(24057) Wed 1 Feb 95 5:14p
By: Robin Murray-o'hair
Re: Objecting to Oaths
@MSGID: 1:382/1006.0 87A905A5
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The following article is reproduced from the "Editor's Desk"
column of the January 1988 issue of the _American Atheist_
by R. Murray-O'Hair
On December 15, 1986, a Travis County judge announced to me
that he _would_ swear me in as a juror.
He and I had already had three "discussions" concerning
my unwillingness to swear or affirm "So Help Me God." He had
learned that I was an Atheist, and he had already announced that
he "resented" my determination not to swear or affirm anything.
But now, in our fourth encounter, in front of a bewildered court
reporter, he announced that he was going to administer the oath
I immediately thought, "How? Are you going to put a
burning coal to my tongue to make me cough up the magic words?" A
lingering respect for the American legal system made me hold back
my thoughts, however. I was curious as to how a judge could force
me, in this modern age, to make particular words cross my lips.
Apparently, the methods are the same as that used during
the Inquisition: force and fear. The twentieth century has just
gentrified the process. The rats have been removed from the
cells, but the cells have not been removed from the punishment
I have, since that day, often reconsidered the question
of oaths and affirmations -- their necessity and origin. I have
often had to explain to the curious why anyone would object to
the words "I swear" or "I affirm." After all, in an age of
prevarications and "clarifications," what matters the meaning of
particular words? Why object to "swear" and "affirm" but not
"promise" or "pledge"?
The more I have thought about the issue, the more I have
became convinced that this is not a problem of wording, but a
problem of meaning.
As explained in the July 1987 issue of the _American
Atheist,_ the oath originated as a plea for a "higher power" to
punish the oath-taker if he (for women generally could not take
oaths) broke his pledge. It was a self-imprecation. That is the
way adults in our society describe this procedure.
Children, honest creatures that they are, have a more
straightforward way of expressing their oaths: "Cross my heart,
and hope to die."
In our society, rather than abandon childish habits, we
justify, explain, and whitewash them. Thus the part of the
cannibalistic ritual of the Mass known as transubstantiation,
rather than being called grotesque, is called symbolic. Thus in
the last one hundred years, realizing that an oath makes as much
sense as chanting "Step on a crack; break your mother's back," we
now claim that the oath submits the oath-taker to the laws of
I fell for that line myself. I thought, "Golly gee,
people lie all the time, but we don't go around arresting them
unless they have promised not to fib. That's the point of asking
witnesses, jurors, and such to promise not to lie." I agreed that
some sort of attestation or pledge is necessary to the legal
But that's nonsense.
I know of no other law than that of perjury that
requires that one "submit" oneself to it. At the age of eighteen,
when I reached my majority, I didn't have to promise not to rape,
murder, steal, or commit treason. Yet if I performed any one of
those acts, I would be liable for punishment. My defense could
not be that I didn't "swear" or "promise" that I would not commit
Why then does the crime of perjury only apply if one
"swears" not to perjure oneself? Could it be that the oath-taker
is not calling upon the law but taunting a god?
The laws governing perjury, like those governing any
other criminal act, should be able to stand with only the aid of
a legal system, without the aid of a theological system. If they
can, witnesses and jurors need only be advised of the punishment
for the offense of lying. They need not call upon any private
asset -- J.C., Allah, or their integrity.
The only reason to have individuals take oaths is to
have them call upon a diety. The secular solution is easy,
simple, and draws no distinction between brands of religion, as
does the oath. The courts need only announce: "You will be held
accountable for the truth of all you say in this court." There
simply is no need for a list of available statements for use in
courts, all of which pinpoint the religious ideas of the speaker.
As Atheists, we should not seek "secular" religious
ceremonies. Godless invocations, priestless christenings, and
spookless oaths should not be our goal. Superstitions should not
be continued in any form just because they are traditional.
I know that some Atheists will gladly affirm as long as
they are not required to affirm with the help of a god. But I
think that it is time for us to purge ourselves of religious
ideas and practices -- they can be habit-forming.
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Text reprinted courtesy of the American Atheists Press.
Copyright 1988. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce
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