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Usually baptism as a religious rite of passage implying entry into church membership, typically representing (literally or metaphorically, depending on who you ask) the "washing away" of defects in the "soul", such as sins.
Like affects like
Baptism is an example of an assumption of like effects based on symbolic similarity. Because water is an effective solvent for cleansing dirt from the outside of the body, the assumption goes that water also therefore holds some mystical effectiveness in cleansing the spirit, soul, or mind from internal "dirt" of the sinful kind. This belief is a prime example of an area best explained by the hermeneutic method, rather than by the scientific method.
The method of baptism varies between Christians sects, ranging from a gentle splash of water on the head up to full immersion in water. Roman Catholics and Anglicans would typically use water blessed prior to the baptism, while other sects, such as Methodists, believe the water becomes holy during the rite of baptism.
In the moral theology of Roman Catholicism, anyone is able to perform the ritual of baptism, and allowed to do so in an emergency. All that is required is that they say it in the name of the Trinity: "I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." Claims that Catholics had baptized Jews, believing that an emergency was present and that the ritual would gain them Heaven, have resulted in the kidnapping of Jewish infants from their families, as happened in the case of Edgardo Mortara.
In Judaism, a mikvah is a bath used for ritual immersion, vaguely resembling Christian baptism. In the times of the Temple, mikva'ot were used to achieve ritual purity before one could enter the Temple. In modern times they're used for much the same purpose (despite the notable lack of an extant temple), most commonly by women after menstruation. Interestingly, submersion in a mikvah is required for a conversion to Judaism, the reasons sounding a lot like those for Christian baptism.
Just add water
Thomas Aquinas discusses at some length the various fluids that may or may not be used to conduct the rite of baptism. "Pure plain water" is needed for baptism; but "water may cease to be pure or plain water in two ways: first, by being mixed with another body; secondly, by alteration. And each of these may happen in a twofold manner; artificially and naturally.... Whatever artificial change, then, takes place in the water, whether by mixture or by alteration, the water's nature is not changed. Consequently such water can be used for Baptism: unless perhaps such a small quantity of water be mixed artificially with a body that the compound is something other than water; thus mud is earth rather than water, and diluted wine is wine rather than water." Therefore, perfumes, liquors, broth, and wine are not useful to wash away the stain of original sin, nor do spittle nor phlegm work; but sea-water works, as do lye solutions and sulphur waters.
In most Protestant sects, baptism is performed as an ordinance, done merely because Jesus told his followers to do it. The Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox churches hold to the principle of sacramentality, which maintains that an infinite God interfaces with finite human beings through things like water, oil, and the laying on of hands, things which exist in fact rather than purely in the mindscape. Those Christians believe the water of baptism functions as a real channel of God's grace during the ritual, which is the sacrament of belonging, replacing the circumcision rite practiced by the Hebrews.
- Origin of Baptism by Water, Fire, Blood and the Holy Ghost
- Baptism: What is Baptism? How does one Baptize? What does the Bible say?