Experiencing an ethical dilemma? Need advice from a humanist perspective?
Send your questions to The Ethical Dilemma at firstname.lastname@example.org (subject line: Ethical Dilemma).
All inquiries are kept confidential.
Atheist Oath: I’m a nurse, and I recently had to give a deposition relating to a case I was involved in. I wanted to get the point across with my “expert” testimony that there was absolutely no wrong-doing in the medical care.
I had to be sworn in. The oath that I had to repeat and raise my right hand for ended with “So help me God.” I hesitated for a millionth of a second because I was going to tell the truth—no matter what. I did not want to swear by a god that I don’t believe in. I am a moral and honest person, but I didn’t want it to seem like I was unwilling to swear to God because I didn’t want to the hurt the chances of winning the case. I didn’t want anyone to doubt my integrity. So I actually said “I do” and ended up lying due to the oath itself.
What is the alternative? If the testifier does not agree to the oath, it looks like they aren’t going to tell the truth. Can an atheist legally ask for a non-religious oath of some sort?
—Get That Stack of Bibles Away From Me
You are right that you probably are not required by law to swear, “So help me God,” nor would you be compelled to take an oath on the Bible. The laws vary state by state. I’ve linked articles from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, The Friendly Atheist, and Freedom From Religion Foundation that discuss the issues and alternatives for non-believers. There may be special circumstances where different rules apply, such as military cases (of which the American Humanist Association was recently involved).
Once you’ve determined that nothing on the books requires you to say “So help me God,” you could, if you wished, end your oath with “So help me, Rhonda” or whatever you choose. But you are also astute to recognize that opting for an alternative might make you and the reliability of your testimony seem suspect in the eyes of the people hearing the case. Since in the instance you cite, the verdict was more important to you than refusing lip service to an offensive but boilerplate oath, you did the right thing to go along rather than make a scene on the stand. Isn’t it ironic that to appear honest so your testimony would be received as truthful, you felt compelled to lie?
In the future, if you know you are going be called to testify, you could contact the court in advance and arrange for an alternative. One option would be simply to omit the offending line, but if you or the court prefer something to be substituted, best to make it so unobtrusive—like “So help me good” or “On my honor”—and speak it so softly that no one will notice the switcheroo.
But if it’s a case where you are more interested in asserting your views than pandering to religious spectators, your fellow non-believers would applaud you for taking the stand—and making a stand–with a godless affirmation spoken loud and proud.