Ask Richard: Coming Clean: Ethical Questions About Baptizing for Non-Religious Reasons October 20, 2009

Ask Richard: Coming Clean: Ethical Questions About Baptizing for Non-Religious Reasons

I received two letters from non-believers considering baptizing their kids. Both are wondering about the ethics of the issue but they are brought to the question by different motives.

Dear Richard,
I was raised Catholic, but have not been religious for most of my life. I was fortunate to have very good parents who were happy to step back and let us grow up the way we chose. I chose to be good without God or Religion. My wife is Agnostic — also raised Catholic, but like me, disagrees with many of the teachings and representation of the Catholic church. We’re planning to start a family, and the subject of Baptism has come up. We’ve had very civil discussions about the choice to baptize or not baptize our kids, and she has slowly come around to the idea that it would be ok not to.

However, while researching schools here in Australia, we are struck with a harsh reality: in general, the private, Catholic schools are better institutions, offering better facilities, better standards, teachers, etc, than the state-run public schools. Research to date suggests that our kids will have to be baptized into the Catholic church in order to be considered for enrollment.

Now, the Catholic schools we both went to were fairly light on the religion (we don’t really have the same religious zeal here as you would find there in the US) despite the religiosity they express on many of their websites.

My concern is: we have the option to baptize our kids if we wish to have the opportunity to send them to a better school. Is it right to go through this sacrament with our mental fingers crossed behind our backs for the sake of the kid’s future?

Dear Paul,

By asking “is it right” I take it you are asking if is it ethical for you and your wife to keep your lack of belief to yourselves while having your kids baptized, so that the clergy and the school administrators do not know that you don’t believe in their god or their sacrament.

Short answer: No, it is not ethical because it involves deceiving the clergy and the school administrators.

Beginning of the long answer: Probably easy to fix. If deceiving them bothers you, just tell them.

I think that the clergy and the school administrators believe that the baptism will have its desired effect on your kids’ souls regardless of what their parents believe. It’s the initiation ceremony into their religion, and that is what they require to attend their school. You won’t be going to the school, your kids will. The Church will get to claim that they have more adherents, and the school will get your tuition money. The fact that you and your wife are a couple of disbelieving sinners shouldn’t be a problem. They’re used to disbelieving sinners.

It’s certainly not going to be the first time they have encountered lapsed Catholics. You and your wife were baptized into the Church and they consider you to be Catholics for life, despite your loss of interest in their theology.

If the two of you don’t believe that the baptism has any intrinsic power or significance, then to you it’s just a game that the priest and the school want to play. Let them have their fun. Scout troops, fraternities and clubs of all kinds have their rituals. If, for ethical reasons, you want to be straight forward and honest with them about the way you see things, good for you. Be tactful, brief and honest. I’d be very surprised if that would be an obstacle stopping your kids from getting into the school. The school Principal will nod his head sympathetically and encourage you to become more involved in the Church again, even as he puts your big fat check into the school cash box.

I’m also sure that there are many other parents who have similar feelings about religion and the Church, and they are also only sending their kids to the Catholic schools for the educational quality, and the schools know it, and they don’t care.

To keep it all ethically up and up with your kids, I suggest that as they grow into successive stages of understanding, you explain to them your views on religion and the real reasons why you enrolled them into that school, and how you were honest and forthright with the administrators right from the beginning. By doing that, you’ll be modeling honesty and openness for them while also giving them both the liberty and the responsibility to think for themselves.

Dear Richard,
I am a fairly new-to-the-cause atheist, though in my heart I was born one. My full acceptance of my atheism came about 5 years after I got married and my husband is completely supportive.

We have two sons, Ben, aged 4, and Eli, aged 1. My in-laws are very close to us and they adore their grandchildren. My in-laws are of two faiths, my MIL is Catholic and my FIL is a Congregationalist who converted from Catholicism. Soon, very soon, after my older son was born my FIL started asking when we were going to baptize him. Not being religious at the time but neither being aware I was an atheist, we baptized my son at the Congregationalist church. In this church, in the meetings we had before the baptism we were told that a baptism is the first step in a life of religious education, that we were in essence promising to become part of their church community and teach our son Christianity and acceptance of God and Jesus. My husband would be a Congregationalist if he ever actually went to church (never does) so he thought this was a good idea. I however was totally, knowingly lying when I made these promises. I was more interested in honoring my SIL and her husband as godparents and then having a family picnic cause I love family parties.

