A Duty to Disclose?

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?

"Well, I would love to know if you now believe that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered."

Go Ahead, Tell Me What’s Wrong ..."
"Any chance of you ever addressing the evidence that led you to accept the truth ..."

Letting Go of the Goal of ..."
""Wow, an unevidenced assertion from a religious dipshite. "Your quotes are the evidence and reason ..."

This is my last post for ..."
""Congrats on leaving your brain behind!"Comments like yours are why lots of atheists leave atheism. ..."

This is my last post for ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Anonymous

    If you read the Talmud, you'll find it's equally a transgression for her to have you turn the lights on for her as it is for her to do it herself. This has nothing to do with you being Jewish. That is irrelevant to this point.

  • Patrick

    I'm not sure what makes your situation analogous to the one of Richard's correspondent. I gather that your situation is supposed to illustrate the point, but I'm not seeing what the supporting argument I'm supposed to derive from it ought to be.My general take is that no one has the right to complain that someone participating in a socially obligatory ritual doesn't actually believe in the ritual. This goes for everything from the pledge of allegiance to communion to religious marriage rites to being a godfather. If sincerity were important, the ritual wouldn't be socially obligatory. Insincerity is an open secret in these contexts, and the only thing that makes it socially unacceptable is being open about it. Ethical duties derive from human behavior as practiced, not as imagined, so I get the same result for this as I do for a couple obtaining a religious marriage ceremony to make their families happy.

  • Ash

    If someone is going to make exacting demands of another person, then it is their duty to show that there is a good reason behind it, i.e. there will be some tangible benefit for ordering another around. The word of a nonexistent entity isn't a good reason, and leaving your door open and unattended is not only completely pointless but also harmful (in terms of monetary risk). What you should have done is refused to cave in to her presumptions.Whether or not you're a Jew really doesn't make a difference in this scenario, unlike the godfather scenario. Sometimes, your actions seem to imply doubts about your atheism (not that I'm criticizing you for it).I'm thinking of starting my own religion to lampshade the preferential treatment that religious superstitions get (as opposed to non-organized-religion ones like those involving black cats).

  • Possibly I'm confused about how this works, but if you were Jewish and you were turning lights on and such for your roommate, wouldn't you be the one who was breaking the commandment and not her?

  • I balk at the idea of doing something patently silly and irrational simply to satisfy someone else's superstitious anxieties. So, I don't think I would have agreed to follow someone around to operate lights for them. That only reinforces the validity of such a silly practice. (I realize you were in a bit of a tight spot with not many options at your disposal. I might have agreed to leave the door open on condition that she agree to cover the cost of any stolen item.)Therefore, the advice I would give in the godfather case, is that the atheist should only be willing to perform duties that stand on their own as rational, worthwhile actions (like agreeing to babysit or whatever). He should not be expected to prop up Catholic superstitions.

  • @Ebonmuse: According to Jewish law, I'm supposed to keep the Sabbath (not that I care), but, as an observant Jew, she's really not supposed to be the cause of a fellow Jew disobeying the law, so she'd be upset if she knew.

  • I am not sure what you should have done, but I think you handled the situation well, as frustrating as it was.The role of the godparent is to help lead the child on his/her walk with Christ. As someone who has a very non-practicing and believing uncle as my godfather, I think he should thank his aunt and uncle for the offer, but decline it. I am sure they asked him because they love him and want to make him a more intricate part of their child's life, but the role of godparent is not a matter of interpretation. It is a very specific role in the Catholic Church. I think you answered well, Leah. I don't think any harm comes from believing in God (in fact, quite the opposite!) and participating in the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, so I do not have an answer or any reasoning for you beyond dialogue. Respecful dialogue is key with anyone you care about deeply, although I am not sure that falls under duty.

  • Ferny

    No, that's what you think a godparent should be. I assure you, if you asked anybody in my catholic family what godparents are for, they are simply tradition with some christianity intermixed, but certainly, they aren't defenders of the faith.

