The Ethical Dilemma: Hands on Bibles and Hand-Outs

Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective? In the spirit of the New York Times “The Ethicist” or Slate’s “Dear Prudence,” Humanist Network News is proud to introduce “The Ethical Dilemma,” an advice column by Joan Reisman-Brill.

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Swearing Off the Bible: With all the controversy over Obama swearing in on the bible, I’m curious about what else people might use to take an oath. How’s it done in secular organizations (which, of course, our government is supposed to be)?

—Loath to Take an Oath

Dear Loath, And you don’t even mention all the mentions of Jesus and god at the inauguration, so I will not get into how that disenfranchises all non-Christian, non-religious Americans and falls on the wrong side of the line separating church and state.

As far as I can tell, there is no specific requirement, at least for U.S. politicians, for any secular organization’s oath to be sworn on the bible or any other text, so it’s just a matter of custom when bibles get into the act. But customs are a matter that really matters symbolically, with consequences that can be quite concrete. American politicians who refuse to get cozy with a bible or two might find themselves confronted with disgruntled constituents and colleagues once they attempt to fulfill their duties, and blowing off the bible may blow their chances for re-election.

Some suggest it would be more appropriate if our politicians swore—or, more appropriately, affirmedtheir oath on the Constitution (which is what they are pledging to uphold), or something of their own choosing (e.g., Paul Ryan might use Atlas Shrugged). I’m looking forward to someone whipping out A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, which is inspired by the volume Thomas Jefferson created by literally cutting out all the biblical passages he didn’t go for–except Grayling’s includes the good stuff from an array of sources of Eastern and Western secular thought. (TJ also owned a Koran that recently found its way into a post-oath photo op with Keith Ellison of Minnesota, our first Muslim Congressman.)

It seems that taking an oath with any tome is largely an illusion based on post-ceremony posing for the press. In most cases (such as Congress), people simply raise their right hands and promise to support the Constitution. In courtrooms, you need only raise your hand and pledge to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—without touching any book or invoking any deity—so help me. The American Humanist Association (a handy example of a secular organization) does not have any kind of swearing in ceremony or oath for elected officers. Board members are simply expected to fulfill the specified requirements of their positions when they accept them. Makes you want to say “Duh,” huh?

The fact is, whether people swear in on one bible or a whole stack, on R. Crumb’s illustrated The Book of Genesis or one of his comic books (Mr. Natural would be particularly apt), on their mother’s soul or their father’s grave or whatever, people committed to fulfilling their duties honestly will do so, and others won’t no matter what pledge they make on what and to whom. When you come right down to it, I swear it all comes down to the honor system, hands down.

Sponsor Me, and Me, and Me: This week alone I received e-mails from two friends asking me to sponsor them in charity events—one cycling for cancer, one walking for autism (benefiting the distant state where they—not I—live). And it’s only Wednesday. These kinds of requests irritate me the same way as chain letters that promise riches if you do and damnation if you don’t participate. My impulse is simply to ignore the messages, but I expect the senders will make little mental black marks against me if I don’t kick in some bucks. There’s nothing wrong with their causes, but I prefer to choose my own on my own. What should I do?

—Handling Hands Out for Hand-Outs

Dear Hand-Outs,

You have three basic choices: Ignore the requests (do nothing); respond with donations (do what is requested); or respond with explanations of why you choose not to donate (do something about doing nothing).

Let’s put things in perspective. You received these requests via e-mail. You may be able to see the entire lists of recipients. Do they consist of hand-picked associates, or do they appear to be blasts to every e-mail address in your friends’ contact lists? What are your relationships with these suitors? Do you owe them any past favors or anticipate tapping them in the future, or is this a one-way street?  Do your friends have special connections to the causes (e.g., a relative who died of cancer, a child with autism), or are they in for another reason? Do they stand to gain or lose something, like a job, depending on how much they raise from how many donors?

If you’re close to these individuals and they have personal stakes in these causes, you should reinforce the relationships and avoid those black marks by making at least nominal donations. If you are concerned that your friends expect generous contributions, they really ought to be communicating in a more personal way. You can either click “send” to give whatever amount you are comfortable with, or get in touch with them to find out the full story behind their roles and then determine your level of giving from there. Realize that once you start a dialogue, you may be on the hook to cough up more than you had in mind. You may be thinking $25, but find out the typical gift is $250 or $2,500. And while participating is akin to feeding strays—it encourages more of them to come your way in the future—I say when in doubt, help a friend out. You could mention that as a rule you don’t donate this way but you are making an exception because it’s them.

On the other hand, if you feel this is one step away from spam and not something you care to do, just move on to your next e-mail. I can’t envision any possible benefit to responding with reasons why you choose not to give. That will only ensure that your friends remember that you in particular did not come through for them. If you’re one of hundreds who don’t reply, they’ll scarcely notice (or they’ll wonder if you ever got the message). Even if you reply that you already give generously to those causes, or that you don’t have enough money for your rent, they may feel you’re weaseling. While you could inform them that as a matter of personal policy you don’t participate in these things, at best that may win you grudging respect, and it won’t even guarantee that you’ll be removed from future lists. Every salesperson knows the deal begins when the prospect says no.  Better to just let it go.

Your friends probably mean well. They are certainly donating time and very likely their own money to these causes. Most people hate to ask for donations as much as you hate to be asked, but fund-raising necessarily entails some chutzpah, guilt-raising and arm-twisting. And everyone should recognize it’s necessary to approach many to receive from a few—no sane person expects 100% return on their solicitations or will cook your pet rabbit if you ignore them. How much you give, if you give at all, should roll off them just as the fact that they asked should roll off you. If you give nothing or too little and lose these friends, you may be better off off their lists.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.