I got into an argument in the comments section of Friendly Atheist’s latest installment of Ask Richard (an atheist advice column). An atheist wrote because his Catholic aunt and uncle had asked him to be the godfather to their child. The letter writer thought they didn’t know he was an atheist and wanted to know if he had an obligation to disclose his beliefs. Richard advised the author to ask the relatives about what role they wanted him to play as godfather, and explain his atheism if they did see the godparent role as a religious one.
In the comments section, I disagreed and said the letter writer should decline the offer, or, at the very least, say he would be happy to do it, but that he knew that having an atheist godparent was placing the family contrary to Church teaching and it was up to them if they wanted to break with the requirements. I thought this was important, since many people treat this kind of ritual casually and don’t research the prerequisites. If they made an early mistake out of ignorance, they might be upset later when they found out they had disobeyed the Church.
Richard disagreed with me about the duty to disclose:
Leah, it is the letter writer’s responsibility to learn what his aunt and uncle expect of him according to their own interpretation of what a “godparent” is, and then only based on that, to reveal things about himself to help them make an informed decision.
Their own interpretation and how they arrive at it is their responsibility, not his. Their degree of adherence to their religion is their responsibility, not his. Their ignorance or savvy about their religion is their responsibility, not his. Not only are those things not his responsibility, they’re none of his business.
It’s a lot easier for me to give advice than to follow it. When I was in a somewhat analogous situation, I took a path closer to what Richard advises, and left the burden of investigation on the person of faith. Looking back, I think I behaved uncharitably and shirked my duty. Here’s what happened:
In high school, while in Albuquerque for a science fair, I was sharing my hotel room with an Orthodox Jewish girl. Because she couldn’t use the hotel’s electronic keys on the Sabbath, she wanted us to leave our hotel door propped open from Friday night to Saturday night. I objected, since I was worried my ipod would be stolen and offered to swipe the door open for her whenever she needed it. Once I’d established myself as a shabbos goy, she made frequent use of my services, having me follow her from room to room to turn lights on and off as needed.
I started to get peeved with the terse way she was ordering me around and the way she kept interrupting my reading, so I comforted myself with the thought that, according to her religion, I was technically a Jew, and thus she was committing a major sin in ordering a fellow Jew to break the Sabbath. She never asked me if I was Jewish (despite my very very Jewish hair).
I’m not sure what how I should have handled the situation (offered my help but disclosed my long ago Jewish maternal grandmother? Advised her to talk to one of the goyishe chaperones? Offered to call the hotel concierge to ask for help?). I don’t think I was obligated to put our room at risk for her religious observance. (I hadn’t signed up to room with her).
I took the least proactive, most resentful option, and that was wrong of me. Rejoicing in spitefullness should have been my clue I was behaving badly, even if she didn’t know I was being nasty and even if I didn’t believe any real harm came to her as the result of my actions.
What do you think I should have done?
What should the atheist godfather do?
What duty do atheists (or anyone outside a particular religious faith) have to protect people in that tradition from a harm that we don’t believe exists?