From the outside looking in, all religions have strange practices and beliefs. One of the unusual features of Mormonism is the idea that baptism and other physical acts are necessary, but they cannot be completed by the dead, whose body and soul have separated. So, a living person stands in for the deceased, who then has the opportunity to accept or reject the ordinance performed on their behalf.
The LDS Church agreed years ago to put a stop to proxy baptisms for Holocaust victims and others whose descendents objected, but the baptisms have continued, as have the objections. Some Latter-day Saints respond to the criticism by saying, "If you don't believe in Mormonism, why would you object to a ritual done by Mormons?"
I've heard atheists say essentially the same thing, discounting both the Mormons for performing the ritual and those who object for thinking that the ritual is anything other than pointless.
Why be bothered about it if you don't believe in it? Some people object because they believe that rituals do matter, that they have a real effect in the hereafter. My point is similar, but much more immediate: People's beliefs about heaven impact the here and now. We Mormons believe in the hereafter, and work busily with that in mind.
But what if things were different? What if our church devoted more of its resources toward helping the living, rather than fretting over the fate of the deceased? If eternity includes the active existence of the dead, there wouldn't seem to be any great hurry needed to baptize them. Even in Mormon thought, as I understand it, baptisms and other rites can be conducted after the millennial return of Jesus. Why the rush?
Actually, the push to do such rituals makes a certain sense from a social psychological perspective. It keeps people involved, lends a sense of purpose and reinforces the beliefs promoted by the church, among other things. All of this helps to maintain the believers' faith and their institutional commitment.
In other words, acts like these help people think that they are making a difference to someone's life. And, maybe they are. Not having been to heaven, I simply don't know. What I do know is that you and I can make a difference to the world. A real, tangible difference.
Were it up to me, the time, money and other resources devoted to baptisms like this would be focused more on the problems of the living. Too often we drive by the destitute on our way to do temple work. We search genealogy records for the name of someone not yet baptized, while a neighbor is going hungry. We worry ourselves about others people's eternity, when it is their present that really needs our help.
Stephen Hawking said, "Eternity is a very long time, especially towards the end." He's right, you know. There is a long time in eternity to do rituals, but there is no time like the present to help people suffering in the here and now.
Michael Nielsen is professor and chair of psychology at Georgia Southern University. He edits "Archive for the Psychology of Religion" and serves on the editorial boards of "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought," and "Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion."