Reflections from an Atheist Jew on Mormon Proxy Baptisms

Baptism For the Dead

Here’s a take I think readers of MSP will appreciate on the latest round of controversy over the church’s practice of proxy baptism of holocaust victims with no LDS progeny. (That supposedly is one of the criteria that makes a proxy baptism OK: someone has Mormon descendents who want to offer their ancestor is ordinance.) This writer, Stephen Frug, doesn’t think that baptism for the dead matters–and he doesn’t “understand why anyone else does think it matters.”

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….

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?

Stephen characterizes the nature of the insult done to the “recipients” of proxy baptism, as one of disrespect. And certainly I think it is disrespectful. But I think it’s more than that. It’s also profound condescension and religious chauvinism.

Don’t know about anyone else, but I got in a conversation about this on Facebook, with a friend who is also an atheist Jew. She was outraged, and I pretty much understood her outrage. I explained as well as I could the doctrine behind proxy baptism, adding,

I can’t defend this. I can only explain how Mormons see it.

I just wish Mormons were more willing to see how it appears to others.

This to me is a perfect example of religion making real empathy and kindness all but impossible. Mormons are so caught up in their doctrinal imperatives that in some ways they simply *CANNOT CARE* as they should about what this means to the people they honestly believe they are helping.

To reconcile somewhat what Stephen writes and what I myself feel, I think he’s right that

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.

The Mormon doctrine IS disrespectful. The Mormon doctrine is what makes Mormons fundamentally incapable of realizing their stated goal of showing genuine respect for other faiths, because the doctrine ultimately wins out in any contest Mormons envision: “OK,” they think, “we won’t perform proxy baptisms for these people now; we’ll wait and do it after the second coming. Because we know it has to be done someday, because we know that EVERYONE must be baptized into God’s one and only true church.”

So yeah, ultimately, proxy baptism does nothing for the one baptized by proxy because it’s clear enough that the whole “you can’t get into heaven unless you have this and that preparatory ordinance and learn the secret handshakes and passwords” business is nonsense. But it does something to the minds and spirits of those who advocate and practice it: it makes them less empathetic, compassionate, and kind, which are supposed to the be the highest ideals of christianity, and what we’re really here to learn.

23 thoughts on “Reflections from an Atheist Jew on Mormon Proxy Baptisms

  1. 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).

    I sympathize with this point, yet I don’t entirely agree with it. If you dance or piss on someone’s grave (with the intention of doing is as a statement to/about the dead person), it’s still disrespectful, even though it has no effect whatsoever on the dead person.

    any non-universalist religious belief that requires adherence for salvation is basically disrespectful of the entire rest of humanity.

    This is a good point, and it’s part of the reason I don’t personally think baptisms for the dead are that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. I mean, suppose you believe that the only condition for salvation is accepting Jesus as your savior, and (following that train of thought) you believe that Hitler is in heaven and the Jews he murdered are in hell. Is that somehow more respectful to the memories of the holocaust victims?

  2. suppose you believe that the only condition for salvation is accepting Jesus as your savior, and (following that train of thought) you believe that Hitler is in heaven and the Jews he murdered are in hell. Is that somehow more respectful to the memories of the holocaust victims?

    Ooh. That is a really horrific idea, but you’re entirely right that someone could indeed hold it.

    and no, I can’t say that I would consider that any more respectful. If anything, I’d have to say I find it more disrespectful. But maybe my residual Mormon indoctrination is showing there.

  3. Ya, it’s very messed up. Joseph Smith who introduced the doctrine, taught that people should only baptize for their own ancestors and close friends. That would resolve this whole issue.

    My own extended family baptized in the name of my aunt who left the LDS church and became a Jehovah’s Witness (she had her own name removed from the LDS records). Historically there was no way it was acceptable to do any work for such a person. Apparently now it really doesn’t matter and it is a free for all. People don’t even think or try to understand. It’s basically taken as a free buffet and people are out of control.

  4. Do I feel disrespected if someone makes a voodoo doll of me and does what they want with it? Not really. Is it disrespectful if someone makes a voodoo doll of my recently departed mother? Yeah, it somewhat does. I wonder why I feel that way? Do you? The rational part of my brain keeps returning ‘does not compute’.

  5. I understand why Jews and other religious people find Mormon proxy baptism disrespectful, and it’s for exactly the reasons you said. It’s religious arrogance.

    What I don’t understand is why the LDS church refuses to publicly own the practice, including the claim of exclusivity. Redeeming the dead is one of the three (oops, four) missions of the church. Why then do they disavow it instead of defending it? Why do they continue to promise that it will stop? If the Mormon belief is that LDS baptism is necessary for salvation, how could they ever in good conscience promise not to perform a proxy baptism for someone?

