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.



#1 dougsmith on Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 2:07pm

One problem is that in a legal setting, being unwilling publicly to take an oath may create a presupposition of unreliability or guilt in a potential judge or jury. Isn’t it the case that one reason the court has disallowed prayer in school is that it creates an atmosphere of intimidation, whereby a pupil who refused to take part in the prayer opened him or herself up to potential social pressure or backlash? Isn’t the same sort of social pressure even more credible in a court of law?

#2 Bryce (Guest) on Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 7:19pm

I’m in the military.  The last 2 times I’ve been promoted, I’ve asked specifically to have the ‘so help me god’ phrase left off the oath.  Luckily for me, I’ve had good commanders and superiors for these events that are perfectly willing to leave it off.  Not everyone will be that way, but it will take more of us doing this exact thing to help take the stigma away from not believing in imaginary friends—imagine that!

#3 joshualipana on Thursday February 12, 2009 at 5:08am

“Stop playing along!”

Brilliant. I totally agree. Its time we became more open rather then being passive and submissive.

#4 diogenes99 on Thursday February 12, 2009 at 7:59am

Anyone refusing a religious oath should be prepared for the possible sequence of events.  Also, “coming out” is not necessary, and forced outings by the government are unconstitutional.

First, for a jury, there is a sequence of oaths, and each poses its own challenge to refuseniks.  You need to be ready to say “no” multiple times.

Second, the very act of refusal will probably prompt questions from one or more government employees, such as clerks, court officers, and the judge.  If you are forced into revealing or explaining your beliefs to a government employee in private or in public, then your rights have been violated!  The law says no religious oaths AND no religious professions.

Third, each state has its own oath policies and laws.  In some states, you can ask for an “affirmation” and that is all you need to do.  In other states, “affirmation” is an ambiguous concept and can refer to the formulation “I swear or affirm….so help me God.”  If the latter is true in your state, then during your refusal you might get trapped in a religious profession, e.g., “I want the affirmation for atheists like me.”

Fourth, local authorities may not understand or know about the relevant laws.  Even if you ask the court clerk what the affirmation policy is, the clerk may give you the wrong policy.  You should contact the state court and ask about oath policies before dealing with the local officials.  Know what your rights are before going in to serve as a witness or juror, and the ways to communicate that won’t lead to forced professions.

Fifth, if you think your rights have been violated, then report it to the state court.  If you were forced to profess a religious belief or nonbelief, report it.  If you were given the affirmation in a separate room in a way that singled you out, report it.  If you were not given an acceptable secular alternative, report it.  If you were excused from the jury after refusing, report it.

#5 diogenes99 on Thursday February 12, 2009 at 9:29am

A sixth point, which I think is perhaps the most important, is the ethics of service.  If anyone says “so help me God” as part of an oath even though they don’t believe it, then that person needs to reflect upon their qualifications to serve. 

Jurors need certain virtues to carry out their duties. The primary duty of the juror is to weigh the evidence and make a determination based on the evidence and law. A juror who “goes with the flow” should not be a juror.  An atheist who chooses to “go with the flow” and takes a religious oath may also fail to resist peer pressure in deliberations.

Witnesses need to tell the truth even though it is hard to do.  An atheist who says “so help me God” because it is expedient may not be the person you want as a witness in your defense.

I think the purpose of oaths and affirmations is to mark the point at which extraordinary effort and honesty is required. To sheepishly lie during an oath is to fail in one’s duties before they begin.

#6 Lauren (Guest) on Thursday February 12, 2009 at 12:02pm

I once had to swear before giving testimony at a former employees’ unemployment hearing, and I had no opportunity beforehand to explain to the judge that I would prefer an affirmation, so when the time came I simply said, “I swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” I’m not sure if it has the same effect, but it made me feel better about it, anyway.

#7 P. Fidalgo on Saturday February 14, 2009 at 11:03pm

Worse than it being antithetical to an atheist’s beliefs, it is actually an act of gross dishonesty, for it seems to me an oath is nullified when it is sworn to a being who you do not believe is there.

#8 asanta on Friday February 20, 2009 at 1:48am

Whenever I go in for my yearly stint of jury duty, I have already rehearsed that I will refuse to swear, and proceed to use an affirmation instead, and I refuse to place my hand on a book of nonsense. Alas, in the 30 years I have been traipsing down to the courthouse, I have yet to get far enough into the process to refuse to swear anything! Sigh, maybe this year will be my year to make a point!

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