Tuesday, February 21, 2012

An Atheist Jew Reflects on the Mormon Baptism of the Dead

So Mormon baptism for the dead is back in the news. After repeatedly promising not to posthumously baptize Holocaust victims, the Mormons have -- once again! -- been caught violating that promise. Elie Wiesel has publicly called on Bishop Mitt Romney asking him, in his capacity as a person running for President who happens to be Mormon, to do something.* In short, once again People Are Upset.

Now, I grant you that, having promised to stop, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ought to carry out their promise, simply because, all things being equal, everyone ought to fulfill their promises, and there seems to be no reason that this one has been nullified.

But having said that, the entire issue raises, for me, another question: which is why the members of my tribe cared enough to extract the promise in the first place.

Why do Jews -- or anyone who is not a Mormon -- care about the Mormon's baptism of the dead? I get that they do. I get that I may be the only Jew on God's footstool who thinks that it doesn't matter. But really, I not only don't think it matters, I don't understand why anyone else does think it matters.

There are two basic possibilities. Either Mormon cosmology is basically right**, or it's not.

If Mormonism is wrong -- and really from this point of view it doesn't matter if the truth is the cosmos as described by the Jews, the Catholics, the Baptists, the Muslims, the Humanists, the Pastafarians or what have you -- then the so-called "Baptism of the Dead" does literally nothing. It is about as efficacious as children playing make-believe. At worst it does some spiritual damage to the living persons engaged in the practice; it certainly has no effect on the dead. Getting upset about the Mormons' actions is like getting upset when children at play say something like "everyone here is a cow".

If, on the other hand, Mormonism is right -- as far-fetched as that seems -- then of course the "baptism of the dead" is efficacious, and actually is doing the deceased a favor. So we should be glad they did it.

Either it's meaningless and stupid, or it's the right thing to do. Either way, how can anyone object?

I've heard only a few objections that aren't entirely answered by the above argument. But none of them strike me as particularly convincing either.

One objection is that Mormons can then claim that the dead -- from Shakespeare to Hitler to Barack Obama's Mother -- are Mormons.

And the answer is: yes, of course they can. They can also claim that Native Americans are descended from Israelites, that there were horses and wheels in pre-Columbian America, that God lives out on a planet called Kolob, that God just happened to change his mind about the essential racism of his previous doctrines in 1978 and that the social embarrassment of the doctrine in the post-Civil Rights age for the leaders getting the "revelation" had nothing to do with it. And so forth. They can claim anything they like -- and they claim a lot. So what? It doesn't make it true.

(For that matter, other religions claim that as soon as everyone's dead they recognize the truth of their particular creed -- that people are converted (if not baptized) upon death, if only to recognize the justice of their own damnation. Which is just to say: when evidence and reason aren't the standard, you can claim anything, and people will. It doesn't really affect the rest of us.)

A second objection is that in the future people will believe that the posthumously baptized were really Mormon -- that this is affecting, as it were, their reputation. (One fellow Jew said to me, a propos of this, "when you're dead, all you've got left is your name.")

And the answer to this is, well, it's conceivable --- if the future historians involved are very, very sloppy and very, very ignorant about the context and very, very stupid. It's not like the doctrine of the baptism of the dead is secret; anyone researching the life of Shakespeare or Obama's mother who concluded that they were really Mormon because they appeared on the Mormon rolls would be, basically, unqualified to research anything at all. But yes, it may happen. But then, maybe people in the future will decide all sorts of stupid things. The slight chance that stupid people years from now might misunderstand present-day actions seems like a really poor reason for not doing them.

The final objection -- and, I suppose, the nub of the matter -- is that it's disrespectful.

This, of course, is true. It is disrespectful. It embodies the fact that Mormons think (as do the adherents of most faiths) that all the rest of us are fundamentally wrong, and that, worse, we're in some sense damned*** for being wrong. It implies that, say, Jews who lived their whole life as Jews and who were systematically murdered for being Jews were, in fact, off-base and would, in the afterlife, ditch their faith for an American religion they'd probably never heard of in this world.

But you know what? The actual baptism of the dead, at most, draws attention to this belief. They believe it anyway. Just as the southern Baptists believe that the victims of the Holocaust are damned because they never recognized Jesus, the Muslims believe they're damned because they never recognized Allah, and so on, and so forth.****

Sure, I personally find these doctrines abhorrent. But you know what? Those who hold them won't care about what I think about their beliefs any more than I care what they think about mine.

To the extent that anything's disrespectful, it's not the posthumous baptism, which is a mere instantiation of a larger phenomenon, it's that Mormon doctrine is disrespectful. And not just Mormon doctrine: any non-universalist religious belief that requires adherence for salvation is basically disrespectful of the entire rest of humanity.

And sure, we might well argue against them on that basis -- although personally I think the fact that there's no actual evidence supporting them is ultimately more to the point. (But then, that's me: I'm concerned with evidence and argument and logic. Others go by their guts, or the burning in their bosoms, or what have you.) But objecting to what they think they're doing on the basis of those beliefs seems to me just silly.

