Nothing But The Truth,
So Help You God?
Dear Mr. Walker,
If an atheist is a witness in a court case, do they have to pledge the "truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you god, " as well as place their right hand on a bible? Just curious.
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: NEWS FORUM: Atheistic Book Covers 'Hate Literature'?
Date: Friday, August 18, 2000 8:21 PM
If an atheist is a witness in a court case, do they have to pledge the "truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you god," as well as place their right hand on a bible?
Technically, no. This is America, and they cannot expect you to perform a religious rite or ritual. Although it is unconstitutional for the government to require a religious test, most courts use the god-oath do this out of convention (that is, to accommodate the religious sentiments of the majority).
Some courts don't ask anybody to swear, though, because in each courtroom, it is the Judge who decides upon optional matters of decorum. One of our charter subscribers, retired Judge Dale Jacobs, once told me that he always looked the witnesses in the eye and asked them, "Now, do you promise to tell me the truth?" This came off almost as if a friend or associate were simply leveling with a fellow-human. The courts require some kind of affirmation, and is was the most humane and dignified way I've ever heard of, not to mention that it seems as if it would be more effective with a wider range of people.
To affirm rather than swear, all you should need to do is tell your lawyer or the DA (if you are a witness in a criminal case or before a Grand Jury) that you wish to affirm rather than give the god-oath. You shouldn't even need to explain why, although simply taking this option sometimes comes off as an editorial statement against the controversial practice of using the god-oath in American courts.
When I testified against a car thief that I helped catch, I deliberately played up the editorial statement angle with my body language and my tone of voice. I detected warm empathy from some members of the Grand Jury when I did this, and even got a subtle "thumbs up" from one member in the form of a wink and a smile. I later recognized this fellow from my days in the Twelve Step program, and it dawned on me that he'd watched me struggle for dignity as an atheist in that "unequivocally religious" program for several years, and I imagined him noting that I remained true to my values even in the face of giving testimony before a Grand Jury!
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.) If you are afraid of hostility, of retaliation, or of your witness being impaired (it may be your ass on the line, here), you may consider the following (admittedly dishonest) trick which will work every time: Carry with you a printout of the following passage from the "Sermon on the Mount," which the Jehovah's Witnesses have been invoking for decades:
 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
The Jehovah's Witnesses settled this issue for us long ago; with this angle, no court can get away with denying you the right to affirm. (The J.W.s have established numerous other benefits that we atheists enjoy, such as the ruling that American children cannot be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance -- a case which was decided almost two decades before the phrase "under God" was added to our Pledge). The bottom line with this trick is that it is harder for them to force someone to violate their religious tenets than it is for them to force someone to practice certain religious rituals -- although it is wrong for them to do either.
While I cannot speak for conditions in the Deep South (Judge Roy Moore of Alabama comes to mind), I can say that in Oregon, few courts would even blink an eye at the prospect of you quietly choosing to affirm rather than to swear -- and most of them wouldn't think to ask you why. (I was surprised that the DA in the car theft case chose even to explain to the Grand Jury what we were doing.) Then again, I live in Oregon, and we have the highest per-capita incidence of atheists in the United States, according to adherents.com's analyses of U.S. Census statistics.
Asking to affirm is, of course, your most dignified and most truthful option, besides being perfectly legal. But I do realize that in some parts of the country and in certain critical situations, an atheist might do well to go with the flow. Hopefully, though, if enough of us take that step out of the closet enough times, the majority will stop being uncomfortable with the prospect of dealing with an atheist. I would hope that by now, no atheist would need to resort to the Jehovah's Witnesses' angle in order to receive justice in an American courtroom.
If you have any doubts as to the stigma we atheists endure, please consult the article "The Last Taboo: Why America Needs Atheism" by Wendy Kaminer, particularly where it compares how Americans feel about homosexuals versus atheists.
For a much more recent look at the same problem (as recent as this month), check out our write-up on the results of the Gallup poll discussing how many Americans would vote for an atheist for President versus a homosexual, a Jew, a woman, an African American, etc. This write-up is in our introduction to the letter from Brazilian correspondent Huascar Terra do Valle, called "Largest Catholic Country Has Atheist As President."
Were it not for the stark reality of the prevalence of sheer bigotry against atheists, I would adamantly urge everyone to affirm and to boldly proclaim why they wish to affirm (it's not only illegal, it's flat-out wrong to expect nonbelievers to practice a religious rite such as the god-oath popularly used in American courts).
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
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