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So Help Me What!?
Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
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Readers' Advice and Anecdotes

From: "James Call"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: September 30, 2001 1:03 AM

I have no problem swearing "So help me god," since in that case I am swearing to nothing. I have had to do it several times. The oath is their attempt to ratchet up whatever guilt factor may be inherent for you in lying. That swearing to god is of no consequence to you just makes you one of the people who slips thru the cracks of their catch-all oath. You may, if you wish, advise them of an oath that may more effective in your own particular case, but you are certainly under no obligation, either as a practical matter or as a moral one, to do so. I don't know why you would, anyway, since you intend to tell the truth -- or not -- as you will.

James Call

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From: "Kevin Courcey"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: September 30, 2001 1:56 AM

In this instance I would not make a stand about it because it is job related, and could have career implications. I would make a stand under almost any other circumstance. I would probably phrase my objection as: "Excuse me your honor, but I really must know to which god this statement refers before I would be willing to swear my willingness to having him or her assist me in telling the truth; although I feel compelled to point out that I do not require anyone's assistance to tell the truth in this court."

Kevin

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From:"Art Haykin"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: September 30, 2001 1:23 AM

The one time I had to testify in court was when a man (and his innocent wife), who did my yard work and light housekeeping, was accused of molesting (just short of rape) a 12 year old girl. He drove clear across town, in L.A., CA, lured her into his car and brought her to my house for the foul deed. My house was in Silverlake, and he went to a barrio to find her (he was a Cuban) some 15 miles away.

Afterward, he drove her back, and she reported it to her school principal who notified the police. To everyone's astonishment, she brought the police directly to the house, which she described in full. She knew neither the address or even street name, and had never been this far from home. BRIGHT little girl!

The police called me, and I gave them the man's phone. In court, 2 weeks later, I was called by the PD to give the usual pro forma testimony that I had NOT given the defendant "permission" to use my home for criminal purposes, and this sort of thing is routine and maddening.

I told the PD and the ADA that under no circumstances would I swear an oath, and least of all "Under God." They were not surprised, as this was the '70s, and asked me if would affirm or promise under the threat of perjury. I said I would, but only so far as I understood the truth and the facts of the case.

Of course, there are endless ploys, such as asking "Which God do you mean?" and you all know the drill, but I was for the little girl, and was a defense witness, so I didn't want to hurt her case. The jerk was found guilty and deported, I learned later.

These are gut wrenching decisions, and each must follow his own conscience. My philosophical roots and convictions are deep enough that I can "Play their little games" according to their rules when appropriate. This moment simply did not call for my zeal to put my business and family in jeopardy: I had no fame, economic clout, or political power, and the case went unnoticed in the press.

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"For all your days prepare,
And meet them ever alike:
When you are the anvil...bear;
When you are the hammer...strike!"

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Art Haykin

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From: "Smith Design Works"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: September 30, 2001 10:21 AM

I had to show up for court on a DUI charge. Before I repeated the oath, I categorically stated that I was an Atheist. Surprisingly, the judge confided to the court, my attorney, and me that he was an Agnostic. I was shocked but elated. Then they amended the oath for me to "On my Honor ... so help me" (there was no mention of God).

I wish that had been the case for my military commissioning.

I'm a boat rocker from way back -- as was my Father. I did what I thought he would've done in a similar situation.

Good luck.
J.Smith

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From: "Bill Garrett"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: September 30, 2001 5:12 AM

I would strongly urge you to compromise, in the manner suggested by your attorneys. In a deposition, you will be cross examined by the other side just as you would in court. They will be looking for any means to compromise your integrity, both now and if the case goes before a jury.

They will also look for any way they can get you off-point or get under your skin in order to draw damaging information out of you. You have to look at your deposition as your performance in a battle, where your company and your boss have their asses on the line.

Rocking the boat over a point of personal preference, when they've given you an alternative that does not require you to swear by God, will make you appear unfocused on the urgent matter at hand, and may even make you seem disloyal. Compromise is surely distasteful, but this does not seem to me to be the time for diverting from their battle to fight one's own battle.

Bill Garrett

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From: "Bryant Adams"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION (Partial response)
Date: September 30, 2001 2:35 AM

Being sworn in on the basis of a religious affirmation has been something which has bothered me for a long time. At a gut level, my reaction would be to say "If you would like me to swear by your god that I will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I may satisfy you in that regard, but I believe that what you really want is a statement that I feel indicates that I bind myself to giving all useful truthful information, and no untruthful information. If, indeed, that is your desire, I will offer my promise that I will do so for the duration of this trial."