One sub argument that's sometimes made here is that it's particularly disrespectful to murdered Jews because of the long history of trying to convert Jews on the pain of death, and of Jews refusing to so convert. But, without making any pretense to knowledge of the specifics, isn't the reason that Jews historically have resisted baptism is that they've resisted conversion, i.e. being forced to adhere to (profess, live by, acknowledge) a faith they don't believe? Accepting baptism is a part of conversion. But baptism of the dead doesn't actually convert anybody: you need researchers to go look through records to even find out it happened. (Would Jews have fought not to be baptized long-distance without their knowledge? (What would that even mean?))

I get, on some level, how this might seem like defiling the graves of the dead. But it's really more like setting up a stone somewhere far from where the dead in question ever were in their lives, calling it (without any basis) their grave, and defiling that.§ Yes, sure, a sign of disrespect. But it's really just a sign of an ongoing disrespect, one that is fundamental to their beliefs, rather than having anything specifically to do with the symbolic action... that we have to go out of our way to find out about if we want to be offended by it.

Roll your eyes at it? Sure. Think less of them for doing it? Ok. But make a big stink about it? Why?

In fact, if you think about it, the gravestone analogy above is precisely accurate. The Mormons aren't, after all, baptizing the dead (they're not, say, disinterring the bones and sprinkling water on them); they're baptizing young Mormon teenagers and saying that they're baptizing the dead. It's only true if they're right (in which case they're right.) From a non-Mormon point of view, they aren't baptizing the dead; they just think they are.

The point is, a non-Mormon should no more believe that the Mormon baptism of the dead does anything (save please those among the living involved in it) than I believe that my son's frequent announcement that he and I are both Buzz Lightyear does anything. Personally I think that they're pretty equivalent -- save that my son, of course, is three years old, and therefore the fact that he speaks like a child, thinks like a child and understands like a child is perfectly appropriate.

And if any Mormons in my audience -- or people of other faiths, for that matter -- find that comparison disrespectful... well, what can I say? Turn about's fair play.§§

The sole remaining argument is that, having promised to stop, it is disrespectful to continue. And here, I must admit, I think the opponents of the baptism of the dead have a good case. It's an oddly self-supporting one -- fulfill the promise, which there was no particular reason to ask for or to make in the first place, because not to would be disrespectful. But I suppose one could say that that ship has sailed. But it might help my landsmen to keep things in better perspective to remember that the underlying issue is a children's game that adults like to play, and that it means about as much (unless they're right, in which case it means everything, but it's good they're doing it.) And breaking a promise to stop doing something which is itself meaningless is, as disrespect goes, pretty small bones.

To object to the Mormon baptism of the dead is ultimately to subscribe to a small slice of Mormon doctrine, namely, that part that says the baptism of the dead actually has some effect (if only to offer souls in the afterlife an option). Those of us who are not Mormons should be able to recognize that this Mormon belief like all the others is simply false: that the baptism of the dead does nothing. Who cares what games others play?

Update: Via comments to this post linking back to this one, we have this absolutely fabulous response to the Mormon baptism of the dead:


Incidentally, in addition to some substantial comments below this post (if you've read this far, check them out too), the above-linked post has some discussion of this issue (with reference to this post) in its comments too -- click through if you're interested. And thanks to Holly for linking!

Update 2: Via comments to that same post, Stephen Colbert posthumously converts all dead Mormons to Judaism.

Update 3: In a Slate roundtable, some of the Slate writers (including fellow Jews!) reach parallel conclusions to the ones I argue for in this post§§§. So I guess it's not just me, although I still think we're in the minority.

Update 4: And the "who cares?" brigade gains yet another member. In contrast, here's another in the "it's disrespectful" camp. (Both via Sullivan).

* Even if you agree with Wiesel on the basic issue, you could make a pretty solid argument that asking someone who is prominent in a non-religious capacity to intervene in a religious matter he had nothing to do with just because it happens to be his religious group is fairly offensive in its own right. Asking the church is one thing; asking the person who happens to be running for president is another.

** Something I think is far more disprovable than most religious claims, since Mormon doctrine is less shielded from empirical and logical investigation than that of most other religions. But that's another story.

*** Although my vague sense of the matter is that the Mormon hell is a breeze compared to that of, say, the Baptists and the Muslims.

**** Actually, you could argue that the baptism of the dead is a lot more respectful than that of standard religious groups. The standard (non-universalist) line is that if you didn't happen to pick the right religion in this life, you're screwed: if you got the "Jesus or Mohammed?" question wrong, then, whoops!, a lifetime of torture for you. The Mormons at least think that, having screwed up in this life, you get a second shot. Which, after all, is more disrespectful: to think that every Jew who died in the Holocaust is burning in hell, or that only those who did not accept a posthumous baptism are?

