’s a perverse imitation of the sacrament.

      • Andrew

        Okay. This type of action is an appeal for attention. It’s not all that different from the preacher burning the Koran or the Center for Inquiry folks desecrating religious objects. It’s religious based lunatic fringe stuff by people begging to be heard, and aware of the offensive nature of their actions.

        • http://paraphasic.blogspot.com Elliot

          Is it? Also what are you referring to exactly?

          • Andrew

            I’m referring to the LDS baptism controversy.

          • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

            If they were doing it for the attention I would expect them to tell us about it.

            But actually Mormons try to keep that in the background as much and as long as possible, because they know it seems weird to other people and don’t want that kind of attention.

    • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

      Andrew notwithstanding, I agree most Christians don’t mind Mormons baptizing the dead.

      The two groups who really get upset about it seem to be Jews and atheists. I think that is because both systems have longstanding conflicts with Christianity, so their adherents are also invested in not being Christians. (And while Mormons aren’t strictly speaking Christians, they are close enough to fall on that side of the conflict.)

      This makes a difference in perception. I wouldn’t care about the Mormons trying to give me a post-mortal chance to become Mormon, but I would care if they specifically tried to give me a post-mortal chance of renouncing my Catholicism. Of course the former logically entails the latter, but in the former case it would be a bit like double effect. They would be offering a new identity and only incidentally to abandon the old one. But if I identified specifically as a non-Mormon that difference would no longer hold and I probably would be peeved about a post-mortal Mormon baptism. I still wouldn’t have a logical leg to stand on, but emotionally it would feel different.

      • Patrick

        That’s probably not too far off for atheists, who often spend a lot of time trying to separate themselves from their family and culture’s assumption that they’re religious, that religiosity is coterminous with moral goodness, and so forth. Its much like situations where deceased life long outspoken atheists are eulogized as religious by family members. The implication is that the family members would prefer to eradicate the memory of their real loved one, and replace it with a fake. That’s enraging to friends and family who cared about the person for who they were.

        But with Jews, I suspect that the objection is less a matter of becoming angered at the implied eradication of the true memory of the person, and more at the implied eradication of the entirety of the Jewish people. That’s a bit of a sore spot for them.

        I know that it isn’t intended as either of these things. Mormons just believe that the universe works like Harry Potter, and that certain magical spells have to be cast in certain ways for things to work right. In order to get certain benefits in the afterlife, a magical spell has to be cast on Earth. So casting it is just like doing a nice favor for someone, that you weren’t asked to do. What could be wrong with that?

        But acknowledging that something might be motivated by kindness doesn’t preclude finding the actual thing offensive.

        • http://paraphasic.blogspot.com Elliot

          That’s true, although one could only find it offensive really on the grounds of the ignorance of the act or its intrinsic perversity. It’s difficult to be offended by a well-meant and fundamentally idiotic act. Neville Longbottom would be wrong to be offended by his mother’s regular gift of gum wrappers, although he might wish that she recover her health enough to get past such a thing. If some well-meaning Mormons have baptized me by proxy out of a desire to do me some benefit, I can’t really resent them for it, though I do wish they’d give up their religion and be baptized properly themselves.

          • leahlibresco

            I really appreciate your choice of metaphor.


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