This, of course, does somewhat draw on the secondary fact that I never have broken, nor never will break, a promise I freely gave or offered. At the same time, it is acting in the spirit of the oath that I wouldn't even have taken yet: That is the whole truth, and nothing but. I have no problem saying "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me god." But the fact of the matter is that swearing is not an activity in which I can engage in any more meaningful of a way than profanity, and appealing to "God" for help is no help at all. I could as well, if they like, say "So help me Snuffeluphagus." It's not offensive, it's just silly.

The counterpoint to this, however, is the "understanding poor word choice" route. Asking an atheist to swear to a god is much different from asking a Christian to swear to Satan. For Christians, Satan is a real, living, and potent being. Satan listens. Satan can do things. Satan is a living enemy and antithesis to much that they believe in. Definitionally speaking, at the very least, I think it's fair to say that for atheists, God isn't. Period. Specifically, God isn't real, God isn't living, God has no power, God does not listen, God cannot do anything, God can't even be an antithesis or enemy, except insofar as one can have nothing as an enemy or antithesis.

So what problem should an atheist have with swearing to someone's god? Aside from potential confusion, not much. It is apparent that the person asking, however, did not find it important to discover for themselves whether "so help me god" had any meaning to the speaker, and though the speaker may be held somewhat culpable for allowing the asker to remain in ignorance, this is certainly limited (else we'd all be responsible for overwhelming quantities of ignorance!). Presumably, the atheist understands that the spirit of the phrase is "I'll be honest and spill any relevant beans," and tacking on some requested meaningless syllables does not change the essence of that.

The problem would likely come if you've got a theist who fancies themselves an atheist, i.e. someone who feels that "so help me god" does constitute a contextually meaningful statement. In this case, making a specific objection would likely be the best recourse, but investigating just why one feels a need to "enlighten the ignorant."

Essentially, it is generally the prerogative of an individual to maintain their established level of ignorance insofar as that level is not propagating harm. A court clerk should, if there is sufficient grounds to suspect that a witness believes in something which answers to "God" and also believes it is wrong to address themselves to whatever it is, ask if a different oath is appropriate. There are, however, not too many situations in which both of those conditions are fulfilled. A Satanist, for instance, might have cause to take offense at being asked to swear to Satan's biggest persecutor. For most others, though, responses ought to fall into the categories of:

Muslim: "Idiots can't even properly pronounce the name of the all-merciful properly, and have to use His title. There is no God but Allah, and it is to him that I swear, even if this clerk is misguided."

Ancient Greek: "Hum. The god named "God", huh? Haven't heard of that one. Sounds like it's a god of veracity, humm, okay, works for me."

"Hard" atheist: "Ok. I know what God is. I know there's no such thing. I could correct them and point out that their requested statement is overly verbose and has superfluous content, but given current circumstances, what's the chance they'd learn anything? Not worth the bother, I'll throw salt over my shoulder or whatever if it'll make them feel better, which is pretty much what the oath is about anyhow."

"Agnostic" atheist: "If there's a God, I might as well swear to it, since I'm going to tell the truth anyhow. Or, if not, there's probably no harm in it." (This case could be sticky, though, because an agnostic atheist could well realize that it's also possible that there's something which answers to the name "God" which delights in hardening hearts and deceiving eyes, and would be quite happy to cause the witness to give false testimony. In that case, I'd understand them asking to have the god-oath removed on both religious grounds and concern of a mistrial.)

Jew: "Didn't ask me to swear to Jesus or anyone aside from G*d, I'm set"

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From: "USAF Buttcrack"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: September 30, 2001 6:48 PM

Cliff,

When I enlisted in the Air Force, I recall being given instructions concerning this part of the Oath of Enlistment.

Before the officer arrived to administer the oath, the group I was in was briefed on the ceremony including the right to say "So help me God" or "So help me".

I don't have the software loaded on my home PC required to read official AF Forms (called FormFiller), but I don't recall these instructions being included on enlistment forms (these forms have an oath printed on them).

Rule 807(b)(2) of the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM), states "Any procedure which appeals to the conscience of the person to whom the oath is administered and which binds that person to speak the truth, or, in the case of one other than a witness, properly to perform certain duties, is sufficient."

The example oaths given all have the phrase "so help me God" but it is contained in parenthasis. For example, the example witness oath is "Do you (swear) (affirm) that the evidence you shall give in the case now in hearing shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (so help you God)?"

Although this is military law, the MCM and the Uniform Code of Military Justice derives authority directly from the Constitution of the United States. Military courts are regarded as extremely fair and, unlike civilian courts, they provide a mandatory appeal for all convictions.

