Infant baptism is a Christian tradition spanning thousands of years. The reasons to perform the ceremony have changed slightly during that time. What motivates Christian families to get their children baptised and – perhaps more interestingly – what motivates families who are otherwise quite unreligious to do so?
In the Christian faith, the baptism of infants takes place for a number of reasons. Among Christians, there is furious debate – so what follows is by no means a definitive version of the faith, but rather a short exploration of what motivates a Christian to have their child baptised.
- 1. Declaration of faith by the believer
With a few exceptions – such as Baptists – most Christian denominations practice infant baptism. Obviously an infant cannot declare their faith – which is why the confirmation ceremony was created. Instead, a christening inducts a new member into the church family and affirms that the child will receive proper spiritual guidance from the Godparents (who may or may not include the parents).
- 2. Induction into a community
In a contemporary understanding of the ceremony, this is perhaps the most important rationale. The child will be welcomed into the wider family of the church and Christendom as a whole and finally into humanity.
- 3. Wash away sin
For centuries, an idea has run through Christian thought: that all humankind is born with the stain of the original sin taken from the story of Adam and Eve. The trouble is that this idea is difficult to reconcile with the more figurative interpretation of Genesis advocated by most Christians. And so the washing away of sins becomes more of a metaphor.
Though, of course, where there is sin, there is…
- 4. The threat of hell
The truth is that few modern Christians are motivated by fear of hell. While historically the idea of eternal hell has been crucial in enforcing religious observance, the modern Church of England is keen to downplay the significance of baptism in what may or may not happen after death. Critics of religion are often keen to point out that such an idea is morally unjustifiable and modern British Christians tend to agree (though their American counterparts, for the most part, do not). This makes sense; after all, it seems hardly likely that a loving god would inflict such a punishment on an innocent infant.
Not particularly religious
At the time of writing, most of the UK’s population consider themselves Christian – though it isn’t always clear what that means. The 2011 Census places the figure at 59%. However, another poll, conducted by IPSOS-MORI in 2012 found that 46% of Christians consider themselves Christians mainly on the grounds that they were baptised into the religion. This is in sharp contrast to the 18% who answered that they believe in the tenets of the religion. Interestingly, only 35% of those polled knew that the first book of the New Testament was Matthew.
Why is this the case? Well, the respondents are not lying to the census-takers; nor are they, as some might suggest, wrong to profess to be Christian. A more plausible explanation lies in the diversity of conviction among nominal Christians, among whom many variously doubt that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was crucified, or that he returned from the dead, or that he even existed.
One might expect to see these trends reflected in a decline in christenings. But while church attendance is dwindling, christenings remain constant. In an increasingly secular society, with increasingly secular values, it seems counterintuitive that christenings should prove so resilient. There are several possible explanations for this.
- 1. The pressure of tradition
Tradition and cultural identity undoubtedly play a role; if umpteen generations which preceded you have been baptised, there is an expectation that you, too, should be. In Christian families, it is overwhelmingly likely that everyone present at a christening would have been christened themselves. It would be a bold move indeed to part company with a custom spanning thousands of years. Of course, familial expectations also undoubtedly play a role. Few would defy a devout grandparent in order to score an academic point. There is also the thought that parents do this to get their children into a good school where being christened into the family of God is a requirement.
- 2. Doubt
In matters religious, most people have yet to make up their mind. Even the most committed believers still suffer from doubts on occasion. The same is assuredly true of those who don’t consider themselves religious, in spite of a strong belief in something. Perhaps, to them, the metaphysical claims of the Old Testament seem a little implausible – perhaps the idea of sin seems a little far-out. And yet, they believe that there is something more – they are simply hesitant to assign it a label. In this respect, infant baptism seems to have received the benefit of theistic doubt.
- 3. Why not?
Among believers, christening is a way of inducting a new member into a broader community. I suspect that a similar motivation lies behind more secular couples electing to have their offspring christened.
To have no ceremony at all would be something which very few would countenance. The prospect of a secular ‘baby naming ceremony’ – empty of all tradition and shaped only by the whims of the parents – would give pause to even the most fervent atheist. It seems entirely appropriate that an occasion such as a birth should be marked with a ceremony of some sort where all the family comes together to celebrate – a christening seems as good an opportunity as any.