He is a hypocrite who professes what he does not believe; not he who does not practice all he wishes or approves.
-- William Hazlitt
I was raised Catholic. For years I spent Sunday mornings trying to avoid eye contact with my sister Jenny because when our eyes met, we couldn't help but burst into laughter. This would earn us painful pinches and chilling glares from Mom, who sat between us in an attempt to stave off the inevitable cacophony of two energetic children forced into silence on an unforgiving wooden pew so some old guy could read aloud from an antiquated book. I hated church, hated the strained smiles and reproachful stares that only the most pious of women could fuse into one discomforting facial expression. I hated the poorly written hymns and the fact that we had to sing the same few over and over when the book was filled with so many. While living in Rhode Island, my sisters and I attended a private Catholic school. The only thing I learned there (not counting the first commandment beaten into the head of each young lamb: Thou shalt not question the word of God, or those who teach it) was that nuns and priests creep me out.
When we reached San Diego, we were released back into the public stream. Over the next few years, due to laziness or lack of interest, Mom and Dad gave up the good fight and limited their insistence that we attend church to major holidays. We became partially practicing Catholics, acquaintances of the church rather than the good friends we'd once been.
Then one Easter Sunday I refused to get in the car, and, to my surprise and delight, my parents did not argue. Eventually, everyone in my family stopped going to church except for Dad. Though he may have altered his beliefs away from the strict interpretation of Catholicism in the direction of tolerance and progress, my father's relationship with his higher power has only grown stronger over the years. For the rest of us, religion has always seemed more a sense of duty than anything else.
All religions come with roles. Mom thought to spare her daughters from the difficult task of choosing favorites later in life by having us pre-assign these responsibilities to each other at a young age -- we were each chosen as another's maid of honor (because, of course, we would all get married), and we were given a simple formula to figure out who would be whose child's godmother (having children was also expected without question, as was the assumption they would be raised Catholic).
So when Heather got married, Jane stood by her side, and vice versa. When Jenny gets married, I will lead her down the aisle, and it would have been vice versa, but in light of my choice to never approach the altar, I am robbing my younger sister of her right to carry my train. Heather's firstborn received Jane as his godmother, just as Jane's firstborn received Heather. According to our assignments given so many years ago, I was next in line to serve as godmother to Heather's second-born son. But here I fucked things up once again by making it clear, before my sister had the chance to ask me, that I would not accept the honor of being a godparent.
When I first expressed my disinterest in godparenting, my family reacted the same way they did when I got my tongue pierced -- with shock, disgust, anger, and, finally, confusion. They regarded me as one would regard a teenager who was taking great lengths to be difficult. But this was different. "To be a godmother," I explained to my bewildered sisters, "I would have to stand in front of a room full of people, including those I love most, and lie. I would have to pretend I was a practicing Catholic, vow that I denounce a devil I do not believe exists, and promise to teach my godchild, my nephew, to follow a doctrine to which I do not subscribe."
My explanation was not satisfactory. My younger sister snapped, "You don't have to do anything. It's just symbolic. It's an honor. I don't know why you have to be so high and mighty about it. It's not like you have to believe in it, you just have to say you do." I could tell that when faced with my conviction they felt judged, which was not my intention. If I had been asked to teach theology to my nephew, I would agree in an instant. I would make information on all religions available; my mission would be to explain what various cultures believe and why, and then ask, "What do you believe?"
According to an article written by a pastor for the Arlington Catholic Herald, "...a godparent should be a trustworthy witness of the faith who will help the godchild attain salvation." I will not stand in a room and promise to do something I never intend to do, symbolic or not. And I will not assist in the indoctrination of any child into a belief system I do not practice. To me, being asked to be a godmother is equivalent to being asked by a Muslim couple to be an Allahmother who will teach my Allahchild the ways of the Qur'an. My answer would be the same, whether the parents were Jewish, Buddhist, or pagan: Thanks, but no thanks.
I have godparents -- my mother's sister Karen and her husband, George. I haven't talked to either of them in years. Aunt Karen is a well-meaning woman, but her husband is a schmuck whose absence in my life I do not mourn. Did they stay true to their vows? No. Do any godparents? Maybe.
When I brought up the subject with my sister Jane last week, she asked in a wary tone, "Are you going to call me a hypocrite because I baptized my daughter but I don't take her to church every Sunday?"