In an Internet search, I did find two precedents to the lack of "So help me God" in oaths.

My advice to Jon is to say "so help me" or not complete the oath. If challenged, cite MCM rules of law and the above precedents. The judge might get bent-out-of-shape, but I think higher courts will overrule.

Randy

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From: "Mary Basson"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: September 30, 2001 8:18 PM

"I swear to tell the truth, so help me God". Is it a compromise for an atheist to take this oath?

The answer I think rests upon ones interpretation of atheism. The view that all 'god' talk is heretical to atheism would rule out the taking of this oath. Is there room for a an alternative view of atheism? A position that would allow room for 'god' talk. I think there is. 'God' and atheism are not mutually exclusive. Atheism has plenty to say about what sort of 'god' it denies -- but little is mentioned about the sort of 'god' it could live with.

Atheists are anti-theists -- but all 'god' talk is not theist. Although the term 'atheist' has come to be used to denote a disbelief in 'God', or 'gods', it was, at one time, used to designate a position in opposition to theism. I think atheists should be weary of falling into this modern-day trap, a dead end, of viewing atheism as an anti-god philosophy. Specific 'gods' may indeed be beyond the pale -- but that fact does not mean that the concept of 'god' is meaningless.

It is a very naive atheism that would seek to negate the 'god' concept -- history shows that it just cannot be done. Whether its monotheism or pantheism -- or anything else in-between -- 'god' has staying power. Sure, atheism should be knocking some 'gods' on the head -- but the concept of 'god' is a different matter all together. Even though theology likes its 'god' with a capital G -- the concept of 'god' cares little for the niceties of grammar.

And what is that concept?

Dictionaries usually give a few meanings. A supernatural being, a person, or thing, or principle, that is made an object of worship. The important element is not what 'god' is -- the important element is that man views 'god' as an object of devotion or veneration, of worship. It is man's action that is important -- that action is man's choice to value something, his choice to give his 'worship' to something.

It is not 'god', nor is it any specific value that man holds, that is of ultimate importance. Rather it is, as Ayn Rand wrote, "man's loyalty to values" that is important. Man honors his values, upholds his principles -- as though he were 'worshiping' his 'god'. Man's search for 'god' is man's search for values that add meaning to human existence.

Ayn Rand, for all her anti-religion rhetoric, still choose to use the concept of 'god'. From 'Anthem'. "And now I see the face of god, this god who men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: "I".

Interesting question for atheists to consider -- is theism a Christian belief? There is much that is going on in the Christian world. Not least of which is the Jesus Seminar. A recent article in their publication, 'The 4th R', contains much food for thought: The article is: "Christianity minus Theism", by Lloyd Geering, emeritus professor of religious studies at Victoria University.

He ends with this: "I have tried to show that Christianity, understood as a broad cultural stream, can and will continue without theism. This is because in the first place Christianity made a radical departure from pure theism in the early centuries and in the second place in modern times it is taking that radical departure to its logical end, which is the abolition of theism".

('God', it seems, is on the move. Atheism would benefit from following suit.)

"So help me God" -- I would honor the concept -- take the oath -- demonstrating my loyalty to my own values -- and fight theology's misuse of the 'god' concept another day.

Mary Basson

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From: "Markus Damon"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: September 30, 2001 6:38 PM
Subject: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!

Dear Jon(and Cliff),

I would like to say that I think the contract lawyer's and the Company have given you a good compromise position.

Over 20 yeas ago I was involved in a law suit brought by my car insurance company regarding an accident wherein a city bus pulled out in front of me and we had an accident. In court all witnesses in the case that were there testified for me in support of my position. When I took the stand to testified I "affirmed" instead of putting my hand on the Bible and swore. When damages were awarded from the jury I received the minimum amount for damages. I later found out that two of the juror's did not want to award me a dime. This in spite of all the evidence and my bodily injury were supported by all witnesses. The opposition had no witnesses at the accident. All I can surmise is my affirmation, rather then swearing, affected all the jurors, the two who didn't want to award me anything and the others by the paltry award they agreed on.

I would have taken the compromise position had I known -- I never got any advice on this from my lawyers. You however must make your own decision.

Sincerely,

Markus Damon

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From: "Tom Spangler"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: September 30, 2001 8:35 PM
Subject: don't swear.

Cliff,

The short answer for you: the Quakers (from Pennsylvania) have been able for over 200 years to respond to the court prompt with the phrase, "I so Affirm." Does not require you to believe in the court's "god", you are merely affirming to their "Easter bunny of the moment" -- that they have supplied to you.

