The unbreakable vow
Many Christian denominations encourage children to make a commitment to Christianity before they are old enough to make an informed decision. This is then supposed to create a binding and unbreakable commitment to Jesus and often to your particular denomination, with the threat of specially severe future judgement if you ever walk away from it.
The unbreakable vow in Harry Potter
In the Harry Potter universe, the Unbreakable Vow is a magically binding promise. If the taker breaks the promise, they will die. As far as we know, there are no warnings, no second chances.
Fine for adults, perhaps, but how about children? Ron describes a time when he was 5 and Fred and George (both 7) tried to get him to make an Unbreakable Vow. While it’s not clear how much magic is required to bind this vow, I have my doubts whether 5 and 7 year olds would be able to do it.
However, when Mr Weasley found them he was uncharacteristically angry. And whether or not children could perform the vow, I think the principle is clear: it is abhorrent for children to be tricked into taking a promise they cannot fully understand.
Getting them early
Mr Weasley is not alone: There are many things we do to try and protect children from the consequences of things they can’t understand. We don’t give them guns to play with. We don’t let them sign contracts. We don’t make them choose their career and then force them to stick to that decision for the rest of their life.
However, somehow it is considered more acceptable to convince children to make a life-long commitment to their parents’ religion from an early age. Often the justification used is that this commitment will protect the child from the imagined terrors of hell or judgement. And afterward many parents think that the matter is sorted and their child is “saved”. Well, saved from everything except the burden of complying with a commitment they didn’t fully understand.
Some denominations have the implicit expectation “Your parents are X, so therefore you are already X”. This is typically linked with infant baptism (christening). In this case, there is no way that the child made the promise - but they may still be considered bound by it.
Other denominations encourage the commitment to be made early. For example, I have seen many stories of people “praying the Sinner’s Prayer” and “accepting Christ into their heart” somewhere between the age of 5 and 8. There is no way that children of those ages know enough of the world to be making life-long commitments. And the reality is that if these commitments were legally binding contracts they would probably have been unenforceable anyway.
In my case, Christadelphians practice “adult baptism”, but that is less about imposing an age limit than it is about ensuring candidates have made a responsible decision. I was 13 when I was baptised. I had always thought I would be baptised one day, but never expected it to be so early. It was a snap decision based on fear after a powerful lecture on coming judgement (though I did it because I thought it was right, not just because I was scared).
I think I would have made the same decision at age 18 or 21, so this isn’t just a complaint about being forced to make decisions as a child. But it is clear that I have far more information at my disposal at age 30 than I did then at age 13.
There are some parts of the world where apostasy can be punished by death, and the Mosaic law contains similar provisions. I’m glad to say that none of those apply where I live. And fortunately I wasn’t persuaded to make a binding magical vow, otherwise I might have immediately dropped dead. But the New Testament makes it quite clear that all we ex-Christians have nothing to look forward to but future judgement:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.Hebrews 6:4 - 8 (ESV)
A cheerful, friendly message: Apparently my end is to be burned. I guess this is part of the goodness of the word of God it talks about?
On a personal note, I did find it amusing that those who tried to convince me to return quoted some of this passage, but strangely forgot to remember that it suggested there was no return. Instead, they quoted other verses suggesting I could return and be forgiven (though I don’t really know what I needed forgiveness for).
The threats go on:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.Hebrews 10:26 - 31 (ESV)
It’s curious, really. Fear is often a factor in taking these commitments, but now we are somehow meant to fear more because we walked away from it?
It’s not as clearly spelled out as I remembered, but these verses suggest to me that we who have been encouraged to make a commitment at a young age are actually considered worse off than if we had never made that commitment.
So why did you break it?
Simple. I believed the baptism promise was important because of my beliefs in God and the Bible. Now that I no longer believe those things, the promise is no longer binding.
In particular, the promise was supposed to be made to Jesus, and I believe that if he ever existed he no longer does. What does it even mean to have promised to serve someone who may never have existed? Consider this: If for any reason as a child I had made promises to Santa, I would have no hesitation in breaking them today, and I don’t think society would condemn me for it. Why should religion be treated differently?
The promise was conditional on reality. To take the words of a hymn that I liked:
Lord Jesus, I have promised
To serve thee to the end;
Be thou for ever near me,
My Master and my Friend
That’s a conditional promise, and I believe he failed to live up to his side. Not only was he not near me when I appealed desperately for help overcoming my doubts, but as far as I can tell he wasn’t anywhere else in the universe either. Jesus existing and sitting at the right hand of God was basically the minimum requirement. I didn’t doubt it at the time I was baptised, but I do now.
Then we come to the final verse of the hymn:
Lord Jesus, thou hast promised,
To all who follow thee,
That they shall share thy glory
Through all eternity
This is a reminder that baptism wasn’t meant to be just an arcane ceremony to mark a promise. It was supposed to have real symbolic meaning:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.Romans 6:3 - 5 (ESV)
Baptism was supposed to be symbolic of us identifying with Jesus, and sharing in his death and resurrection. As I have made clear on several occasions, I do not think we have good grounds to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. As a result, the symbol of baptism becomes meaningless, and the promise of eternal future glory in the hymn also becomes meaningless. With no resurrection I have no reason either to expect future glory or to fear future judgement.
