March 29, 2012

Leave the Dead Alone (the Living, Too)

I’ve written before about the bizarre Mormon practice of posthumous baptism, which is in the news again thanks to the persistence of Mitt Romney in the presidential race. That, plus, they keep doing it for high profile dead people, like Daniel Pearl, which tends to piss people off. Although it’s all woo and mystical hand waving to me, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for folks to get upset about it.

Which is to say I disagree with Ed at Dispatches (and Eugene Volokh, whose post Ed links to) about the whole mess. Per Volokh’s reasoning, either the Mormons are wrong about the impact of these things, in which case no harm no foul, or they’re right and they’re actually doing dead folks a great service. Or, as Ed puts it:
All these people are doing is wasting their time doing silly rituals that have no effect at all on anyone else. Some say that it’s arrogant or disrespectful, and they’re right, but why should anyone really care?
I think Ed and Eugene miss the point, in a couple of ways. Most obviously, they’re applying a rational analysis to what is, inherently, an emotional reaction. Presumably, most of the people who are upset about posthumous baptism believe is some form of afterlife and/or higher power and thus are particularly sensitive to things that mess with those beliefs. It’s awfully easy for atheists to sit on the sideline and say “what’s the big deal?” when we don’t believe a word of it.

Second, I think it overlooks the fact that, to a whole lot of people their religious beliefs aren’t simply a label to check off on a demographic form, but it truly informs who they are and how they live their lives. It is arrogant for somebody from another branch of woo to come along and provide a posthumous opportunity to “fix” something that person didn’t consider broken.

Finally, I think Ed and Eugene both overlook the particularly insensitive nature of the posthumous baptisms as they relate to people like Pearl or Holocaust victims. After all, those people were murdered in cold blood because of their religious identification. Holocaust victims in particular are a shitty target for post hoc salvation, given that one’s fate under the Nazi racial laws had less to do with actual belief than it did with ancestry.

So I can certainly see why some people – family members and co-religionists in particular – would be upset about the whole posthumous baptism thing. And while I agree that the whole process is a whole bunch of nothing, doing a whole bunch of nothing that pisses off grieving loved ones doesn’t rate highly in my book under the heading “nice things to do.” Mormons have the perfect right to do whatever they want, of course, and, at the very least, the whole thing gives me a wonderful idea for a story.

And, to the Mormons credit, at least they’re just messing with the dead. Other believers (not Catholics! This time, at least) are messing with real live kids:
A southeastern Pennsylvania church subjected members of a youth group to a mock kidnapping and interrogations without telling them it was staged, and the outraged mother of one 14-year-old girl has filed a complaint with police.

* * *

[Pastor John] Lanza [of the Glad Tidings Assembly of God] said there were about 17 students at the meeting and the mock kidnappers covered the students' heads, put them in a van and interrogated them. Neither the students nor their parents were told about the raid beforehand, he said, though it was discussed with the parents of one youth who might have health issues.
You read right. A church group decided to “mock” kidnap a bunch of kids. Putting aside the fact that, unless somebody consents to it a “mock” kidnapping is just old fashioned kidnapping (did nobody in the Glad Tidings brain trust think to consult a lawyer?), why on Earth would kids need to learn how to deal with that kind of situation? According to Lanza:
the intent was to prepare them for what they might encounter as missionaries.
Now, in spite of my lack of belief I am 100% in favor of people being able to get out there and preach whatever flavor of gospel they believe in. Violent reaction to that kind of stuff is both stupid and uncalled for. That being said, the vibe I get from “missionaries” is that it means going to other countries to try and recruit. In said countries, outsiders coming to try and sell their faith might not go over so well. In other words, if your missionary work is meeting with violent rejoinders, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Take a tip from the Mormons and stick to messing with dead folks. They’re less likely to fight back, you know.

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