I think the Quakers originally had some qualms about invoking deity names in something as secular as court proceedings (civil, or criminal), and firmly believed that a man's word was good enough to be trusted, so simply affirming that you are telling the truth was enough, even redundant. I have used the "I so Affirm" statement a couple of times, and never been challenged. They usually look up surprised, but somewhere in their deep, dim memory they've been told not to screw around with that, because of some "religious freedom thing."

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From: "Christian Ambrose"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: September 30, 2001 10:54 PM

I would let the court reporter know about my beliefs. That is the only thing I could think about. Unless you get a total jerk, they may be understanding. I have never been called to testify before but may be asked to testify for a friend in the near future. She would probably rather I compromise but I would prefer not too. I want to be able to respect myself. I've been asked to compromise once so she could save face with some of her other friends who are not as tolerant toward atheists as she is but I have to draw the line somewhere.

In reason,

Christian L. Ambrose

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From: "Brian Koukoutchos"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: September 30, 2001 10:18 PM

No dilemma at all. The law permits you to "affirm" rather than swear, whether at a deposition or in a court of law. The legal effect is precisely the same, since both are under the "pains and penalties of perjury" -- that is the source of legal compulsion to tell the truth; the "God" part is a vestige and even the description of the undertaking to tell the truth as an "oath" is vestigial. If they are insisting otherwise, your company's attorneys are either ignorant or way out of line. The highest law in the land, that is, the federal Constitution, see Art. VI, section 3, expressly permits even constitutionally mandated oaths (e.g., the oath all government officials must make to support the Constitution) to be made "by Oath or Affirmation." See also the 4th Amendment (search and arrest warrants to be issued on probable cause "supported by Oath or affirmation"); Art. I, section 3, clause 6 (when Senate tries impeachments, Senators are "on Oath or Affirmation"); Art. II, section 1, clause 8 (President's oath of office is "Oath or Affirmation": "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute...").

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From: "Paul Murray"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Sent: September 30, 2001 6:22 PM
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!

I believe that in US courts, one may "affirm" rather than "swear". That's the word for it. It would be wise, however, to be polite about requesting that you be permitted to affirm. A judge can throw you in prison for simply having a smart look on your face.

In fact -- after a brief web search I find that there is a page on this at Positive Atheism:
http://www.positiveatheism.org/mail/eml9490.htm

Spot the difference!
Jer 48:10 A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord's work! A curse on him who keeps his sword from bloodshed!
Mk 16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
Quran 2 And kill them wherever you find them,...if they do fight you, then slay them; such is the recompense of the unbelievers.
http://www.users.bigpond.com/pmurray

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[33] Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
[34] But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:
[35] Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
[36] Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
[37] But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
     -- Matthew 5

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Occasionally, though, you do run the risk of silently identifying yourself as an atheist, and this could work against you in some parts of the country. (How things ought to be and how they are don't always coincide.)

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From: "Shawn Rudloff"
To: "'Positive Atheism Magazine'" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: RE: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: October 01, 2001 2:54 PM

Interesting subject.

I have always thought it peculiar that the courts require "swearing to God" before one testifies. As a Catholic child, I was taught that it was a sin to "Swear to God". As an Atheist adult, I have never had a chance to defy the oath, but I'm anxious now, seeing that others have!

In the past, when I have been required to show for jury duty, I have always included "Atheist" in their questionnaire, under religion, and assumed that may have been what excluded me from the process. A process that almost makes me feel like the one on trial, I might add.

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From: "Dankovits, Kris"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: QUESTION: So Help Me What!? Tell Us Your God-Oath Story!
Date: October 10, 2001 4:15 PM

This may be a little late to throw in my two cents, but I'll do so anyway.

I found an article on this issue in Dave Silverman's column at American Atheists, where the author requested a secular alternative and got it. I wouldn't consider that "rocking the boat", but standing up for your beliefs (or non-beliefs, as the case may be). At worst, you could always say something like "I swear to tell the truth under threat of perjury" and leave it at that. As I don't believe in god, I don't need his help telling the truth. Your boss should be open minded enough to respect that you have differing opinions and are willing to stand up for them. If he isn't, then this won't be your only problem, and perhaps you should find someone else to work for (easier said than done these days, I know).

I do not agree in compromising. Unless we speak up and voice our opinions (to those that matter, no offense to Positive Atheism) , things will not change. Sure, some people are not going to like it. That's life. Just think, if a small group of people had kept quiet two hundred years ago, America might still be part of the British Empire. Poor analogy, but it was the only one I could think of. If we collectively bend over and take it now, we'll do the same when, say, the President calls for a day of prayer or starts a "faith-based initiative". No, wait, that already happened.

Kris Dankovits

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