US atheists choose ‘de-baptism’ to renounce childhood faith

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Until last summer, Jennifer Gray of Columbus, Ohio, considered herself “a weak Christian” whose baptism at age 11 in a Kentucky church came to mean less and less to her as she gradually lost faith in God.

Then the 32-year-old medical transcriptionist took a decisive step, one that previously hadn’t been available. She got “de-baptised”.

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 light-hearted spirit of the 2008 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.”

Within the past year, “de-baptism” ceremonies have attracted as many as 250 participants at atheist conventions in Ohio, Texas, Florida and Georgia. More have taken place on college campuses in recent years, according to Hemant Mehta, chair of the board of directors for the Secular Student Alliance, a group that promotes atheism among high school and college students.

“If we’re having a winter solstice or summer solstice get-together or some other event, we might say: ‘Who wants to get de-baptized?”‘ said Greg McDowell, the Florida state director for American Atheists, an advocacy and networking group. “It’s a bit of satire. People will play the fool by waving their arms in the air and saying, ‘I got de-baptised!’ But the paperwork is still legit.”

Some of the so-called “de-baptized” have used their certificates to petition churches to remove their names from baptismal rolls. One argument: they were baptised without their consent as children and should now be declared de-baptised.

Some churches, however, aren’t budging on what they regard as an irreversible sacrament.

Atheist Gary Mueller recently mailed his de-baptism certificate to St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Concord, California, 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 email. “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, North Carolina.

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-baptisers” misunderstand baptism when they caricature it as an attempt at magic.

Baptism “is a kind of adoption where you become a child of God, of the church and of the family,” Stookey said. “You can renounce your physical parents, (the church and God), but they cannot renounce you because you are their child. Anybody who makes fun of baptism probably hasn’t gone into it in enough depth to know that.”

De-baptism efforts have been growing internationally in recent years. More than 100 000 Britons downloaded de-baptism certificates from the National Secular Society between 2005 and 2009, according to NSS campaigner Stephen Evans. Upwards of 1000 Italians requested de-baptism certificates prior to Italy’s “De-Baptism Day” in October 2008, according to Italy’s Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Public ceremonies to confer de-baptism, however, seem to be primarily an American phenomenon.

“I think a de-baptism ceremony (in Europe) would strike a lot of secularists and atheists as kind of pointless,” Evans said. “They would leave the ceremonies to the religious.”

Not all American non-believers have warmed to de-baptism rituals. Secularist Phil Zuckerman, a Pitzer College sociologist who studies apostates, said he would never take part in such an event because it “feels intrinsically negative” and “immature”.

Even so, he said, de-baptisms may serve a cathartic function for some participants, as well as a political one.

“For a long time, non-religious people in the Bible Belt just kept quiet, but they aren’t keeping quiet anymore,” Zuckerman said. “I think that’s largely a reaction to George W. Bush’s presidency. [Atheists] were saying, ‘The government is being taken over by very religious people. We need to stand up and say: We’re here. We’re secular. Deal with it’.”

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

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