A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Why I would not attend a Child’s Christening

I would have no reservations about attending a church for a wedding (other than my own) or a funeral (again, other than my own!). I hold no principles that would prohibit such a visit to a place of worship. Of course, I would not participate in any of the religious rituals that either a wedding or a funeral may entail. I would also not join in with the singing of any hymns, not as a point of principle, but for the safety and well being of those who could hear me. It is fitting that I don’t believe in angels, because I certainly don’t have the voice of one.

The reason a wedding or a funeral wouldn’t bother me, is that I don’t have a problem with either of these ceremonies, in and of themselves. If I attended a wedding, I would simply be joining in the celebration of two people I know declaring their love for each other, and their decision to make their union official. If they want to do that in a religious fashion, that is their business, their free choice as consenting adults and of no concern to me. Likewise, if I attend a funeral, I am paying my last respects to someone I know who has passed on. Again, whether through the choice of the immediate family or through their own intentions expressed in life, if the funeral is carried out in a religious setting, so be it. Everyone has the right to hold religious beliefs, and the freedom to deal with such situations in a religious manner.

This is not the case with a Christening. I am rigorously opposed to the religious indoctrination of children. I agree with Richard Dawkins that it is a form of child abuse. I think that children should be taught how to think, but not what to think, and then left to make their own decisions as young adults, with no adverse consequences for a deviation away from the family’s religion. A Christening is affectively the opposite of this. It is a case of the parents making a decision on behalf of the child, initiating them into a religion the claims of which are not even understood by the child, let alone accepted and believed.

Even with the Anglican Church in Britain where strong religious belief is quickly waning, and membership is seen more as a traditional British institution rather than a world view or belief system, the Christening of children is nothing short of indoctrination. Although their beliefs are innocuous in practice on a day-to-day basis, their perpetual lesson that faith and tradition are acceptable reasons for belief, rather than evidence, creates a breeding ground for the infectious bacteria of fundamentalism. The child who is Christened through tradition will, no doubt, have her own children Christened through tradition, who will also carry on the tradition. The chain needs to be broken.

Were I to attend a Christening, my very presence would condone this abhorrent act. When you are invited to a Christening, you are being asked to participate in the celebrations of a new member joining the faith. This is something I could not celebrate. I could not sit in silence as either a baby, oblivious to the very nature of the world it had recently joined, or a child too young to understand the true nature of religion and its consequences, was ceremoniously declared to be a Christian. Once again I am in agreement with Richard Dawkins that we should not label a child with the religion of its parents, something of which the tradition of Christening children is a prime example.

I should point out that while I’ve used a Christening as the discussion point, my argument would apply in exactly the same way for a Jewish Bah mitzvah. I have also been careful to stress that it is a child’s Christening I would not attend on principle. I can not completely rule out the possibility that I would attend an adult’s Christening in very special circumstances. It would have to be someone I loved and respected greatly, and I would have to be completely satisfied that they were sure of their decision. Even then, the idea doesn’t sit comfortably with me, but it would be judged on a case of individual merit rather than principle.


24 Responses to “Why I would not attend a Child’s Christening”

  1. Coincidentally, this past weekend I attended a wedding of the daughter of my secretary, who I’ve known since she was a little girl. It was an entirely secular wedding. Lest you envision a small ceremony at the Justice of the Peace, let me assure you, it had all the pomp and circumstance of a full blown, high mass wedding, without any reference to God or religion. It was held under the main dome of the State Capitol building in my state. I had no idea you could get the state Capitol for a wedding, but you learn something new every day. 8 Bridesmaids, String quartet, 150 guests in their finery, the works. It was the nicest, in some ways most spiritual, wedding I’ve ever been to, including my own. The setting was grander than in any church. Italian white marble with a beautiful staircase for the Bride to make her entrance. Marble statutes of state heroes looking on. Gold trimmed paintings on the ceiling. The State spared no expense 100 years ago when they built the place. The lay officiant did a wonderful job interweaving personal information about the Bride and Groom, with a more universal sense of a future together, and he did it both with appropriate solemnity and humor. It’s what a wedding should be.

