Atheist Godparents?

To some people being asked to be a godparent is an honour. But what does the job actually involve in a society that is increasingly secular?

We asked readers of Newsline, our weekly email bulletin, if they had ever been asked to be a godparent and if so, how they handled it.

Here are some of the responses.

Wendy Peterson

I was asked by a friend to be a godparent. I was very touched and said yes, and we chatted about the fact that I wouldn't be a religious guide for her daughter, since I'm atheist! But then overnight realised I'd made a mistake and called her the next morning to explain. Luckily for me she had also had second thoughts after our conversation, so we were very happy to settle on me being a 'guide-parent' instead.

I attended the Christening, and my friend gave me a secular reading so that I would feel included too. I feel really happy to be a guide-parent, but could not have taken on the role of godparent.

Jill Dykes Ramsay

My husband and I were asked to be godparents to our friends' daughter a few years ago. We were both touched by the sentiment of the gesture but felt it necessary to discuss it with our friends to check how significant the role was for them. We'd never discussed faith before and had no idea how sincere they were in theirs. Was the christening mainly an event to celebrate the child's birth and appease some religious elderly relatives or was it spiritually important to them? We had strong misgivings about what we might have to say during the ceremony too.

So we told our friends how flattered we were but they should know we're atheists and left it to them to decide how to proceed. In the end they withdrew the offer (and honour!!). A bit awkward but best for all concerned. The christening was at a Scottish Methodist church which was a bit 'fire & brimstone'. The ceremony involved statements and promises we couldn't possibly have made in all conscience. There's never been any hard feelings between us since and I'm sure we did the right thing for all concerned.

Barrie Singleton

Some twenty-one years ago I was very happy to become godfather of my nephew. I was certainly an atheist at that time, and certainly attended the christening although I cannot remember any details about it. His parents were aware of my atheism and I think we had some discussion whether this would cause any difficulty. The christening was probably Roman Catholic and it must be likely that I swore to ensure my nephew was brought up in the Christian faith.

I think it is valuable for English children who are from some sort of a Christian tradition to have knowledge of the bible stories, and to have some experience of faith in a god. Otherwise they risk being cut off from a great deal European culture. Probably the best way of effecting this is to allow them to be brought up as Christians. I saw my role as moderating his belief if necessary ( happily it wasn't ! ), and posing moral questions every now and again. As he moved through his later teens we did have a few religious discussions and I have always encouraged him towards atheism, which seems to be his own, natural inclination.

Was I dishonest all those years ago? Strictly speaking, yes, but I was keen to have to have the added bond of love that being a godparent offers ( both to the child and to the parents ), and to have some formal responsibility for his upbringing ( although this is exceedingly small in comparison to his parents' responsibilities ). In my own mind my commitment was to his moral education and this was probably the line I took with his parents, who accepted it. Doubtless my approval of his being brought up in a Christian context also eased things. I was keen that he should have someone in a formal relationship to him who could put the atheist line in due course of time.

To doctrinaire atheists or Christians my actions and reasoning will seem wishy-washy but to have made an early stand on the matter would probably have lessened the bond between my nephew and myself, and possibly between myself and his parents. Everyone has to decide where they make a stand, but in my case my hope of persuading him towards atheism in the long term seems to have worked.

Nick Hopkinson

In the Christening service the Godparents are required to make specific promises with regard to their future relationship with the child. It is impossible for an atheist to fulfil these promises and since you shouldn't make promises which you can't keep then as an atheist you can't be a Godparent. I have sadly declined the role on these grounds whilst making it clear that I was honoured to be asked and if there were an opportunity of taking on such a role in a secular way I would have been happy to do that

Dael Gabriel

I was faced with exactly this dilemma 14 years ago when two very close friends, asked me to be Godfather to their son. As someone with a spiritual outlook but very strongly anti-organised religion (especially Abrahamic ones) I felt I had no choice but to refuse, and did so as politely as I could.

This surprised and upset them even though they knew my views on the subject. Over the course of an evening's discussion with them (and a few glasses of wine!) it became apparent that neither of them wanted me to adopt an authoritarian and religious role, rather to be a friend and mentor, and to instil some of my personal values to him, being aware of qualities in me that they wished me to "Pass on" - indeed this was the reason they asked me. Reluctantly I agreed to perform the "ceremony", for the sake of mum who was let's say "mildly" Christian. His father was and is a confirmed agnostic, has no idea if there is "anything else" and gets on with enjoying this life!

