Why I have said no every time I’ve been asked to be a godparent to my friends’ and family’s children

We see the designation of a godparent as a rather nominal thing nowadays, rather than the supposed guide to faith formation it once was. There are still rules, however

I have been asked on a couple of occasions to be a godparent to my friends’ and family’s children. While it has been flattering to be asked, I’ve said no each time. Not because I don’t care about the kids, but because I’m an atheist.

I can’t, in good faith – if you’ll excuse the pun – sign up to something that embodies so many things that I’m not. However, now that I have my own children, I suddenly feel the loss of this institution. Who is that one person who will remember their birthday every year, just as my godmother still does? Am I depriving my girls of something just because I feel a selfish need to stand up for my own principles?

We sometimes see the designation of a godparent as a rather nominal thing nowadays, rather than the supposed guide to faith formation that it was once considered to be. However, there are rules in place.

Under canon law, a godparent must have received the three initiation sacraments of Baptism, First Holy Communion and Confirmation. They should be practising Catholics over the age of 16. And finally… this is the part that really sticks in my craw. The traditional Christening ceremony requires the godparent to take the Baptismal vows on behalf of the baby. This means answering the following question: “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?”


Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m a fan of the Devil. It’s just that we atheists are equal-opportunity sceptics. If we don’t believe in God, then we don’t believe in his arch nemesis either. But beyond that, there is something rather macabre about introducing the idea of the Devil to a baby’s initiation. Does it mean that if a newly minted Catholic infant has been cleansed of Satan, that non-Catholic babies haven’t?

I was struck, while speaking to Bernadette Sweetman of DCU, at how much emphasis remains on the idea of a godparent as an in loco parentis type figure.

Dr Sweetman, a researcher in adult religious education and faith development, says, “Somewhere deeply ingrained there is that sort of, ‘Will you be the Kenickie to my Danny Zuko… to have a stand in if there was an emergency.” During her research, Dr Sweetmen discovered that the notion of kinship is still at the root of how parents choose a godparent today.

The broader debate here is that while much of Ireland has largely secularised, are we still having trouble letting go of the rituals associated with cultural Christianity?

“With an awful lot of things in this country, you do something because that’s the way it’s always been done,” argues Sweetman.

When it comes to births and deaths, it’s a little harder to go against the family tradition

—  Siobhan Walls, Humanist Association of Ireland

We don’t go to Mass but we want a church wedding. We lazily mock some of the Church’s anachronisms but happily allow our kids to attend Catholic national schools. We’re apathetic about religion but we want our kids to have godparents. Perhaps we’re in a confused period of adjustment, a collective existential crisis about our ritualistic behaviours.

Humanist naming ceremonies have sprung up which resemble traditional Christenings, but with less God. Guideparents replace godparents.

Siobhan Walls, a celebrant with the Humanist Association of Ireland, says that while non-religious naming ceremonies are on the rise, there are only a few hundred a year. Contrast this with the fact that almost 12,000 babies were Christened in the Dublin Archdiocese alone in 2019 and you get an idea of just how attached we still are to traditional rituals.

“It’s an easier thing to go against the grain, and against what your parents want, when it’s a wedding,” says Walls. “When it comes to births and deaths, it’s a little harder to go against the family tradition.”

So, where does this leave me with my own girls? I’m left feeling a little empty. While I can’t subscribe to tradition, I feel equally reluctant to latch onto a secularised reimagining of the Baptism and godparent package just for the sake of it. Perhaps I am amid a futile search for authenticity, seeking ritual where it no longer has a place or meaning.

Or maybe, just maybe, I need to suck it up and guarantee that birthday card through the letterbox on my girls’ birthdays.