Don’t Take That Oath!

February 11, 2009

My colleague, Derek Araujo, has posted a couple of blog entries regarding the recent legal efforts to remove the religious trappings from the inauguration ceremony. (See, for example,   his blog entry for December 31, 2008 ). Many religious skeptics are outraged by the inclusion of religion in an important government ceremony. However, as Derek has pointed out, given current First Amendment jurisprudence, and an overwhelmingly conservative judiciary, the prospects of a successful legal challenge are dim, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

But perhaps even more troubling than the inclusion of religious elements in the inauguration ceremony—which, after all, happens only once every four years—is the practice of oath-taking in this country, an event that takes place countless times each day, in courtrooms, government offices, and elsewhere. No nonbeliever can be required to take an oath invoking a deity in connection with any government-sponsored program, institution, or service. Nonetheless, nonbelievers are seldom informed of that fact or offered a nonreligious alternative, such as a simple affirmation. (For some of the problems encountered by nonbelievers in the context of courtroom oaths, see “Challenging Tennessee Jury Oaths without Going to Court,” FI, Oct.-Nov., 2008.)

One reason a nonreligious alternative is not offered is because it is seldom requested. I’ve known many an atheist or agnostic who, when told to “raise your right hand and repeat after me,” have uttered not a peep of protest and slavishly participated in a religious ritual that was antithetical to her/his beliefs. This, of course, just reinforces the current practice and the privileged position that religion has in our society. Indeed, it provides justification for those who decline to offer a nonreligious affirmation as an alternative: “We don’t tell people they can simply make an affirmation, because so few people request that choice.”

Participation by nonbelievers in religious oath-takings also has the unwelcome consequence of making a liar out of the oath-taker—usually at the very moment when s/he is promising to tell the truth or pledging to fulfill some responsibility.

Stop playing along! Stop being complicit in this religious ritual! If we are to achieve appropriate recognition in our society, we need to force others to take notice of our existence. As Richard Dawkins’s inspired   “Out Campaign” has emphasized, the social stigma attached to being an atheist or agnostic will not fade away until more nonbelievers come out of the closet. Perhaps you’re not a T-shirt or button-wearing person. Fine. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. You don’t have to wear clothing or sport emblems proclaiming you’re a nonbeliever. But at a minimum, don’t lend support to an unacceptable practice. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Don’t be a hypocrite. Don’t take that oath.