Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Some Thoughts on Posthumous Baptism

In real life and on Twitter, I have been having a lot of conversations about the Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing non-Mormons including Jewish Holocaust victims. Some people, like Ari Kohen (a professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska), are offended by the practice.

I, on the other hand, am not bothered by the practice.

Part of my lack of offense at the practice is my belief that it does not affect the souls of the deceased. I am Jewish, so I don't believe that the baptism of the dead (or of the living that matter) is consequential for people's souls (although the experience of baptism is clearly meaningful for many people's lives). So, if Mormons want to baptize the dead, or members of some other faith want to pray for the souls of the deceased, no one is harmed in any way.

But, this isn't exactly Kohen's problem with the practice. Kohen agrees that posthumous baptism does not matter to the dead. His complaint is that posthumous baptism is disrespectful to the religious beliefs of others.
At bottom, no one thinks that what the Mormons are doing really matters to the dead people who are being baptized. But it does matter to me.
My problem with posthumous baptism is that it’s disrespectful. Assuming that the dead people don’t know that they’re being disrespected, we can nonetheless assert that it’s disrespectful to the group deemed to be in need of posthumous baptism. Indeed, I’d say it is about as clear a statement as we can get of one group’s belief in the inferiority of the beliefs of another group. It amounts to an invalidation of the choices that people make in their lives and a direct paternalistic challenge to their agency: “We know better than they do and, thankfully, we’ll be able to help them out.”
I agree with Kohen's assessment of the attitude of the Mormon Church toward non-Mormons. Mormons, indeed believe that their faith is a unique statement of God's truth. So, while you probably won't see it put like this in any official LDS documents,  “We know better than they do and, thankfully, we’ll be able to help them out [after they die]” isn't especially unfair.

I do not share his emotional response, though.

Almost all Western religions claim unique knowledge of God's truth and explicitly reject important tenants of other faiths. Jews deny the divinity of Christ. Catholics reject the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Protestant reject transubstantiation and the necessity of good works for salvation. People of any given faith, by definition, believe that they have something right that others have wrong.

Mormons are not unique in their belief that Jews and others who have not accepted Jesus as their savior are punished for their sins in the hereafter. Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodist, and every other denomination and nondenomination of traditional and evangelical Christianity (officially, at least) believe the same thing. Mormons are only unique in their belief that the dead can be saved by posthumous baptism. Most everyone else believes that damnation is permanent.

These beliefs are not in and of themselves disrespectful, though.

Even if I disagree with someone else's beliefs, I can still respect their faith and their right to believe as they wish. As a Jew, I can respect that someone has come to believe that faith in Jesus can save his soul even if I disagree with his belief. A Christian can believe in the necessity of faith in Jesus and respect that I have come to a different conclusion. Jews and Christians can both respect the choice of atheists to reject faith in God altogether. So long as we acknowledge that others have a right to choose their faith and take no action that interferes with the faith and worship of others, disagreement about religion is not synonymous with disrespect.

This still leaves the question of whether the act of baptizing the dead is worse than the belief that a baptism could redeem the souls of dead non-Mormons. This distinction is important to Kohen.

But the posthumous baptism makes my skin crawl so much more than the people who wander the streets carrying their holy books precisely because it’s unseen. I’m on a list somewhere to have my soul saved and there’s nothing I can do about it; there’s no door I can shut, no one to whom I can say, “No thanks, I’m all set.”
One of the real keys to living in a pluralistic society is to accept that others will have different beliefs from one’s own and thus to avoid constantly thrusting one’s beliefs in the faces of those others. You think I’m wrong? That’s just fine. You can think whatever you’d like to think. But when you attempt to do something about it, then it seems to me that you’re crossing a line that liberal pluralists don’t cross.
In shutting the door on the people who wants to talk about their faith with me, I assert my agency; I choose for myself and, even if they think I’m wrong, they have to get off my front porch. The rules of our society force them to leave me alone to believe whatever I want, just as I have always left them alone to do the same. With posthumous baptism, people are actively refusing to tolerate me and others like me. That is what makes it unacceptable.
First, the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead and other Christians' practice of praying for souls that have not been saved are almost always either secret or private. If anything, I am sure that the Mormon Church would just as soon have us all not know this is something they do at all. So, Mormons are hardly thrusting anything in anyone's face.

More broadly, though, there is a question of whether proselytizing the living or dead is disrespectful.

Kohen seems to think that acting on a belief that someone is unaware of your faith's version of the truth is inherently disrespectful.

Again, I disagree.

While I have certainly had people be disrespectful to me because of my faith, I have also had countless completely respectful interactions with people of other faiths (almost universally various kinds of Christians, including Mormons) who initiated conversations with me to share their faith. These people have been close friends and total strangers, and, the rare exception aside, they have approached me and engaged me in conversations about faith out of love for me (or people in general) and concern for my soul.

Raising a question of faith is not in and of itself disrespectful.

Proselytizers can be disrespectful. They can try to continue conversations when people have asked to end them. They can invade people's space and time. They can be dismissive or rude. They can return to someone's home when they have been asked not to, they can yell at passersby from soap boxes. Religious practices and discussions are disrespectful when they fail to respect people's fundamental right to control their time, their space, and their life.

Proselytizers need not be disrespectful. When people's boundaries are respected, conversations about faith and conversion can occur with as much respect and dignity as any other conversation a person might have about their important life choices.

Praying for someone outside their presence or baptizing someone after they have died does not interfere with their time, space, or life in any way. So long as Mormons respect people's right to choose their faith (or lack of faith) in life, their belief in the salvation of the dead does not disturb me.

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