Ask Surly Amy: Atheist God-Parents

What is the term for the skeptical or Athiest version of a god father?

A non Cathlic friend of mine who is married to a Cathlic was looking for a trustworthy Catholic male to be his child’s god father. He remembered my wife is Catholic so he asked me. I told him I would be more than happy to help with her rational upbringing but I could not see to her Catholic upbringing.

So is there an equivelant term? Should skeptics Athesitst promote such appointments?


Dear Brad,

This really is up to your personal preference and a question of semantics. It is also one of those pick-your-battles situations. Technically, a God-Parent is just an old fashioned term for friend-of-the-family-who-will-take-the-kids-if-we-get-struck-by-lightning. Lightening of course being thought of as God’s will and all that mumbo-jumbo. The crux of the idea is that the godparents would step in and care for the child should the actual parents die or become unable to do so. But really, in today’s world I’m not even sure that being a “God-Parent” would even ever hold up in a court of law, especially if actual blood-relatives are around should the children need to be cared for. It is sorta like having a BFF necklace. Unofficially or in a church setting, very meaningful but officially or in real life… meh. It ends up meaning what you want it to. If the traditional title bothers you, why not call yourself or the appointed a, “Skep-Parent” or “Uncle/Aunt” or “Financial Advisor” or whatever best suits the person’s particular skill set.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind at all being called God-Mother. There are no gods and I’m really not your mother. Sounds rather fitting to me. Now come on kid, let’s go get some ice cream.

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I was once asked to be a godmother to some wonderful children, actually officially on paper (my friend is now married with several more children, so I don’t think I’m official any more) when she was a single parent. I found it to be a great honor.
    I’d thank them and be grateful, but be very clear you while you won’t interfere in a child’s desire to have a Catholic upbringing, you won’t encourage it either.

  2. Good answer, Amy. The only thing I’d add is to ask for clarification on the two meanings of God Parent you laid out above. I still hear people say God Parent when they actually mean they want you to be the guardian of the child should anything happen to the parents. This happened to me. Should something very unfortunate happen I will be the parent of 9 year old twins. Scary, yes?

  3. I am an atheist godmother. My goddaughter’s parents wanted my relationship with her to be official in some way, and this was the most obvious way.

    I do, however, disagree with your use of the word ‘technically’ above. What you describe is what the term godparent has come to mean in our culture, but technically a godparent is someone who is named at a child’s baptism and takes vow to guide the child’s spiritual growth, and to be present at the child’s confirmation.

    That’s just not what parents usually mean, these days, when they ask someone to be a godparent.

  4. My wife is a Humanist Celebrant and has performed baby naming ceremonies. The term that she generally uses is guideparent. That role does not necessarily include the guardian position, but often includes promises to be a part of the ethical and moral upbringing of the child.

  5. I was thinking about this recently as well since I come from a bit of a large catholic family and eventually my cousins and siblings will begin spawning and usually that’s who we draw from for these types of requests (i.e. I may get asked soon).

    And what I came up with is that for us the bond is one of love and affection that gives the child a special connection to the older generation. Specially in large catholic families its easy for kids not to be connected to the whole family and the godparents kind of step in and act as like a family liaison for the child. That person is “their” special family member.

    So in my family this usually meant that you would do sleepovers at your godparents houses or they would get you a present at christmas or your birthday (things which were not expected from the other aunts and uncles). It gave you an adult within your family that you could look up to and feel like you had a special bond with who was not in the strict parental role and who would not feel like they were slighting the other children like a grandparent may (and who sadly is likely to be around much longer).

    Going beyond childhood we’ve tended to keep our close bonds with out godparents and look to them for advice and guidance on navigating the experience of life as an adult. I know that in many instances this also means that I can ask them more frank questions and receive honest feedback for things that I can’t ask my parents.

    I want to be able to share that experience with the next generation of my family, I think. And the positives of that for me outweigh the religious nature of the title. However if push came to shove I guess I might think of it more as a guideparent than a godparent.

  6. I think it’s no trouble thinking of the “god” in “godparent” as a vestigial term that can be ignored by atheists as blithely as blessing sneezers or saying “goodbye.”

  7. Thanks for addressing this. I am probably going to be a godparent to my niece soon, and what’s more interesting is that my niece will be raised by my (weakly) Christian sister and atheist/agnostic brother-in-law. She is aware that I’m not religious, but I think the role may be more symbolic than literal. I intend to try and be there for my niece as much as possible and answer any questions she has to the best of my ability.

  8. I’m actually the secular equivalent of a godparent. My brother, who is as secular as I am, asked me to participate in his daughter’s naming ceremony as a named “Supporting adult”. The ceremony probably has no legal standing, but it was a nice thing to take part in.

