“I always thought of the christening in salvational terms,” said Sarah, an independent Christian married to Justin, a secular humanist. “My kids would be baptized to join their souls to Christ, that’s how I always understood it. But when our daughter was born, my husband said he didn’t want her baptized.”
I met Sarah and Justin when I was working on In Faith and In Doubt, a book about marriages and other long-term relationships between religious and nonreligious partners. Whether to baptize (or christen) their daughter was their first significant disagreement over religious practices.
“I wanted her to make her own decision when she was older,” Justin explained, “without having to deal with a choice that had been made for her.”
“But I just couldn’t imagine not having it done,” said Sarah.
She talked to her pastor and learned that her church saw baptism primarily as a ritual to wash away original sin. “I was honestly taken aback,” she said. “I didn’t know that was the meaning. That seemed medieval to me. But I still wanted to have it done, and now I had to figure out why I wanted it.”
She and Justin talked it through. “Eventually I realized that it wasn’t even about the connection to Christ. I think that is a relationship that a person should enter into willingly, and it happens in the heart, not in a ceremony.”
She tried to imagine not having their daughter baptized, just to see what feelings it brought up. “And the funny thing is, my first thought wasn’t about Jesus. I probably shouldn’t say that, but it’s true. It was a simpler thing. My first thought was, ‘But I was baptized, and my mother and daddy were baptized! She has to be baptized! It’s what we do!’ So it wasn’t about salvation, or original sin, or connecting her to Christ. It was about connecting her to my family.”
Justin’s reaction to this news surprised even him. Once she said that, “I was suddenly okay with it, or at least more okay. I didn’t like the idea of this supernatural ritual, and I really didn’t like the original sin nonsense. But I was okay with her being welcomed into Sarah’s family tradition that way, and even into their church. It’s a nice church and a good community. Even if it meant something else to the church, I was fine knowing what it meant to Sarah and what it didn’t.”
“And I appreciated that,” she said.
Doing it for Grandma
The experience my (then-Southern-Baptist) wife Becca and I had was similar and different. We attended a non-denominational but quietly Baptist-aligned megachurch at the time, and I said I’d prefer not to have our son baptized. Becca said that was fine. “But would it be okay if we just had him dedicated instead?” she asked. “You know…for Grandma?”
Aha. It was a family thing, just like Justin and Sarah. It seemed like a reasonable compromise, and I said sure, why not, or words to that effect. Doing this meant more to her than not doing it meant to me.
But I didn’t know what a dedication actually entailed in this and many other churches. It was built around a solemn parental promise—something I only learned when Reverend Lovejoy turned to us during the ceremony, in which seven newborns including my son were dedicated in front of a congregation, and said unto us,
In presenting this child for dedication, you are hereby witnessing to your own personal Christian faith. Dale and Rebekah, do you announce your faith in Jesus Christ, and show that you want to study Him, know Him, love Him, and serve Him as His disciple, and that you want your child to do the same? Do you pledge to teach your child, as soon as he is able to learn, the nature of this holy sacrament; watch over his education, that he may not be led astray; direct his feet to the sanctuary; restrain him from evil associates and habits; and bring him up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?
Becca squeezed my hand, hard. It was not a squeeze of joy at the moment we were witnessing in our child’s life. I knew that. It was a squeeze that said, Oh no, my love, I didn’t know, I promise I didn’t, and if you can find it in your heart to fib, just a little, I swear that I will never, ever ask you to do this again for any other children we may have, Amen.
I squeezed back, and together we turned to the minister and said, “Sure, why not.” Or words to that effect.
Despite being a Southern Baptist by birth and upbringing, Becca didn’t like the idea of promising such a thing any more than I did. She wanted our kids to make their own decisions regarding religious identity. She had no intention of “directing his feet to the sanctuary,” nor did she agree with the implication that other choices would be the same as “leading him astray.”
Had we known at the time that there were other options for marking the moment, including more liberal and flexible Christian denominations, we might have pursued one of those instead. Or we might have considered a Unitarian child dedication, in which parents work with the minister or leader to create the kind of service they want. It may or may not include a religious blessing; it will usually include an expression of the parents’ hopes for the child; and it often includes a promise by the congregation to support and encourage the child in their own search for truth and spiritual enrichment. The parents are not required to be baptized, nor to pledge any particular upbringing for the child. That would have been better.
There’s also a growing tradition of meaningful humanist naming ceremonies conducted by humanist celebrants trained by the Humanist Society or Humanists UK. Though Becca would herself become a secular humanist nine years later, I doubt that would have satisfied her or her family at that point. For us, the Unitarian ceremony would have been ideal.
Live and learn.
Just a bath?
Lena (Episcopalian) and her husband Sean (agnostic Baha’i) worked it out more intentionally, without the need for any paternal fibs.
“There was a little bit of a discussion when we baptized our two boys,” says Lena. “He was certainly not for it. My argument was, if there is no God, then it’s just a bath—so what does it matter?”
Well—to be honest, it’s never just a bath, and baptism has always been about more than God. In most Christian denominations, the ceremony is also meant to forge a bond between church and child and even to reaffirm the faith of the parents. Even the Episcopal church, which is less doctrinally strict than many, calls baptism “a full initiation into Christ’s body, the church,” a bond that is “indissoluble.” And they say the ritual “is designed to deepen the Christian formation of those who will present infants and young children for baptism,” and “parents promise to see that the child…is brought up in the Christian faith and life.”
So whether or not God exists, a human commitment to a particular faith is also being pledged. That’s a sensible concern for many nonreligious parents, and even for many religious parents who would prefer to wait until a child can choose their identity.
In the end, Sean weighed these issues and agreed to the ceremony with one condition: “He didn’t want to be required to say anything himself about belief in Jesus or God,” says Lena. “I completely understood and was grateful that he let me baptize the boys and that he would attend. He is that kind of man and that’s why I love him.”
The baptism question is less serious than circumcision in one way—no little knives flashing in sensitive places—but it’s more serious in others. Questions of honesty arise, as well as the potential for one parent to feel that the child is being formally bonded to the other parent’s community. The first step as always is to be well-informed about the purpose and meaning of the ceremony, not only to the church but to the religious partner and their family. Whether you forgo the ceremony, or modify it, or find a different denomination, or go the distance, couples should come to agreement between themselves first, then present a unified decision and reasoning to the extended family.