Ask Richard: Atheist is Asked to Be a Godparent May 12, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist is Asked to Be a Godparent

Hey Richard-

I’m a 24-year old atheist living in the mountains of Colorado. My immediate family recognizes me as an atheist, but few family members beyond that know about my beliefs. I live in a younger community and many of my friends have similar beliefs to my own. My identification with atheism is not something I typically trumpet around everyday, although I did participate in a few A-Week functions which sparked some great dialog between myself and several theistic friends. I’m gaining comfort with my atheism but have yet to scream it from the rooftops.

My question is in regards to my aunt and uncle. More specifically, my question is about their son. You see, I’ll be attending his birthday this weekend (he will be one year old.) Before the little guy was born, my aunt and uncle asked me if I would be his godfather. My difficulty comes with being unsure of my aunt and uncle’s interpretation of the title. They both come from catholic backgrounds and while they wouldn’t be considered active in the church going crowd, they are very opinionated and firm in their beliefs. I’m not sure if they recognize me as an atheist or not, but I expect they don’t. To tell you the truth, I have my doubts that they would have requested this of me had they known I am an atheist. We live about five hours apart and see each other 5-6 times each year. We have many other interests in common and have always had a close and pleasant relationship. I love my godson and have taken the role willingly, looking forward to watching him grow, but I’m nervous about what feels like an impending conflict.

How will it be if/when they discover my atheism? Am I obligated to disclose this information?

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated. Your contribution to this community has been extremely helpful to me in the past.

God(less)Father

Dear Godless,

The traditional Catholic role of godparent involves participating in important rituals such as baptism and confirmation, but the role is much broader than just playing a part in a ritual. The godparent is to oversee the religious upbringing of the child in partnership with the parents. Godparents are committed to put forth special effort for their whole lives to see to it that the child grows up as a devoted, observant Catholic. To do so, one of their basic qualifications is to be a devoted, observant Catholic themselves.

Nowadays, some parents who are only nominally religious think of a godparent as a kind of “backup parent” who will step forward to help with the child’s welfare, upbringing and guidance if the parents die before the child is able to take care of himself. In this interpretation, the religious obligations are minor to nonexistent.

But I don’t think that you should assume that your aunt and uncle see it that way. You need to talk with them directly to clarify what they expect and what you can deliver. Whether their concept of this is more religious or more secular, they are asking you to fulfill some kind of role of special trust. They probably picked you because they see in you a sensible and responsible person with integrity.

If you passively let them make assumptions about your beliefs, then when, not if, the truth comes out through a third party instead of yourself, they might feel deceived and resentful if they were counting on you having an acceptable level of religious belief. For your ongoing relationship with them and your young cousin, that would not be good.

First, tell them that you’ve been thinking about this, and ask them about what they expect of you as a godfather. Present your questions to them in the context of your love for the little guy, and your sincere desire to be a good influence and good example for him. You are honored by their trust, you take it seriously, and you want to be conscientious about what they expect.

Once you understand their interpretation of the role, you can decide what and how much of your own views to reveal, but be prepared that you might have to include them in the circle of your family who know about your atheism. Take things one step at a time. If it becomes necessary, it’s probably best not to out yourself at his birthday party with all the noise and the rest of the family around. Pick a quiet occasion.

If you decide to tell them, you may have to dispel some of the common misconceptions about atheism, such as equating it with anti-theism or Satanism and so forth. Even otherwise sophisticated people may have learned these stereotypes and may not have had any experience that would contradict them. Be patient with this. They have been misinformed by others. It is easier to help correct people’s misconceptions if you don’t put them on the defensive.

Let your overall goal be to preserve your good relationship with your uncle and aunt. This would be for its own sake, and also so that you’ll be allowed to enjoy the company of your little cousin as he grows up. Every kid with religious parents needs a “rational cousin” or a “sensible uncle” who quietly and subtly oversees his secular upbringing, planting seeds of critical thinking, demonstrating that skepticism is a virtue, encouraging an understanding about how science works, things like that. If as a teen or young adult he comes to have a crisis of his faith, he will need someone he trusts for honest answers and respectful encouragement to find whatever will be his own path.

Would that we all had such god-free mentors in our youth.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tim

    Honestly, if a godparent oversees the religious upbringing of a child (how awful that there is such a concept), who better than an atheist?

  • Gordon

    I had a god parent I never even met.

