Things To Act
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Eagerness to Baptize & the Risk of Error
This post on Let Us Reason has got me thinking about attitudes toward baptism (and here I'm supposed to be thinking about European social welfare policy, alas). Baptism for the living, this time. My mission experiences have suggested to me that missionaries are quite reluctant to turn down a candidate for baptism during the baptismal interview. Grasshopper suggests a similar effect at work in baptizing children of record. One can wonder whether this is a good thing or not.

Scientists like to distinguish between types of errors with the oh-so-insightfully named Type I and Type II errors, referring to false positives and false negatives, respectively. A Type I error occurs when your process calls something a problem when it isn't. A Type II error occurs when your process calls something fine when it's a problem. Your process is almost certainly not going to be foolproof, but you can err in one direction or the other. For example, the costs of harassing travelers who weren't terrorists (a Type I error) looked high enough to us that we employed lax airport security pre-9/11. Post 9/11, the costs of allowing another terrorist attack seem high enough that we are willing to tolerate a lot of harassment of non-terrorist travelers to attempt to avoid another Type II error of letting terrorists through the security system [I have opinions about how effective this is, but will forebear for now]. In this and any public policy question, whether it be drug approval, judicial safeguards, welfare generosity, etc, the tradeoffs are often perceived differently by different people, depending who sees which type of error as more serious.

A baptismal interview, which is supposed to screen out unprepared candidates for baptism, can err in either direction. The interview could prevent a worthy and prepared person from being baptized (Type I error), or could fail to stop an unworthy or unprepared person from being baptized (Type II error). My impression is that we in the Church are so eager to baptize that we are willing to tolerate a depressingly high rate of Type II errors to prevent a Type I error. One could argue that this is similar to the American 'better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent be falsely convicted' approach to justice, but I'm not convinced that the analogy holds. Theologically, we're supposed to take baptismal covenants seriously enough that we withhold them from the unprepared. One could try to get around this with arguments about second chances in the next life, or with the even lamer 'well, the home teachers might reactivate him [or 'activate him in the first place'] someday' excuse, but I don't think I've ever seen either done convincingly.

Note that I don't necessarily have a problem with the Church's current policies as written (except perhaps for my skepticism about the supervising DL/ZL's ability to be truly objective in assessing the worthiness of the people he's been trying to get his missionaries to baptize for the past umpteen weeks), but more how we seem to implement them. At least, I've met a depressing number of less-active members who don't seem to have ever been converted in the first place.

It's also interesting to speculate about circumstances that might require changing Church policy in one direction or the other. For instance, if the quality of parents' teaching of their children deteriorated enough, the Church might find it advisable to raise the standards for baptism of children of record. Similarly, if significant nonspiritual benefits were attached to joining the Church, a nontrivial number of people might be motivated to seek baptism for less than pure motives, which could require the Church to increase the level of scrutiny it gives investigators to prevent too many Type II errors. Could this happen with the PEF or a similar program? I'm inclined to think it isn't currently a problem, but don't have enough firsthand knowledge to be sure.

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