A number of atheists and agnostics have opted for de-baptism, a symbolic event meant to formally renounce their usually non-voluntary baptism and conversion into a religion. Apparently this practice, which often includes a blow-dryer labeled “Reason,” is popular in America, Italy, Britain), and increasingly so in Ireland.
Read on to find out the purposes of such a ceremony.
Is de-baptism ironic?
Some observers, like The Young Turks, below, note the irony of “atheist rituals.” Is it ironic? The definition of irony is something that is incongruous or contradictory. (Alternatively, irony can be defined as something with two or more meanings, known to different people; in this case, the atheists know there is no transcendent or spiritual meaning to baptism or de-baptism, but believers put value on such customs.)
Atheist de-baptisms would indeed be a contradiction, if it weren’t for the following:
- Atheists do not believe there is a metaphysical or eternal effect of baptism or de-baptism. This is the only element of irony, and atheists’ awareness of it (even calling de-baptisms “a bit of a joke” and a “mock ceremony”) ensures no genuine contradiction is made.
- Unlike most churches, atheism (which is, of course, not an organization or authority in any sense) requires baptism of no one.
- Atheists would not de-baptize infants or young children.
- There are positive social effects of de-baptism, which we will discuss below.
- Some individuals value the event as a symbolic renunciation of dogma they were taught earlier in life.
Because the reasons and beliefs surrounding de-baptism do not contradict the atheist’s rejection of theism and revealed mysticism, it’s unfair to ridicule de-baptism.
Reasons to be de-baptised
De-baptisms are not for everyone. Those who do opt for one do so for a number of reasons.
One motivation is to commit a formal act of apostasy, or the rejection of a religious belief. This decreases the number of people on churches’ official rosters, as these churches often use these numbers for political clout. (Of course, not even all active members agree with Church teachings.) In Ireland almost all public schools are actually run by the Catholic church, partially on the grounds that most Irish are Catholic; the formal apostasy of de-baptism is seen as a way to decrease this theocratic power. I expect this to become even more common now, in the wake of the Ryan Report on clerical abuse and after the absurdly backward anti-blasphemy law was passed.
The second common reason is personal or symbolic meaning. One of the de-baptized, Jennifer Gray, called her experience “very therapeutic.” In a sense, a comparison could be made to New Year’s Resolutions, a custom that has absolutely no mystical meaning, but which can nonetheless be a decisive step and a statement of intention.
Lastly, some (such as myself) may view the ceremony as an assertion of children’s rights. Why, they ask, should parents be able to decide what a child will believe? (Not all religions practice infant baptism, so this doesn’t always apply.)
Is baptism irreversible?
Some churches refuse to take the de-baptized off their rosters, claiming that baptism lasts forever in the eyes of God and/or the Church. I call baloney. Should God exist, He could keep His records just fine without a mortally run organization helping him out by artificially swelling their numbers.
While Christians are free to believe that baptism is permanent, common sense and modern Western law suggests that, on paper and in practice, no one can be forced to remain a part of a group to which they do not wish to belong. That’s what cults do.1 That is almost the definition of slavery.
The way that these same churches welcome converts from other religions, even if such converts were baptized into another religion. (As if they would refuse. Those collection plates don’t fill themselves!) If baptism lasted forever, church-hoppers could end up being permanent members of multiple faiths. How absurd would that be? (Yes, a lot of churches see other denominations’ baptisms as equivalent to their own, but the point stands: the convert has left a church.)
To summarize: Dogma is within the church’s domain, but the roster should be composed entirely of those who wish to be on it.
What about those who want to be removed from church records, but are denied the right to do so by their church? Is there hope? Barring legal action, there may be! Since churches generally allow conversions between denominations, a possible loophole may be able to switch to a less retentive church, inform the old church and request to be expunged, and then get that new church to remove them from the roster. Sounds like a lot of effort, but it may be worth it as a last resort.
Personal attitude toward de-baptism
Before I heard that other atheists enjoyed de-baptism, I had hoped to experience one someday. While others I expressed this wish to could not see any reason to it — after all, if I believed baptism had no meaning, what need had I for de-baptism? — I wanted to undergo it for more practical reasons. I wanted to make a statement about children’s rights, to formally end my relationship with the Church, and to show myself and others I was serious about my atheism.
Unlike the accounts I have linked to here, I did not envision my de-baptism taking place with a blow-dryer. I hoped to honor the legacy of Douglas Adams and use a towel.
Making the leap?
- A sample letter to the Catholic Church announcing apostasy (especially for Irish readers)
- National Secular Society: Official debaptism for folks in the UK
- A de-baptism form from American Atheists (Thanks, @keitheist!)
- General tips: I couldn’t find a definitive resource for those looking to officially leave churches, but in most cases a letter to the Bishop stating your intent to commit apostasy, like Irish Catholic one above, should suffice. Consider sending your letter via registered mail or with delivery confirmation.
Photo credits: Baptism used with implicit permission
Update: If you live in the Phoenix or Chicago area and have been de-baptized, please contact me.
Using this as a definition of cults, Scientology and Christian Science easily qualify, as do Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as do fundamentalists like Pat Robertson who advocate not speaking to family members who left the church. (Yes, I am aware there is precious little difference between cults and religions.) ↩