Sunday Morning Survey – ‘Can I Attend A Christening Without Being A Hypocrite?’

Sunday Morning Survey – Because, Let’s Face It, I’m Not Going To Be Doing Anything Else This Morning.

This one was posed by the Guardian Newspaper and it struck me as fairly relevant to my life and perhaps to yours as well.

My nephew and his fiancee have a baby son and I have been invited to attend the christening. But as a staunch atheist I find the whole idea of welcoming a baby into a religion repugnant; I would feel a hypocrite attending a ceremony that I disapprove of so strongly. On the other hand I really do not want to hurt the feelings of the parents. To add to the dilemma, I would be the only representative of my nephew’s side of the family apart from his mother so I feel I “should” be there. If I overcome my principles and go, there will then follow other invitations to other christenings – so wouldn’t it be easier to make my feelings known once and for all? Or should I climb down off my principled perch and stop being so pompous? I just can’t decide!

This kind of quandary is relevant to me because some of my friends have kids or are in the process of having kids. When they start having kids, the kids are little. As in really little. Kind of squeeny-kitten-y.

One is expected upon visitation to coo sweetly over little eyelashes and things like that, whereas I can do that for about ….thirty seconds? Then I start checking out just how many cool toys the little squeeny-kitten have already accumulated before they even developed fingernails to pry at said toys. Which leads me to realise that one of the benefits of being a parent is that you get to buy lots of things that you really would have had a wild time with back when you were the kids’ age but thankfully these days we don’t judge when a thirty-year old goes for a bounce in the inflatable Dalek. Well, I don’t judge. Much.

Christening, however, is generally (well, you never know, one day I might be surprised – I’ve gone to some interesting wedding ceremonies in the past after all…) done without inflatable Daleks and requires visitation of a church (although I might be surprised one day by a non-religious christening? Naming ceremonies are different, yes?). Sometimes, one’s friends (for a variety of reasons) may choose to christen their child. This can be problematic if you don’t believe in a God. Or have strong views in regards to what is exactly being asked of people involved in the baptism ceremony and (sometimes) the audience for the ceremony.

I’ve also had lengthy discussions with friends in regards to how the young person who is being baptised might very well develop strong points of view about being included in such a ceremony, but since their attention-span doesn’t even appear to take in the novelty of certain toys for longer than ten seconds, it’s a little difficult to factor in exactly what they may think of the whole business – despite empirical evidence of the occasional surprised and affronted howl upon the application of water, in a big echoing building, by a person that they know isn’t one of their parents.

Should you think of it as a social ceremony rather than a religious one? At what point should you say something, if you feel as if you have to say something? Which denomination would you ‘absolutely draw the line at’ if so?

About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • chigau ()

    If one is merely attending, I think it would be fairly easy to treat this as a social/familial ceremony; welcoming the new critter to the community.
    If one is asked to be a ‘godparent’, that would be tougher as it would involve actual lying.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      I’m of a similar opinion. Standing with fellow atheists who are rolling their eyes so regularly that it practically becomes audible (particularly during some of the hymns) can be a little challenging as well! :)

    • dubliner

      I’m a godmother to a niece and a nephew even though my family are fully aware I’m an atheist. It’s seen as a family honour and a tradition and nobody gets too excited about it religious symbolism.

      • Kylie Sturgess

        Yes, sometimes it just crosses into tradition – how many of us see Christmas the same way, for example?

        • Gordon

          But I can celebrate Christmas without getting within 100 feet of a priest or minister. It is almost completely secularised.

          A baptism is a religious ceremony, performed in a religious setting, by a religious minister.

          You can be sure the church keeps track and pretends to speak for every family that brings a child to get their head washed when it comes to meddling in politics.

          A non-religious naming/welcoming ceremony would seem more appropriate for any family who see it “as a family honour and a tradition and nobody gets too excited about (the) religious symbolism”

  • John Morales

    Well, if friends or family invite you knowing you’re an atheist, surely it’s with the expectation you’ll go specifically to please them, rather than to celebrate the beginning of the child’s inculcation into their delusion.

    (If they don’t know you’re an atheist, then it’s your own damn fault!)

