The Godfather Dilemma

I don’t have very many religious friends, so I haven’t often been put in a position where my beliefs were really challenged. I received an email from a friend recently concerning a very interesting dilemma he’s facing (I’m including most of the letter intact since James is an excellent writer):

[T]here’s something atheism-related that I’d be interested to get your input on. In fact, if you feel it’s a topic worthy of discussion on one of the podcasts, please feel free to bring it up. Basically, a lifelong friend of mine (he’s my Karate instructor, who I’ve known since I was six) is having his kid Christened, and asked me to be a godparent. Obviously, as an atheist, there is something of a conflict of interest there.

At face value, I have no problem with it, and don’t take my own anti-theism so seriously that I can’t stand there in the house of our lord, chuckle a little bit at the biting irony, and just spout the Biblical gobbledegook for the sake of ceremony. What matters is that I’m pledging to do right by this kid, to set good examples and make sure he turns out to be good peoples – all the Christian mumbo jumbo is just that. I don’t feel the need to be militant and tell my friend that, “Your religion is full of shit and I want nothing to do with putting this poor little bastard on the evil path of the Church,” even though that’s basically how I feel.

But here’s the thing; my other half is a Zen Buddhist (essentially Buddhism without a lot of the mumbo jumbo – it’s basically more like Taoism). She finds Christianity just as ludicrous and offensive as I do, but she was asked earlier this year to be the godparent of her brother’s newborn baby. She felt a lot more conflicted than I did, and was initially going to refuse on the grounds of her own beliefs. But when she saw how cool I was about being a godparent for my Karate instructor’s kid, she decided that she’d likewise just chuckle at the irony of it all and do her part.

So, I’m sitting there in the Church, watching her stand there in front of all the gaudy trappings of Christianity while some crossdressing kiddy fiddler talked about how the godparents were pledging to “surrender to Our Lord Jesus Christ” and all this crazy shit, and I’m thinking to myself, “Fuck me – if I was her I’d probably have to walk out right about now, because this is just bullshit.” It was one thing to play it cool in principle, and say that I would bite my tongue to service the message, not the missive, but seeing my other half standing there while all this pantomime morality was going on… it made me feel genuinely queasy.

I’m now very torn on the matter. One half of me is still of the opinion that the guy (who, incidentally, really doesn’t like religion or the church at all – I think he’s just doing the Christening because it’s “what people do” with a new kid) should do what he wants, and his intentions are honourable, and I don’t want to be as bad as a Christian missionary by throwing my own beliefs in his face, especially on such an occasion. But on the other hand – thanks to my increased awareness of atheism and the atheist community, which is entirely the fault of you and your site – I really don’t want to be the one to let the side down by cowtowing to this Christian bullshit. And of course, there’s the fact that my Buddhist partner only stood there with gritted teeth because she knew her atheist boyfriend was going to do the same thing…

Seeing as how this is mostly a consequence of poor James being tuned into atheism, it seems more than fair that I should answer the man. For starters, I understand exactly what you mean when you refer to the quiet rage you felt listening to these guys talk. When you’re off the bullshit wagon, you begin to see all the subtle and manipulative things the church does and says. So yes, in that regard it can be pretty damn difficult to suffer through it.

In regards to your friend, you probably both realize that the purpose of the ceremony is merely to make something as personal as the status of godfather seem more concrete. Say what you will for their dogma, but Christianity has always had a stellar reputation in understanding how to help foster the bonds of trust. A ceremony is nothing more than a way of making sure everyone involved is on the same wavelength. Think of these guys as the equivalent of a bunch of bureaucratic lawyers with a religious bent.

You mention being confident in your beliefs, but there is obviously a part of you that still feels threatened by the whole affair; the lone atheist surrounded by believers who demand that you conform to their ceremony. You can change that by adding your own part to the process so as to reclaim it. In other words, if you find a way to create your own form of bonding ceremony that is not religious with your friend, you won’t feel cheated out of the experience. Your time in church listening to the sermons will seem quaint.

The tough part about being an atheist is that we have no real ceremonies and custom that allow us to connect with other human beings the same way religions do it. It is ultimately what makes them infinitely more popular. It does not mean that we cannot find our own ways of expresing the most beautiful of human emotions; we just have to work a little harder at it.

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Comments (10)

  • avatar

    The Apostle James

    Thanks for the knowledge, Jacob – I really appreciate your feedback on this.

    I think you’ve affirmed my original position – that the ceremony is all bells and whistles and dancing around the true fact of the matter, which is cementing my relationship to this little bugger. So I feel more comfortable grinning and bearing the rhetoric, especially coming from “lawyers with a religious bent” – which is funny, because my other half is a lawyer (though a nice one, not a shitty litigious one, I should add).

