Atheists and Godparents May 29, 2008

Atheists and Godparents

A dilemma posed by a reader:

I have a daughter who just turned one. And I have been thinking about this dilemma since long before she was conceived. I have always liked the idea of “godparents.” Of course, being an atheist, I don’t like the god in there and their role wouldn’t be anything god-related. I posed this question on a bulletin board for atheist parents, and it didn’t really get much response. There was an “earthparent” kind of theme or “non-godparents” and a few others, but nothing that really jumped out at me. Surely, I’m not the first to wonder what kind of substitute term we atheists could use?

A lot of people would say, “Well, you don’t need them at all.” Or “You don’t need a label.” Originally, we had planned to have a little “celebration” at her one-year birthday that would officially recognize/name the “godparents.” But because I couldn’t think of a label, we didn’t. And now I regret it. I want people to know who I consider my daughter’s sort of “chosen” mentors and who would be charged with caring for her if we die while she’s still a child (other than what’s in our will). And I want to even be able to ask the potential “godparents” officially. They don’t even know I’ve ever considered it.

My husband just says I overthink everything. I thought I should just let this (minor) atheist battle go. But since her birthday last weekend and the nagging feeling that I want to do this for her and for me and for them… I can’t.

Any thoughts?

I would think you could have people fulfill the Godparent roles without necessarily using the label… but I would also pause at using that word.

Perhaps we just need to borrow a term from another language

Are there any Godparents reading this who go by another name?

Has anyone been in a similar situation and found a workable solution?

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

"The way republican politics are going these days, that means the winner is worse than ..."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."
"It would have been more convincing if he used then rather than than."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • M

    Why not “honorary parents”? If you’re not attaching a religious job to the role, then that’s really what you’re asking them to be.

  • How about just “mentors”? That has all the right connotations.

  • Jennifer M

    I’ve heard “guardians” used. Or how about “spirit sponsors”? But yes, I have actually heard of “guardians” used in place of god-parents. Maybe that’s the correct word.

  • Rob

    Backup parents?

  • And I want to even be able to ask the potential “godparents” officially. They don’t even know I’ve ever considered it.

    Maybe the reader should go ahead and ask them to fill the roles. Discuss those roles. The “godparents” (or all of them together) might come up with an alternative that is especially meaningful to them.

    I’ve encountered “guardians” and “mentors.”

  • “The ‘B’ Team”

  • To be honest, I don’t see the problem with the phrase godparents. “God” is a meaningless word, afterall. But, I assume you could go with “secondary parents”, “guardians” as mentioned above (though, of course, guardians is the name typically given to adoptive parents, not potential adoptive parents, so it may require some adjustment), or something along the lines of “parental successors”.

  • Perhaps one could check into a humanist-flavored Unitarian Universalist child dedication ceremony:

    Even a theist Unitarian Universalist minister would be sympathetic and would probably assist in creating a ceremony that meets the family’s needs.

  • Grimalkin

    I really like the term “mentor.” I think I will use that when I have kids, actually.

  • I was under the impression that godparents were simply those who sponsored the baptism. I have godparents, but I just call them “aunt” and “uncle”, because that’s who they are. Hey, maybe you can use those same words to describe honorary family members.

  • I would go with mentor, or some variant of it.

  • Rationalityparents.

  • How about just “uncle/aunt”? We do that with close family friends, and it maintains the family connection. Seems cool to me.

    Mentor just sounds a little too Obi Wan Kanobe for me.


  • SarahH

    I still like “godparents” and I’ve never associated it with religion – only with Cinderella and the Mob. I think all the alternatives sound dorky and the word has lots of old-fashioned charm.

  • geru

    Luckily we have a more neutral term for ‘godparent’ here in Finland, but the problem still remains at least for official baptisms, since if the parents want a priest to perform the christening, as is very common, the chosen godparents must belong to the church. I hear once in a while of cases where someone ‘can’t’ resign from church because their sibling/best friend etc. wants them as a godparent for their child.

