How can I feel okay about lying in church?
August 23, 2007 5:50 PM   Subscribe

One of my best friends asked me to be godmother to her new daughter today. I cried, she cried, I said yes (of course). I'm over the moon about it. But the god thing has got me a bit concerned and I'd like some advice...

I was brought up CofE (Anglican), was baptised, but decided not to get confirmed as I don't believe in god and thought it would be hypocritical and would involve lying in church, which I didn't want to do.

The parents of my prospective goddaughter are CofE but non-practising - they got married in church, but don't go to church, and the christening will be in church. They know that I'm an athiest and she specifically said when she asked me that they didn't expect me to do the "god thing". They see godparents as people who will be part of their extended family, who will be a positive influence in their daughter's life, to help her become a good person and live her life in a good way, and who will be around for years to come. And I know that I want to do all that.

But I know that during the ceremony, I will be asked to promise that I will help bring her up in the christian faith. And I can't promise that.

My question is - how do I reconcile my aversion to lying in church with my desire to be a godparent to their daughter? Is there a way around this that means that I don't have to lie in a public place? Should I just do it?

(Some of you may disagree with their decision to hold a church christening, being non-religious. Some of you may disagree with them choosing an athiest as a godparent. But those are their decisions and I support them. What I'm looking for is advice on how to deal with the ceremony.)
posted by finding.perdita to Human Relations (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
have you talked to the vicar? i imagine it's not an unusual problem - there might be some alternative wording or something.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:52 PM on August 23, 2007

You could always cross your fingers behind your back! :-)

Personally I'd just do it - you're not misleading the people who count, the child's parents. I can understand why the idea of lying would seem wrong, though, and in that case the best idea is to talk to the vicar. I'd perhaps ask the parents if they know what the vicar's like first - some (most?) churches won't allow nonbelievers to marry but if he's a decent bloke then I doubt your faith should be a problem. But at the end of the day, the words you speak in the ceremony don't really matter. It's the job you do as a guide and influence for their daughter that really counts!
posted by Ted Maul at 5:58 PM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

You can't be a godparent if you don't believe in God. There's your basic contradiction.
posted by smackfu at 6:01 PM on August 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

(By which I mean the parents are placing you in an impossible situation.)
posted by smackfu at 6:02 PM on August 23, 2007

This is me. I have been a godparent mutliple times. I can't say I believe in God or the church.

have you talked to the vicar? i imagine it's not an unusual problem

Yeah, basically andrew's right. People get godparents from other faiths, let alone atheists. They choose people that are important to them. My godchild's mom basically said to me "Oh, you'll have to say about how you'll protect her from evil and stuff. Although i fully expect you to introduce her to some evil now and then, yes? So, you'lll already have to lie so don't worry about the rest. /British humor"

(By which I mean the parents are placing you in an impossible situation.)

My first godchild was when I was still part of the Roman Catholic Church. Does that mean I'm no longer her godparent but once was? I think not, my friend.
posted by vacapinta at 6:09 PM on August 23, 2007

If the parents are fine with the situation, it doesn't really matter about the ceremony—it's not like there's a higher power that's going to strike you down for where you lie, right? And anyway the the thing that really matters isn't the ceremony but the strength of the relationship between you and the parents, that they trust you enough to formally ask you to be an important part of their family's life, and that you care enough to say yes; the ceremony is just theater with an excuse for cake afterwords!
posted by lia at 6:09 PM on August 23, 2007

(err, afterwords = afterwards)
posted by lia at 6:10 PM on August 23, 2007

I was going to say something pleasant and reassuring, but then I looked at the BCP (and I don't know which version of the CoE is currently using, so it may vary) and it's MUCH heavier on the Jesus than I remembered, with the godparent being required to answer a bunch of questions on behalf of the infant that would, I agree, require you to lie quite a lot.

Can you reframe the questions and answers for yourself? I mean, you could maybe hear "Will you help this child grow into the full stature of Christ?" and think "Am I prepared to help this child to grow into an adult who is interested in social justice and serving others?"

I know that sounds kind of hippy-dippy, but it might help enough to make you feel okay about it?
posted by thehmsbeagle at 6:11 PM on August 23, 2007

When you part company with someone, you're accustomed to saying "goodbye" and the etymological fact that the word is a contraction of the phrase "God be with ye" combined your atheism doesn't make you a hypocrite every time you say the word. It's just that the word itself comes from a time when people were accustomed to invoking God, and it's still used today, when God isn't such a part of our daily intercourse.

In the same vein, the christening ritual is being used to signify something more basic than belief in God: a durable social and emotional bond between you and the child, her parents' trust in you as a mentor, etc. And the church ritual, for all its "God talk" is the way that they've chosen to make that social fact happen. If you stand there and hem and haw, you'll look very much like somebody who cringes every time they have to say "goodbye". That is to say, like somebody who isn't very comfortable in that social position.

I'd see the words less as conveying your certitudes or your commitments vis-a-vis that child and the Church and more as your way of accomplishing the social fact that her parents are trying to create. By saying those words, you are bonding yourself to the child. In another culture, you'd say different words. But for the time being, this is how it's done.

When the child is older, you can have a serious talk with her about the worth of maintaining institutions like the Church of England to mediate the valuable moments of our lives. That strikes me as a very good, post-theistic godparent thing to do.
posted by felix betachat at 6:24 PM on August 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

I will be asked to promise that I will help bring her up in the christian faith. And I can't promise that.

Why can't you promise that? You don't have to promise that you'll have that faith yourself, do you? Do you have to promise that you'll bring her up in the faith by your own example, or by telling her that you believe in it? It seems to me that all you're promising to do is occasionally remind her about the Christian faith into which she was originally brought, and refer to yourself as "Godmother," and you've done your duty. If you want to take it a bit farther just to be safe, consider it a promise not to try to convert her to something else. How hard is that?
posted by The World Famous at 6:34 PM on August 23, 2007

well, if you want to do this job, i wouldn't let this ceremony stand in your way. if you look at it as a cultural ritual rather than a true and binding profession of faith, then it might be easier.

what's hard, of course, is reconciling the fact that what you are saying does not mean what you believe. i like thehmsbeagle's suggestion of making your own interpretation--in other words, you may not believe in god or that christ is the messiah, but perhaps you feel that, even if you disagree about the authority, jesus had some good ideas that you would like to help instill in the child.

i too am an athiest who nevertheless participates in the religious traditions of my upbringing, albeit only minimally. i think it's still part of the fabric of my culture, gives rhythm to the mileposts in life and organizes my thoughts and actions when the event is too overwhelming to rationalize. i like its teachings and morals. i don't know if that's dishonest or not, but whether or not i believe in god is between me and god, and nobody else.

so, i do occasionally participate in the dance, because it's part of the package.

i don't know if that level of compromise is acceptable to you. you certainly don't have to be a godparent to be a good and deep influence in this child's life. what is certain is that you will love this child and protect it. the rest is gravy.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:43 PM on August 23, 2007

One thing about your wording does strike me as strange: why are you especially adverse to lying in church? Lying in general, okay, (and I'd say figure out a way to avoid it, i.e. talking to the vicar) but if you don't believe in god or religion, isn't a church just another building?

I'd definitely disagree with smackfu that the godparent concept is religious only. Maybe in its original incarnation, but today? I think the idea of having loved adults participating in the life of one's child, having a special place in that life, to be a beautiful one. I'm not religious, nor was I raised religious, but I entirely plan to give my children godparents. Admittedly, I wouldn't hold the ceremony in church, but that's somewhat beside the point.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:46 PM on August 23, 2007

I'm an agnostic godparent to two relatives baptized roman catholic. I too felt conflicted about the ceremonies, not just because I was concerned about being a hypocrite, but because I still have vestigial faith of the "well, if I'm wrong, this is sure going to piss Him off" variety.

I ended up just doing it. I didn't misrepresent myself to the actual parents, so I felt reasonably convinced that I was fulfilling the spirit of that role rather than the letter of religious doctrine... which is true to the reasons I became an agnostic in the first place.
posted by Riki tiki at 7:00 PM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's odd... I'm not a religious person, yet on my own I declared my mother's best friend as my own godmother when I was young & called her it throughout my life. Even though I am one of the only children in my family who doesn't go to church and is not a born-again, I wanted her to be mine. Somehow, I felt it was more of a wonderful symbolic thing than a literal thing.

You are simply (or not so simply for some) agreeing to be someone who cares deeply about this child throughout your and his/her life, and there's no doubt that you want to do that. So that is what truly matters. It doesn't mean you have to literally promise to take them to Sunday school & recite scripture with them. I tend to say that this isn't so much about you, but rather it's about the child & your friends who obviously want you to be a part of the child's life. You, as you are, clearly mean a great deal to them. They like you for who you are so you don't have to give up any part of yourself for this... all you have to do is the best you can for a child. Just give what you have to give. Which I'm sure is plenty. :)

That said, I know of similar issues coming up for people with other things too. For example, people are afraid of taking yoga classes because they think that it means they will be praying to another god. Or like when I started learning Arabic and had to learn greetings thanking Allah & felt weird about it since I'm not muslim. But I came to realize all of it's just symbolic, not literal. Even though I'm not religious I still say, "Thank God" all the time. And respecting or participating in social norms of other people once in a while doesn't mean you have to change your whole belief system.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:17 PM on August 23, 2007

Nthing it's more cultural...I am a Jew and my first set of godparents were an Italian Catholic (don't know how religious he was) who was my grandfather's closest friend and his third wife (English-Norwegian descent-- don't know her faith). The main thing is to be there for the kid...Uncle Robert died after an operation when I wasn't quite five and Auntie Ruthie killed herself six weeks later.

FWIW, I noticed that Arab/South Asian shopkeepers in Austria say "Gruess Gott" when one walks in.
posted by brujita at 7:57 PM on August 23, 2007

You might start with finding definitions for "God" and "Christ" that really mean something for you. Maybe God = "that which causes most humans to want to do good, and to grow in empathy, and to make the world of humans better, and to love each other".

Are you willing to help lead the child to a feeling that that's real? It's not a given, you know -- I'm still struggling with it, I think partly because I didn't have much help in understanding these kinds of things when I was little. If you want to call it "Christ", that's not too bad -- divine or not, historical or not, the man (or his church) has something to say about what it means to be nice. And its possible to argue that the niceness message, while sometimes horribly perverted, has been the cause of substantial, if unsung, good in the world. Do you believe in that?
posted by amtho at 8:01 PM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am not sure about what happens in the CofE baptism ceremony, but in a Catholic baptism, the godparents are asked to answer the priest's questions on behalf of the child. So technically you won't be lying, the child will be :)

Also, again if it is anything like the Catholic ceremony. The whole congregation is asked to promise to look after the child's spiritual needs - you will be in a whole room full of 'liars' if they are all as ambivalent about religion as the parents are.

Is there a way around this that means that I don't have to lie in a public place?

But think about your friends, do you really think their child's baptism is a good place to make a statement on your atheism? I am an atheist, but I would be as embarassed as hell if my best friend pulled some sort of stunt like that.

Being asked to be a godparent is a very special, beautiful thing- don't look a gift horse in the mouth. So suck it in and say 'yes' - problem solved.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 8:21 PM on August 23, 2007

Listen: I'm a Christian, and it's not just a family tradition, it's a serious, considered and defining fact of my life. My father is a minister, I've been been a church elder, I've been deeply connected with the church and organized religion my whole life. It is exceptionally unlikely you'll find a way to participate in this ceremony without expressing these statements: if you can't reconcile yourself with saying things that you don't believe you're probably out of luck. Being what it is, a traditional church can't really accommodate your scruples.

What most people do, and what I'd recommend to you, is to just do the ceremony and don't get uptight over it. They're just words. The fact is that many of the good solid decent Christians in church are pretty much just saying the words along: they aren't thinking about what they mean, they have put little if any thought into what the implications of the words are. They are engaged in tradition, in community, in the ancient and storied ritual of "making Gramma happy," and as far as I'm concerned there is nothing particularly wrong with that. People bring their babies in all the time to get them baptized, promise to raise them in the church, and then leave, never to be seen again.

That mainstream churches serve as a locus of cultural traditions for essentially secular people is an open secret and most pastors are neither naive nor in general particularly concerned about it. Make your friends happy and say what the ritual requires with the intent of expressing the love in your heart for your godchild, which is all that is important here. This is not an abstract opinion, my child's godfather is a gay Buddhist.
posted by nanojath at 8:36 PM on August 23, 2007 [2 favorites]

Actually, in a Catholic baptism, the godparents and all in attendance are asked to speak on their own behalves to renounce Satan, etc.

I was raised Catholic but grew into being an atheist. I'm the Godfather of three totally awesome kids now. All three sets of parents wanted the same thing that you described, and so never did I blanch at taking the "I renounce Satan and all his blahbittyblah" oath. Seriously, don't sweat the ceremony.

Another way to look at it is this: is a wedding ceremony important when compared to the marriage that springs from it?

posted by cog_nate at 8:45 PM on August 23, 2007

(When the totally Lutheran lifelong Christian and the Raised Catholic converted atheist give exactly the same advice, you know you're solid)
posted by nanojath at 9:14 PM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was asked by my sister to be godfather to my niece. I told her I was honored that she asked, but i could not make those promises. If anything ever befell my sister, I'd sure as heck do my best to help raise my niece, but that particular moniker was one I couldn't assume.

My overly Catholic mom said she'd never been prouder of me - that I wasn't a hypocrite.
posted by notsnot at 9:29 PM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

Get over it and lie in church. It's done all the time, sometimes even during the sermon.
posted by JaredSeth at 11:31 PM on August 23, 2007

I say go for it. I can't really assuage your guilty conscience in any concrete way, but here's my datapoint: I'm now agnostic, but I was baptized in a protestant religion at a young age. My godparents were my father's close friends and then-neighbors. They are not and to the best of my knowledge were not practicing members of any religion. Nonetheless, they have been an immensely positive influence in my life in innumerable ways.
posted by Alterscape at 11:46 PM on August 23, 2007

It's a ceremony, with certain words you are supposed to say. It is no more a lie to repeat them than to sing along with "I'd like to teach the world to sing", even if you don't really care if the world knows how to sing.
posted by yohko at 6:44 AM on August 24, 2007

Now, this is what annoys me about AskMeFi. Lots of people have made suggestions (some helpful, some less helpful), but not a single person has bothered to do a simple Google search and find out what the baptism service actually says. Let's have a look, shall we?

