My Tap Water Baptism (And Aren’t They All?): Jordan Daniel Burr

By Jordan Daniel Burr


Jordan Daniel Burr

The absence of this invisible realm does not subtract from the world so much as an ounce of human wonder or joy or meaning.

When I was born, the local Catholic Church refused to baptize me. The priest literally turned my Catholic-raised father and the infant he held away at the door, informing him that his marriage to my mother, a Methodist, had not been sanctioned by the Catholic Church. The “illegitimate” children of such a union could not be considered for baptism. My father’s upbringing had warned him repeatedly that anyone not baptized by water at the beginning of his life would be bathed in fire at the end, but he had no idea that marrying outside the Catholic Church would mean compromising the eternal salvation of his children. Terrified that my soul would go unwashed of the original sin of Adam, my father rushed home and immediately performed his own unauthorized baptism in the kitchen sink. My father did the best he could, but someone should have told him that a truly just God would not hold an infant accountable for the sins of those who came before him. After many patient years, the child he gently cradled over the sink would be the one to tell him this and more.

In spite of the rejection by his own church, my father never turned sour toward Catholicism. Between his influence and my mother’s, I was brought up on a kind of Catholic-tinged Protestantism. Every night, my father would lead me in the Lord’s Prayer and a few Hail Mary’s, though my Protestant mother would often remind me that the latter prayer was potentially blasphemous. The disunity of the Christian religion as a whole was evident at such a basic level as my two parents, who constantly argued over which church I should attend. For a short time, my mother and I attended a Methodist church, until my father put a stop to it. A compromise was finally reached; I would attend neither Catholic nor Protestant services, but instead I would be encouraged to read a diverse range of Christian literature and decide the issue for myself. As is often the case, the critical study of this literature was the beginning of the end of my religious beliefs.

In the beginning of my Christian education, I discovered that the contradictory content of Christianity itself is its own greatest adversary. At the age of five, my father began reading bible stories to me at bedtime, though I would often interrupt the stories in skepticism. “Where were all the dinosaurs on Noah’s ark?” I wondered. “And who made God?”

My father was a patient man and would do his best to answer my questions, though he was often surprised to find himself as bewildered as his five-year-old son. As the years went by, my questions became more and more difficult. “If Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was necessary for the salvation of mankind, then why should he be punished for it?” I once asked, “And if Jesus knew that Judas would betray him, then why was Judas’ betrayal considered a free choice at all?” For these increasingly difficult questions, my father had progressively fewer and fewer answers. My lifelong skepticism has played a considerable part in transforming my father’s ultraconservative Catholicism into a more progressive form of theism. Due largely to this infectious skepticism, my father now believes wholeheartedly in the science behind evolution and in a non-literal interpretation of the bible. A minor battle has been won for those of us who would shake off the long-held fetters of superstition.

But the battle for my own mind did not turn significantly toward freethought until well into my teenage years. When I was thirteen, I branched out from Christian literature to investigate the largely Unitarian principles of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. For the first time in my life, I read of intelligent people who regarded Jesus as merely a human being. These Transcendentalists taught me that it was acceptable to question the divinity of Jesus and the accuracy of the bible. Thirsting for more insight into non-Christian philosophy, I discovered the brilliant Deist book, The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine. Paine argued that human reason was God’s greatest gift to humankind and that rationality itself demands that we reject the unreasonable excesses of the bible (i.e., virgin births and talking animals). Taken aback by the coherence of Paine’s arguments against the religion of my upbringing, I immediately encouraged my whole family to read Paine’s revolutionary essay. These arguments effectively castrated Christianity, so I couldn’t understand how they had gone virtually unnoticed for over two centuries. How could Christianity be the dominant ideology of the world when its precepts had been so effortlessly refuted? I soon found the answer to this question when not one member of my Christian family was willing to read the short essay in its entirety. I learned then that the majority of religious adherents are not interested in even well-reasoned logic if it is geared toward challenging their long-held beliefs. For me alone, it seemed, the truth was more important than tradition or security.

