Should An Atheist Sponsor a Sibling’s Confirmation? October 21, 2007

Should An Atheist Sponsor a Sibling’s Confirmation?

What suggestions do you have for this reader with a dilemma?

I’m an 18 year old at a boarding school, and my parents don’t know that I’ an atheist; however, my brother just called to ask me if I’d be his sponsor for his confirmation. Telling them now that I’m an atheist would likely result in withdrawal from my school, and mid-senior year that could be a mess. Not telling them, and doing it, could result in (when-they-found-out) the accusation of me ruining his life. Not telling them and not doing it sounds like the best option, but I’m really not sure how I can get out of it. That too would run into hard questions and evasive responses that I’m not sure I could get around. What would you suggest?

Advice is appreciated!

[tags]atheist, atheism, Catholic, religion, crisis[/tags]

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Would it be dishonest if the person said that they have doubts and uncertainties about certain beliefs/aspects of the faith, and thus don’t think they should stand as guarantor for someone else’s faith? They aren’t fully coming out of the closet as an atheist, but they are laying the groundwork for revealing that in the future, but perhaps by giving only mere hints in that direction, the person in question can avoid giving unnecessary offense, as well as hopefully remaining in school.

    Depending on the details, the above approach may not be viable, but I thought I’d share the suggestion, in case it is helpful.

  • I don’t remember what a sponsor’s duties are with regard to confirmation… but if it’s along the lines of what a god-parent would be for a baby’s baptism, it’s about showing your support of the family member; not about affirming your belief.

    If this is important to your sibling, I would say do it. You can stay in the closet with regard to your own non-belief until such time that it’s not going to be an issue that hurts anyone.

  • My brother asked me to be his sponsor when my mother demanded that he be confirmed (even though my brother wasn’t so sure of his Catholic faith). My sponsorship of his Catholic faith — as an active atheist — was both a concession and an act of protest by my brother.

    I agreed to be my brother’s sponsor because, really, I could care less about the tradition of confirmation. It’s not like I’m going to burn in hell for lying about sponsoring his Catholic faith, either. To cause additional trouble and make the effort worth my time, I asked my brother to pick PRIMUS — the 90s band — as his confirmation name. The bishop was pissed off, but he couldn’t object because there is a St. Primus.

    So really, everyone wins: I was difficult and outwardly dismissive, my mom has another child confirmed in the Catholic faith, the priest confirms another kid, and my brother can say that his Catholic name is “Primus.” That’s so awesome.

  • Colin

    I would suggest the not-telling-them and not-doing-it option.

    Hm, where I’m from, confirmation sponsors were usually older than 18 🙂 Depending on what’s normal in your ex-religion, you may be able to get by with something like the following:

    “I’m really honored, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable being your sponsor because I don’t feel I’m experienced enough in the faith to be a good sponsor.”

    … or something to that effect.

  • Sometimes it’s not about you. This is one of those times. Shut up and support your family.

    You can spoil Thanksgiving instead.

  • I’m writing directly to/at the questioner because it’s very hard to say this clearly otherwise.

    The do-it-and-don’t-tell-anyone-anything approach is the clearly unethical one. Whatever it means to you, the confirmation may be important to your brother. Maybe he actually believes this stuff, and the ritual would completely ruined if his accessory is an atheist; if that’s so, then he’ll feel wronged even if you think it’s all hocus-pocus, and if he feels wronged he is wronged. It’s not your responsibility to convince him right now that his beliefs are silly, so it’s not your responsibility to convince him later that you didn’t really condemn him to burn for eternity by taking the easy way out and playing along.

    It would be nice if you could just say no and not give an explanation. Maybe that’s even a realistic way to go – would your parents be madder than if you just said you’re an atheist? – but it’s not the most respectful to your brother. Full disclosure (to him) would be best, if you can trust him not to tell your parents, which seems to be the deal-breaker. Who knows, he might even say he’d be happy to have you do it in spite of your negative aura, and then everything’s pretty much hunky-dory for you (though your brother might want to think about why he’s doing this if he doesn’t really believe in it).

  • Jen

    I was never confirmed, so I am not entirely clear what the process entails. If it requires any sort of effort and wisdom, I wouldn’t, personally. It wouldn’t make me feel good to mislead the kid, and it wouldn’t make the kid feel good to know that all the answers I was providing were completely made up or delieved with a critical tone.

    That said, when someone is under the care of their parents, it can be beneficial to hide their atheism… so I wouldn’t blame the writer for agreeing to deceive mom and dad- if the only other option is getting financial assistance cut off.

  • Maria

    Not telling them, and doing it, could result in (when-they-found-out) the accusation of me ruining his life.

    Just curious, why would they accuse you of ruining his life if they found out later on?

    From what I know, it wouldn’t “invalidate” his confirmation in the eyes of the church if they found out later on. It depends on you……if it were me, I’d do it to show support for my brother. You don’t have to believe what he believes to support him. However, if you just don’t feel right doing it, then the suggestions on here saying that you should say you don’t feel comfortable doing it b/c you have doubts and/or you feel you don’t know enough about the faith is a good idea. I can totally sympathize with the whole not being able to tell your family bit……

  • You are a perfect ‘sponsor’ – this confirmation is a worthless charade of religiosity, so please feel free to do whatever gives you an easier life. There are no rewards for martyrs in atheism – so just try not to get stressed about it.

  • Huw

    I don’t know the denomination… depending on how well you know the parties involved you could call the pastor and explain why you don’t want to participate. Although I’m not an Atheist, at a point where I was engaged in serious doubt – and someone asked me to be their son’s Godfather – I had the same conversation. Usually the pastor can step into the conversation and suggest someone else.