  • Sarah

    I was asked to be a Godmother to a good family friend’s daughter over five years ago. At the time, I still considered myself a Catholic and happily accepted the role. Since, I have lost my belief in God. Though my immediate family is aware of my change in beliefs, our good family friend, and my now five-year-old Goddaughter, have no idea. The thing is, I’ve never considered this is a problem.
    I feel I have been and will continue to be a wonderful Godmother regardless of my lack of belief. I am always there for her, I spoil her with love, affection and a few gifts, and, as she grows older, I will always be there to talk to her and help her with anything she comes to me with.
    Being a Godmother means so much more than simply sharing the same beliefs of the child’s family. It’s about knowing what those beliefs are, respecting their wish to raise their child with those beliefs, and being there for help and advice when needed. (though I would never pretend to believe or use religious references when helping her with anything)
    If my atheism ever comes up, I will address it openly and honestly. Until then, I don’t think it’s necessary to cause anyone hurt or disappointment.

  • Thank you for being forthright.

    My godparents were wonderful people (both are since deceased – and when asked, my dad was no longer practicing Catholic, but understood what he was asking – and they knew intrinsically what they were taking on by accepting, particularly since my dad’s marriage to my mother (and subsequent adoption of me) fell well outside of Catholic boundaries.

    I know too well this topic, and when asked (as I have been more than once) to be a godparent…I am extremely blunt. This is NOT a subject to pussyfoot around. Period. If I died tomorrow, I trust the godparents I selected for my children – regardless of religious preference. It is a serious topic.

    You, Hemant, handled it gracefully and elegantly.

  • Mihangel apYrs

    If they expect you to involve yourself in the ritual and, more importantly, the commitment to raise and support your cousin in the Xian (and RC) faith, you must respectfully decline. Explain why, and point out you are declining because you don’t want to deceive them, and to give them the option of a different gf.

    Make clear your feelings for them and your cousin, and your commitment to him if anything happened to them.

    This unfortunately isn’t one of those decisions you can fudge, it’s too important to them, and your integrity

  • Daniel

    My daughter has a “There-Is-No-God Father”; He is one of my closest Atheist friends. His role is that should I pass away, he will ensure that my daughters know what my beliefs were and to encourage that they take a rational approach to religion.

    Whereas traditionally, a godparent is to encourage children to attend a specific church, his role is to encourage the opposite.

  • Elly

    On this topic: does anyone have a good name for non-religious ‘godparents’? I took on the role of my nephew’s ‘supporting adult’ at his secular naming, but it isn’t a very snappy title. My (Catholic) friend calls herself our son’s ‘secular godmother’ but I’m sure there must be a better way of phrasing it.

  • I totally agree with Sarah…

    Also, I’m dealing with a problem similar to that. Not only was I asked to be “godfather” to a friend’s child, they are going to be “godfathers” to my child. (We’re doing it at the same time).

    My wife wants to baptize, even if she leans more towards agnosticism, and does not at all participate in church activities, she likes the “tradition” and “family gathering” it brings… An atheist friend who went through the same thing made a deal with his wife. We baptize, but 1) can’t be in a church, 2) when time for communion comes, NO. We’ll move him to another school if possible. It’s better to pick some fights, not all…

    I might add, unfortunately, that many (if not all) of the top schools around the area I live in are Catholic. (And some secular ones are prohibitively expensive) I am lucky though, that our catholic schools are pretty “liberal” and have total separation from their religion curriculum and science. The lack of secular schools is a big concern in many cities and something we have to live with in the time being.

    Now, in spanish, godfather is “padrino”… no mention of god anywhere. The way I see it, it is a way to bring a close friend into your family circle. Nothing more. I do like the Idea of doing a “Padrino Ceremony” if you will, I’m just not happy about the fact that a “priest” will be doing the ceremony, at least it will be done outside a church, with a hopefully “atheist” priest (like the one who married me, in which again, my wife wanted a traditional church wedding…. oh, what we do for women).

    It’s hard sometimes as an atheist to deal with certain situations, even if you’re openly critical of religion, and specially when many of those around you are “closet atheists” who have a hard time letting go of certain traditions (baptisms, weddings… pretty much nothing else involving churches).

    I say, accept the role… even if some traditions are “ridiculous”, they can’t be stopped suddenly. With the new generations growing up more secular, and old generations passing away (as we all do) these traditions will be phased out.

  • Arctic Ape

    My ex-church requires baptized children to have two godparents while most of the churchmembers consider it a meaningless formality. When the media asks for a rationale for this requirement, the church spokespeople tend to get squirmy and mumble something about building supportive growth environment. I’ve yet to see a reporter to ask how is this relevant to baptism, or point out the obvious fact that few people are willing to actually hang out with other people’s children. The requirement might soon drop to one, though.

