My husband is an atheist and I am a believer. The belief, or lack thereof, isn't a deal-breaker for either one of us, although we are pretty certain of our respective positions. But, recently, we had a child. I want the child baptized, and he does not. I have had a wide religious journey, from Catholicism to Protestantism, with some evangelical Christianity and paganism in between. I don't view baptism as "fire insurance," but rather a reflection that my child is already beloved of the community. I've brought it up a few times, and the discussions go nowhere. Finally I asked my husband if he was afraid of our kid spouting dogma at him when he was older. "Yes, that's it." My husband is also afraid that our child won't enter into the sciences as a career field; he doesn't want our child's life circumscribed by belief.
I want to raise this baby with our deepest values, and this seems a roadblock. What is your advice?
- Christian Mom, Atheist Father
This is one of those occasions when I am especially sorry that the time machine I had as a kid isn’t around anymore. I sure wish I could travel back to the day that you and your husband got engaged and tell you to make sure to put this question on the agenda for pre-marital counseling. Deeply held values and how a couple will nurture them in children are subjects which are miles easier to encounter before a wedding than after a pail of diapers.
My time machine is long gone, however (I think my mom threw it out), and so is the opportunity to hash out this matter out pre-baby. Right now, you have a challenge: how are you going to reach a decision that is right for your child and that you and your husband can both feel good about?
Start by enlisting your husband’s help. Rather than understanding the question of your child’s baptism as an argument that one of you is going to win and other one is going to lose, reframe it as a problem that the two of you need to solve together.
There are at least two reasons to choose a cooperative strategy. First, a scenario in which one of you has to capitulate over something as important as your child’s faith formation is going leave both of you feeling sad and hurt. Marriage and parenthood are hard enough vocations without having to labor with the resentful suspicion that your partner doesn’t understand or doesn’t respect your values. Second, by deciding to be on the same team, you may realize that you agree about more than you first thought.
Let’s name the huge thing that you and your husband have in common. You both want your child to grow up surrounded by love and by those things which flow out of love: joy, hope, beauty, and meaning. In the Christian tradition, we identify this love and its fruits with God. While your husband may use some different symbols and some different vocabulary to encounter this love than you do, that doesn’t mean that it is any less important to him.
Focus on the love which both of you know, which both of you share, and which both of you desire for your child. And let your husband know that, for you and for your worshipping community, that deep love is what baptism symbolizes. Baptism isn’t about blindly assenting to dogma. And it certainly isn’t about magic: your child isn’t going to be transformed into someone that your husband can’t live with in its waters. To the contrary, baptism (much like marriage and the other sacraments) is a gracious invitation for your child to more fully become the person whom she already is.
Now, I totally hear your husband’s concern about your child’s life being circumscribed by belief (there are plenty of things in scripture and in the church that I sure wouldn’t want my children to believe uncritically). The reality, however, is that to be a human being is inevitably to be circumscribed by belief. As soon as you tell your child not to lie, to say please, to stop snatching toys from other kids, or to value the scientific method, you are beginning the process of circumscription. In your teaching, you are helping to equip her with the beliefs within which she will live her life. Our job as parents, therefore, is not to chase the impossible goal of avoiding belief in our children. Rather, our job as parents is to nurture in our children the best beliefs possible.
Let your husband know that you have discerned something good and joyous in your worshiping community. Remind him that lots of scientists came out of similar communities: Charles Darwin was a devout Anglican; Georges Lemaître, the parent of the Big Bang Theory, was a Roman Catholic priest; and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, holds a Doctorate in Oceanography. Reassure him that baptism doesn’t mean that he needs to silence his own views before your daughter (indeed, quite the opposite is true: learning to live with ambiguity and paradox is integral to the Christina journey). And, finally, tell your husband that you would like his blessing to baptize your child. While the ritual may strike him as a little strange, the love embodied within it is something that he is sure to recognize.
Do you have a question about ethical decision making, living a faithful life or theology? Leave a comment below or send your question for Rev. Elfert to email@example.com.