On the day itself, it was interesting for me as a student of comparative religion, to actually witness the strangeness of the clergy (high Anglican) with the normality of the people. It was all very polite, and looking back, when I had to respond to "..and do you reject Satan and all his works?" I was honestly able to say, instead of "I do", "I refute him utterly!"- this raised an eyebrow but was acceptable. The rest was an interesting insight into the way a church "works" and was a passable way to spend a couple of hours, rather like an afternoon in a pretty but somewhat odd museum!

Over the 14 years that I have been his "God"father I have never regretted my decision. I have been a part of his journey in life and have always tried to inculcate an open and inquisitive mind in him. He is a confirmed atheist, (or sometimes Pastafarian especially when he has to attend his local Catholic School) and he has come to that decision entirely without and persuasion on my part.

He dislikes the term Godfather, and I've been "Uncle" all the while, occasionally Dude-father, Flying-Sphagetti-monsterfather, and now just plain Dael! I am so glad of the opportunity for my personal development, and for the happiness and laughter that his sometimes off-the wall personality has in return given me.

To anyone in the same boat, I think this situation is unlike prayers before council meetings where we must stand very firm. If you are asked, by close friends who are asking the above of you then it is not compromising your beliefs to do as I did and refute Satan (as indeed I do the whole church - glad they don't ask you that!). To do so may mean you (and the child) will miss out on a unique bond that Godfather or Godmother just don't sum up. Indeed I think of myself under the French term "Parrain" (feminine "Marraine") which means "Namer" or "Patron" (you will put your hand in your pocket too!!) and have used this term when it's been asked, explaining, "Well, it's like a non-religious Godfather" and quite a few times people have said that's exactly what they were! Maybe we should purloin the term!

Steve Hill
I was asked to be a godparent once, and declined with I hope reasonable grace, explaining that I was an atheist. The friendship survived.

It is I believe hypocritical (and probably offensive to genuine Christians) to make a promise in a Christian church to a Christian god saying that one commits, for life, to helping bring up an infant as a God-fearing Christian, which is, after all, the job description! The Church indicates 5 duties for the godparent: Pray for the godchild regularly; set an example of Christian living; help the godchild in his or her faith; offer encouragement to follow Christ and to fight evil and finally, help the child to look forward to confirmation.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England at least require a godparent to be a baptized and confirmed Christian, although I am not sure how reliably they check this. I really do not see how any atheist could accept such a role. For similar reasons I have twice refused to have a church wedding.

Nigel Sinnott

How should non-religious people respond if asked to be godparents to a small child?

There is no "one right answer" to this because some people are nominal or "cultural" Christians, and they would very likely have no qualms about accepting an invitation to be a godparent.

On the other hand, we should remember that some Christian groups, notably Baptists, do not approve of infant baptism.

In my case I am a staunch atheist and a cultural freethinker. I do not even like humanist "ceremonies of welcome" or "naming ceremonies".

Back in the 1960s I saw quite a lot of a cousin, her husband and family. They would have invited me to be a godfather to one of their children except that I made a point of declining, politely but firmly, any invitation to attend a christening, and explained briefly why.

People who feel, like me, that they must in conscience always decline an invitation to be a godparent do not have to be terse about it, but they should make their views clear in a polite manner. If this gives "offence", then the person making the request is being unreasonable.

Steve Howard

An old friend asked me to be godparent to his children. He knows I'm an atheist and he didn't care. He thought it was hilarious as I made the godparent's oath. I've never seen him smirk so much.

Patricia Tricker
Way back in 1966 I was told by a friend that if I'd been religious she'd have asked me to be her daughter's godmother. However she knew me well enough to know that I'd been an atheist since I was 12.

Kevin OBrien

I would ask the parents if they really were set on having a religious ceremony and suggest that maybe a civil baby naming ceremony would be more appropriate.

I'm not sure what other county councils offer but Kent have an excellent ceremony for such occasions, just as serious and meaningful as a christening without the embarrassing god bit.

Michael Dynes

I was once asked to be a godfather and I politely said on account of my beliefs (or should I say non beliefs), I could not do that. I still went to the christening, but as an observer only. Today I do not attend christenings.

I question the motives of people having their children christened today. I think many people do not understand what it means and see it simply as an excuse for a party and opportunity to show off their baby.