My FIL however, despite his conversion, feels that baptism is necessary for my child to get into Heaven should my child die. Now I know this is no longer the doctrine of any semi-sensible church, even the Catholic Church, but my FIL doesn’t agree. He honestly believes that baptizing our second son is a safety measure to count in his favor.

Should I go through the whole rigmarole to get my second son baptized when I have no intention of honoring these promises, knowing that my husband is not getting up at 8 am on Sunday to take the boys to church and that the purpose of said baptism is to appease a silly superstition that no one but my FIL believes in? (Though my grandmother would probably love it too).

I don’t see that baptizing my son will harm him or myself. I would not lie to a church this time, I would recuse myself as an atheist and make my husband take full responsibility. My husband doesn’t care about a formal baptism at all, to him religion is totally personal and internal, he just doesn’t want to deal with me getting upset! So the good to my father in law is high, the negatives to me is in principle alone, but I think the whole idea is just plain silly and superstitious. My husband has even said “Heck, I could baptize him right now if you want” but my FIL really wants the ceremony and the paper. Should I acquiesce?
Any advice is appreciated!,

Dear Meg,

In your case, your motives for doing this are to be kind to the feelings of your father-in-law and to keep peace in the family. Those are harder reasons to dismiss, and so simply being straight forward as I suggested to Paul may not be the best option. You seem to have found a way around the ethical dilemma by simply having your husband take care of it all. If it bothers you to have to repeat the lies that you told with the baptism of your older son, then let Dad do it. As casual as he is about religion, he won’t mind going through the charade, and Grandpa will be happy.

If your husband’s making or implying those promises that neither of you intend to fulfill still troubles you, then you might try to find a different way to give the kid his bath. Perhaps you could have him baptized by a church that doesn’t demand all these pointed assurances of continuing involvement with them, as long as your father-in-law is satisfied that the ritual was properly done. There seems to be a wide variety of such policies and expectations in different churches.

Promises are important to keep, and at the same time promises are made in a context. Atheists are a minority operating in very hostile territory. They are often very ethically conscious people, but they frequently pay a dear price for following the ethical principle of honesty. Promises they make for fealty to their family’s religion are usually made under duress. A set of heavy consequences can hang over them. The strong temptation to pretend agreement in order to protect themselves and others from punishment is very understandable, and in many cases, very pardonable. Agreements made in such intimidating circumstances are not freely made, and how ethically binding they are is highly questionable.

As free thinkers, we have to make our choices in ethical dilemmas using our judgment rather than following rigid rules like automatons. We want to follow a principle of honesty, but we also have a principle of kindness to others as well the right and duty to protect ourselves and others from unwarranted hurt. If we are approached by a man with a murderous look asking us where our friend went, we will lie saying that she went the other way. In this case, the principle of honesty is trumped by the principle of consideration for the friend’s safety.

Some ethical dilemmas like that one are obvious, but many involve tougher choices. Usually there is no perfect solution, only the best one we can come up with at the time, and we must take the responsibility for the consequences of our choice.

Lastly, there is a pragmatic matter. Ethics aside, each time you acquiesce to family pressure to do some religious thing, you may be buying the next demand down the road. The old saying “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” can apply here, although they usually take that mile one inch at a time. After your father-in-law’s feelings are taken care of, who will be next in line? Only you know the complex landscape of your family’s attitudes and expectations, so you are the one who knows best if such pressures will increase or remain at an innocuous level. Just keep it in mind. There are no universal solutions to these puzzles. You have to take a guess at what will work and learn from each attempt.

Paul, your yet-to-be kids, and Meg, your two boys I think are very lucky, because their parents are thoughtful, are concerned about ethics, and are willing to find their ways through tougher choices for their benefit, rather than just blithely going the easy route without even thinking about such things. I wish all your loved ones good lives, and with you there, I think that is likely.


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  • Matt

    Could someone enlighten me?

    In the first letter, the individual made the statement that private Catholic schools are better than state-run public schools. Wouldn’t this apply to non-religious private schools, as well? They don’t necessarily have to select a private institution with a religious purpose, unless their children agree. Despite our atheism, we should let others find reason for themselves.

    Generally, private schools — both secular and religious — have greater standards and more demanding requirements for enrollment.

  • Matt: “Wouldn’t this apply to non-religious private schools, as well?”

    Possibly, but for all we know, the available non-religious private schools might not be affordable, and there might not even be any close enough to the first letter writer’s home.

  • Alli S


    Catholic schools are often heavily subsidized by the parishoners of the church with which the school is associated making the tuition much much cheaper than a non-parochial school.

    For example, in my area, the parochial Catholic High Schools are around $8k a year whilst the private schools are around $15k.

  • If my father, who is a Christian, wanted my daughter baptized, I would probably do it if he made much of a fuss. I’d be clear that I don’t think it’s at all important or real. But just to have peace among loved ones I’d probably treat it like I would if my father gave my kid a treat when she wasn’t supposed to have one or something. It’s silly, but it won’t ultimately matter.

    That said, the franchise of Christianity my parents buy into baptizes after “the age of reason” so it’d really be up to my daughter.

  • keddaw

    99% of the time I’d say take the easy way out and keep the peace in the family. But at some point you have to draw a line, if you were secular Jews and your family wanted you to have your son mutilated, would you capitulate? You have spent so much time respecting their beliefs how about, just for once, they respect yours?

    As for the school, just lie to them, they’ll be lying to your children anyway.

  • Peregrine

    I have a couple of friends who just had a baby. He’s Catholic, she was raised Baptist, and they’re under pressure from his family to get married in a Catholic church, and have their baby baptized.

    They’re pretty easy going, religion-wise, asside from actually “believing”. They’re pretty live-and-let-live kinds of folks.

    But it strikes me as odd that pressure from his family is enough to make the decision for them.

    I wasn’t privy to the conversation, and heard it second hand after the fact. It’s not my place to interject my opinion, but if it ever comes up, I plan on telling them “There’s only one reason to have him baptized, and that’s if you honestly truly believe it yourself, and you decide between the two that it’s best for him. No one else but the two of you get to decide.”

    I suppose they’ll get him baptized anyway, because I think they want at least something that passes for “belief” within their family. And they’re liberal enough to let him choose his own way when he gets older. But if they decide to do it, it should be their decision, based on their beliefs, and not because of outside influence. And that will be my advice to them, or to anyone else in that situation.

  • The Other Tom

    I was baptized to please the grandparents. (Oddly, there is no agreement on which denomination, although I gather it only happened once and everyone was in attendance.)

    For my maternal grandparents, that was enough, and the end of the story. Same for my paternal grandfather.

    My paternal grandmother, a sunday school teacher, felt it to be vitally important that I go to church and attend sunday school, and I eventually figured out that she was badgering my parents on this point. My father would have none of it, and basically told her it was up to me (which was as good as saying no because he knew I didn’t want to get up sunday mornings). My mother just didn’t want to get up sunday mornings and thus declined.

    The argument continued until my grandmother, by means of trickery I don’t want to take the time to get into, maneuvered me into her sunday school class one weekend, and promptly gave a quiz. I get the feeling she was looking for something to wave at my mother to claim that I’m ignorant of the bible and must be educated. To her obvious shock, I knew more about the bible than anyone in her class – I got every question right. My mother looked rather smug, and my grandmother apparently never bothered my parents about church again.

    My grandmother had started with the mistaken assumption that because I wasn’t going to church I wasn’t learning about the bible. She ended with the mistaken assumption that because I knew about the bible, I must believe in it. Regardless, the fact of my knowledge gave us peace in the family.

  • Luther

    Lastly, there is a pragmatic matter. Ethics aside, each time you acquiesce to family pressure to do some religious thing, you may be buying the next demand down the road.

    I see your childrens’ confirmations and weddings.

    What if you or your husband were to die tomorrow? Would you feel comfortable with a religious funeral?

