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.