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Should I tell the parents of my godchild that I've become an atheist?

When I was a believer, I very happily accepted the responsibility to ensure the religious education of my nephew. I have become an atheist and I worry about my responsibilities to him and my family. I want to be honest with my nephew should he ask questions about my religious views, but my responsibility to his parents seems to be in conflict. So far, I have just avoided the topic but now that the child is starting to attend catholic school, I think it is inevitable that these things are going to come up. How should I handle it?

Posted: March 16th 2009

flagellant www

Many years ago, I was asked to be a 'godparent’ to the daughter of friends who well-knew my position; indeed, I suspect that they had some sympathy with it. The biggest difference, though, is that they were Episcopalians of a relatively liberal sort.

The relationship worked well, in that I was able to discuss her problems and advise her on many aspects of her life, during her youth. None of them involved religious belief. Had the subject come up, I’d have explained, without attempting to proselytize. If she had wanted to know more about the reasons for my position, I would, of course, have tried carefully, and with difficulty, to put both sides of the argument. However, I was never faced with the problem.

It really depends how deeply your nephew and their parents hold their Catholic faith and I think it only reasonable to tell them about the difficulties you have. Speaking personally, I see the role of godparent as having little to do with religious teaching or observation.

Few Catholics carry their beliefs as lightly as did my Episcopalian friends, but some are equally casual about their religion. Catholicism is highly dogmatic and the majority of Western, discriminating and intelligent believers do quite a lot of 'picking and mixing’; they simply ignore the most restrictive and idiotic rules, e.g. in respect of chemical/mechanical contraception.

If I were you, I would discuss the matter with your nephew’s parents and say that you want to be 'a secular godparent’ (this was the term I chose for myself with my friends). There will be many other matters to deal with besides belief: you should be able to discuss morality and ethics with your nephew without appeals to the authority of a male power organization. You should also be able to discuss with him, and his parents, some of the appalling decisions of Catholic clergy. For example, a young, 9-year old Brazilian girl was recently given an abortion after years of abuse by her stepfather. The local archbishop excommunicated those associated with the surgical termination but not the abusing stepfather. Read more here . You could find out about other teachings of the Church that run counter to natural, human charity. You might also ask your nephew to think about why he isn’t, for example, a Jew or a Moslem.

Overall, the function of a godparent is not – as I see it – to deal exclusively with religious matters: it is to be a mature and wise resource for the child to consult. At the same time, it is useful, and enjoyable, to have a young person in whose welfare you can take a spiritual interest. And by 'spiritual’ I mean neither superstitious nor dogmatic, but relating to those things about life that bring us joy and fill us with wonder.

Posted: April 2nd 2009

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George Ricker www

I think, in part, the answer depends on your relationship with your nephew’s parents (your brother or sister and their spouse). You will need to sit down with them and explain your position and ask them what they want you to do.

In no case should you be dishonest with the child. If you cannot answer his questions honestly, then it’s better not to answer them at all.

Personally, I have always thought children benefit from having a diversity of models from which to choose. Most religious denominations don’t see it that way, however, and prefer not to expose young minds to alternatives.

If you are comfortable speaking about your non belief with your nephew and his parents are comfortable with you so doing, then I see no problem. You might not want to wear the label “godparent” any longer, but whether or not you choose to keep the honorific, I can see no reason not to continue to serve as a mentor to your nephew unless it will create a conflict with his parents.

In your discussions with them, you should emphasize that it will not be your aim to attack their beliefs in talking to their son but simply to explain your own.

I hope that helps.

Posted: March 17th 2009

See all questions answered by George Ricker

 

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