Godfather: Isn't That
A Religious Responsibility?
Chris Basten

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Chris Basten"
Subject: Re: All in the family
Date: January 09, 2002 10:32 PM

I asked about that when I was a kid, for the same reasons, but in reverse: I didn't want my Mom's cousins to make me go to church and to teach me about religion! So here's the official scoop that I got: In our family, the word godfather denotes the person or family designated to take care of you in the event of the deaths of your parents. The letter sequence "g-o-d" as a substring of the entire word gives the word no religious meaning.

I was baptized, too, possibly in conjunction with the cousins being named the godparents (I don't know: I wasn't paying attention during those times). Though atheists, my folks were so appreciative of having a child -- any child -- that they went the whole route to make sure I didn't come back to them later on and say, "Hey! Why didn't you Christen me? Why didn't you baptize me?" (That's what they told me! I guess it's the thought that counts, in which case, I'll honor that.) I don't think my sister went through any of that, but she did get the godparents, named in some legal document, just in case something happened.

In other words, I got the godparents plus some meaningless religious ritual, but my sister got only the godparents.

Encarta says that godparents "often maintain close, almost familial relationships with a godchild." Some religious traditions may go even further than this, but there is nothing cut-and-dried about it other than the fact that the godparents are named for the purpose of taking over in the event of the death of the parents. (I would hope the ones taking on this potentially grave responsibility would maintain close relationships with the children!) If your family is putting anything more, either this is their religious tradition or perhaps they're trying to send you a message of some sort (guilt-tripping you or something along those lines: family members do that, sometimes).
 

The best you can do is to find out precisely what they mean when they name you the godparent. If this is acceptable to you, go for it, because there's nothing religious about a religious ritual! If this is something you do not want to do, then politely decline: you don't need to send any message in declining, just a sheepish, "Oh, I'd better not do this, you know; this is something that's outside my league." If the desire to be the one who takes over in the event of a tragedy and if it also involves a few religious trappings, then grit your teeth and decide which is more important: fulfilling the responsibility or avoiding the religious trappings. It's okay to ask the clergyman involved what to do if you don't believe: I'm sure you won't be the first one who's asked him this question!

Some atheists keep acting as if there is something to a religious ritual. "Oh, I'd better not take Grandma to the Midnight Mass, I'm an atheist, you know!" Well, it's one thing to think you'd be a hypocrite, and it's another to be offended (and the best of us go through that). The only true danger you'd face is if you're weak-willed and haven't quite come down from your religious experience so that you think you might do the religious equivalent of "relapsing" back into it. And the only hypocricy would be if you went out of your way to make believe you believe (partaking of the chalice; making the altar call; handling the snakes; etc.); simply attending a service is no indicator that you're a believer, and anybody who doesn't realize that deserves to go about life holding inaccurate opinions!

There is nothing in religious ritual itself that can do anything to you, but you wouldn't know it when some of us act so gingerly about anything religious. I've been hanging with a Baptist minister lately, and may even spend time at his church. (Gasp!) The possibility exists that I could even get involved, peripherally, in his church. (Double gasp!) I don't have to believe in order to go to a social function or attend a service. This has never been my idea of having fun, but if one of the more important people in my life happens to be a Baptist minister, I can expect to bump into religious whatever occasionally, if not often. And since I don't give a rat what anybody believes, then it's entirely feasible for me to develop a friendship with a clergyman.

I am reminded of a report that we put in the December, 1995, print edition called "Our Deities Can Beat Up..." but which never made it onto the Web (yet). The story involved a girl who brought her grandmother's ashes to school. While showing them to a classmate, some of the ashes dropped on the floor. The local Native American shaman was called in to neutralize the effect of the ashes having spilled onto the floor. Upon hearing this, the local Christian ministers demanded access to the classroom so they could perform rituals that would neutralize the effect of the Medicine Man's ritual!

Since I can laugh at this, it's easy for me to likewise laugh at all the times I've treated religion like some adolescents would approach the chore of carrying a dirty diaper over to the diaper bin.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Chris Basten"
Subject: Re: All in the family
Date: January 10, 2002 5:45 AM

I go further: Often it doesn't mean anything even if you give it meaning! That, I think, is what's going on: we're giving meaning to the seemingly hypocritical (or "wrong" or whatever) act of entangling ourselves in some way with religious this or that. That might make sense from the points of view of some religions, but I don't see it making sense for atheism.

Supporting or endorsing? True, I can see us wanting to avoid doing that.

For some balance, check out the responses to Jane's question about mealtime prayer at her friend's home, in the Forum piece called, "Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response?" You'll see both extremes defended handily there, and all the major points in between. My goal is to be able to move freely between the two extremes, at will, according to what I think is appropriate, and depending upon the situation at hand.

But was I right about the teenager holding the diapers? I only know because I've been there, too. And we're so serious about it, so right! Just think: I could have gone to a Christmas Eve Unitarian church service with my grandmother -- the only time I've ever known her to want to go, and the last time I got to spend time with her. Ah, but that was so long ago, and now that I'm much more sure of myself and my situation.

But I can be a real mess at times, as is amply shown on this Forum with the way I've treated some of the folks who have written in. My life isn't much different. Nevertheless, I do try; at least I do that, and I think it shows. And I hope I've learned enough to where if I ever find myself dropped into a situation where I'll need to be able to think on my feet, I'll be able to pull myself through whatever tough situation comes my way.

Am I going to be hanging with Christians in the near future? Probably. Am I going to have to depend on Twelve Steppers as my only source of casual companionship in the near future? Probably. Where I used to live, I didn't know more than a handful of people, but at least my face had been around as long as anyone can remember. Most people had seen me for as long as they'd seen anybody who walked around those parts (ten years). Now I live in a strange neighborhood and don't know anybody. Now is when all this learning and practice (here, online) is going to make or break my living situation.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

Graphic Rule

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