  • I think Richard's advice was spot on. A lot of people want a godfather to be someone outside the family who will look out for the child as they grow, there is often no spiritual element to it. If this is what the parents want then there is no issue.Your situation with the Jewish roommate was different. You were not only disrupted by her beliefs but by playing along with her rather than telling her to grow up you were strengthening her irrational beliefs and practices. Believe what you want, but don't expect me to follow you from room to room switching electric appliances on and off for you.

  • Elisabeth

    I disagree with some of the commentators here. When a child is baptized in the Catholic Church, in a public ceremony both the parents and the godparents solemnly proclaim their adherence to the Catholic faith; in fact, they affirm the Creed in its totality. They also agree to educate the child in the Catholic religion. To be a godparent of a child being baptized when you are an atheist entails lying, and not just a little white lie but a big public one. It isn't a matter of "don't ask, don't tell". They are asked, and they must respond…..Nix nix. Unless perjury is now acceptable moral conduct, I would say this would be completely ethically wrong.I once received a Koran from a Muslim friend who asked me to please not touch it when I was on my period, because that would be disrespectful. I agreed to this. To this day I do what my friend asked, not because I share his beliefs but because I gave my word, and it is something I am able to do and it is not evil to do it. If your word doesn't count for anything, what does? I would be quite offended if someone stood up in front of me in a Catholic ceremony and lied to everyone present.

  • Elisabeth

    As far as the Jewish roommate, I think you handled it as well as can be expected. You were only in high school. What she was doing was basically pushing you around, which she had no right to do regardless of her religious beliefs. Your safety was one issue, and your right not to be pushed around and ordered around by a peer is another. Probably having a sensible adult step in would have been the best option at that time, or just saying, "no."

  • KL

    @Ferny @March HareElisabeth brings up an important point. Accepting the role of godparent in the Catholic context means participating in a public ritual that will involve being asked direct questions about the faith, and obviously you are expected to answer affirmatively. (See the section entitled "Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith" for the relevant portion of the rite, here: http://www.catholicliturgy.com/index.cfm/FuseAction/TextContents/Index/4/SubIndex/67/TextIndex/7 ) An atheist in this position would be faced with the choice of either blatantly and publicly lying, or making a scene at the altar and probably thereby alienating everyone present. It seems like the ethical and relationship-preserving thing to do would be to graciously decline the invitation.Also — as I hope the text of the Catholic rite makes clear — godparents are expected to play a role in the spiritual and explicitly religious upbringing of the child, especially in the Catholic context. Whether or not the majority of godparents actually fulfill this role, or even whether the majority of parents/godparents are aware of the extent of this role, does not change the actual meaning and purpose of the concept of godparent as defined (and indeed created) by the Church.

  • Iota

    1. Ditto to KL and Elisabeth on the public character of baptism and public declarations required of the godparent(s).2. I'm slightly puzzled as to whether the letter-writer is already a godparent or has merely consented to be one. A candidate for a godparent is expected to provide a letter of credit from their parish that they are suitable for this role. See for example the explanations on this parish website.As for the general problem, I'd say there is a certain obligation to disclose information that could influence another person's conduct, based on at least three criteria: kind of relationship (greater obligation towards friends than towards strangers), effort to effect ratio (how important that thing may be for the person and how much effort will it take for me to warn them), neutrality or objective evil (I would not be under the compulsion to help people who were ritually homicidal). I'd especially draw attention to the fact that hiding knowledge may be considered an aggressive behaviour. Example-analogy: Let's assume that Mr. Smith knows I habitually forget what day it is. Let's assume he suspects I may really want to send a certain document by a certain date, but that's exactly today and I seem to have forgotten. Mr. Smith may just tell himself it's none of his business and not his duty. He's technically right. Nevertheless, if on the next day I realize I hadn't sent that document (through my own fault) and he probably knew and didn't remind me, I MAY, depending on my relations with him, assume he didn't remind me on purpose, out of bad will. Similarly, if I know or strongly suspect a friend is violating their own religious/ideological rules which I do not view as necessarily bad (for example, they are about to unknowingly eat some meat while being supposedly vegetarian), and that friend knows I disapprove of their value system (think vegetarianism is silly) they MAY suspect me of not warning them on purpose, to make them “a bad vegetarian”.