  9. Guardian parent?
    Mentor parent?

    No term will likely carry the same meaning at ‘god parent,’ but I like Siveambrai’s ‘guide parent’ suggestion.

    BTW, ‘lightening’ is what one does when things are too dark or heavy. ‘Lightning’ is the weapon of gods.

  10. I think the “god” part of it is typically just traditional, but they may want to clarify all the details (would they have to participate in communions, etc.) ahead of time.

    A term I once heard was “parent-in-trust”. I thought it was interesting and rather appropriate.

  11. BTW, I have a godfather and I cam from a half Xtian half Jewish family who raised me without any religion at all. My godfather was a wonderful and positive influence on me when I was young and I am grateful for his guidance and friendship. I am confident his role had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with friendship.

    I think it is a lovely tradition that can easily be appropriated into secular communities.

  12. If you have minor children it doesn’t matter what you call the person who you want to care for them if you and your partner die. What matters is having their name and your wishes in your will and making your wishes known to whoever may have a different opinion (grandparents, aunts and uncles you don’t want raising your children) within your family and among your friends.

  13. Some very good friends of ours asked my wife and I to be god parents. My wife not being an atheist was right on board and thought it would be fun for them to try and make me uncomfortable with the request.

    Before they could get to the totally made up requirements I beat them to the punch as I wasn’t sure they were aware of my lack of faith. I told them that I would do anything for little J.J. but they needed to know that while I would never interfere in their faith I would always be honest with J.J. about various views on faith including my lack thereof.

    Once again the Atheist ruins every bodies fun ;)

    They were actually quite surprised and even more pleased that my duty was to their kid first and foremost.

    We also have a friend who is the godmother of our children. But I’m pretty sure she’s an atheist too and we call her “Gumma” in the tradition of my family. It’s a way cooler term and has become her nickname in a way that godmother could never be.

    But all of that is eased by the fact that non of us take any faith very seriously even if only a few of us are out Atheists.

  14. I was raised Catholic, too, and “god parent” was a term used to designate someone responsible for my spiritual upbrining. My “god parents” lived in another town and, in a very practical sense, they were picked more as a statement of my parent’s esteem for them over any sort of realistic expectation that they would guide my religious upbrining.
    It also seems selfevident that they were pretty crappy “god parents” since I don’t believe god exists. Flippin’ slackers.

  15. Great issue!

    As a “godless godparent” myself, I absolutely agree the definition of godparent is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t know of anyone who actually received religious instruction from a godparent, but I’m sure that happens. (And as a former legal reporter, I can definitely say godparents have no legal claim to children unless noted in a parent’s will.)

    I was baptized in a Unitarian Church and given a set of godparents — two of my parents’ best friends. I found out many years later that my godmother was an atheist. So, as it turns out, I guess I DID get religious instruction from her, and it WORKED.

    My best friend (whose son is my godson) is Swedish, and in Sweden (a nonsecular country), they have naming ceremonies where adult ‘mentors’ are assigned to the children. I don’t know what the actual word is there, but she calls me Erik’s “godless godmother” and I send him money sometimes. Money > God.


  16. Why not use the Latin “sponsor”, might be accurate in many cases… Admittedly I prefer being “the fairy god-mother”

  17. I’m a sort-of godfather. Neither of my friends are Catholic, but he asked me to be his son’s godfather when he was born. I think there was some implication of guardianship if anything happened to him or his wife. The subject never came up with her (and I think she’d prefer her dad and step-mother take custody if anything happened). So occasionally my friend will refer to me as his son’s godfather, but usually both my friends and the boy refer to me as his uncle or “Unky”, which is what all my real nieces and nephews call me. So, usually he’s my “nephew”, sometimes he’s my godson. And likewise, I do not interfere with any (usually minor) religious upbringing, of course his well-being is first. But I don’t lie to him, either. I might avoid a subject or simplify it, and where stuff like Santa Claus is concerned I do what most people do and play the game, but I don’t lie about anything.

    I’m very happy to be his Unky, too.

  18. Seconding humanistrich’s comment:

    The secular humanist groups can perform ‘Naming Ceremonies’ and refer to the god-parent equivalent as ‘guide-parent’… Like it much, I do :)

  19. In Ethical Culture we have naming ceremonies or welcoming ceremonies and some people use the term “good parents” to designate people who will help with the moral upbringing of a child. I like the information about Ethical Culture ceremonies on the website of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County (NJ)

    And I second all the people who say it is important to have the appropriate legal paperwork if you are designating someone to be the guardian of your child(ren) if there are no living parents.

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