    As for Christenings (or Baptisms as they were called in my youth) I’m not sure I could say with impunity that I would boycott them all. I agree with what you say, but for instance, all my children were brought up Christian. If a (future) grandchild of mine was to be christened in my daughter’s church, I couldn’t stay away from that. The same with any of my good friends. If they felt it important enough to invite me, I’d have a hard time staying away. It is after all (to my thinking) only a meaningless ceremony. It’s what the parents do after the fact – indoctrinate the children in their particular faith – that’s a mild form of child abuse, in my eyes, not the ceremony. If it has meaning to someone I love, I won’t take a part of that meaning away from them by declining to attend. If they ask, or I have the opportunity, I’d tell them my personal feelings on the subject.

    In any event, I look at it as an excuse for a party, and I rarely refuse an invitation to a party. 😀

  2. @ John P

    I hear what you’re saying. I think, certainly in Britain, a lot of people see Anglican Christenings as an excuse for a Sunday afternoon booze up. I work a part time bar job at a hotel, and I’ve seen many post Christening parties. There isn’t anything remotely religious about them.

    However, although we naturalists see Christenings as the meaningless gestures they are, it’s amazing how many people think that they’re Christians just because they were Christened. I’ve spoken to many colleagues and friends about their beliefs, who have claimed to be Christian. As the discussion progresses it soon becomes clear that they don’t believe in the resurrection, the divinity of Christ, the miracles or the inerrancy of the Bible. So what makes you a Christian, then? I ask them. “Well, you know, I was Christened when I was a baby”.

    That’s why I’ve got a problem with it.

  3. @ tobe

    Yes. I know what you’re saying. It’s the whole self-identification thing that starts the ball rolling. If you look at the stats here in the US, where an overwhelming % of people fall on the side of belief, I suspect that a lot of that belief is wishy-washy at best, and stems from the initial self-identification brought about by their christening. That’s one of the reason I don’t get too worked up about those numbers. The beliefs are very shallow to start with, and if pressed, they dissipate with ease. The only reason they report such beliefs, is because to say otherwise, or question otherwise, takes them out of the comfort zone they’ve been in since birth.

    But all that still wouldn’t keep me from a good family party, an opportunity to see relatives you don’t see often, and a couple of drinks. 😀

  4. As a Chrisitian, I will chime in here.

    Depending on the tradition, christening does not claim to confer Chrisitanity upon a child. It is an opportunity for parents to declare their intention to raise their children in the faith. Often, it is only a cultural nod to Chrisitianity and nothing more.

    In Western nations, people declare themselves Christians, not because they are afraid to say they are not, but because they don’t see themsleves as Muslim, Buddhist, or HIndu. It is checked off out of a sense of not being anything else. So, I would agree that the numbers of “Christians” is over-reported. I would have called myself a Christian before I converted simply because I didn’t thinkof myself as anything else, not because I believed anything specific about God, Christ, or religious matters.

  5. @ Liza,

    You’ve kind of made my point. I agree completely that people say they’re Christians because they don’t think of themselves as anything else. But Christianity should not be the default position. If anything, atheism should. We are all born as atheists, and remain so until we learn a religion. The tradition of Christening children, however harmless it may be in the short term, perpetuates this feeling in society that Christianity is the norm, and that anything else is a transgression.

    @ John P,

    Much the same point. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good party as much as the next guy, and I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of the chance to have a good time, catch up with family and enjoy good food and drink. But do we really need a baptism to do this? If the tradition died out, could we not find other reasons to meet up and have a bit of a dance?

    Maybe the polls are ultimately inaccurate because people say they are Christians without really holding the beliefs, but these are the same people who provide the protective barrier of political correctness between fundamentalist theocrats and terrorists on one side, and rational atheists and humanists on the other. We need people to realise that if they don’t hold Christian beliefs, then they’re not Christians. We need them to realise the dangers of basing beliefs about the world on faith, not evidence. I don’t think the tradition of Christening children helps this cause.