Around this time, I started calling myself a Deist, though the nuances were lost on my family, who insisted on the more familiar (and intendedly insulting) label, “atheist.” My extended family was initially shocked to hear that one of their own had renounced Christianity, though they were often assured by my parents that my interest in 18th-century rationalism was merely a “phase” or an “act of teenage rebellion.” I decided that I might as well research genuine atheism, if I was going to be branded an atheist regardless of my wishes. I soon delved into the works of the famous atheist and agnostic philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll. I was again surprised to find that these philosophies of agnostics were even more coherent and sensible than those of my beloved Deists. Russell and Ingersoll argue that modern religions are essentially indistinguishable from any other ancient mythology, all of which are attempts of pre-scientific cultures to understand and order a mysterious and often frightening universe. Science and reason have come to a point where mythology, including modern religion, is no longer necessary or relevant in explaining the world around us. I became convinced that the next step in human cultural evolution is the dismissal of unsupported religious dogma in favor of a scientific, rationalistic worldview. As I read more and more freethought philosophy, I gradually began to accept the title “atheist” until it became an indelible aspect of my life and identity.

With this brief explanation, I don’t mean to imply that it was in any way easy to come down from the deluded heights of religion. To demand the truth is to relinquish every lie that one holds sacred. This has never been an easy task. Christianity had promised me a soul, and I felt cheated and sorely deficient without one. Eventually, the feelings of remorse faded, as I realized they were purely the byproducts of the religious inculcation of my youth. I came to understand there was simply no compelling reason, besides a natural human fear of the cessation of individual consciousness at death, for the belief in an eternal soul. For that matter, there has never been compelling evidence for any supernatural object or event, despite what religious apologists would have us believe.

Another problem I had to overcome was an involuntary revulsion to the word “atheist,” which I had only heard used as an insult. As a child, I hadn’t even known what the word “atheist” meant, but from the tone my father used, I thought it must have been something akin to murderer or rapist. Atheist. This same revulsion to the word “atheist” still reigns in mainstream America, though the widespread dissemination of freethought ideas over the Internet is helping to bring about a positive shift in the perspectives of younger generations.

When I went off to college, I was happily surprised to discover a vibrant range of freethinkers of all kinds. My insulated Missouri suburb had offered little room for religious dissent, but my experiences at a large, secular university showed me just how fast the various freethought movements had actually been growing. It was inestimably reassuring to discover how effective a little education in science, philosophy, and religious studies were in overcoming long-held superstitions and unjustified dogma. At college, I continued growing in my philosophic maturity until I came to embrace a type of atheistic humanism. Humanism seemed to fill many of the emotional gaps left in a transition from traditional religions to non-theism. For example, humanism has taught me that our ethics can be better informed by reason and empathy than by contradictory religious mandates written by and for cultures far more primitive than our own. Certainly, we have much to learn from religion, but it teaches us more about ourselves than about a mysterious, invisible world hidden beneath the fabric of this one. And, contrary to what many of us have been told, the absence of this invisible realm does not subtract from the world so much as an ounce of human wonder or joy or meaning.

There are times when I wonder if my perspective would be different had I not, in infancy, been turned away unwashed from the doors of the Catholic Church. Even when I called myself a Christian, there had always been a part of me that resented being cast aside by an uncaring clergy. However, I suspect that a real baptism would have made little difference after all. The tap water with which my father anointed my tiny forehead in our old kitchen sink was as holy (or profane) as that in any Cathedral in Rome. I would have asked the same difficult questions regardless, and I would have received the same inadequate answers. I was born and will forever remain a skeptic, even if I were the only one. But I also know that this feeling of aloneness is every day growing further and further from the truth. To borrow an analogy from the great agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow, I have often felt like a lone man standing seaside, trying to sweep back an inevitable tide. But, like Clarence Darrow, I can take heart in knowing that the future almost always pushes toward the more progressive cause. The future is with us. The skeptics. The atheists. The freethinkers. We are no longer standing alone. And perhaps tomorrow, we will be the tide.

“I am a third-year English student at the University of Missouri in Columbia. I enjoy reading and writing on the topics of philosophy, religion, and literature. I help run a small but well-received freethought webpage and try to champion the ideals of freethought both in person and through writing. I plan to go to graduate school and hope to eventually teach literature and creative writing at the college level.”

Jordan Daniel Burr, from Grain Valley, Mo., received $1,000 for his second-place essay.

Freedom From Religion Foundation