  • Halley

    I am a very out atheist and I was asked to be one of my friends childs god mother (unfortunately, she miscarried), I decided to interpret the idea more like in Cinderella, as in a fairy god mother. Which, to me, would mean the taking care of the child in the event that something happened to the parents, but also a less serious, fun role of bringing gifts and such things like that. I think that allows for a more involved role, like that of the traditional god parent, sans religion, than the more modern idea of back up parent.

  • i was an out atheist and my friends knew it when i baptized their child. thank goodness the child is now a non-believer!

    … but i wouldn’t have gone ahead with it without the parents’ knowledge of my atheism.

  • T-Rex

    I am the gawd parent of my friend’s daughter. They knew full well I was an atheist when they asked me and viewed it as more of a title than an actual religious tie to her or their family. They even went so far as to pay off the church so I wouldn’t have to meet with the head pedophile for “counseling” before the christening. I think they feared what I would say to the priest in that counseling session. In short, I would suggest you “confess” your atheism to your aunt and uncle before accepting the role as gawd father. Just to make sure that you both are on the same page when it comes to what is expected of you in this role.

  • I’ve been an out atheist my whole life and have never been asked to be a God parent. Hmmm. My wife and I haven’t asked anyone else to be our children’s god parents either although we have discussed who should raise our kids if we prematurely died.

    I wonder, though, if god parent status is something that can be taken away. It might be like “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”. You might now be a god parent no matter what your beliefs are or what your Aunt and Uncle learn about your beliefs. 😉

    It would probably be best to let your relations know a little of your lack of belief… at least tell than that you are not practicing Catholicism.

  • The letter writer should decline. The Church requires that godparents be active Catholics. Even if your relatives are personally comfortable with an atheist godparent, they would be placing themselves in schism with the RCC. Make sure they are aware of that if they offer you the slot.

  • When my sister asked me to be the godmother of her son, the godfather she and her husband chose had been an atheist all his life, so I was stuck being “the Catholic one.” I was informed that the church requires one godparent to be a practicing Catholic, and since I had never quit the church, it had to be me. I went ahead and did it – I had a showdown with my local priest to give me the damn certificate and stop asking me questions (I won!) and now my nephew has two atheist godparents (in spite of the certificate claiming otherwise).

    Other people might have moral objections to doing what I did, though. I totally understand that. I think, in my case, family dynamics won out over the other factors.

  • Parse

    @Elly:
    Dons, perhaps? Although you might be contractually obligated to meet with the ‘godchildren’ (mafiosos?) in Italian restaurants, if you go that route.

  • Richard Wade

    Leah,

    If the letter writer declines the role of godfather, it should not be for the reasons that you describe. He needs to let them know enough about himself for them to make their own decision. His responsibility is to keep his relationship with his aunt and uncle in good order. It is not his responsibility to keep their relationship with the Catholic Church in good order, or to protect them from being in a schism. Whether they practice their religion loosely or by the book is up to them. An atheist should not have to educate two Catholic adults about how to follow the Church’s rules.

  • flawedprefect

    It’s actually amazing how much this ritual is lip-service. My Godmother was single when I got baptized, is now in a de-facto relationship, and never once spoke to me of “spiritual” things. I could not imagine ever having grown up with her as my guardian. She was simply my mum’s best friend at the time.

    My wife is insisting we baptize our baby girl, and I can’t help but laugh: she’s an IVF conceived baby, with an Atheist father and a gay uncle. And yet it’s ASTOUNDING how all these things can be overlooked by the family (they whisper in hushed tones, “the priest doesn’t have to know those things”) and when it comes right down to it, if the parish is desperate enough to hope for more bums of pews, they’ll baptize practically anyone they can get.

    I don’t think you’ve got troubles either way. If you’ve been raised Catholic, you should know it’s all just decoration and lip-service anyway. 🙂

  • Austin

    I have godparents but they have nothing to do with teaching me or having me be catholic. From what I understood it as was that if something that if my parents died while I was still underage they would be the ones to raise me.

  • Chas

    I think anyone being asked to be a godparent should talk about parent expectations. I also want to make sure what the parents’ will says 😉

    I’m a god-parent to 3 nephews of different sects (Lutheran, Unitarian & Catholic). All treated the assignment of god-parents similar to standing up at a wedding: ceremonial with no lasting responsibilities.
    They were chosen based one from each side of the family.

    Only for the Catholic one was I an out-atheist. We talked not only about any life-long obligations, but also what I’d do at the ceremony (sit, stand, no kneeling, etc).