  6. I have real problems with the idea that parents should refrain from religiously indoctrinating their children altogether. I mean, sure, teach critical thinking, and try to give your children space to decide for themselves, but it is impossible to refrain from having a major influence over your child in this respect. Hell, my mother’s an atheist and when I at one point wanted to start attending the incredibly liberal church down the road that thought my atheism was fine she almost cried. Now, I’m kind of mad at her for making such a fuss (at the age of 22 I’m just starting to realise how strong, and how unacceptable, her tendency to control me is) — but, heck, she’s an atheist. So, you know, even atheists aren’t immune. Parents care about these things and they can’t help communicating it to their kids.

    Moreover, if you do consider it to be absolutely true that God exists, why should you refrain from telling your kids that, any more than you would refrain from telling your kids that fire is hot or that human beings and apes evolved from a common ancestor?

    Of course, if you’re one of those people who subscribes to the idea that religion is a subjective thing, or that all religions have some truth to them, or some other much weaker statement, then, perhaps, your argument has weight.

  7. @ Lynet,

    I’m not suggesting for one second that parents shouldn’t influence their children. As you rightly point out, that would be impossible. And if a couple truly believe in God, then naturally they will want their children to believe in God too. But they also need to understand the importance of letting a child grow up with a free and inquiring mind, instead of weighing it down with dogmatic baggage. They may truly believe that God exists, but they still need to understand that their children have a right not to believe it, and should be allowed to make their own decisions. Christening a child is a direct violation of that principle.

    The difference with fire being hot and the theory of evolution, is that they are facts which the children can test for themselves, and see the evidence. The existence of God is not.

    I don’t have any children, but I certainly hope that I will one day. I would not raise them as atheists, that would go against everything I stand for. But it would be foolish to think my beliefs would have no influence on them at all. I will encourage them to be sceptical of all claims, to demand the highest standards of evidence and then decide for them selves. For me, Christening a child is the opposite of this approach.

  8. @ tobe

    The party references are tongue in cheek, with an element of truth. Of course, if I had a choice between christening and not, I’d always go with not, now that I know what I know now. I’m one of those that feel that if religion just slowly dies out, I would not shed a tear. Frankly, given the inexorable march of civilization, and human intelligence, I think it’s inevitable. But it won’t come instantly, only over time, (and probably not in my lifetime) as more and more people understand the irrefutable logic behind it.

    And yes, if I refused to attend a Christening, I would be doing my small part in advancing human understanding. So I take the issue very seriously. But, it’s hard. You don’t have children, so perhaps you don’t know how hard it would be to refuse to attend your child’s child’s christening. I would find it near impossible, so rationalizing a party out of it makes it just a little bit easier.

    John P

  9. re the default position: You are suffering from the same thing that certain Chrisitian leaders, trying to reach others, also suffer from. You labor under the assumption that the average person actually spends a fair amount of time and effort contemplating their life and deeper philosophical and religious beliefs/disbeliefs.

    Unfortuanetly, most don’t.

    Also, if you feel so strongly that you wouldn’t attend a christening, then there is no doubt that you would be sharing and indoctrinating any future children you have about your own personal belief/disbelief. Once you have kids, you will discover that they come prepackaged with about 1 million questions per year. Trust me, they won’t let you wiggle out of anything! Vague answers will be shot down in a heartbeat as they wonder why you won’t go to Aunt Susie’s baby’s christening. So, you either blatantly lie to them, or you tell them what you really believe.

    All this will occur before they are even five.

  10. @ Liza

    re the default position: You are suffering from the same thing that certain Chrisitian leaders, trying to reach others, also suffer from. You labor under the assumption that the average person actually spends a fair amount of time and effort contemplating their life and deeper philosophical and religious beliefs/disbeliefs.

    Unfortuanetly, most don’t.

    I assume nothing of the sort. I agree with you, although I lament the truth.