  • Iota, I think you go to far with the memory analogy – that has an actual effect on the world whereas not being a Christian while being a godparent has none – the child is still baptised and the fact you lied in front of a bunch of (as far as you are concerned) deluded people about sharing their delusion is not an ethical crisis.KL, if you think a false declaration at a symbolic ceremony that isn't even remotely about you is bad hten please inform the hundreds of politicians in America who are required to do this in order to get elected cf. Pete Stark as a single, notable exception."…whether the majority of parents/godparents are aware of the extent of this role, does not change the actual meaning and purpose of the concept of godparent as defined (and indeed created) by the Church."Which only matters in the slightest if the parents take the religion on a fundamentalist level. Who hasn't taken Communion while having a small sin on their soul? Or used a condom? The ceremony is, if I may, ceremonial. It is a social signal that the child belongs to this in-group and is 'one of us'. Surely you'll have noticed how modern Christians have lost the concept of Limbo and the idea that un-Christened babies don't get to heaven?

  • Patrick

    Norms arise from how people behave, as well as how they claim to behave. Often there is a publicly acknowledged rule that has significant silently acknowledged exceptions. This creates problems when someone wants to use the publicly stated rule as a bludgeon against people who are following the silently acknowledged rule, but it is how norms of human behavior function- not as stated laws, but as practiced behaviors.People acknowledge a rule that you should not drive over the speed limit, but everyone does and no one feels they've done anything bad unless they've driven significantly over the speed limit.People acknowledge a rule that you should be honest on your tax forms, but everyone forgets little things like out of state expenses for which they haven't got receipts, and no one cares as long as the amount of money isn't significant.Many couples acknowledge a rule that men should be the head of the household and women should be in submission, but in practice they find ways to live as the two of them best fit together while only symbolically acknowledging this hierarchy (or by using theology to turn "headship" into a non-concept).We could go on and on.Well, one of the big places where people do this is with public acts of semi-optional piety. You learn from a young age that these aren't REAL statements of belief or piety. When you say the Pledge of Allegiance, every child knows that you don't actually have to believe it. The adults didn't ask you if you believed it, and they didn't tell you to say it only if you do. They told you to stand up and recite after them, and you did. The reason is a mixture of everyone hoping that saying it will make you believe it eventually, and everyone believing that collective, concerted statements of belief ave valuable even if the people involved don't believe.You'll continue to encounter this through your life. Confirmation? Tons of atheists (or people who just don't care, or who don't know if they care but are doing it to make their families happy) go through that every year, and everyone knows, and no one really cares as long as they don't have to acknowledge it. Religious marriage ceremonies? Same thing. Communion? Same thing. Prayer before meals at Grandma's house? Same thing. And don't even get me STARTED on Catholic schools! I'd be writing for hours.It is simply part of the normal, every day practice of religion.Now that does mean that these people are going against the stated norms of their religious communities. But they're in accord with the unstated norms. They're in a vulnerable state, because people can get inquisitorial and castigate them for violating the stated norms… and the general rule is that unstated norms only apply as long as no one mentions the fact that stated norms are being violated.But that's also a good argument for leaving well enough alone.Its always a tough sell to advocate hypocrisy, because it violates stated norms that tend to have more convincing authority to people than the unstated norms that accept the hypocrisy. But its worth doing once in a while. The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath, etc.