In a christening the godparent is asked if he/she believes in God and rejects Satan. Surely asking a non-believer to lie and answer yes makes a mockery of the service. A good friend would not ask you to betray your beliefs.

My advice would be to simply reply by saying how privileged I was to be asked but because of my respect for you and on account of my beliefs, I could not make promises I would have no intention of keeping. A good friend would respect your beliefs.

Anon

I was recently asked to be a godparent.

I considered it a great honour as it's a recognition of friendship in being asked the question. Further I considered it a recognition of trust that my friends would have me influence their child. They obviously consider me someone whose personality and views would add to their child's upbringing. I didn't take that lightly.

So I did some research. Turns out the role of godparent is different depending on who you talk to, some even saying that implicit is the acceptance that on the death of the parents you should take on the responsibility. And so I simply asked to them to clarify what they meant.

Also, as someone who doesn't see any reason to believe in gods, and further who thinks religion is bad for both individuals and society, I was very clear in telling them that I couldn't take any role in a religious way, and that if anything I would encourage their young one away from any religious belief if the topic came up.

They were very pleased when I asked for clarification and responded that's why they asked me: because they knew I would not take their request lightly and would only agree if I was happy with the role.

They clarified what they meant, my mind was put at rest, and the agreement was made.

Further, the agreement was made that someone else would stand in for me at the church ceremony so I didn't need to say anything I didn't agree with.

So I'm not that handy with nippers - I'm not too good at getting on with them - but I'm trying and hey, at least I'm honest!

And (gentle, humble) honesty is the advice I would give to the person that is asked to be a godparent.

Keith Templeman

I have never been invited to be a godparent. According to one friend he did not ask me because he assumed I would refuse, and he's right. I did not attend the baptism arranged for my own grandson on principle, and I have refused invitations to attend many more.

I do think there is a missing secular 'status' corresponding to godparent. If parents want me to have an honorary or more influential relationship with their child, I would consider that to be a privilege.

However I won't swear to something I don't believe in, in order to get it.

Gary Stewart

I've been an atheist for about 45 years, and was asked some 35 years ago to be godparent to a nephew.

My sister and her husband went to church (of England) every Sunday. I don't know if they were actually religious or not.

I weighed up the alternatives - to be a hypocrite or not - and chose to be a hypocrite. Nothing was really expected of me, I waffled some words about the devil and made my sister happy. Since then, I've not given it a second thought.

This of course made me one of the silent supporters of religion. I even put more than I should into the collection through some vague feeling of guilt.

If asked now, I would politely decline the invitation.

Nina Baker

My parents were not themselves religiously observant, although they had been brought up as Methodist and Catholic, and did not bring me up in a religion. I was not christened or baptised and we didn't attend any church. However they recognised that another adult relationship, beyond the parents and blood relatives, is not a bad idea. So my father asked one of his oldest friends, Sam Scorer, to be what we in the family always referred to as a "Godless godparent". As far as I know Sam wasn't religious either but if the idea of a godparent is to encourage the young person in the ethos and values favoured by the actual parents, then this relationship was probably as effective as most religious godparents. Sam was a tremendous support to me during the difficulties of the teenage years and occasionally took me off my parents hands for a few days of good food and zipping around the back lanes of East Anglia in one of his sports cars.

I think godless godparents are a brilliant idea. If religious parents ask you to be a godparent and you tell them honestly that you don't share their religion but would be happy to be a non-family supportive adult to their offspring and inculcate the child with an ethical standpoint beyond religion, that might still be something even a devoutly religious person could value.

Nicky Hallows

I am the guide parent to one friends child and the godless mother to another. For both parties the roll was never offered with any intention of religious guidance more a request that I have a special role in that child's life and that should anything happen to either parents, I would be there to help bring the children up.

Andrew Barber

About ten years ago, an old friend telephoned ask me to be godfather to her son. "I'm very flattered but I don't believe in god" was my instant response. "That's all right, neither do I" was her reply!

So, I agreed and, not wishing to be overly hypocritical, rhubarbed my way through the service.

We live 150 miles apart so in the ensuing decade I have seen my godson only a few times a year but have sent him presents at the requisite times (and randomly when I see something he might like) and taken him for his first ever flight in an aeroplane, flying him over his house. Now he is old enough I am starting to take him for day trips so that we can actually get to know each other.

I have tried to invent a name for our relationship but the best I could do was Nephew by Choice so have reverted to godfather. Anyone who matters knows that I am a life-long atheist anyway.

My advice, embrace the opportunity and enjoy it.

