De-baptise yourself

The National Secular Society has an amusing little section entitled “De-Baptise Yourself!” (see Update below). You can download and print “your very own Certificate of De-Baptism”. I am not sure what you then do with it, apart from framing it and hanging it up in a prominent place, as they suggest, but individual users will no doubt think up their own applications.

I call this an “amusing” section because it is but it is also serious and I expect many people are looking for a way to formally end the albeit notional ties that still attach them to a church in which they no longer have any belief. There was a time when I too would have welcomed some way of formally “retiring” from religion and perhaps in those days I would have seized upon the NSS’s offer. I no longer feel that way because, as far as I am concerned, the acts of initiation performed upon me – baptism and “confirmation” – were transacted without my own informed consent. Like a confession beaten out of an innocent person, these promises have no value. The only way they could bind me would be if I allowed them to.

Beneath the paragraphs offering the certificate, Richard Harris records his own attempts to make an official break with the church. He eventually succeeded and it turned out to be easier than he expected but it underlines a point: the churches are happy to enroll you, baptise you and indoctrinate you and much less happy to provide a mechanism by which you may detach yourself officially. If they provide such a mechanism (as Richard Harris’s story implies that they do) then it is not given much publicity. An honest organization would surely provide a readily accessible means of cancelling your account.

How many people feel the need to dissociate themselves publicly and officially from their erstwhile religion? It is hard to say. There might be many who, not knowing how to go about it, carry on their lives feeling vaguely guilty but unwilling to go on performing rituals which are meaningless to them. They get on quietly with their lives alone and unaware that there are others who are not only atheists but who are happy and proud to declare the fact.

In his famous book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins gives good reasons for thinking that there is a far greater number of atheists in the world than is immediately obvious from casual observation. There are many reasons for this, for example the fear of manifesting an unpopular (dis)belief in a country where religious belief is the norm. But the fact that atheists are likely to be attacked or persecuted is precisely the reason why we atheists need to make our position known. You don’t have to go around burning churches or throwing rotten eggs at priests. It is necessary and sufficient to stand up and be counted when the occasion demands that you do so.


Since this piece was written, the page in question has disappeared from the NSS Web site. Shame.


About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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8 Responses to De-baptise yourself

  1. emalyse says:

    It’s good to be informed that such a mechanism for disassociation exists (though it smacks a bit of atheist fundamentalism). I find it interesting that the last UK census showed a very large number of people were not prepared to declare themselves as a member of any religion, producing a much smaller number for each religious denomination than other sources would suggest though I’m not sure if that’s just because religion is now under attack and so less people feel ready to side wholly with the pronouncements of their religion when presented with a form of official declaration.

  2. baralbion says:

    “The God Delusion” is indeed a fine book. Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” is another excellent polemic against religion. There’s been something of spate of such publications recently, which must tell us something.

  3. Ted Marcus says:

    The Unitarian-Universalist church to which I formerly belonged once held an “un-baptism” for the minister (a former Methodist turned atheist) and several church members. So the idea has surely occurred to many people independently, although the National Secular Society may well have been the first to publish a certificate.

    As to your question about public and official dissociation with erstwhile religions, it does occur with some frequency. People go through official and public conversion rituals when they change religions. Others do so more often with little fanfare, as in the common case of joining a Protestant church of a different denomination (perhaps for reasons of marriage, geography, or sociability rather than any particular commitment to whatever doctrinal differences exist between their old and new denomination). And, in particular, Unitarian-Universalist churches are frequently a home for people who feel alienated, abused, or simply uninterested by their former faith, although there’s no “conversion” per se.

    Far more common are people who simply drift away (whether incrementally or completely) from their faith into indifference or irrelevance. I’ll have to leave it to the Deity to sort out the consequences of such an act.

  4. SilverTiger says:

    To emalyse: I don’t think filling in a certificate and hanging it on your wall can smack of “fundamentalism”. In any case, atheists don’t have anything to be “fundamentalist” about. They have no beliefs to proclaim (unlike religious “fundies”) but simply decline to accept unlikely hypotheses presented without evidence.