    Also, if you feel so strongly that you wouldn’t attend a christening, then there is no doubt that you would be sharing and indoctrinating any future children you have about your own personal belief/disbelief. Once you have kids, you will discover that they come prepackaged with about 1 million questions per year. Trust me, they won’t let you wiggle out of anything! Vague answers will be shot down in a heartbeat as they wonder why you won’t go to Aunt Susie’s baby’s christening. So, you either blatantly lie to them, or you tell them what you really believe.

    You should read the comment I wrote in response to Lynet. There is a big difference between influencing your children, and indoctrinating them. I would be completely honest with my children about why I wasn’t attending a Christening, or praying, or anything else, in whatever terms they could understand depending on their age at the time. But I wouldn’t tell them that they had to agree with me, and that’s what indoctrination is, that’s the difference. I remember enough from when my own younger brother was a young child to know how inquisitive and probing they are.

    @ John P,

    You’re right that I can’t place myself in your position, and I agree that principles get tested in emotional situations like that. I can only state my intentions based on principles that I presently hold. What ceremonies you attend, and why is entirely up to you. I’ve only stated why I personally wouldn’t.

  11. John P:

    Frankly, given the inexorable march of civilization, and human intelligence, I think it’s inevitable.

    I think so, too. That’s one reason why I’m not worried. For all the bluster of Creationists and Hell-fire Fundamentalists, I am certain that their age is almost at an end. I’m certain the Islamic world will eventually follow.

    Regarding christenings:
    My wife is a true believer. If we ever get around to contributing another member of the Human species to the planet, there is a 100% certainty that the child will be christened. BUT, she does not believe that baptism “makes the child Christian”; far from it. She sees it as a dedication of the child to God, a stated intention to raise the kid as a Christian, as opposed to a Muslim, Jew, Mormon, etc. I have no intention of fighting her on the baptism thing, either. As one-half of the parental duality, she has the right to insist on a harmless ritual.
    Like you, I have clearly stated my intention to raise any child o’ mine with a wide open mind and NOT specifically to be an atheist, and to encourage him/her to read the Bible thoroughly and critically. I believe the Bible, for now, is a must-read for anyone in Western Society. (Depending on the state of the world, I may hand them a copy of the Koran, too)
    In the end, I think having parents on either side of the issue might make an open mind inevitable.
    As for attending others’ christenings: I’m a go with the flow kind of guy. I respect, and agree, with your reasoning, but I’m not in a position to make that kind of bold statement, yet.

  12. I was Christened at a few months old, and I find it kind of pathetic. The belief that a few drops of water on the head and some magic incantations would be enough to save me from Hell, if I died as an infant, is ridiculous. But thankfully I have broken away from all kinds of religion and my children will most definitely not be Christened. I also think a similiar, but stronger arguement could be made against circumcision. In any other situition this would be child abuse by genital mutilation. But with the cover of religion it becomes acceptable, ignoring any possible psychological or physical effects later on in life.

    • My first thought went to circumcision as well, which not only involves religious indoctrination, but a permanent physical change to a person too young to participate in that decision.

  13. @ XanderG

    As it happens, I was circumcised as a baby (one week old) because my father’s side of the family was Jewish. Having thought about it in recent years, I agree with you. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest, never having known any different. I don’t resent it or anything like that, but if I have sons they definitely won’t be.

  14. […] I was circumcised as a baby (one week old) because my father’s side of the family was Jewish.

    Is that the reason? In the USA, as far as I know, it’s customary to circumcise ALL male children. I was snipped, too, but it was not because of any religious beliefs held by my parents. It’s an automatic procedure.
    I’ve heard that it’s because a circumcised “member” is more hygienic.
    I didn’t know until an embarrasingly late age, that there was any other…uh…shape. :~

    • At one point, it was standard procedure. I was born in 1980 and they were pressuring my mom to decide who was going to perform the circumcision before she even knew if I’d have a penis. She wasn’t sure it was something she wanted done and I wound up being female anyway. Now it is much less common. I don’t know the exact statistic, but it’s less than half and on the decline. I feel like the health risks outweigh the benefits (studies disagree on what the benefits, if any, are) and my first son, due any day now, will not be circumcised.