  • Vincent

    I remember confirmation somewhat.
    Even when I was still a believing Catholic I thought confirmation was too early. I mean, 13? Who is ready to confirm anything then? It’s just memorizing wrote answers to repeated questions without understanding any of it.

    I don’t know what this person should do, but I know what I would do if I were put in that situation (say one of my nephews, as my family doesn’t know of my atheism). I would say that I don’t believe Confirmation at that age is appropriate and I am not comfortable being a part of it. Ask again in a couple of years.

    Oh, and as far as the duties of a sponsor, with child confirmation it’s not much really. The idea is that the sponsor is supposed to ensure the confirmandus knows the doctrine and dogma, but with children, especially if they are in Catholic school, this is all done through classes with a teacher. The sponsor just stands there during the ceremony.
    With adult confirmandi, the sponsor is there to discuss the issues and answer questions that a child would not even think to ask.

  • To be honest, the act of confirmation is a personal step in the Catholic faith of that person (in this instance the brother). To do anything other than accept the invitation would be to make this event about you and not your brother. Which I would think is a terribly self-ish thing to do.

    Your brother I’m assuming is about 13 and would likely be more confused than helped by any protest you may have. I think it is nice that your brother thought of you to be a part of his confirmation. When he gets older maybe he will come to the same conclusion as you or you can have a discussion with him about it at that time.

    I’m not a rabid anti-theist however and have no problem with people believing their own thing as long as it doesn’t begin to interfere with my life (like not funding stem-cell research or school prayer).

    My wife (agnostic) and I (atheist) and one of my sons (just a kid) were members of the wedding party of a Catholic wedding. My brother-in-law was a little concerned about asking me (knowing my lack of belief and particular aversion to the Catholic pedo-factory) to be a groomsman and was surprised that I agreed without protest. I simply told him that I was flattered to be asked to be involved in a such an important event in his life and that just as he has his personal beliefs so do I and I refuse to impose my beliefs on him just as I would expect him to respect mine (although I had put the smackdown when I caught him talking with my 10-year-old about Jebus a year or so earlier).

    Not sure if this helps, there will come a day when you have to talk with your family about your beliefs I just don’t think “coming out” during your little brothers confirmation would be the best time. IMO

  • Lou Doench

    I think this is definitely one of those times that calls for faking an injury. Especially if coming out as an atheist is gonna screw up your education.

    Heck if you feel faking it is not an option, volunteer at the hospital for a couple of days, its cold and flu season. Just try not to catch anything really serious, like leprosy.

  • Arlen

    Huw offers the best suggestion so far. I think the right answer is the one that rocks the boat the least (for you and for your brother). If you don’t feel that Huw’s suggestion is something that you can use, I’d suggest politely offering any non-religious excuse that you can come up with to bow out of the process. If you are absolutely and completely stuck, can make no excuses, and can get no help from others, you should quietly do your best to help your brother. Channel the faith that you once held and support your brother in every way that you can.

  • I don’t agree with the “shut up and go along with it” people. As Epistaxis said, if the faith turns out to be important to this guy’s brother, it might cause a rift later in their lives when it turns out that he’d sponsored his confirmation under false pretenses. The importance of this ritual is a reason not to participate in it, not a reason to go along with it.

    But I do think that making a big family stink about it would constitute “making it all about yourself.” So not being fully honest about why he’s declining wouldn’t just be an act of self-protection; it would also be respectful of his brother and his family.

    So count me as another vote for “don’t do it but don’t explain why.” I think he should just say, “I’m honored that you asked, but I just don’t feel comfortable doing it/ I don’t think I’m the right person to do this.” If pressed for an explanation, I wouldn’t out-and-out lie, but I’d go for a soft-pedal version of the truth: the “I’m having some questions about my faith” or “I don’t feel that I know enough about the faith” options that others here have suggested.

  • Oh, P.S.: I also agree with Huw. If he trusts his pastor enough to explain the situation to him, that might be a good idea.

  • Stephen

    I would first try something along the lines of the “I don’t feel that I know enough about the faith” already suggested. If however the parents then insist they want him to take part, he can just go along with a bit of harmless play-acting to keep the family happy. It’s no big deal.

    If his coming out as an atheist in the future sparks a family row, I don’t see that his having taken part in this is going to make it any worse. (And anyway he doesn’t have to specify precisely when he stopped believing.)

  • chatterbox

    It really depends on if the brother KNOWS that he’s asking an atheist to be his sponsor. He may just need the rational person to help him get through the BS.

    When I was confirmed (to make parents happy), I picked my non-believing sister (ironically, also my godmother) to be my sponsor. When I asked her, she said she didn’t think she was the best choice because she didn’t believe. She agreed (still reluctantly) after I explained that was why I picked her, and we learned a little history and did the bare minimum to fake our way through the confirmation process. I would have picked my openly atheist brother except my parents would not have agreed and he wasn’t living nearby.

  • The real catch is that coming out could pull the plug on his education. If it weren’t for that, I’d cautiously recommend coming out.

  • Louis

    The same thing just happened to me, except it’s this kid I used to babysit. The kid’s parents are divorced and he really looks up to me.

    I think you just need to ask yourself this. How much does it mean to your brother that you should be his sponsor? If it would mean a whole lot, I think you should just do it for him; that’s what I’m doing.

    And just because we’re Atheists doesn’t mean we have to force that belief on other people. Hey, if your brother is willing to believe in a religion, more power to him.

    He’s somebody close to you, and I think you should just support him in his decision to be confirmed, just as you would any other decision he makes.

    Just think of it as doing him a favor. But don’t tell him you’re an Atheist.

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