    There are of course “militant atheists” but they do not represent the whole of atheism anymore than “militant believers” represent the whole of Christianity or Islam.

    The census figures you refer to may be showing the effect described by Dawkins in The God Delusion which is that many atheists do not declare themselves to be so for fear of attracting unfavourable attention. This is why I was pleased to discover the OUT Campaign which encourages atheists to declare their presence but doesn’t impose any particular belief-set on them. All being well, this will snowball and bring more and more atheists and would-be atheists out into the daylight.

    I don’t believe in campaigning for atheist beliefs but I do believe in campaigning against religious abuses of which there are still plenty, even in the UK.

  5. SilverTiger says:

    To baralbion: I know of the Hitchens book and have seen favourable comments on it. It’s on the list when I can get to it!

  6. SilverTiger says:

    To Ted Marcus: I’ve never understood the attraction of the Unitarian Universalist church. If people don’t want to be religious then, fine, let them not be religious. In that case why would they still go to church and waffle on about “spiritual” things? Surely, Unitarian Universalism is as much a “religion” as any other.

    I don’t doubt that there are fanfares and rituals when Fred Bloggs leaves one religion and joins another, just as there are when an MP “crosses the floor of the House” and joins a rival party. What I was getting at is that there should be an established procedure in every religious organization whereby Fred can simply “resign” from his current religion which then relinquishes all claims over him, nullifies his baptism or other initiations and generally “de-religionizes” him. If you try to leave your religion in some parts of the world you are likely to be stoned to death.

    This procedure should not only exist but should be simple to perform and should be made known to everyone. This would immediately legitimize the idea of quitting one’s religion in many people’s minds.

  7. Ted Marcus says:

    No UU will ever deny that UU-ism is a religion. Still, a cynical (but largely accurate) answer to your question about the appeal is that a UU church provides a comfortable home for people who were brought up Christian but for whatever reason can no longer accept Christianity. The worship is a sanitized version of what you’ll find in innumerable Protestant churches, but carefully shorn of references to Christ, Christianity, or (often) the Deity. The music includes familiar hymns, outfitted with new lyrics (my roommate Roger, a former Presbyterian choirboy who introduced me to UU-ism, would often sing the real lyrics to the hymns for my edification while we drove home from church). A church member thus enjoys the familiar and comforting aspects of his or her former faith, along with the social benefits of belonging, but without the dogma that many find offensive or even hurtful. Many (but not all) UUs indeed consider themselves “religious,” and actively seek spiritual experiences through study of the world’s diverse traditions.

    This approach suits some people, but it’s not without its problems. For one thing, the sanitized Protestant worship is alien and may even be uncomfortable to people whose background is not Christian (as a Jew I missed out on many of the nuances and symbols that remained after the cleansing, and my mother could never get over her discomfort with the alien form of worship). And despite the official tolerance enshrined in the UUA “principles,” a great many of the UUs I knew harbored outright hatred for Christianity and Christians and were as zealous evangelists for atheism as any evangelical Christian is for his faith. You can’t get away with that, as it’s human nature. Finally, a religion that doesn’t offer “answers” inherently has very limited appeal.

    I sent Roger a link to the “Debaptism certificate.” He’s very enthusiastic about it, to the point where we have devised a ceremony that involves the use of a towel to symbolically remove the water that was sprinkled on him without permission decades ago. It would presumably be better to find a genuine qualified atheist to devise some sort of de-sanctification of the towel, but lacking that we’ll have to improvise.

  8. SilverTiger says:

    I’m glad someone has found the De-Baptism certificate useful. I like the idea of the ritual involving the wiping away of baptismal water. Let’s hope it works.

    Re: It would presumably be better to find a genuine qualified atheist to devise some sort of de-sanctification of the towel…

    It sounds as if there may be an opening here for an enterprising atheist businessman 🙂

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