Our Secular Baptism

Our Secular Baptism
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Video after video it finally hit me: we've been baptizing each other en masse.

Anyone with a social media account has seen what ice can do to a person's nervous system: the vital organs seem to seize, the breath panics for escape, and the words, no matter how incoherent, reveal what can only be described as an awakening.

The ALS "ice bucket challenge" has become our new rite of social participation. But it's so much more. Mass public movements have many ancestors, including religious ones. This phenomenon is tapping into something deep in the human spirit, feeding on the desire to order our ethical and social lives by ritual. In a time when traditional religiosity may be losing its appeal and religious experience is becoming more diverse and pluralistic, we now see a practice that unites everyone, regardless of religious, political or socio-economic status.

In short, we have a new baptism -- the renewal of life delivered by bucket.

All the elements are there: cleansing by water, the call to act, absolution of our affluent guilt, commitment to a cause, charity that suffereth long and endureth all things, hope in philanthropic perpetuation, and faith in the efficacy of donations, performed one by one, for all the community of believers to see and enjoy.

But like other novelties in modern life, the challenge carries only vestiges of the born-again experience: water pouring from above, not beckoning down below; instigated by dare, not entered by personal conversion; validated by the exhilaration of mass, simultaneous viewing, not the private rippling of inward reflection; performed by a trusted peer, not authorized by a priest. And instead of the baptism of fire, it's a baptism of cool.

But the happiness is the first thing you see -- so many smiles and laughs struggling through the breathless gasps. Perhaps the author of Ecclesiastes was on to something when he wrote "there is nothing new under the sun," just freshly adorned repetitions and imitations.

The modern personality really shines through in the ritual's mixture of spiritual mildness and civic intensity. The ice bucket challenge is a baptism without repentance, where the enemy are the ravages of disease, not sin. It excludes no individual, discriminates against no group, and has no concentration of power. The ritual does not limit one's contributions to a congregation but pushes outward, abolishing boundaries. It draws attention to itself but never stays there; after the splash of rebirth the convert gets up and runs to the next person.

This online proselyting points to both individual glory and the common good. Such attention-seeking and self-effacing behavior is one of the essential paradoxes of our new social communication. Everyone feels good. And the losers, if there are any, are always out of sight. The ritual brings people together and increases the sum faith in humanity. Our ability to solve problems through collective action surges. And when it's done we get to choose what its meaning will be.

The ice bucket challenge gives the secular and non-religious a chance to practice religion without being religious. And it gives churchgoers a chance to be religious in a fun, organic, non-judgmental way.

Long ago, John the Baptist was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Just think of the havoc he could have wreaked on the populated plains of Facebook.

Nathan Nielson is a graduate of St. John’s College and lives near Salt Lake City, Utah.

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