As Americans religious views evolve, so too has the role of godparent. What was once considered to be a religious responsibility has developed into a more secular role that consists largely of emotional support.
I was raised in Catholicism, and had a godparent, though I never really considered their role to be religious in nature. I’m now a member of the Unitarian Universalist church. Neither of my kids have godparents, but instead took part in a Child Dedication Ceremony where parents and the congregation celebrate and promise to support the child.
Over the years, my kids have asked sporadically and out of curiosity why they don’t have godparents. My husband and I explained that some religions choose to name godparents as special grown-ups in the child’s life, but that our faith tradition does not. Instead, we hope to cultivate those relationships with a wide range of people — not for religion reasons, but for personal ones.
Historically, the role of godparent wasn’t necessarily religious. Bernadette Sweetman, a postdoctoral researcher in adult religious education and faith development at Dublin City University, told The Atlantic that the role of godparent “held more social weight than spiritual… The role of godparent carried a certain prestige. It was a sign one was considered a good friend of the parents or a well-connected member of the community.” Sweetman also notes that sometimes godparents were actually chosen because they were family foes or business partners, so that the role could end a feud or facilitate good working relationships.
“I like the term ‘guide parent,’” Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT and author of Good without God told The Bump. “Many people want somebody who they love and admire who will play a special role in their kid’s life … It’s essentially adding an extra role model for the child.”
None of this is to say that godparents can’t be influential people in a child’s life. In fact, my husband and I are godparents to one of our nieces. But the close relationship we have developed with her has nothing to do with religion and everything to do being a bonus guide through life. To me, that’s what’s most important — and clearly others agree.
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