Diana Brown

I've been asked a fair number of times.

One becomes a godparent through a religious ceremony where one makes all sorts of "spiritual" promises. I couldn't live with myself if I did this; it would be so hypocritical and dishonest. So I've always refused, but I have offered to be an "earth mother", i.e. someone who will look out for the child, take an interest and give him/her advice as required, as well as the odd present.

James Jones

I have been asked to be a godparent several times during my 55 years as an atheist.

I am happy to report that I found no difficulty on any of those occasions in declining, politely. No-one ever seemed to take offence. All moved on to recruit other victims.

Mike Dendor

I am an atheist, a grandparent (to grandchildren being brought up in religious family), and a godparent.

I have no problem in attending ceremonies or agreeing to be a godparent but have made clear to my family, friends, and religious officiators that being an atheist, I see my responsibilities for any matters regarding spiritual, religious, or faith in specific value and belief systems to bring up children with an open mind to all possibilities and then let themselves make up their own minds when they are capable of doing so.

I make clear that I will not take any oaths etc. that bind me to bring them up in only one religion or one value/belief system. In all cases, the religious officiators have completely understood this and taken out any such wording.

I see my approach as tolerance to all value and belief systems - why should I cut myself off from family/friends just for the sake of a few words?

In the case that you mention, the loser is the person saying it is not appropriate for her to be a godparent. If she were to take my approach then why is there a problem?

Andrew Ruddle

There is a suggestion somewhere on a secular or humanist site that the non-religious equivalent of "god-parent" should be "Friend for Life". I find this especially appealing , with its deliberate double-meaning of (approximately speaking) a) "educator about life" and b) "long-term friend", and I have presented myself in this vein to three sets of parents , all of whom were happy to accept that approach.

At the time , and afterwards, one significant factor for me was that my three godparents were pretty well invisible to me at times when I could have used a sympathetic ear – and , indeed , almost all the rest of the time . The one godparent who "did" the religious upbringing thing made it so joyless and weary that it merely sealed-in my atheist attitudes.

As I have tried to say to all three of mygod-childrenFriends for Life, "It's what's inside that is important".

Heather Knott

Some years ago, my husband (a Humanist) and I were asked by friends to be godparents to their baby daughter. I looked at the wording of the ceremony and declined as I felt unable to stand in public and make statements to which I was totally opposed. In answer to, 'Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against god?' godparents must answer, 'I reject them'. To the question, 'Do you turn to Christ as saviour?' I was being asked to say, 'I come to Christ'. My husband was not so hide-bound. His view was that it was only words, he didn't believe them; they meant nothing to him, so he was prepared to utter them. I was not. My friends asked me again and again I refused. They tried a third time to persuade me, saying that they wished me to be a part of their daughter's life in a 'formal' way. In the end I agreed to come to the church and, when asked to come to the front and make my pledges, I would remain silent. Everyone agreed to this. So, when my husband, and my friend's sister, made their pledges, I stood in silence. I wondered whether the priest might have queried my non-participation in the ceremony, but thankfully he didn't.

That is how I coped with the problem. Not ideal to say the least, but I could not say statements that were so utterly alien to my views.

Paul Martin

I think you need to know whether the parents are seriously trying to identify someone who might be called upon to become the child's guardian if something terrible happened to them. You may have friends or family with life-limiting conditions and the right answer to the question is whether you are able and willing to discharge such a duty if called upon.

On the other hand, there is the costume drama of christening which, rather like church weddings, is largely a matter of your ability to ignore solemnly spoken words which even the participants don't seem to believe.

This is where you have to decide whether you are an agnostic who can go along with a bit of social custom that is not much to your taste or a full-blown atheist who thinks religion is a dangerous delusion.

Never underestimate the ability of many good people to completely overlook the text of what they are signing in the understandable joy of the occasion. Sadly, they will think that you're strange if you query this.

Reg Burns

Many years ago, my nephew asked us to be godparents to his youngest daughter. As an atheist, I felt that it would be dreadfully inappropriate to accept, and I explained this to him. He accepted that I cared for him and for the girl.

He was not at all religious, just sort of accepted that there was a big man in the sky. In the end, there was no christening.

Some years later, he broke up with his wife, and abandoned his children. He moved a long way away, and created another family.

The family left living close to us struggled a bit and needed a lot of support from us.

As time passed, they got on their feet, and made a life for themselves. We continued to provide some support.