    The even more pressing reason why people don’t resign is church weddings, which are of course an even more important tradition. At least one of the couple must belong to the church in order to get a church wedding. It’s even common for people to rejoin the church so they can get a church wedding, I don’t know whether you have the same problems in other countries.

    So there is definitely a need for ‘secular traditions’, I would say.

  • I like guardian or mentor A LOT. Guardian sounds a bit stronger than mentor since anyone could be a mentor. So I’d go with guardian.

  • My partner, who is an atheist like me, is a godmother to her friend’s daughter. As a word to describe the role “godparent” works well enough. Or “godlessparent” might do.

  • Fergus Gallagher

    We went through the same thing for the “naming ceremonies” of our children. We quite openly call the godparents “godlessparents”, but one can get away with that here in the UK.

    I am a “godparent” to one of their children too, but, at they’re spanish, I’m known as a “padrino”.

  • James Koran

    It is my understanding of the term godparent, as “guru” mentioned above, to be more of a sacremental or spiritual bestowing of parental obligations, which would include material support of course, but also religious guidance in the event of the unthinkable happening to the parents. In my opinion, the term is obfuscating and unnecessary for the nontheist. “Honorary Parents,” as mentioned above seems like a fine substitute for me. But then to each their own.

  • Maria

    I’m a godparent to a child of another agnostic. we just use the term “godparent”

  • D

    My brother had a Humanist naming ceremony for his kid, the term “Guideparent” was used.

  • Rick

    I’ve been dealing with this situation from the other standpoint for some years. I’m an atheist, but I was asked by very good friends of mine to be a Godparent for their 2 daughters. The first time was a difficult request for me, given my beliefs and the fact I’m a person who takes promises and oaths seriously (don’t even get me started about having to say “under God” in the pledge of allegiance). Anyway, after researching the ceremony, the worst I needed to pledge to do was ensure that the kids got raised in the Catholic faith if something happened to the parents…something I was willing to do for these friends. The kids are in college now, so I never had to follow through on that bit (whew).

    I have another pair of friends who just declared me “Uncle Rick” from day one. My relationship with those kids is exactly the same as with my two Godchildren, just without the formality of an oath. I’m a trusted adult presence in the kids lives, and absolutely adore them.

    From a language standpoint, “Uncle” works great, though it’s necessary to occasionally explain that I’m an “honorary uncle”. I sometimes refer to my “four Godchildren”, even though I technically only have two. It seems to capture the relationship better than “the kids of my good friends”, and calling them a “niece and nephew” just feels wrong, despite the fact they call me their Uncle.

    I’m not their Guardian, though I would certanly be willing to fulfill the role if asked. I’m certainly a Mentor, but that’s a very formal sounding word, and only captures a small piece of what’s involved in the role.

  • Damo

    In reference to Fergus.

    I have also attended more than one “name ceromony”.

    The particapents were not Christian. But word ” Godparents ” was still usesd in repect for the moral guides of the children.

    I suppose this doesnt help though.

  • Damo

    In reference to Fergus.

    I have also attended more than one “name ceromonies”.

    The participents were not Christian. But word ” Godparents ” was still used in repect for the moral guides of the children.

    I suppose this doesn’t help though.

  • Jakanapes

    huh, I didn’t think anyone really did the ‘godparent’ thing except for Catholics. I never had one and I can’t say that anyone I know has one.

    Just be sure that you name explicitly who gets the kiddo in the will, that’s the important part.

  • I’m with SarahH and Maria, “godparent” is just fine.

    From wikipedia (the authoritative viewpoint for everything)

    “The modern view of a godparent tends to be an individual chosen by the parents to take a vested interest in the child’s upbringing and personal development.”

    Peronally, I think I have to agree with your husband that you may be overthinking it. Have you stopped referring to everything by it’s religious name like Christmas, Easter, the days of the week. When you swear do you say, “Randi-dammit”, (you should it’s much funnier to see people expressions). Assuming you haven’t done all these other things, why is godparent the one thing you choose to focus on? It just seems a bit reactionary that’s all.

    anyway that’s my buck o’ five.

