More than 100,000 former Christians have downloaded "certificates of de-baptism" in a bid to publicly renounce the faith, according to the London-based National Secular Society (NSS).
Terry Sanderson, the society's president, says the group started the online de-baptism initiative five years ago to mock the practice of baptizing infants too young to consent to religious rites. Their web site invites visitors to "Liberate yourself from the Original Mumbo-Jumbo that liberated you from the Original Sin you never had" and allows them to print out a paper certificate that uses quasi-formal language to "reject baptism's creeds and other such superstitions." But in recent months, as tens of thousands began to download the certificate, organizers realized that they had struck a chord with atheists and once-devout church members who are leaving churches they see as increasingly out-of-tune with modern life. "Churches have become so reactionary, so politically active that people actually want to make a protest against them now," Sanderson says. "They're not just indifferent anymore. They're actively hostile." (See pictures at a drive-in church.)
The campaign has become so popular with nearly 1,000 certificates downloaded each week that the NSS has started taking orders for certificates printed on parchment, at $4.50 each; they've sold nearly 2,000 in just three weeks. "Every time the Pope says something outrageous we get another rush on the certificate," Sanderson says, noting that traffic to the site skyrocketed last month following Pope Benedict XVI's comment that condoms could worsen the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa.
Public gaffes like that one may explain the anti-Catholic backlash driving similar movements elsewhere in the world. In October last year, Italy's Union of Rationalist Atheist and Agnostics sponsored the country's first-ever "De-baptism Day," when the no-longer faithful attended protests and passed out de-baptism forms to areligious people who didn't have internet connections to download them. More recently, on March 2, atheists and feminists in Argentina teamed up to launch the "Not in my Name" Internet campaign which encourages Roman Catholics to notify their local bishops of their desire to officially leave the church. So far more than 1,800 have joined their Facebook group or signed the petition on their website http://www.apostasiacolectiva.org.
According to Argentine campaigner Ariel Bellino, a former Catholic: "The church counts all those who've been baptized as Catholic and lobbies for legislation based on that number, so we're trying to convey the importance of people expressing they no longer belong to the church." Campaigners say that's particularly important in Argentina, where liberal social values frequently clash with Roman Catholic doctrine related to issues such as birth control, abstinence before marriage and homosexuality; in 2003, Buenos Aries became the first city in South America to legalize gay civil unions.
Back in Britain, Michael Evans, an atheist and former journalist who downloaded the de-baptism certificate in March, believes the Church of England claims more members than it actually has in order to shore up its influence in the secular world. "It claims to speak for the majority of people in Britain," he says. Official estimates are that fewer than one million Britons regularly attend Sunday services, but there are currently 26 Church of England bishops sitting in the House of Lords. "With churches, everybody checks in, but nobody checks out," says Evans, who was baptized as an infant. "There's no exit strategy except the funeral."
That may be changing. On April 9, John Hunt, a 56-year-old nurse in Croydon, south London, managed to have his official baptism record amended. Religious leaders from the Southwark Diocese had previously refused to delete Hunt's record of baptism, claiming it was an important historical detail. But after Hunt published a renouncement of his Christianity in the London Gazette, a journal of record dating back to the 17th century, those same religious leaders agreed to include it alongside his official baptism entry. "It's about time some of us stood up to be counted," Hunt said after receiving the news.
Nick Baines, the Bishop of Croydon, says such notation makes little difference. "Sticking John Hunt's note in the register is not 'de-anything,'" he wrote on his blog. "It is simply a note in a register that has no effect whatsoever other than to make him feel better that he has been heard." And, officials at the Church of England say, allowing such notation is not the Church's official policy because true renunciation can only take place between an individual and God.
Given that God takes on different forms for different people, the NSS has been approached by non-believers are far away as Australia, Romania and Saudi Arabia requesting certificates tailored to their former faith. "We've had Jewish people write in asking, 'Can I have a certificate to undo my bar mitzvah?'" says Sanderson. And while the group is considering those requests, there's at least one recurring query they're certain they can't undo, symbolically or otherwise: "How can I get myself uncircumcised?"