    What about your children? Will they spill the beans? Will you lie to them? How will they feel when you tell them? Will they get into a situation where they tell your parents that you lied and enrolled their grandchildren in a long term hoax? How will they feel?

  • JT

    In the US, religious schools are subsidized by the local parishes, and tuition for children whose parents aren’t members of those parishes is substantially higher than for those whose parents are members. The churches use numbered envelopes for the collection (not offering like other churches call it) and each family’s payments are tracked. If the family’s contribution to the parish isn’t enough, they are not considered parish members for tuition purposes. What loving and caring people they are.

  • Adele

    To the writer of the first letter – I don’t know whereabouts in Australia you are, but I went to public schools in Sydney fairly recently and found them to be excellent. Don’t dismiss public schools because they look older or because some teachers get lower salaries. Some of my teachers were absolutely fantastic, and remain some of the most significant influences on my life.

    Not all public schools are good, but if you are living in a middle class suburb then the school is likely to be decent.

    On the other hand, the people I knew who went to Catholic schools (a small sample, but independent of each other) were all snobby right-wingers with zero empathy. Just sayin’

  • I am so encouraged by the responses here, and Richard, thankyou for revising my statement “is it right” to “is it ethical”. It is precisely what I meant, and I applaud your astuteness. We haven’t even gotten pregnant, so searching for schools is not high on the priority list right now. However, I have done a little more research since writing that letter. I’m happy to report a couple of things: There are Catholic schools who are pretty lax on their enrollment criteria, and even open their doors to people of other faiths. I was not previously aware, but public schools are not limited to children in a particular municipality. You are able to send your child to a better public school in another suburb/area.

    Both those points negate the need I was implying. I’m also happy to say that my parents have been included in the discussion, and both are ok if we choose not to. My wife’s parents however will need some convincing. Both are cultural Catholics, refugees from Vietnam, and Catholicism is a matter of identity for them. To profess to them that I am a non-believer, and don’t wish my children baptized into the Church will illicit a response akin to “if you’re not with us, then you’re with those bastard communists”. (To be clear: we’re talking the corrupt kind who would bash down doors, take food and belongings and incarcerate you if you were Catholic in Vietnam during the war).

    Keddaw – there is a huge difference between mutilating a child to placate family, and splashing some water on its head. I hope you see this.

    Adele – I’m in Sydney, also. I certainly would not dismiss a school for being either public or private. At the time of writing, I was under the impression you could only send your child to a public school in your area, and some in Sydney’s south-west are not that great. Since then, the horizons have broadened, and I will once again raise the issue closer to the time.

    Cheers guys. You have made this non-believer smile with your responses.


  • Meg McG

    RE: Luther

    Good point.

    Thanks for responding to my letter Richard, I appreciate it. Having my husband take care of it A) takes the pressure off me and B) ensures it will never get done 😉

  • Matt D

    for Paul (1st letter writer)

    A friend on mine sent his son to Catholic School in the Hunter Valley and was thrilled that he topped the class in Religious Education, especially given the fact that “he’s not even Catholic!!”

    What kind of records do they keep? Would anyone even know if you were bluffing?

  • How did I know that circumcision would show up in this (entirely unrelated) conversation? ::eyeroll::

    Well, for the record, I did in fact have my son circumcised in a traditional Jewish ceremony. And I did the research in advance and found that I did not object. Please send all death threats and stupid arguments to

    Back on topic…my daughter attends a Jewish preschool for various reasons. One, it’s an excellent school. Two, she was already familiar with the building and very comfortable there. Three, I do want my daughter to learn about Judaism.

    Now, a preschool is much different than an upper school, of course. I have already said that my kids will attend a Jewish day school over my cold, dead, and lifeless body. I won’t allow her valuable educational time wasted with Bible studies.

    She will, however, go to Sunday school at our synagogue. Again, I’d like her to learn about our background, our people. And partially because it will create shalom bayit (peace in the home)!

    I think everyone is entirely clear about me being an atheist. Heck, the rabbis might even know 😀 But Jewish atheists are so common, I can’t imagine why they’d care.

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