  • Fergus Gallagher


    I think that god-referencing figures of speech (e.g., swearing) are in a very different category from consciously naming a rôle. Terms like “chairman” are no longer used for a female chair/chairperson. [FWIW, I squirm whenever someone says “Bless You” to me whenever I sneeze!]

    For me, using a non-theistic title is a small consciousness-raising step.

    As an aside, in the Catholic Flat Earth Society Church (at least), “Godparent” is a particular rôle where the incumbent is responsible for the religious indoctrination of the child, and so is especially at odds with a non-theistic world view.

  • anonymous

    it is “Parrain” in french. Close enough to parents yet different.

  • Herb

    The term mentor originated from Greek mythology:

    Does that make it “as bad as” the term godparent? I don’t think we should let the origins of words or practices bother us. Lots of things have origins that are now only loosely tied to their present forms. Christmas and Easter are prime examples – originally pagan celebrations, now quite secular. Historically interesting, but in practice who cares?

  • After sleeping on it, I think I agree with the consensus here that “godparent” is just fine. Plus, it’s a way to diminish any supernatural connotations the word has. The less the word “godparent” is associated to the Christian God, the better, I say. That’s one reason I don’t bother with the cognitive gymnastics required to avoid saying stuff like “goddammit” or “for christ’s sake” – because “god” and “christ” are meaningless to me.

  • TheDeadEye

    I always thought the whole idea was a bit morbid and silly.

  • How about “Oddparents“?

    Oh, wait. Ben Stein has been a guest voice.

    Never mind.

  • koz

    Hi – This was my question, and I greatly appreciate all the responses. As far as Skeptigator’s post, yeah, what Fergus said. I really feel as though I consciously need to not use the word “god.” My family is very religious, and they’d have a field day thinking I’ve “come back” despite how much I explained that my use of godparent isn’t what they’re thinking. Using god in this case would be entirely different than swearing or even holidays, IMO. I do think I’m overthinking it. I’ve probably overthought my overthinking. But I know it won’t go away until I pick!

    Geru – I would be interested in knowing the term you use in Finland. The Finnish/Swedish/Norwegian culture is one we have great respect and affection for. In fact, my husband’s father’s day gift is a lapland bracelet. 🙂

    “The B Team” is hilarious and would totally suit us. There are a whole lot of terms in that vein we could use: JV, second string, etc. But The B Team is awesome.

  • Brian

    My wife and I are named as “Guardians” to our neices and nephews. We are their aunt and uncle, what more do you need than that? We plan on letting my sister and her husband know that we want them to take care of our children (when we have them) and that should be enough for them to feel special.

  • chancelikely

    Most of the alternatives seem silly: Mentor, sponsor, guardian, etc. Use “godparent” and strip it of its religious connotation.

  • Robin

    I grew up in a non-religious home. My parents had close friends, as well as siblings, who served in this type of role. We called them by their names. For a child, knowing that an adult cares for you is way more important than that adult’s title. I’ve known people who have official “godparents” with whom they had little relationship, but our extended “family” has been there for my sister and me every step of the way. Don’t worry about what you are going to call these folks, just make them part of your kids’ lives and the rest will sort itself out.

  • Sara

    One of my best childhood friends has asked me to be godmother to her two daughters, and she knows I’m an atheist. All she wants, should the unfortunate happen, is for someone to make sure they know who their mother was, what she was like (which would include her own very strong faith in God), her hopes and dreams for them, and teach them in general to be wise about the world. They’ll therefore also know how I feel about religion, and their mother is fine with me letting her daughters come to their own conclusions. I was honored to be asked, and feel fine wearing the label “godmother.”