  • KL

    @March HareI do, in fact, believe that the majority of politicians behave extraordinarily unethically, for precisely the reason you point out. I don't morally condone that type of behavior in politicians or in prospective godparents, because I don't condone it for anyone. Do people mess up, myself included? Sure. Doesn't mean it's okay or justified. We're talking about what people should do (at least, the letter-writer in question was), not what people have done or often do. Nota bene: You can licitly receive communion with "small sin[s]" on your soul. The only reason one should refrain from receiving is if one has knowingly committed a mortal sin and not yet been absolved. Also, limbo was never a formal belief of the church. Some theologians played around with the idea but belief in limbo has never been a binding requirement on faithful Catholics. @PatrickI understand your point, but there is a difference between "prayer before meals at Grandma's house" and the like (in which one is 1) a rather passive participant and 2) not presented with a choice of whether to participate, due to social pressures) and voluntarily accepting a prominent, public role in a religious ceremony. The letter writer was approached and asked if he would be willing to accept this role. He is under no obligation to do so, and could quite graciously decline with, one assumes, little to no negative repercussions. Given the ethical consequences of accepting the role and making public, false statements, I think declining would be the ethically responsible and relationally respectful thing to do. He doesn't have to make a scene about it, and in fact I'm sure he could come up with a reason to decline that doesn't make it a huge principled issue ("You're asking me to violate my principles! I would never!" with much pearl-clutching, etc.). Simply bow out, with or without a detailed explanation, and nobody has to feel bad about lying or misrepresentation.

  • Iota

    March HareI'm not surprised you disagree with me. The main point of my document-deadline analogy was that negative emotions can be provoked regardless of whose “duty” something was. Hiding knowledge I have no “duty” to share may STILL be considered aggressive, depending on the backlog of our mutual relations with this other person (e.g. I would be expected to do more than my "duty" due to friendship or, conversely, I would be seen as a potential adversary who uses norms of "duty" to score points in a conflict). And there may be situations where – I believe – you should value your relationship with another person enough to accommodate that fact (when you want to avoid coming across as an adversary and there are some grounds for that, such as opposing ideological viewpoints, or you want to be friendly). Even if you think it “irrational”, for example. I also think that resentment created in this way doesn't depend (solely) on whether the situation produces “actual” effects. While we obviously disagree about the “actuality” of lying during a public ceremony of baptism, I can equally well imagine a situation where, for example, the “actual” effect of the situation with the document would be negligible (e.g. me being equally able to turn the document in on the next day, with only very slight inconvenience I would have normally ignored), but the fact someone didn’t prevent me from making that mistake would still possibly matter in its own right. That said – seeing as we will almost routinely disagree because we obviously have different mental frameworks for assessing and dealing with reality – do you actually want me to answer any of the other points you raised?PS. I remember I still owe you the explanation in Genesis…

  • Iota, I am always glad to hear other's opinions, especially on points I raised.In the godparent example I am somewhat bemused why anyone thinks it's an issue that goes beyond the parent's wishes.I can imagine a situation where the parents are religious, will raise their children religious and the children will have the Church for any extra-family spiritual issues they may wish to raise. In those circumstances someone outside the family AND church that would look out for them and who they could go to for advice would be invaluable, in my opinion.Given that the parents know the religious status of the godparent I am unconcerned that (say) I have to lie to a priest and the congregation since the child is baptised and will be raised in the faith, what I am doing is publicly stating that I take a responsibility for the well being of the child.It is my view that godparents evolved in a situation where parents were very likely to die before the child reached maturity and the godparent would take responsibility for the child, including their spiritual well being. Obviously rituals that develop 1st millenium have a little less resonance today (communion notwithstanding) and the practical grounds for it have diminished – i.e. the state or relatives take an orphaned child not the godparent.Obviously I could be wrong about the development of godparents and the history but it seems to make sense without delving into history books.

  • Wow, that advice he gave really makes me sad. I can't draw up any clever analogies, so I'm not going to. Maybe the spiritual role isn't all that important to the family (seeing as how they didn't know the guy they asked was an atheist!) but nonetheless, there is nothing wrong with saying "I'd be happy to play a role in this child's life, but I am not a believer. I understand if that changes things." Then the family can say "Thank you for being honest, we'll ask someone who feels more comfortable playing a role in their spiritual development." or "No worries, we just want someone to have a symbolic role of guardian" or something. So the advice guy is right – it is the family's responsibility. But not allowing them to make an informed decision isn't fair to anyone involved.