I chose to follow reality rather than continuing to follow a dead lord.
A higher commitment
Generally, keeping our commitments is a good idea. But there can be times when we have multiple different commitments that conflict with each other, and then we need to figure out which commitment to follow.
In my case, the higher commitment was to seeking out truth and doing what I believed to be right. I don’t really have a problem with my decision to be baptised as a child. At the time, I believed it was the right decision.
However, my search for truth has led me away from that baptism commitment, because I no longer believe it is true. The higher commitment has to overrule the original promise, and I have no reason to regret that. If anything, my bigger regret is that I gave up the search for truth for a while because I was trying desperately to hold onto Christianity.
I’ve heard criticisms online that deconverts are untrustworthy because we have broken our promises, but the reality is that there are many things in life where obtaining additional information requires us to change our decisions. This is a strength, not a weakness.
There is no glory in keeping doing the wrong thing just because I had a prior commitment to it. And it is ridiculous to think that my baptism in relative ignorance at age 13 should still be expected to bind me at age 30.
Another kind of unbreakable vow
The Harry Potter version of the Unbreakable Vow sounds extreme (with instant death as the penalty for any infraction), and as a result it doesn’t seem to be used very often. It’s also not clear how literally the vow is interpreted: Can you exploit loop-holes or ambiguous wording? What if the magic interpreted the promise in a way that you didn’t?
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality has a very different version: You are somehow magically changed so that it is physically impossible for you to break the vow. Where the Harry Potter version leaves you the free will to break the vow (perhaps accidentally) and die, the HPMOR version means there is no possibility of breaking it, whether accidentally or deliberately:
“…so shall it be,” Harry repeated, and he knew in that moment that the content of the Vow was no longer something he could decide whether or not to do, it was simply the way in which his body and mind would move. It was not a vow he could break even by sacrificing his life in the process. Like water flowing downhill or a calculator summing numbers, it was just a thing-Harry-Potter-would-do.
This is probably a better model, but it makes me really uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter whether the vow was a mistake, or based on a misconception, or badly worded: You are stuck with it, with no opportunity to change. Had my baptism been this type of unbreakable vow, I would have been physically unable to reconsider the evidence for Jesus.
However, I think this model does represent how many Christians treat their faith. It is certainly how I handled doubts for a while. I just didn’t read things that disagreed with my faith. Or if I did, I assumed that there must be an explanation for the problems they raised, since obviously my faith was founded on truth.
I see a similar approach presented in Barnabas Piper’s Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith:
But when our questions begin to undermine commitment to God, that is unbelief, and that is when it is time to examine whether we are, in fact, asking well. We cannot question well and turn our backs on God. We cannot question as the rich young man from Matthew 19 did when he asked Jesus, “What must I do to have eternal life?” then walked away disappointed because the answer did not suit him.
Basically, my summary of the entire book was that Barnabas very generously allowed us to ask any questions we wanted, so long as we asked well. We just had to remember that the answer was always “God”. Somehow.
And it’s true: If you are unwilling to reconsider the basic assumptions on which the commitment was made, you will probably find it much easier to keep the commitment. But that doesn’t make it right to do so.
A better way
In principle I can see some benefit of “swearing to your own hurt and not changing”. But if the promise was made on incomplete information, it is often best to alter or break it when more information becomes available. Particularly if that information shows that keeping the promise would hurt everyone, not just you. This is a scary concept, but it also offers opportunity: the opportunity to make decisions based on the best information available.
I care about this more when life-long commitments were made by children, but it applies to everyone. Follow truth where it leads. Value your heritage and your past, but don’t be trapped by it.
Christianity claims to be founded on truth, and yet a lot of its continuation is fueled by childhood indoctrination. We should be encouraging children to continue to follow truth wherever it leads, not to commit to something before they know better and then be stuck with it.
If you believe Christianity to be true, make the decision to follow it every day because you think it’s true, not just because of a promise made years ago. Consider this: If, hypothetically, Jesus exists and you are called to the Judgement Seat, what do you want to say? I didn’t really feel like following you the last few years, but I did it because I promised as a child and I keep my promises? I think there are enough verses suggesting Jesus would be unhappy with this level of motivation (which, incidentally, is one of the weaknesses in Pascal’s Wager).
Two years ago today I wrote a letter of resignation, officially breaking the theoretically unbreakable vow taken at baptism. But that wasn’t really when it happened - that action was the culmination of years spent slowly discovering that my childish trust in God and the Bible was misplaced. And that journey of discovery is still ongoing: Outside the system I have been able to learn far more than I ever could inside the system.
I haven’t been posting much this year, but I have plenty of ideas that I’d love to write about, and hopefully I’ll be able to get some more of them out soon.