The official rules for godparents are laid down by Canon B23, which states:

The godparents shall be persons who will faithfully fulfil their responsibilities both by their care for the children committed to their charge and by the example of their own godly living

The meaning of 'godly living' is clarified in the Liturgical Commission's commentary on the baptismal rite, which recognises that many godparents may be limited or uncertain in their Christian faith:

a committed Christian faith is presupposed in parents and godparents, but in practice the extent of that faith is often limited and unarticulated

While a high level of serious commitment to the child's development is required of parents and godparents of child candidates, this needs to be expressed in terms of encouragement and to recognise that baptismal sponsors are themselves still on a journey of faith which they will continue with the newly baptised

In welcoming the parents and godparents, the service is careful to recognise that their primary motivation is concern for the child and his/her future welfare

And in the Common Worship rite of Holy Baptism, the godparents are required to respond to the following questions:

Parents and godparents, the Church receives [these children] with joy. Today we are trusting God for their growth in faith. Will you pray for them, draw them by your example into the community of faith, and walk with them in the way of Christ?
(Reply:) With the help of God, we will.

In baptism [these children] begin their journey in faith. You speak for them today. Will you care for them, and help them to take their place within the life and worship of Christ's Church?
(Reply:) With the help of God, we will.

So you are not required to make a profession of your own Christian faith. You are not even required, in so many words, to bring the child up in the Christian faith. But what you are required to do is to set a good example for the child, in accordance with Christian moral teaching, and to 'draw them into the community of faith' (whatever you think that may mean).

It would be quite wrong to perjure yourself by making a promise you don't intend to keep. But bear in mind that the Church of England has made every effort to accommodate you, and others like you, by keeping the Christian commitment required of you to an absolute minimum. In terms of belief (leaving other issues aside for the moment) all that is really asked of you is to be open to the possibility of Christian faith (both for yourself and for the child) and to welcome it if it comes.
posted by verstegan at 6:56 AM on August 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm an atheist myself, and I've felt uncomfortable whenever I'm in the position of performing a Christian ritual (like participating in grace or lighting a votive candle). I now realize it's because I felt like I was validating a religion that I've rejected. It wasn't really because I was "lying", technically.

It helps to treat Christian rituals as cultural rituals. How would you feel if the ritual was part of another religion? Would you feel excited and curious to have a chance to participate in a different culture? That’s how I felt lighting incense at Buddhist temples during my travels in Asia, or maybe why my hardcore atheist friend took on an important role in his sister’s Hindu wedding.

To answer your question, I would participate in the ceremony. It’s about going through cultural motions to affirm your relationship with this child, NOT about pledging your undying allegiance to the church.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 9:08 AM on August 24, 2007

NOT about pledging your undying allegiance to the church

Ah but that's the thing isn't it... you are pledging allegiance to the church. I'm an atheist and my sister is a roman catholic, she asked me to be the godfather of her daughter and I told her I couldn't be. Not because I hate Catholics so much, but because I respect them. My mother and sisters are all catholic, they believe in something both sacred and powerful, and out of respect for their honest convictions of Christ’s divinity i chose not to stand in their sacred space and lie my pants off about Satan, Jesus etc. However I'd do anything for my niece and my sister knows that, I’m just not her godfather.
posted by French Fry at 10:24 AM on August 24, 2007

*Of course this is a deeply person question and I guess it boils down to whatever makes you and the parents happy. Good luck.
posted by French Fry at 10:26 AM on August 24, 2007

Thank you everyone for your responses - you've really helped me figure out what my issue really is and what's important.

You're A Kitty - I think lying in anyone's place of worship is more wrong than lying elsewhere because while I'm an athiest, I respect other people's beliefs. French Fry sums it up.

Verstegan - I don't know what version of the service will be used yet, but even your version implies that my faith must be at the very least "limited and unarticulated" and that I must be "open to the possibility of Christian faith". And I'm not. I'm an athiest, not agnostic.

If the parents were religious (practising or not), I would make a different decision, but as they're not, I'm going to treat the christening as a cultural ceremony and interpret the answers (in my head) in a way that makes sense to me and what the parents expect from me.

Thanks again all!
posted by finding.perdita at 12:30 PM on August 29, 2007

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