  • ash

    having mucked about on an online translation site, theses were my 2 personal favourites for godparent;

    ???????? ???????? (russian)
    ???? (chinese)

    might be a lil difficult to pronounce tho…

  • ash

    having mucked about on an online translation site, theses were my 2 personal favourites for godparent;

    ???????? ???????? (russian)
    ???? (chinese)

    might be a lil difficult to pronounce tho…

  • Julie

    Hmm…it’s seems a little like “freshman.” I mean, I remember my first year of college, everyone was all up in arms about that word. We couldn’t be freshman anymore. We had to be first year students. Because we weren’t all men, ya see.

    So the word “godparent” doesn’t have to mean that any gods are involved. Do we also need to rename Christmas, to get the Christ out of it? My folks used to jokingly refer to it as the Winter Solstice, but we never said, “Merry Winter Solstice” the day of. My brother and I grew up with a Christmas minus Christ.

    It’s just a word. We still say, “Omigod!” all the time, even though we’re not really appealing to a deity.

    It’s great to be aware of language and consciousness raising, but maybe it’s okay to leave words as they are and just explain the history to your kids later.

  • Julie

    Or maybe “Willparents.” Uh…indicating that these are who the kids go to in your will? And also that you are exercising your free will?

    I guess I’m lucky, since these figures in my life are an aunt and uncle, so no extra titles necessary.

  • Jeff Flowers

    I have no problem with the term “Godparents”; at least we can confirm their existence.

  • I’ve heard of people using ‘sponsor’ and ‘supporter’.

  • Because of my husband’s Catholic heritage and fondness for his traditions, we chose godparents for both of our kids. And, yes, we called them “godfather” and “godmother” even though we’re both atheists. Because when it comes down to it, it’s not that big a deal. It’s like Christmas. 😉

  • James Koran

    Our language is in a constant state of change. It mainly boils down to common usage. Even Christmas and everything about it has ancient origins.

  • wintremute

    How about “guardparent”? guardmother and guardfather. Very similar sounding to godmother and godfather. Might not even raise an eyebrow in conversation.

  • Scott

    I’ve got it:


    (I see that someone is squatting on already!)

    I’m more worried about finding suitable metaparents than what title I give them. Both sides of our families are too religious, and friends are too transitory.

  • I just became godmother to my nephew and it didn’t even occur to me that the term was inappropriate. His parents are uninterested Unitarian types and since I told them straight up that I was an atheist and I had no intention of tell their son a whole lot of nonsense about god and they were perfectly fine with that as long as I let him choose, ultimately. We were all coolio with that. At the church, all they asked me to do was “teach him about your faith lifestyle.” I can do that, though its still a little icky sounding. I have “faith” in love and atoms, to borrow a phrase I read here. I consider myself his voice of reason if any of the nutso Mormons on the other side of the family try to get their hands on him.

  • I was born Louisiana Catholic and I’ve always called my godfather Parrain (pa-RAN) which is French for godfather (duh). The funny thing about that is he’s the only other atheist in the family. So I guess my parents knew what they were doing. 🙂 But it’s a pretty word that doesn’t immediately evoke religion, even if you know what it means. Marrain is the feminine, but I’ve never used that. For some reason we all call our godmothers “Nanny.”

    As to how you ask and what sort of ceremony to have, fuck if I know.

  • I too like “The “b” team” and what skeptigator has to say.

    I like the b team bcause it’s funny.

    I am a godmother to a girl whose mother is muslim and father is mormon. If her parents ever died (and let’s hope they don’t) and I had custody I’d be happy to teach them about both both mormonism and islam . . . and atheism. It is likely I would take them to other people who are mormons or muslims rather than teaching them myself.

    I’d probably also teach them some buddhism as well.

  • Stella

    I like ‘guidemother’ / ‘guidefather’ .. it is not as formal as guardian and not as general as mentor.
    it has the same protection and teaching aspect, but without the religion.

    Btw: I don’t think that the whole concept of godparents is a bad/outdated one. I grew up in an atheist household and i had (the german version) of godparents (= Pate). I wasn’t aware that this was actually a religious term until much later.
    Maybe I was a really morbid child, but knowing that I wouldn’t be alone in case something would happen to my parents was good. After reading fairytales (parents are always dead or there’s the evil stepmother), I knew in a very childlike way that I was taken care of should I ever wind up in a fairytale.