§ Yeah, I must admit, it makes me think of a voodoo doll. (Unkind of me, perhaps.) And as one of my landsmen has said:
So you can stick your little pins in that voodoo doll:
I'm very sorry, baby, doesn't look like me at all.

§§ Once I'm dead, you can get your revenge by baptizing me by proxy. Which (I feel confident) won't do anything. But which you can do, feeling the satisfaction in the belief that you are showing me up and doing me a favor at the same time -- a rare combination of (self-congratulatory) self-styled beneficence and condescension.

It's fine. Because I won't mind. Because we're talking about after I'm dead -- and the mind dies with the body.

§§§ I'd like to say they "echo" my points here, but the truth be told I think that the chances that any of them saw this post are nil. Sadly. But at least it's clear I wasn't echoing them, since I posted mine ten days before they did.


Holly said...

Hi Stephen--

thanks for this very interesting piece. I linked to it on Facebook and on Main Street Plaza, where I blog sometimes. http://latterdaymainstreet.com/2012/02/21/reflections-from-an-atheist-jew-on-mormon-proxy-baptisms/

No one has commented there yet, though I hope someone will. In the meantime, I thought you might like this comment from one of my FB friends, a historian finishing up his dissertation at Yale:

"Not quite finished, but I love this piece. I love its sophistication and its systematic approach to the problem. So refreshing to see a polemic-free discussion of such an issue. The man is a credit to the profession. :)" after which he added, "He's funny, too, which is nice."

Stephen said...

Thanks, Holly! I'll keep an eye on Main Street Plaza, and see if anyone comments.



phosphorious said...

Hi Stephen,

I'm inclined to take the "Disrespectful" argument rather seriously. You say:

"Getting upset about the Mormons' actions is like getting upset when children at play say something like "everyone here is a cow"."

Well, yes. The Mormons are playing games with something serious, essentially saying "You surrogates are Holocaust victims, and we are baptizing you." Horrendously inappropriate, and not just because it's the holocaust. It's a glib response to a tragic history. . . and that glibness is a real, present harm.

I can see not wanting to pay any attention to nonsense, but I deeply sympathize with those who object to this.

Stephen said...


I see your point. Still, I would counter as follows:

The Mormon baptism of the dead isn't a response to the Holocaust. If they were specifically saying that Holocaust victims needed posthumous salvation -- or, heck, if they were saying that Jews and only Jews needed it -- then I might agree. But they're not. They're baptizing anyone who ever lived whose name they can identify (or, rather, they're pretending they are doing that).

So it's not a "glib response to a tragic history" because it's not a response to that tragic history at all -- the fact that the people are Holocaust victims, or Jews, are, as far as the Mormons are concerned, incidental. They're just more names of the dead. Rather than being a glib response to tragic history, it's simply a glib response to death -- something which is in some ways worse, and in some ways not so bad.

What's going on is that some people are saying that Holocaust victims ought to be singled out -- that treating them simply as dead people is necessarily wrong. And this strikes me as a sort of "negative sacralization" (not my original notion) of the Holocaust that is best avoided. Since the practice has, really, nothing to do with the identity or experiences or deaths of those supposedly invoked, I don't think it's appropriate. I don't think that Holocaust victims should be treated in a way that no other deaths in human history were, when there's nothing particular involving them (or their memory, or anything like that) at stake.

I'd be slightly more sympathetic if they objection was general -- that it is, in general, disrespectful to anyone, whether Shakespeare or Pope John Paul II or Barack Obama's mother or whatever. But then I'd return to my point that what is disrespectful is the basics of the doctrine, not the baptism itself. And the fact that they're not really baptizing the dead just pretending to.

So I guess I'm not convinced. But I greatly appreciate, and thank you for, your thoughtful disagreement.


Anonymous said...

Who looks sillier? Your son that proclaims he is buzz lightyear or the people that get mad and offended at his proclamation?

Anonymous said...

It is believed that Helen Radkey submitted many names herself before being caught using other people's accounts. There are ex Mormons who pretend to be believing, practicing Mormons who want to damage the church. I believe, and so do others, it is those ex Mormons with an axe to grind that is doing these Jewish people and others just to get their "former" church in trouble, and it is working.
I know that today it is really difficult to submit names for baptisms for the dead, because of Helen Radkey and ex Mormons who did these bad things to get the LDS in trouble. The LDS people are trusting people and the bad ones take advantage of that fact. The reason I know it is hard to submit names is because I am doing so and believe me I have to prove my relationship to the names!!!! And if there are any mistakes I have to prove my relationship to get it fixed!!! So the bad guys have made it hard for the average good LDS member to do Temple work for their dead ancestors. The LDS church DID stop baptizing Jews when they said they did. Go ahead and call the LDS what you want. Talk about being disrespectful. ALL religions are cults, using the true definition of the word. And by the way there is another religion in the U.S. that baptizes for deceased but I can not remember the name, something with Apostolic in the name. How come no one gets on their case?