  15. @ Polly

    Is that the reason?

    In my case, yes.

    In the USA, as far as I know, it’s customary to circumcise ALL male children.

    Really?! I never knew that.

    I have heard that there are pros and cons for either ‘shape’, but it doesn’t really concern me. I have no frame of reference for the alternative (I had a lot going on in that first week).

    I seem to remember a clip, maybe from Family Guy, where the viewer heard the baby’s reaction at being told he was going to be circumcised:

    “You wanna what now?! I just got this thing!”

  16. LMAO! 😀

  17. funny I was never christened…..I have two kids, never christened either ………i believe we r just the luckiest,people christen children to party and to brag!

  18. I am an Atheist and I just decided to have my 2 year old son christened. I didn’t have him christened when he was first born for several reasons. A big one of those reasons is that I’m lazy and when he was first born I felt like focusing on him, and not a ritual that didn’t really mean anything to me. Also, for that transitional period in my life (when I was unsure of what I believed), I believed that if there were a God, He would love all children equally and a child who hadn’t been christened wouldn’t be damned any more than a child who had. However, even though I am completely convinced that there is no magical man in the sky, I do believe that religion is very important. It is just an important aspect that I don’t possess. I believe that people need something to believe in and that if that helps them have a brighter outlook on life, that is always a great thing. Anyway, I’ll try to steer myself back to the point. Even though I don’t belive in God, I have a TREMENDOUS love of tradition. Christmas is tied for my favorite holiday (along with Halloween, which isn’t even technically a holiday – but holds almost as much tradition). My husband isn’t sure if he’s an Atheist or a Christian and views me as a hipocrite for wanting to have my son christened even though I don’t believe in God. My son has not thus far been raised as a Christian, and will not be. This ceremony will have zero effect on him and I am happy that I’ve decided to do it. I also believe that regardless of whether or not a child is christened (or under what faith) has nothing to do with what they will later believe. Everyone will grow to believe what they choose, regardless of what their parents believe. Did I mention that both of my parents are Catholic? Neither are religious, and even though they are still together, they were never married. However, both of their parents were strict Catholics. If parents had that much control over their children’s beliefs, I would certainly not be an Atheist, and my son wouldn’t be having a ceremony in a Methodist church.

  19. This posting is so old. I doubt you’ll get this reply but I want to thank you. Your argument for not going to a christening made me feel much better about my decision to do the same for my brother’s 3rd child. I went to the other 2 and felt awful being there. It is wrong and I too feel that my presence at the ceremony would be considered as me condoning it. I just can’t do it again. Thank you.

  20. If people have a belief that their child should be christened who is anybody else to judge them or question their beliefs? And if you are any friend to the couple who have strong beliefs about Christening their child you should support them in their decision, but you’re obviously so high and mighty in your own perfect views that you cant see how calling a Christening ‘child abuse’ is hurtful and disrespectful to any parent who has had their child Christened. I don’t understand how people have the time in their lives to actually write an article on this- obviously haven’t got kids!!

  21. Although I’m a Christian I also don’t believe in infant baptism simply because it is not a declaration on their part and also that, to me it serves no purpose for the child but since it does no harm whatsoever to a child to have water sprinkled on their head and prayers said I really fail to see how it could ever be considered Child Abuse. I don’t actively disagree with it just because I wouldn’t baptise my own daughter because really it is a ceremony for the parents to profess their own faith and make promises of how they intend to share their faith with the child and also an official welcoming of the child into the church. Can’t see the harm in that. You can’t force a belief onto a child but there is nothing wrong with sharing your own beliefs with them in the hope that they too will share them when old enough to understand. But ultimately no matter what I do or say my daughter will decide for herself one day. I myself was christened as a baby but never brought up being taught anything at all about Jesus or God, I made my own decision as an adult but the christening had no impact on my life whatsoever. I just struggle to understand such a strong hatred of it, unless it’s a hatred of religion in general, thats up to you but to me they are harmless and probably more tradition than religion in some cases. Just my opinion though 😊

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: