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.
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.