Baptism Under Fire

Kirby Farrell | May 3, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

What we can’t think about: the best way to defuse religious intolerance is remember that “belief” and “faith” are enabling fictions.

Let’s look again at this recent “Denial File” topic:

” Recently there was a minor uproar when people learned that it is a practice of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to “baptize the dead.” Although this practice is supposed to be limited to the direct bloodline ancestors of Mormon people (thus assuring that those of their ancestral line will be assured of salvation in the afterlife) the practice apparently has expanded (without official sanction from the church hierarchy) to include others as well.” –Daniel Liechty

As critics, we can’t evaluate the ultimate truth of any religion because we don’t have any evidence of “God.”  Sooner or later all of our accounts of the supernatural become inadequate or conflicted.  Is a loving, omnipotent “God” killing your kid with brain cancer?  Or wiping out families on the coast of Japan?  For that matter, why design absurd and awful “death” into “life” in the first place?  You can postulate some ineffable divinity, but the moment you attribute qualities to it, you’re making it human.  This is why religions speak of religious faith.

While we can’t assess the ultimate truth of religion, we can consider religious behavior.  Anthropology shows us people using religion as a tool like other tools that an insolubly ambivalent, vulnerable creature uses to manage life in an overwhelming world.  Like other technics, religious behavior ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous.  It consoles and nurtures, and as history witnesses, it has also fueled centuries of fanatical rampage killing in pogroms and crusades.

We live by enabling fictions.  Most of what we know is not, strictly speaking, provable.  We take for granted that we’ll be alive tomorrow night; that most people don’t lie; that nobody spit in your soup.  We talk about our “ancestors,” but go back any distance at all, and nobody knows who their ancestors were – and certainly not personally.  Likewise, the world was stuffing you with “your” identity long before you began to remember at age 4 or 5.  You accepted your name and a vision of “what’s right” as if you created it. In this sense “my” name and even “me” is an enabling fiction even as “the Gross National Product” is.  At best, it’s approximately true, tacitly real.  It’s pragmatic: it works well enough for today.

The trouble is, some enabling fictions turn out to be wrong.  Some – Jews and Muslims are evil, the poor are parasites – are vicious.

What helps to tame the viciousness is the ability to see that these beliefs are enabling fictions. Why?  Because enabling fictions are frankly provisional, subject to reality-testing and criticism.  To hold a modern, scientific mentality, you need to acknowledge that we live by enabling fictions.  I don’t have to tell you that most of us can only be scientific part of the time, and the world’s fanatics can hardly manage it at all.

So what about “baptizing the dead”?  If you consider it as an enabling fiction, you want to ask what kind of work it’s doing as a tool for believers.

For one thing, such baptism is mooting the terror of death for believers. In Becker’s terms, it’s an immortality ideology.  Not only does the practice project an infinite future life, it also imagines a ground of being.  Like ancestor worship, it implies a beginning.  For good measure, the baptism process shapes behavior.  It prescribes a practically endless practice to keep anxious minds distracted from terror.  The pool of converts is limitless.  The belief is a kind of enchantment.  As such, it serves as a tool for managing morale: boosting upbeat motives, controlling fear.  At the same time it puts the baptizers in a godlike heroic role, rescuing “souls” from oblivion.

One problem of course is the “minor uproar” when baptism starts enrolling non-Mormons.  Other groups with their proprietary enabling fictions resent this as poaching “their” ancestors.  What is going on here?

As behavior, the “baptism” process is recruitment, expanding one group at the expense of another.  History shows us no end of sects that have been outraged by the loss of members and therefore forbidden relations outside the “sacred” group.  As Canetti argued in Crowds and Power, the group is power.  The conviction is grounded in our biology, and of course every group’s urge to expand  threatens the planet with overpopulation, not to mention the violent quest for Lebensraum evident all around us today, from Tibet to the Middle East. The fuel for this expansion, needless to say, is the claim to superiority and special privilege implied in the baptism process.

No wonder the process pumps up baptizers and frightens others.

If you doubt the depths of anxiety that group-encroachment arouses, consider the forms those fears take in popular culture, from homophobia to vampires.  In the past it was Satan who “proselytized” or converted the faithful.  Closer to home, recall the McCarthy attack on “Communism” for subverting “us” and enrolling its dupes as “card carrying” members.  These are deep tropes, as ordinary as they are cruel and absurd.

To defuse these toxic emotions it’s necessary to see them for the enabling fictions that they are.  The difficulty, naturally, is that the belief systems are counterphobic.  They soothe fears.  Disenchant them by adding critical self-awareness, and you risk triggering the fear and rage they work to tame.  After all, it’s taboo to challenge another person’s religion precisely because religions are grounded in death-anxiety, and reactions to death-anxiety can be lethal.  You can’t run for president without professing religious faith.  Most American media prophylactically censors open criticism of religion.

But there are other, equally important reasons to remember that beliefs are enabling fictions.  Consider the premise that the practice of baptism is supposed to be limited to direct bloodline ancestors of Mormons, yet has apparently expanded to include others.  Evolution shows that ultimately we’re all related.  Where do we draw the line?  When did evolving hominids became human enough to need – and warrant -salvation?  Shouldn’t all living things past and present be eligible for “salvation”?  Some forms of belief require strenuous doublethink in order to honor science and religion.

And finally, consider this: if you recognize that we live by enabling fictions, you realize that you can’t judge others’ motives until you know them well enough to understand the work that their beliefs are doing for them.  You recognize that it makes little sense to respond to their ineffable ultimate “truths.”  Instead of fighting with “infidels” over doctrine, you need to look closely at religious behavior.  Of course there’s no guarantee that what you find will be healthy or even rational.  But at least criticism will be operating with evidence and with aspirations to logic.  Hey.  Gotta start somewhere.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: the ultimate taboo- the truth about words « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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