    The claim of exclusivity is a defining characteristic of Mormonism. Why, in this case and apparently only in this case, is the church so afraid of offending people by asserting this claim?

  6. @5

    What do you think of this response: All Dead Mormons Are Now Gay?

    I think that’s awesome!

    @6

    Why then do they disavow it instead of defending it? Why do they continue to promise that it will stop?

    Maybe because they’re smart enough to realize how unappealing their arrogance looks to others, and because their cosmology allows for plenty of time to get this all done–they have until the end of the millennium, after all, and the business will be easier when they have the dead supplying the information necessary to get baptisms done.

    @4

    Do I feel disrespected if someone makes a voodoo doll of me and does what they want with it? Not really.

    voodoo isn’t intended to make you feel disrespected. It’s intended to make you feel threatened.

    Is it disrespectful if someone makes a voodoo doll of my recently departed mother? Yeah, it somewhat does. I wonder why I feel that way?

    I’ll be interested to hear what you come up with on that score.

    What if someone finds a picture of you or your mother–or you and your mother–on the internet and gets his/her friends to join them in game of coming up with super nasty captions insulting it? Even if you only hear about the game and never read any of the captions, you might well feel disrespected, because it’s intended to be disrespectful–even though it does nothing “real;” none of its statements make any supernatural mystical event happen.

    But proxy baptism is supposed to be a gift. It’s not supposed to make anyone feel disrespected. It’s supposed to be a generous, compassionate act.

    The problem here is that good intentions of the church don’t mitigate the fact that many people feel that proxy baptism denigrates the beliefs and choices of their relatives or others in the community, and they want assurances that it won’t be done to them as well.

  7. What if someone finds a picture of you or your motheror you and your motheron the internet and gets his/her friends to join them in game of coming up with super nasty captions insulting it? Even if you only hear about the game and never read any of the captions, you might well feel disrespected, because its intended to be disrespectfuleven though it does nothing real; none of its statements make any supernatural mystical event happen.

    It does seem to me to make a difference that super nasty captions are intended to be insulting, whereas baptism is not.

    But even more I’d say this: if people took a picture of some random Mormon woman, claimed (in private!) that it was a proxy photo of my mother, and made up insults about that, I’d be more amused (or at least bemused) than insulted. (“Wow, look, your Mom’s nose is so big!” “Um, well, that’s not my Mom… but, uh, okay, I guess.”)

    And this is my basic answer to Chanson @1 above: they’re not dancing or pissing on a grave, they’re setting up a stone, claiming it’s a grave, and then doing a dance they claim is respectful. Even if dancing on a grave is disrespectful… well, it’s not a grave, really, is it?

    ff42: I think that the reason you’d feel insulted is that trying (even ineffectively) to hurt someone close to you seems offensive, while trying to hurt you ineffectively just seems silly (if you’re confident they won’t follow up). But here there’s not the intention to hurt. It’s more like, if someone made a voodoo doll of your mother, and then carried it around like a children’s doll, would you mind? If it didn’t look like her at all? And they only carried it in private?

    The insult here strikes me as pretty remote.

    Stephen Frug
    (aka the atheist Jewish author of the post linked to above)

  8. Hi Stephen–thanks so much for your thoughtful post, and thanks as well for stopping by!

    It does seem to me to make a difference that super nasty captions are intended to be insulting, whereas baptism is not.

    I agree. It makes a difference–though it doesn’t completely erase the offense for some.

    But even more Id say this: if people took a picture of some random Mormon woman, claimed (in private!) that it was a proxy photo of my mother, and made up insults about that, Id be more amused (or at least bemused) than insulted. (Wow, look, your Moms nose is so big! Um, well, thats not my Mom but, uh, okay, I guess.)

    really useful distinction. thanks.

  9. The problem as I see it is that the Mormon claim that they show “genuine respect” for other faiths is bunch of hogwash.

    At one point, when I was still active in the church and teaching Relief Society once a month, the subject of other religions came up, and I quoted the eleventh Article of Faith about allowing everyone to “worship how,, where, or what they may” in support of religious freedom. I immediately got jumped on by several of the sisters who scolded me, saying that “well, that’s only until we get them all baptized into the church.”

    Where is the resepct for other faiths in that statement? (Rhetorical question, obviously.) I don’t believe for a minute, based on my expreiences in the church, that the institution respects other faiths, and I see most evidence pointing to the reality that most faithful members of the church don’t respect others’ faith journeys, either.

  10. But proxy baptism is supposed to be a gift. Its not supposed to make anyone feel disrespected. Its supposed to be a generous, compassionate act.

    This is a good point — it also comes up in the novel ExMormon here.