  • annayeung

    As my atheism is quite prominent, my Catholic brother-in-law kept joking that I was going to be the godparent of my niece. But I got out of that by moving back to Australia and missing the ceremony entirely.

    In the video of her baptism, my niece is waving at the camera. I cheered because she was learning to ignore the priest!

  • Charles Sullivan

    It seems to me that there can be no one right answer that applies to all atheists.

    If it were a religious funeral for a relative, I would go. If it were a religious wedding for a relative, I would also go. In both cases I would not recite prayers, sing hymns, cross myself, take communion (Catholic), etc. I’d most likely stand and sit (and maybe even kneel???) along with everyone else.

    Now, the question for me would be whether a baptism is really a similar kind of occasion as a funeral or wedding.

    Other concerns might include how much it mattered to me if people’s feelings were hurt if I declined to go, and trying to weigh that against how much I despise the whole idea of baptism of children.

    • raymoscow

      A wedding or a funeral is an event in which religion is only a part. I’d go to that if it was for someone I cared about.

      A baptism is purely a religious event, forced on the child. No thanks!

  • justme

    I feel the same way when friends get married in a church in an overtly religious ceremony. For my own part, I don’t join in the prayers or psalms or whatever the hell else is going on – and I don’t think any of them would care. I interpret the invitation to mean that they would like me to share the occasion, not their wacky rituals.

    If they like me enough to want me there, there’s a reasonable chance they know I’m an atheist, and if they didn’t know and were so dogmatic that it was likely to offend them, then we probably wouldn’t be friends.

    I also suspect that often church weddings and christenings take part at least partially in (misplaced) deference to the beliefs of the parents – or grandparents, as the case may be – which is how so much of this mumbo-jumbo survives, isn’t it?

  • barbrykost

    I recently attended the christening of my nephew’s son without feeling like a hypocrite. My family knows that I am atheist and that I was there out of love for them and not to support the baby’s introduction to religion. It didn’t need to be discussed.
    Very boring, though, and I didn’t feel comfortable about pulling out my iPod and playing Sims while I was so close to the front.

  • Robster

    The religious love their ceremonies, it’s about the only “tangible” they get from their nonsense subscription. If I were in your position, I’d attend as it would seem to be the right thing to do, but ignore the bloke up front in a dress and not bow the head when they whisper encouraging words to their imaginary friend and definately don’t kneel when the bloke in a dress says to. That way, you can express your displeasure at being in a house of supernatural nonsense while doing the right thing. When the rellies see this, they may think twice inviting you to other strange ceremonies in the future. PS: don’t put anything in the plate, they’ll spend it indoctrinating kids with their crap.

  • Marella

    The only christening I’ve ever attended was a family event, my husband’s nephew was christened in a catholic church. I never pray or bow my head in church ceremonies, but otherwise I do what’s expected. I must say though that I was really shocked by the superstitious primitiveness of the whole occasion, I could have sworn that the priest was going to pull a bone out of his pocket and shove it in his nose any minute! It was all a bit grim but I survived.

    My relatives all know I’m an atheist but hypocrisy doesn’t come into it, you go to family ceremonies because you’re family.

  • Cuttlefish

    My policy for a few years has been to attend such things if invited, but to understand that they would not want me to participate in ritual stuff; it would be wrong, by their own system–I’d be bearing false witness. So I don’t. Don’t mind singing, if the song is good; if it isn’t, I don’t mind just looking around.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

    Oddly I find that being there, being quiet but refusing to engage in the rituals feels like an opportunity to not only participate in a family event but to make your protests silently noticeable. The simple act of not kneeling when most people do is a powerful gesture for me. And at the last family Catholic ceremony I attended, my Protestant minister brother and his family were just as defiant of some of the rituals as I was. And then when it’s time for prayers where everyone else closes their eyes and bows their heads, it is nice to be able to connect with the other open-eyed dissenters.

    On another side of the spectrum, when I was included in my ueber-Catholic friend’s ueber-conservative Catholic wedding as a groomsman, I was honored that he included me despite my atheism (and he sure knew of it, as we had been graduate school roommates and were both philosophers). In that case, I was trying to be as respectfully participatory as possible in the rituals (though I was comically behind on everything as I tried to follow my fellow groomsmen’s lead). He was kind enough to incorporate me, it would have been rude not to participate as thoroughly as possible short of taking communion or professing anything I didn’t believe.

    • chigau()

      Camels With Hammers #10
      so you sided with the Protestants against the Catholics.
      surely a BIG win.

      • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

        Well, no, my point was just to observe that there are multiple kinds of conscientious objectors at religious ceremonies, not just atheists. It’s not like we’re the only ones who don’t just conform for the sake of ceremony.

    • John Morales

      I was honored that he included me despite my atheism (and he sure knew of it, as we had been graduate school roommates and were both philosophers).

      Indeed.

      One would have to be a real misanthrope to consider otherwise.

      “Me too!” — except for the graduate school bit, of course! ;)

  • Ticktockman

    Hey Kylie, just wanted to welcome you to Freethought Blogs. I sat in on your podcast at Dragon*Con (thanks someone for the fire alarm) and enjoyed hearing you speak. Look forward to reading more of you. Cheers,

    -TTm

    • Kylie Sturgess

      !!! Hello!!! I have still to get that audio out… thanks for the reminder! :D

  • alwhipp

    My plan has always been to stand at the back and bite my tongue. I’ve been asked as a god-parent before (for my first ever attendance) and told the couple no, as politely as I could. They knew my position on religion, and weren’t overly phased.
    That 1st visit to a baptism was a bit of a shocker though. Catholic baptisms do the whole requesting everyone to support the abusive indoctrination of the child thing, and I knew I’d made the right decision. There was no way I could have said the words required of me, and it would have been pretty hard not to say something offensive.

  • HerbieTheBeagle

    I now refuse to go to christenings because I don’t support labeling a child with any religion and I’m not going to condone the practice with my attendance. I attend the subsequent party as that’s a family/friends event and happy to support the family/friends to celebrate their new child, but not the church part. I explain to anyone who cares to ask why I won’t/didn’t go to the church and hope that gives people food for thought.

    I’ll go to weddings/funerals in churches because that’s the choice of the adults involved. I don’t participate in the rituals but I can respect the choice of adults have a religious ceremony. In contrast, the child at a christening doesn’t even know what religion is.

  • elronxenu

    If it were a wedding or a funeral I could expect to be a passive observer at an important occasion. A christening on the other hand is a purely religious affair, with no purpose other than the offering of an unaware infant to an insane cult.

    I’d say no thanks, and consider my invitation as evidence that I hadn’t been sufficiently clear to the person about the abhorrent nature of religion and its pernicious effect upon society.

  • http://blog.earthshod.co.uk/ AJS

    Last time I was dragged into a religious event (a funeral in this case, not a christening) was one of the few occasions that I have ever wanted to cause intense physical pain to another human being, when some smarmy creep with an irritating accent was prattling on about “sure and certain hope of resurrection” or some similar s#!t. It made me angry, and I can honestly tarnished my memories of my grandad even more than seeing him in the state he was in just before he died.

    I have one grandparent remaining and have made it quite clear to my parents that either she gets a civil funeral (I mean, such a thing must exist, surely?), or I won’t go.

    I would have refused to attend the christening (for show, and to get her friend’s kids who were being dipped in the same ceremony, into a church school) of my niece and nephew if my (functionally agnostic) sister had invited me.

    There should be a law against poisoning minds too young to tell fantasy from reality with such toxic filth.

    (Aside — someone, somewhere must have accepted an invitation to be a godparent, then backed out at the bit about bringing the child up in the Christian faith and so forth. Off to search YouTube now.)

    • Kylie Sturgess

      I recall one of the eps of (I know, I know… horrid show) Sex and the City, where the red-haired Miranda went firmly through the baptism ceremony, removing most of it:
      “Sex and the City: Unoriginal Sin (#5.2)” (2002)
      Miranda: Baptism is a very odd tradition. It’s all about cleansing this little baby of its sins, when clearly babies come into the world with a clean slate and we’re the ones who fuck ‘em up.
      Carrie: So you’re a pessimist, right?
      Miranda: Have we met?

  • Philip Legge

    The question of whether an atheist can act as a godparent to a child of religious parents without being a hypocrite is also a tricky one. The supposed rôle for a godparent is to keep an eye out for the “spiritual” development of the kid – I’d be of the view that if the parents understand that an Gnu atheist would not view without holding strong reservations about religious indoctrination, there yet might be an opportunity for the atheist to look out for the child’s moral development.

    For this to occur, naturally the parents would have to be in one of the less fussy religious denominations that doesn’t view atheists as amoral, or believe that religion is required in order for people to have morals.

    As for the more general difficulty of going to a religious service and not appearing to be a hypocrite – I’d sooner appear to be a hypocrite than an offensive arse. (Above at #10, Camels Without Hammers’ relatives showing their sectarian differences when at a competing denomination’s services is a good example of behaving like offensive arses.)

    • Philip Legge

      A word went astray in my first paragraph, but never mind. I thought I should perhaps expand on the point of being an offensive arse: in Australia, atheism isn’t nearly so controversial as it is in the US, and religion is also more frequently quite laid back (YMMV, naturally), so that often you really have to go out of your way to cause offence. (I’m not talking simply refusing to sing or kneel in the right places.)

      That said, in my recent experience attending a number of matches and dispatches, Catholic services really take the cake for giving offence if you don’t belong to their crowd. A Catholic aunt had a funeral mass (i.e. communion) where the priest deliberately pronounced that only members of the Catholic church were allowed to partake of zombie Jesus wafer bread and wine: no skin off my nose. But for a considerable number of the extended family who were religious, just not of the same persuasion as the aunt and the priest, to be excluded like that was highly offensive to them in their grief, and spoilt the day.

      I’ve also attended a number of non-religious funerals where the civil celebrants have uttered any number of wishy-washy, almost woo-woo platitudes, obviously ransacking the collection of tired, banal clichés to say something that sounds consoling, but won’t give offence to both the religous and non-religious. (Personally I find it much easier to tune out religious shit which I don’t believe in than the nebulously inept bathos of wishy-washy inoffensiveness, but I can also see why AJS in comment #15 found the religious shit offensive.)

  • Gordon

    I’ve had this experience at the other end of life. For some reason I am usually asked to read at family funerals. And I am out as an atheist. But there I am, with some psalm or reading thrust into my hands, or worse a sheet of prayers for me to lead people in.

    I changed “We thank you Lord, for the skills of the doctors and nurses” to “we thank the docotors and nurses for their skills”, but there is only so much you can do to make the words acceptable.

    I think there is a double standard with religious ceremonies, where we have to accomadate the religious but they do not have to reciprocate.

  • http://mamamara.wordpress.com Mara

    If you care about the parents of the little tyke, I think it’s worth your time to go. As others have noted, you’re there as a family member, not a member of a religious order :)

  • raymoscow

    How about just giving it a miss? If they ask why, you can explain that you think it’s wrong to start indoctrinating a child into a religion so young. Wait until he/she is 18 at least.

    If they object that they aren’t ‘indoctrinating’ the child, refer them to the oath they and the godparents just took — they swore to indoctrinate the child. Were they just lying?

    And then tell them that you’ll be glad to attend any event in which the child is not actually harmed — say, a birthday party.

  • http://robertnygaard7@gmail.com Robert

    Here in Denmark religion is not a big issue.80% of the population(5,5 mill.people) are atheist.I,m not a member of the church,which save me some tax money,and I would sure be a hypocrite if I went to church.Going to church is insulting my thinking skills.

  • HughWillRidmee

    Had this situation a couple of months ago. My take on the situation is that attendance indicated support for family/friends, non involvement in the religious bit may have been the first time some of the younger congregants realised that not everyone thinks the same.

    My family are well aware of my rejection of christianity so I went as an opportunity to suss out the opposition. (the event took place within the regular low church CofE sunday morning service – something I’ve not attended for 40+ years).

    It turned out to be my introduction to Karaoke Kristianity – I stood up and sat down with the others – didn’t speak, sing, clap, twirl or “jump for jesus”. When it became time for “the peace” I advised the lady next to me that “I don’t do this” and she accepted it without comment.

    The sermon was an exhortation that the faithful should follow Paul’s suggestion that christians should dissociate from all non-christians and their doings – seemed that I was the only person who thought it a bit odd that the preacher should pick on this Pauline preference whilst being guilty of being a) female and preaching, b) married and c) a serial parent.

    All in all I’m glad I went – partly because it was a family event and partly because it reminded me of what I was fortunate enough to escape from.

  • Lauren Ipsum

    I think it’s a personal decision; I wouldn’t hold it against someone who’s atheist who chose to attend a christening. You have to do what works for you and your situation (your family, your community, your spouse, your conscience, etc.). Hypocrisy is in the mind of the actor, to mangle a phrase.

    I attended one (the kid’s 11 now, I think) but I will not attend any more. I felt sufficiently uncomfortable that I couldn’t sit through another one. And I would have no problem looking the parents in the eye and saying, kindly, that it would be hypocritical for me to attend.

  • Art

    At similar events I figure I’m not a participant so much as a witness. Like an anthropologist studying a remote tribe. I conform to outward appearances enough to avoid interfering with the native scene. When it comes to group prayer I slightly bow my head and remain silent.

    Public displays of dissent during ceremonies and religious gatherings are unlikely to be productive. Fact being that an adroit preacher could use such behavior as an opportunity to reinforce group cohesion by publicly casting out the devil by confronting me.

    I have found people more likely to be receptive by observing how people act during group ceremonies. The flock is not monolithic and slight expressions of discontent can tell you who it might be worth talking to, if you were of a mind to advance free thought.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      That’s rather similar to my approach, actually! I’ve also found the aesthetic element of some ceremonies appealing (although there’s a few buildings that could do with an overhaul…. and I once found gum in a hymnbook, which was revolting).

  • 3zebras

    Ugh. I had to do this just last weekend. Off to the local Catholic Church for my cousin-in-law’s baby. Not that anyone there was particularly interested in it – they were only getting him christened so he could be enrolled at their chosen school.

    I think the worst thing was the priest was one of those new-agey ones, who called us all to stand around the altar to welcome him into the Catholic community while thanking God that the baby wasn’t aborted (seriously).

    I would’ve much preferred an old school priest who would sit us down and lecture us for half an hour about hellfire. I would’ve appreciated the opportunity to sit down.

  • http://www.themindisaterriblething.com shripathikamath

    I tell ‘em that I am an atheist, but that I’d be glad to attend if they still want me.

    But only if there is going to be plenty of food and alcohol.

    Hey, they are the ones that are superstitious, not me. If I can live with theists as my neighbors, as my legislators, I see no harm in attending weddings, christenings, mitzvahs… that are religious in nature.

    I keep hoping that someone would just start asking me about God at one of these. No one has so far. Damn shame!

  • http://www.davidrutt.me.uk rutty

    Some good friends of ours asked us to be Godparents to their daughter recently. I initially said no, stating my lack of belief as a reason but made sure to say that I was glad that they thought to ask.

    However, after much thought, I relented. In many cases Christenings aren’t /really/ about God; at least, that’s how I perceive it. The priest/vicar might think so but that’s not why many people have Christenings. Our friends are not particularly religious and it seems that they did it out of “tradition” or expectation.

    They understood that I don’t believe in God and that I’d not be enabling any sort of Spiritual awakening. They felt that the Christening was a way to strengthen their daughter’s relationship with us, and that it was indicative of their confidence that we could help with her moral guidance. Morality without God? Who’d have thought?

    Anyway, I said the words knowing that they just disappear into the ether and don’t mean anything to me. Our friends know that neither of us will be giving their daughter glowing recommendations about church-going, and that I’ll be sure to encourage her (and my own (very much unChristened) daughter!) to enjoy science, music, literature and other forms of education.

    Probably hypocritical, yes. Don’t really care if it was. They are very good friends and I thought that our friendship was worth more than a few meaningless words.

    • Gordon

      The thing is, however meaningless the religious part is to you or your friends, the preacher and their church count that as one more christian. Worse, the count it as one more family who endorses them and their relevance to the modern world.

      Why not have a Humanist naming ceremony instead?

      • http://www.davidrutt.me.uk rutty

        That would be their choice, not mine. I made my views known but figured our friendship was more important that my making some point. I think there are plenty of vague Christians here in the UK that have Christenings just because that’s what has always happened.

        However, yes; more people should be not bothering with this archaic nonsense and having some sort of secular naming ceremony (or nothing at all, like we did).


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