  • stephanie

    I dunno, my husband and I are godparents and the understanding is we teach the kids the important spiritual stuff like who Douglas Adams and Carl Sagan were…
    By the same token, my step-mother was a policeman for two decades, too, and somehow the label never stopped her from being a woman.

  • Karen

    I like the Spanish terms, madrina and padrino.

    Once you become a child’s madrina or padrino, you become the comadre or compadre of her parents, so you also share a special relationship and have a special name in relation to the adults in the family.

    You’ll often hear Spanish speakers addressing someone affectionately as “comadre” or “compadre” when they just mean friend, but it’s like a very close family friend.

  • Cass

    I am a godmother to my 2 nephews. When I told my brother I don’t do religion, he told me my role is to inject science and rationality in their lives because there’s already enough superstition 🙂

    Makes gift giving easy.

  • koz

    Stella: Guideparents is pretty cool. I don’t know technically if it’s outdated or not. I never had godparents, and I had always been under the impression that it was primarily a Catholic tradition, which none of my family is. But I like the idea of it.

    Scott: It’s true. We are very lucky to have quite a wide range of potential . Whether any of them ever get a title or not, our daughter is one incredibly lucky kiddo to have so many caring people looking out for her.

    This discussion has been so helpful. Thanks for posting it, Hemant. My husband and I have lots of ideas, and he’ll have lots of opportunities to tell me to stop thinking!

  • I am a sponsor to my nephew. I think that’s a perfectly good choice. “mentor” doesn’t carry the connotation of being the backup parent should something happen to the parents, but I think “sponsor” does.

    So does “foster parent” perhaps. I am thinking of some scifi/fantasy stories in which a child is fostered with a close family member or friend of the parents as part of growing up and coming of age.

  • elianara

    I like sponsor, or mentor.

    In Finnish the term is “Kummi”, which I believe would translate to sponsor.

    In Swedish the term is “Fadder”, which is close to the Spanish compadre. So you become the co-parent (co-mother or co-father). We have the word godparent (gudmor, gudfar) too, but I don’t know how widely they are used, because I have always used the term fadder.

  • There seems to be some confusion about the precise role of “godparents” in a child’s life. They are not a backup set of parents, expected to step in and raise the child if something happens to the birth parents (though they might well do so). Godparents are expected to participate in overseeing the religious/moral education of the Christian child. (Some people act as if godparents are agreeing to adopt the child if both parents die. This has no legal standing at all, unless the parents–and the godparents–agree to it in writing.)

    The role of godparents is explicitly religious. If you are looking for a secular equivalent, the best suggestion I’ve seen here is “aunt & uncle.” But you could call them whatever has meaning for you. “Mentor” works.

  • We call our kids’ godparents “mentors” … but godparents sounds so much less weird. People know what you’re talking about if you say “godparents” but not so much if you say mentors. Luckily, they’re also my husband’s sister & brother-in-law, so usually we stick with aunt & uncle.

  • Shhaz

    How about Villager; as in, it takes a village to raise a child?

  • My father is atheist, and also godparent _(padrino, actually as we’re in Mexico) to a child of the neighbors next door, as they have lived long enough so as to develop a very close friendship.

    When I asked about it to my dad, he simply said that the formality of the ceremony meant that it was a very serious oath. He said that he knew it was important for them, and so he took it seriously. If they had asked more lightly probably he would have taken it more lightly too.

    I also happen to be “witness” to some friend’s wedding (two weddings and four friends, actually), but in this case was at the civil ceremony (here people have to sign a legal document, as religious institutions can’t give certificates with legal power, just religious).

  • I actually just put a blog post about this very subject. There’s an awesome video that says it all too. check it out .

  • This was really helpful! I was looking for the legal equivalent of the word “Godparent” on-line and couldn’t find one. All of these personal suggestions were great! I chose 3 of them to complete a form for my child’s school. They have an Honorary Grandparent/Special Friend day at school and you have to explain what their relationship is to your child. I wanted to emphasis that this couple were more than family friends. Thanks!

