Posthumous Baptisms and Pascal’s Wager

February 26th, 2012

Eugene Volokh’s nonplussed reaction to Mormons baptizing Holocaust victims (including Anne Frank) seems to be a form of Pascal’s Wager:

I find it hard to get upset about “posthumous baptisms” by Mormons of Jews, whether Holocaust victims or otherwise.

Either the Mormons are right about their theology, or they’re wrong. If they’re right, then the posthumous baptism will do good. If they’re wrong (and, being not a Mormon, I by definition think they are wrong, or else I’d be a Mormon), then the baptism will have no effect whatsoever: It is just some people going through some ineffectual — by hypothesis — rituals in their own temple, and I don’t see what it should be to me that those rituals use the names of (say) my late relatives, however much I love those relatives.

Christian teaching say that Jews burn in hell for eternity. Is there much of a difference between believing dead Jews are burning, and baptizing dead Jews to save them? I suppose what makes this offensive is they use specific names of prominent jews, rather than believing in general anyone who didn’t live a certain life is chilling with Satan.

Update: This piece in the TImes notes that the proponents of the posthumous baptisms think the souls have a choice of whether to accept it or not!

In proxy baptism, a living Mormon immerses himself or herself in a baptismal font on behalf of a dead person. A church spokesman, Michael Otterson, said Friday that the ritual was done in the spirit of love, and that people’s souls were free not to become Mormons.

“The sentiment is one of inclusiveness and reaching out, that God loves all his children,” Mr. Otterson said. “We make this offering to them, and they have the agency in the next life to accept or reject the offering.”

This Rabbi seems to disagree with Eugene–its meaninglessness is besides the point:

Even for the light-hearted Rabbi Waldoks, however, such explanations may be little consolation. Jews do not believe that baptism has any religious significance — it’s just water — but the Mormon practice leaves many Jews feeling disrespected.

“It smacks,” Rabbi Waldoks said, “of a certain sense of proselytism: If you can’t get them while they’re alive, you’ll get them while they’re dead.”

Laura A. Baum, an Ohio rabbi who runs, an online community, said that even though proxy baptism did not actually accomplish anything, it still had the power to offend.

“It’s important to say that in some ways it’s meaningless,” Rabbi Baum said. “But it’s also religiously arrogant. I think words matter. Their doing their rituals could be insulting to the families of people whose relatives are being baptized. In the case of people who died during the Holocaust, they were killed because of their religious identity, and now another group is confusing the story.”