    But even more Id say this: if people took a picture of some random Mormon woman, claimed (in private!) that it was a proxy photo of my mother, and made up insults about that, Id be more amused (or at least bemused) than insulted. (Wow, look, your Moms nose is so big! Um, well, thats not my Mom but, uh, okay, I guess.)

    Actually, this is kind of along the same lines of why it seems (to me) more disrespectful to proxy-baptize your own recently-dead relatives than to proxy-baptize a bunch of names you got from a list somewhere (including holocaust victims). If they just got the name from some archives, you know it’s not personal. You just know that Mormons do a magical happy-dance every time they find a new name-of-a-dead-person. That’s just what they do.

    OTOH, in cases like Mitt Romney’s FiL (and many other similar cases I’ve heard of), a family member spent their whole life surrounded by Mormons and Mormonism, and the person specifically, explicitly chose not to join. To turn around and proxy baptize that person as soon as they’re dead is like saying “I know you said your whole life you didn’t want to be Mormon, but you don’t know what’s good for you. I know better than you what’s good for you.”

    And p.s. on the “All dead Mormons are now gay”: I tried it out on “Orson Scott Card”, and it didn’t complain that he’s not dead. I thought about putting in some of my own dead Mormon ancestors, yet — even though I think it’s cool to be gay (and anyway, it’s just a joke) — I still hesitate to do it ’cause it seems kinda disrespectful to their memory…

  11. In Mormons’ defense, proxy baptisms can still be rejected by the deceased. Supposedly:

    No one will be coerced into accepting ordinances performed on his or her behalf by another. Baptism for the dead offers an opportunity, but it does not override a persons agency. But if this ordinance is not performed for them, deceased persons are robbed of the choice to accept or reject baptism.

    So, it’s not really that bad, IMO. It’s kinda like missionaries knocking on your door one last time after you die, and by then you’d be 100% sure how to respond (or…you’d be dead).

  12. Alan, the argument of “agency” utter nonsense and an out and out lie created by COJCOLDS leadership strictly for public relations purposes. The fact that it is a lie they have been telling for a long time in no way increases its truthfulness.

    After Baptism for the Dead comes “Confirmation” in which two holders of the higher Mormon Priesthood CONFIRM the person a member of COJCOLDS, and a third Mormon priest records it on the records of the temple. Further, the Mormon teachings are that after everyone dies they realize, “Oh, I should have been a Mormon when I was alive, I can’t wait for someone to do my temple work for me” so EVERYONE WILL ACCEPT the temple ordinances performed. To further cement this belief the Wilford Woodruff story (of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence personally appearing to him in the St. George Temple to DEMAND baptism) is told over and over again, including by GA’s in General Conference. “The dead are just waiting for us to do their work, begging us in fact to do it.” So, clearly, absolutely, this “they have to be accepted” claim is an out and out lie, designed solely to ameliorate the feelings of non-Mormons. (Another entire discussion on the difference between what Mormon leaders tell Mormon followers and what Mormon leaders tell outsiders would be fascinating and shed much light on this issue, but that’s for another time. It is well-established fact that Mormon leaders intentionally tell one lie to Mormon followers and a different lie to outsiders. Yours is an example of a lie told to outsiders.)

  13. Would it be disrespectful to do proxy baptisms for those that had aquaphobia?

    I would have a big problem with a dominant religious group doing proxy reparative therapy on dead gays and lesbians. It’s not about disrespect to the dead, but validating beliefs that led to harm and could lead to more harm.

  14. Andrew, I have no doubt that Mormon leaders twist the interests of outsiders, fabricating big storylines about how the dead are desperately locked out of the gates of Heaven, pleading that Mormons proxy baptise them. But still, I think the “agency” concept is necessary for proxy baptism to make sense.

    For example, Suzanne, I was thinking about how I can’t be baptised because I’m in a same-sex relationship. If I could simply be baptised after I die, against my will, it really raises the question of why I was excluded from the Church in this life, instead of being allowed to be baptised regardless. Hence, Mormons believe I must have agency in the afterlife, too, to deny the proxy baptism and/or not “repent” for my “sin” in this life — although I’m sure they can’t understand why a spirit in the face of truth wouldn’t repent for his sin, unless *gasp* same-sex intimacy isn’t a sin.

  15. Elaine @11

    I quoted the eleventh Article of Faith about allowing everyone to worship how,, where, or what they may in support of religious freedom. I immediately got jumped on by several of the sisters who scolded me, saying that well, thats only until we get them all baptized into the church.

    Good point. A decade or so when I wrote for the Sugar Beet (a website of Mormon satire based on the Onion and sadly no longer around), I did a piece called something like “High Councilman Declares Eleventh Article of Faith ‘No Longer Relevant.” It’s a pretty common attitude in the church.