    FYI – I wrote: “Godparents/Guideparents/Willparents”

  • JayTre

    We are having the same problem with our first child. We found this website useful, thanks. We also found this link which has some secular (in english at least) variants for godparent.

  • Brynna

    I loved reading this. I’m on the reverse side of this question. I’m an Atheist “godparent” to a Catholic child. So of course I’m not his confirmed godmother, I’m not even aloud to be part of the ceremony according to the church. Even then, in the parent’s and the child’s eyes, I am part of this baby’s life, and will step in if anything were to ever happen to his parents. They call me his Godmother, and I refer to myself as so, it really doesn’t bother me. If I were to have my own child, I think I would want to name a “godmother” at least, and since it would be the mother of my Godson (a Catholic), she’d be welcomed to call herself Godmother.
    I’d also like to add that my “godmother” role, even in the eyes of the Catholic mother, has nothing to do with religion or spiritualism. I’m there as a supporter, and anything else the parents need from me! 🙂

  • oldretrobiker

    I guess its just another way to be tolerant of other people’s myths.

    Which is fine with me.

  • Sengmand

    How about Atheist Tempered Mentor or ATM’s?

  • Kish

    My hubby and I aren’t even trying to get pregnant, but I’m an over-planner, so I’m trolling these forums… Spinning off of “The B Team,” I rather like “The Understudies.” With our extended Catholic and Lutheran families, that should hopefully satisfy everyone, as we’re kind of the smartasses anyway.

  • Mary

    My husband and I are atheists (or in the very least, agnostics) who are definitively non-Christian and anti-religious. Our first child- a baby girl- is due in two weeks.

    We like the idea of “godparents” in the sense of being a mentor or guide. As far as a legal guardian in case of our death, we have chosen his parents, at least for now. (If enough time passes and they get too “elderly,” we will probably change our will.) But since they already have a title- grandparents- and since they will already be QUITE involved in our baby’s life, we wanted to pick other people to have a special relationship with her- someone to be there at birthdays and celebrations and take her to the zoo and all that kind of fun stuff, as well as, as I said earlier, someone to be a mentor and a guide. 

    We plan to invite a male relative from my husband’s side, and a female relative from my side, to be “Padrino” and “Madrina” since my husband is 100% Italian and we have a strong Italian culture in our home. We are still deciding on exactly how to word things, but we plan to present them with a beautiful keepsake notecard with something like this written inside: 



    We would
    like to ask you to honor us and our daughter by agreeing to be a part of a
    special relationship with her, as her Padrino.
    We would love nothing more than the two of you to share an important bond
    together, and for you to share your time and influence with her as she grows
    into an adult, and beyond, as part of a lifelong commitment.


    A Padrino
    would act as

    -a person of

    -a good mentor

    -a moral

    -a voice of

    -a source
    for advice

    -a trusted confidant

    -a fun companion
    in life


    If you would
    honor us by fulfilling this role of Padrino for our daughter, we would invite
    you to participate in a ceremony this summer as we welcome her into the world
    and formally introduce her to her family and friends, where we would officially
    name you as Padrino. The Padrino would represent Matthew’s side of the family,
    and a Madrina will also be named from Mary’s side of the family.


    We would
    also be honored if your partner in life would participate in this journey with
    you and our daughter.



    Matthew and Mary–

    If you wanted to use the “godparent” (or whatever term you choose) to be the legal guardian as well, I think you could still use a similar letter, but just list it as the last item on the description “a legal guardian after we pass away” or however you feel comfortable wording it. Of course, this makes the commitment much more serious, and you would need to have a long talk about it and make sure to put everything in writing into a will or it has no legal bearing. 

    Anyway… I hope that this helps anyone looking for answers… 

  • Kathy

    This is amazing. We have been struggling with this dilema and you have made our decision easy. If you don’t mind I would like to use your invitation for a coming out and introduction party for our twins.

error: Content is protected !!