    I think there might be a slight misread in there about me being threatened by the whole affair, though. I think my greatest opposition to the whole thing is that, while my mother is Catholic, my father is Idontgiveafuck, and INSISTED that I not be Christened at birth, because it should be my own choice to believe in whatever I wanted to believe in. I was an only child, and from the earliest age I would sit with my dad and his friends while they had all these deep philosophical conversations about the Bible, about the fallacy of religion and so on.

    So, essentially, I’ve known the ins and outs of atheism and religious dogma since virtually day one – which puts me in the position that I simply cannot have anything but diminished respect for people who can’t see Christianity for the sham that it is. I no longer care to debate with or enlighten these people, because they are so didactically hardwired to their beliefs that 99% of them simply won’t listen to reason, logic, or just plain common sense.

    Therefore, being surrounded by people I otherwise have nothing but love and respect for in a ceremony that I know to be complete hokum is what really distresses me here. Not to mention my dad’s decision that I shouldn’t be Christened, which I utterly agree with, and here I am being complicit in taking away this child’s right to choose his own path. By and large, I don’t mind looking like a hypocrite, but when it comes to the church… y’know how it is.

    But ultimately, I’m reasoning it like this: the guy wants his kid Christened. He’s going to do it whether I’m there or not. He made a wonderful gesture of asking me to share in his son’s life and upbringing. What will I really gain by turning it down on religious/anti-religious grounds? I’ll be cutting off my nose to spite my face. Like you suggest, there’s no reason that I can’t supplement the theistic ceremony with some, more compatible, ritual of my own. What form this will take, I’m not yet certain – maybe I’ll just print a bunch of your blogs and give them to him when he turns 16. Do unto others, vengeful God, and so shall it be done unto you, motherfucker!

    Anyway, thanks for letting me vent, and for replying so thoughtfully – it really has been a great catharsis, and a great help.

  • avatar

    Lynda

    Hmm, very interesting discussion.

    My sister married an Italian Catholic and proceeded to have four children. I am not a godparent to any of them because to become a godparent it is essential that you share the same belief that the child will be raised in. Perhaps this is the difference between faiths, but when my sister didn’t ask me to stand as godparent because she knew damn well I was an atheist, I wasn’t offended in the least. Why stand up for a ceremony that I neither appreciate, understand or respect? As well, the function of the godparent in the Catholic faith is to support that child in their religious indoctrination. Why the hell would I want to become involved in that?

    I see it as rather disrespectful to the family that you will be standing up for their child without any intention of maintaining the intent of the ritual as they believe in it; to smirk about it in your head whilst going through the ceremony. If you are such close friends then you will undoubtedly be part of the child’s upbringing and life. Why start it with a lie? Why can’t your friends respect the fact that you’re an atheist and that to be involved in the christening would be a sham?

    Obviously just my perspective.

  • avatar

    The Apostle James

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Lynda – your thoughts are very much appreciated.

    Without doing any research on the subject, I can only judge the Christening/godparent ritual based on my own experiences. As such, I can only relate to the words used by the priest at the Christening I attended with my partner, which were in essence “to uphold the teachings of the Holy Bible”. Since these values and principles amount to the same canonised morality as the other major religious traditions – loving thy neighbour, noy stealing thy neighbour’s stuff and so on – I don’t see it as important that I uphold the *method* of the teachings (“You’ve got to do all this stuff because Jesus said so”) so much as the teachings themselves, without the connotation (“You’ve got to do all this stuff”).

    In terms of being disrespectful to the intention of the ceremony or for smirking to myself, both counts are fairly contextually bound. For the latter, the smirking will be a self-preservatory act on my own part, as my way of dealing with the ceremony; it certainly won’t be smirking at anyone’s expense, more black humour on my part. And as for the intention of the ceremony… I noted in my message to Jake that the family is not at all religious. In fact, my instructor and I have had numerous conversations on the general absurdity of religion and Christian self-righteousness in general. Like I said, the reason he is going through with the ceremony isn’t at all because he is a deep, committed, church-going Christian. He doesn’t go to church. He hasn’t even read the Bible. He’s having the child Christened because “it’s what people do”, the same way as he got married in a church, before almighty God because “it’s what people do”, not because he believes in any of it. And he’s inviting me to be a part of his child’s upbringing not because I’m “a good Christian role model”, but because he’s known me for 23 years and considers me a good role model for his son, and if he wants me to be an active part of his kid’s development then, as noted, the missive is of less significance than the motive.

    Which is a major part of why I don’t intend to let my own lack of belief impose on *his* lack of belief. If he wants a nice ceremony and a reason for a family get-together that just so happens to take place in a church, that’s fine by me. I certainly don’t think I’m being any more disrespectful to the tradition merely by feigning interest in it than he is by, essentially, promising in the house of our Lord to raise his child by the letter of the Bible, when he has no intention to do so whatsoever! On the other hand, if he was a church-going, scripture-quoting, crucifix-toting kind of guy that took his religion steadfast and seriously, I would most certainly opt out of participating. But, once again, this isn’t something that’s motivated by religion, so ultimately I don’t see it being important that I have no faith, compatibility or understanding in said religion – particularly since he doesn’t!

