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Godparent, without the God part

When my sister was pregnant with her third child, I received an ultrasound image in the mail. Attached to it was a handwritten note: "Would you be my godfather… er… sponsor… ah… special person? You know what I mean."

The author with his niece in 2014, a few days after she was born.
The author with his niece in 2014, a few days after she was born.

The author with his niece in 2014, a few days after she was born.

When my sister was pregnant with her third child, I received an ultrasound image in the mail. Attached to it was a handwritten note: “Would you be my godfather… er… sponsor… ah… special person? You know what I mean.”

My niece is now a few months old. Next month, she will be baptized. And I’ve been asked to stand alongside her at the front of the church and pledge to be her godparent.

Being invited to support a loved one’s child is a wonderful honor. But I can also see that, on the surface, it may seem strange that an atheist would sponsor a baptism and serve as a godparent.

My sister, who lives on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota with her husband and three children, is not an atheist. She’s a Lutheran, and she’s raising her children in the church. But she also wants her children to decide who they are and what they believe for themselves, and she’s proactively working to make sure they’re informed about the many different options and perspectives out there.

Her open-minded approach to parenting, and to all areas of life, often requires bravery. Sometimes this means political gestures of bravery, like when she publicly campaigned for same-sex marriage in rural areas where her position was highly unpopular.

But more often it means everyday expressions of courage, like refusing to let her children be boxed in by cultural expectations regarding gender. (For example, my sister’s oldest son’s favorite color is pink, which has resulted in some playground teasing—but she encourages him to respond to those who taunt him by telling them that people can like whatever they want. Sure enough, other boys have responded by admitting that they too like pink.)

One way she models that kind of everyday courage is by teaching her children about different religions—and about atheism. So it’s probably unsurprising that my sister has no problem with her daughter having an outspoken atheist for a godparent.

When my sister asked if I would serve as a godparent to her daughter, I was honored and immediately said yes. But the invitation cast enough of a light on our differences that I paused to consider them.

My sister is a Christian; I’m an atheist. The role of godparent often has an explicitly religious connotation; I’m very open about not being religious. My niece’s godparents will sponsor her religious baptism; did I mention that I’m not religious?

So after saying yes, I asked my sister what she thought about these differences.

“As far as I’m concerned, you being an atheist is a plus, not something to work around or gloss over,” she said. “I want my kids to grow up knowing that there are good people of all beliefs—atheists, Muslims, Hindus, everyone—and I want them to see that they will be a part of this family whether they grow up to share my beliefs or not.”

In a few weeks, when I stand at the front of a church and pledge to be a godparent to my niece, I will aspire to match my sister’s loving, open-minded embrace of difference.

For some, being a godparent means helping to guide a child in their religious faith. But for others, like me and my sister, it means being there to love and support a child as they discern their own path in life.

The latter conception of what it means to be a godparent will probably become more and more true in our religiously diverse world, with atheists serving as godparents to the children of Christians, Muslims serving as godparents to the children of Jews, and so on. Our differences are obvious, but there is also much that we can teach one another.

Godparent, sponsor, or special person, you can call me whatever you want. I love my brave sister, her wonderful husband, and their beautiful children, and I’ll be proud to stand alongside them in their church as I pledge to support the newest member of their family—my goddaughter.