Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Oath or Affirmation

The following letter to the editor appeared in today’s edition of The Capital Times of Madison (

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I'm an atheist, which, according to various polls, is the least trusted of any minority group. Less trusted than racial minorities, less trusted than gays.

Before giving testimony in a court of law, one is required to put his or her hand on a Bible and swear to tell the truth "so help me God." An atheist in that situation is faced with two very bad choices. One could lie by saying "yes," affirming belief in a god, even though the person deems him to be as fictional as Daffy Duck while having one hand upon a book he or she consider a fairy tale.

The other option is to be true to the oath of honesty by saying, "No, I cannot swear to any god, as I do not believe." In that case, the court will simply use a secular oath that threatens the person with penalties of perjury in place of God's wrath and risk of eternal damnation.

Atheists are forced to either lie -- which breaks their oath to tell the truth before they even start to testify -- or they out themselves before a jury that deems atheists to be the least trustworthy minority group there is. Ironically, being fully honest and refusing to swear to a god I don't believe in will most likely influence jurors to give my testimony less credibility, since, as polls show, atheists are considered the least trusted minority.

Just imagine the outrage that would exist if before testifying, people were asked about their sexual orientation.

Karl Schubert

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Here’s my follow-up letter:

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Karl Schubert's letter of Aug. 13 complains that atheists who wish to testify in court face the dilemma of having to swear "so help me God" (whom they don't believe in, making it a lie right off the bat) or refusing to do so (thereby opening themselves up to contempt of court charges or, if allowed to testify anyway, prejudicing the jury against them).

Unfortunately, this is the position that a lot of atheists are placed in due to the ignorance of court officials about a perfectly acceptable alternative, one which I've used myself. When it's your turn to be sworn in, quietly approach the judge and say "Your honor, I don't do oaths. May I affirm under penalty of perjury?". Since this option is mentioned 3 times in the US Constitution, you should be OK, tho the judge and clerk may have to consult a bit before they proceed.

The real question in my mind is why, in an era where people justifiably have more to fear from jail time for perjury than over burning in Hell, the default witness-sincerity test is still the oath rather than the affirmation.

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Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." [Note absence of “so help me God”.]

-- US Constitution Article 2 Section 1


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