    Alan @14

    In Mormons defense, proxy baptisms can still be rejected by the deceased…. its not really that bad, IMO. Its kinda like missionaries knocking on your door one last time after you die, and by then youd be 100% sure how to respond (oryoud be dead).

    Yeah, all Mormons have been told that often enough, and the church offers that reassurance to outsiders often enough, as Andrew points out.

    The problem is, many people don’t find it reassuring, and there is good reason why they wouldn’t.

    Baptism, at least in Mormon ideology, should be a fairly personal decision and rite.

    Receiving overly personal communications and/or gifts from a stranger or from someone with whom you don’t have some kind of intimate relationship can be an extremely distressing experience. It can be a form of stalking, and super creepy.

    Imagine that you get up one day and find a gift-wrapped package on your doorstep with a note reading, “This is for your mom–she doesn’t have to accept it if she doesn’t want to, but we know she’ll be sorry for all eternity if she rejects it. With love and affection from someone you’ve never met. You’re welcome!”

    The fact that the giver of the gift explicitly acknowledges your right to reject their creepy gift does very little to mitigate the inappropriateness and insensitivity of the whole thing.

    Before long there’s a package for Dad, and then one for your grandma, at which point you contact the people and tell them, politely or not, to stop. You make the case that if you have the right to refuse the gifts, you’d just as soon refuse them before delivery instead of after, ’cause it’s all really creepy and weird.

    And then they say they’ll stop, and then they don’t.

    Stalkers who do stuff like this typically see nothing wrong with what they’re doing–hey, they’re just giving gifts, and only miserable, messed up people don’t like gifts, which is why they’re giving those gifts: they’re trying to make you less miserable and messed up!

    Fortunately we no longer defer primarily to the opinions of stalkers about their actions in determining whether or not those actions are OK. And we shouldn’t defer to the church and its rhetoric in determining if proxy baptism is really that bad. We should defer to the people being offered the “gift.”

    If people really have the right to refuse the proxy baptism, the church should honor the request, via people who know and love them, to refuse having it done in the first place.

    Which, I think, relates to chanson’s point about Mitt Romney’s fil.

    Suzanne @16

    I would have a big problem with a dominant religious group doing proxy reparative therapy on dead gays and lesbians. Its not about disrespect to the dead, but validating beliefs that led to harm and could lead to more harm.

    excellent point.

  16. we shouldnt defer to the church and its rhetoric in determining if proxy baptism is really that bad. We should defer to the people being offered the gift.

    Well, I’m not quite sure how one would defer to the dead to ask whether they appreciate the gift or not. In Orthodox Judaism, part of the reason the proxy baptisms are offensive to begin with is because one is not supposed to try to contact the dead.

    It’s kinda weird to think about the living stalking the dead. Usually it’s the other way around.

    If people really have the right to refuse the proxy baptism, the church should honor the request, via people who know and love them, to refuse having it done in the first place.

    The way I’ve seen it worded is that Mormons should obtain permission from any closest living relative when submitting the names of deceased persons who were born within the last 95 years, and be a descendent themselves. It’s unclear to me whether they must obtain permission. Certainly the COB is more computerized than when this first became a public issue in the early 90s, so I’d assume there are fewer oversteps now. I mean, if Mormons were proxy baptizing people after every earthquake, tsunami and war, I’m sure they couldn’t keep it a secret.

  17. Alan @19

    we shouldnt defer to the church and its rhetoric in determining if proxy baptism is really that bad. We should defer to the people being offered the gift.

    Well, Im not quite sure how one would defer to the dead to ask whether they appreciate the gift or not. In Orthodox Judaism, part of the reason the proxy baptisms are offensive to begin with is because one is not supposed to try to contact the dead.

    OK, so one would defer to the doctrine Orthodox Jews espoused when alive that after they’re dead, one shouldn’t contact them–and as you rightly point out, proxy baptism is a form of contact. So no proxy baptism for orthodox jews, ever, unless they appear en masse during the millennium and say, “Hey, it’s OK to baptize us now!” Easy peasy, is it not?

    Whereas if other people have relatives who know them well enough to say, “These people would be bugged to be baptized into your church,” one listens to them.

    At least, one does that If one is interested in showing sensitivity and respect for others and their beliefs in the way the 11th article of faith advocates. If one is not really interested and doesn’t really find respect and sensitivity for other religious beliefs all that important, one finds excuses to justify their omission.

    The way Ive seen it worded is….

    Whatever. See above.

  18. Many good points in this discussion.

    I agree that one of the most important effects of proxy baptism is the effect it has on those who do it. I think the church also believes this.

    As others have observed, proxy ordinances of all types are important to keep members coming back to the temple. This may explain not only why the practice has been extended beyond family and close friends, but why the church apparently neglects to screen out the names of dead people who have already been proxy-baptized.

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