  • Karen

    I was raised in the Catholic church, took a long and involved spiritual route from it, and finally ended up an atheist. But now, at age 51, I can’t even remember my godparents. I can no longer visualize their faces. They had very little involvement with my life.

    On the other hand, I can remember my parents’ friends who liked me and interacted much with me from when I was a toddler. I’ve lost their names, but their faces are very clear, and the values they taught me are still solid.

    It’s most important to be there for your godchild(ren) and be loving, kind, and generally a good example for them. Teach them your values.

    The religious stuff is just window dressing.

  • @Richard Wade, thanks for your reply. I think the atheist does have a duty to disclose what the consequences are in the Catholic church, provided he knows it is contrary to requirements. It’s analogous to disclosing that food is non-kosher to observant Jews. If the aunt and uncle want to split from the Church, more power to them, but he shouldn’t be the means of them acting against it in ignorance.

  • Richard Wade

    Leah, it is the letter writer’s responsibility to learn what his aunt and uncle expect of him according to their own interpretation of what a “godparent” is, and then only based on that, to reveal things about himself to help them make an informed decision.

    Their own interpretation and how they arrive at it is their responsibility, not his. Their degree of adherence to their religion is their responsibility, not his. Their ignorance or savvy about their religion is their responsibility, not his. Not only are those things not his responsibility, they’re none of his business.

    He should be honest with them according to what they expect of him. To say that he must learn more about their religion than they themselves know, and then to instruct them in it is unreasonable.

  • Richard, I think he has an ethical obligation to disclose the stakes of the decision, provided he’s learned them from this comment thread or elsewhere. It is unkind to let people harm themselves through ignorance. Even if we atheists don’t think any harm is done by having the ‘wrong’ godparents, we can recognize the emotional distress they would suffer if they realized later that they broke the rules of the Church. He should disclose and let them choose if they want to break with church teaching, not allow them to schism through ignorance.

  • marylynne

    In the midst of shedding my faith, AFTER I went to the parish priest and discussed all my doubts and struggles, I got a call asking me to be the Confirmation sponsor for a friend of my daughter’s (The Catholic coming-of-age ceremony – the sponsor is supposed to provide spiritual guidance or vouch for their faith or something). I explained to the lady that since I was pretty doubtful of there even being a God much less agreeing with Catholic dogma I didn’t think it was appropriate. She said it would be fine and I should call the priest if I wasn’t sure.

    I called him, reminded him of our conversation, and was told it would be fine, it was up to me, examine my conscience, etc. It seemed like it really didn’t matter if I believed or agreed, as long as I would be there for the ceremony. Very bizarre. I really started it wonder if everyone was faking it!

  • Steve

    For me it would depend on my role in the ceremony. It seems that in some sects or with some priests you have to publicly declare that you will take part in their religious education. That’s a no-no. Simply because you shouldn’t swear oaths you know you can’t or won’t keep.

    But if I just had to stand there and maybe hold baby, and there was an understanding with the parents about my future role, I’d consider it.

  • I’m confused. If the letter writer’s aunt and uncle are Catholic, then the baby should have been baptized by now, making the godfather role official and formal in the eyes of the RCC. Since it appears that this didn’t happen, I wonder how serious the aunt and uncle are about their religion. Even if they’re not regular churchgoers, most people who consider themselves Catholic will baptize their young infants, yet their son is already a year old with no baptism in sight? It seems like they might not be so hung up on having the godfather play a religious role in the child’s life if they haven’t even gotten around to the actual sacrament yet.

  • Richard Wade

    Leah, thank you for this interesting exchange. I guess we’ll have to disagree. I often will take the initiative to inform people of something that I’ve noticed, just as a courtesy, in case it’s pertinent, but I don’t think that the letter writer has an ethical obligation to have to anticipate the possibility that maybe, perhaps, just might, could be, on the off chance, just in case, that they are being not as entirely thorough about their own beliefs as they might be, beliefs he has no interest in or responsibility for, as well as the possibility that maybe, perhaps, just might, could be, on the off chance, just in case, they would be upset about that later.

    They asked him to be their son’s godfather, not their godfather, and we still don’t know what the heck that word means to them. And he’s certainly not obligated to be their godmommie in any case, having to see to it that they spiritually wear their sweaters when they go out in the cold and say please and thank you. They’re adults.

  • guest

    From my understanding, the baby already has been batpized and the writer is officially the godfather. He seems to now be questioning his decision of becoming the godfather though.