The Friar in the Maternity Ward

Train station, Assisi: "Dear Children, you are invited to convert!"

A few weeks ago our daughter Melissa was born in the hospital in Perugia; within seven hours she had already become the target of religious proselytizing. A friar, whose apparent job it was to prowl the maternity ward lecturing exhausted, newly-minted mothers on the Catechism had snuck into my wife’s room after breakfast. “And have we given some thought to how we’re going to raise these children?” This was his icebreaker.

My wife (I was home napping after almost 40 hours of wakefulness) sent him packing with a pithy yet diplomatic, “We’re not believers.” She tells me that the dyspeptic Man of God began lamenting the presence of atheists, saying he didn’t know what the word even meant. “Everyone believes in something,” were his apocryphal last words before stomping off.

“It’s a good thing I wasn’t around,” I said. “And what would you have done, punched him in the nose?” And here I said something that surprised even me. “I would’ve bought him a coffee and talked things over.” Ah, the noble cadences of new-father speech. “Oh, please. You can’t talk to these people. They’re dogmatic! Just nod politely until they go away.”

My wife was probably right about that. What could I possibly have said to a fanatical friar whose mission in life is to convert defenseless infants? Silly me, always thinking a good attempt at seeing-eye-to-eye is the solution to life’s problems. But I didn’t want to convert him; I just wanted to present him with a novel idea: that what he felt was the most important thing in the world — namely, baptizing children and raising them in the Catholic faith — was to some people merely an annoyance. To others it was downright offensive.

A few days after the incident (we never saw him again) my brother-in-law asked us to be godparents to his three month old son. Here we go again, I thought. “Does your brother even know how these things work? Does he understand that a baptism is — at least for the Church — the most serious thing imaginable? And that they’re not going to let an atheist Jew shepherd one of their subjects without a fight?” I was almost rolling up my sleeves.

I’ve been to baptisms and listened to the recited prayers, and there are things even a godparent must assent to that I would feel uncomfortable with. It’s a profession of faith, and of keeping faith. How odd that so many with baptismal certificates have never actually paid attention to the words being spoken, quite literally, over their heads. Oh, that’s right, they were infants when it happened!

“There’s no way I’m doing this. I’m not making any false affirmations before a congregation,” I said. That is, assuming that an ultra-liberal, schismatic priest would even allow me to lie through my teeth. “Why are we suddenly being trailed by these people?” A no-brainer, I mused. We had a kid. Welcome to the Dollhouse of Catechumens.

It’s no surprise that religion goes after the young. I doubt most people like to think of it in those terms, though. Many tell themselves they are helping instill a system of values at an early age. Others invoke a sense of community. Others believe they are ensuring salvation for their children. Very few seem to consider that the children themselves are not consulted on these matters. Waiting until they are old enough to make informed choices almost guarantees that they will go their own way. And who would want that?

Richard Dawkins, in his book “The God Delusion,” makes the case that religious indoctrination of children is tantamount to child abuse. James Joyce made a similar point in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man“: “As the waters of baptism cleanse the soul with the body, so do the fires of punishment torture the spirit with the flesh. Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame.”

The passage goes on for a few pages, but the tone is unchanging. Hell is the most horrible place imaginable, and unless you do exactly as we say, you have inherited a one-way ticked called Original Sin. Couple scaremongering with a lust for young boys and institutional cover-up and one wonders why anyone would entrust their children to such self-appointed babysitters.

In answer to the friar’s question: Yes, we have given a great deal of thought as to how we are going to raise Melissa. First up is Bertrand Russell’s oft-cited and immortal assertion, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” Notice he did not write “guided by faith.” Next we have Robert Ingersoll (the “Great Agnostic” shares a birthday with our baby girl!) who proclaimed, “In the Bible will be found no description of a civilized home. The free mother surrounded by free and loving children, adored by a free man, her husband, was unknown to the inspired writers of the Bible.” He knew; his father had been a preacher.

In short, I think it’s time parents took the ethical education of their children into their own hands. Whatever failures await us, they are sure to be less gruesome than Joyce’s cartoonish description of Hell; and I’m betting the rewards will be far greater than any schmaltzy visions of Kingdom Come.

Published in The American

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