We took our god daughter on holidays with us and our grandson on a regular basis. She is now 12 years old, and I suspect that she will have a special place in our thoughts for years to come.

We ensure that none of the family really suffer, and try to act as what we call ourselves as "honorary, divorced, grandparents". This year, I have become an: honorary, divorced, great granddad".

I often regret that we did not formally become godparents, as that would have provided a more formal label to our relationship.

I am aware that very few people of my acquaintance are really religious, and that this ceremony is simply a formalisation of the family and its support network.

Martin Stubbs

I felt privileged to be asked to be a godparent. The friends who asked are not religious and know I am an atheist. I think of the role as that of an extra uncle in their son's life who is there for help and advice if he ever needs it. The 'god' in 'godparent' need have no more significance than the 'Christ' in 'merry Christmas'. If my friends were religious they might view the role in its more traditional sense, in which case they wouldn't have asked me, as an atheist, to be a godparent. And if they didn't know I was an atheist they clearly wouldn't know me well enough to entrust me with the honour of being a godparent to their son.

Lee Townley

I am an enthusiastic atheist and faced this quandary when asked to be a god parent by a cousin. I viewed it more as being asked to make a promise to help the child and do my best to help if something should happen to the parents. Which, when you get right down to it, is being asked to make a solemn promise to a friend that they want you to honour should they die. it's not to be taken lightly. There is no law to enforce it and most people won't think about it again, the only enforcement is your own self-respect and the love you hold for them.

During the ceremony I made sure I stood next to the priest rather than in front, and quietly swore my oaths to any dark and peckish gods that maybe be listening.

I will do my very best to make sure the child's religious education is full and detailed as possible, with all the hypocrisy, conflicts and lies exposed. But really, should the worst happen, I will make damn sure the child isn't lost in a social services nightmare.

From Wilfred Gaunt:

Who takes being a Godparent seriously nowadays? The main reason for asking someone to be a Godparent is to ensure birthday and Christmas presents keep coming, even after normal contact would have been lost. Should the birth parents die prematurely, and one finds oneself unexpectedly having to fulfil the role for real, it's not much of a burden to ensure your charges are attending a place of worship on a regular basis: if that's what their parents would seriously have desired.

Richard Brown

I had been with my now wife for about six months and was asked by her sister if we would be godparents to her little girl. With thoughts of being Don Corleone and talking like Marlon Brando for most of the day I agreed without giving it much thought to the actual implications. At this stage of my life, I had come to the conclusion that pretty much everyone was free to have their own beliefs, as long as they didn't infringe on others freedoms. I thought that organised religion was pretty much just a harmless club of old fuddy duddies.

On the day however, we had to sit through the traditional Sunday service (I had not been to church since I was a scout for remembrance day) and looking round the church saw the array of literature available, condemning homosexuals, and how to counter 'militant atheism' as the voice of Jesus was the truth and the light. I found this most disconcerting and didn't sit right with my own internal morality of accepting others for what they are, and stating true to, and being yourself. As a teenager I had tried to conform to what I thought others wanted from me to gain social acceptance, but I think as you mature you realise this is just silly childish behaviour.

Then the christening service began, and it horrified me. This baby may has well have been branded with of C of E logo. Listening to the words it was all about the church, how they had claimed this child for their own, and how she could never go against the word of Jesus. We had to take an oath to defend the child in Jesus name, and I just couldn't do it. With the vicar (a member of my wife's family) glaring at me, I couldn't bring myself to get the words out.

It was a wakeup call to how much automatic privilege the church has in this country and how much more it craves, whilst hiding behind this veneer of goodness. The next day I started reading the work of Dawkins, Harris and falling in love with the eloquence and wit of Hitchens (amongst others) and only last week joined the National Secular Society.

John Symons

An awfully long time ago, as a convinced atheist, I was surprised to be asked by my resolutely atheist brother and sister-in-law to be a godparent to their second daughter and assuming it was a kind of honorary do-nothing position on a social occasion, I agreed.

I was furious to find myself marched to a village church and then requested to stand up and make all kind of promises about religious upbringing etc. As my equally atheist wife said, "You did that without moving your lips." The man in the frock was not happy either.

Basically, it's a stupid, primitive ritual, as is a christening and my advice is to have nothing to do with it.

If we all go along just to keep the peace, the church will continue to exert influence. It is only by refusing to have any truck with the whole nonsense that we can crete a properly, sane, secular society.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.