    Thanks again for your input, Lynda – feel free to fire anything else my way if you think I need or deserve it!

  • avatar

    Lynda

    Oh, he’s one of those kind of guys! I have never understood people who don’t lead a religious life yet continue to perpetuate the ritual(s) of a religion. This led to my being baptised at age 3 and the reason my mother continues to call our family “Anglican” though we’ve never set foot in a church as a family in all my 42 years. It’s a status symbol left over from her upperclass British upbringing.

    However, that whole “non-religious person continuing to perform religious rituals because we’re “supposed to”" is an interesting tangent that drifts away from the christening discussion. Here’s hoping you get a good after-christening lunch out of the whole thing.

  • avatar

    The Apostle James

    It does appear to be a strange phenomenon of Britishness – I know so many people who, while not practicing atheists or agnostics, certainly hold no religious affiliation, but when it comes to filling out a form they generally put “C of E” under the Religion category. Why? “Because it’s easier.” Well, “C of E” contains the same number of letters as “none”, but whatever makes them happy, I guess.

    Quite a few of these guys have had Christian weddings, too – that is to say, they are held at or inside a church, with a cermony conducted by a priest or reverend. Same deal with a funeral – church, preacher, hymns, God. Again, I think many people just think “that’s the way it’s done,” as opposed to making an active decision to have a theistic ceremony. Which, while baffling, ultimately only helps my own dilemma, as I don’t feel that I’m compromising my own values by participating in an already-compromised ritual.

    There will definitely be a good spread laid on afterwards, though, so I’ll enjoy that! Unfortunately, I’m off to the west of Ireland in a few weeks for a HARDCORE Irish Catholic wedding. All these years I’ve managed to stay away from churches… it’s some sort of conspiracy to convert the heathen!

  • avatar

    Gemma

    Hello All,

    I stumbled upon your site whilst looking for ideas towards an interfaith christening (I’m one of the lunatics and my husband is Buddhist.)

    Perhaps you could suggest a naming ceremony by the British Humanist Association. Since his family are not really church-goers, but want to have a ceremony as it is “what people do” this might be a faith neutral way to do it. If not, perhaps you could find inspiration on their site for the extra bit you hope to add.

    http://www.humanism.org.uk/ceremonies/humanist-namings

    I hope this helps.

    Best wishes,

    Gemma

  • avatar

    Bastard Soap

    Hei Gemma, not a lunatic unless you act like one in my book (btw your default opinion for us is a lot worse, the general population considers atheists in the league of pedophiles without knowing anything of atheistic principles).

  • avatar

    Gemma

    Hi,

    Thank you for your tolerance Bastard Soap. I’m sorry to hear you’ve come across such prejudice. It’s probably an experience you share with most people on this planet. Would that everyone judged only on acts (as you have done) or not at all.

    James, I stumbled upon another idea that might be helpful in your current dilemma; rather than being the Godfather (conjuring too many images of Marlon Brando on top of the ill-fitting religious connotations) you could nominate yourself as the Odd Father.

    [I, an atheist, have always been odd-father to the son of some of my closest friends, also unbelievers. I'm his odd-dad, and he's my odd-son. This still seems to work now he's 25. I've been informal odd-dad to several others. I can't recall how we came up with it in the first place, but we like it. And just like with the believer's version, it all depends on how seriously you want to take it.
    MWH, on the talkboard] http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2006/mar/25/familyandrelationships.family6

    I like it and will suggest it when we invite agnostic friends to take a mentoring role in our children’s lives.

    Best wishes,

    Gemma

  • avatar

    Phil

    An interesting discussion, about an interesting dilemma – but I find your atheist responses a little baffling.

    I was raised as a catholic but have been an atheist all my adult life. The Catholic upbrining was useful in many respects – especially in undestanding just how damaging a religious upbringing can be!

    But my point in commenting is this – becoming a godparent is NOT just a bonding exercise. Not according to my catholic upbrining anyway. A godparents main role, in the eyes of the church, is a religious one. A godparent takes an oath to safeguard the religious upbringing of the child.

    When an antheist takes such a role, they are becoming a fully fledged hippocrit.

    Consider this: in the eyes of the law, anyone who stands in a court and takes an oath on the bible to tell the truth, will be prosecuted for perjury if they are found to be lying. An atheist cannot get out of it by saying ‘I am an atheist so the oath meant nothing”.

    In my view, an atheist doesn’t get to stand in a church and vow to safeguard a child’s relious upbringing, then rewrite the vow later so they feel comfortable.

  • avatar

    Graeme

    In Scotland, the Humanist Society of Scotland performs weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies – so there is an alternative! The masters of ceremonies are known as celebrants and there are many of them around the country. My wife and I were married by a Humanist celebrant and when we have children we will have a Humanist naming ceremony. That doesn’t get me out of the potential porblem of being asked to be a godparent, however.

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