Skip to main content

I Swear

By Carl S ~

Have you thought of removing the words, "so help me, God" in ending the oath witnesses and defendants take after swearing to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" What would happen? One veteran court recorder remarked that, in his experience, "so help me, God," was no deterrent to perjury: people still went on to lie in the witness box. Defendants have been known to say things they know aren't true, sometimes several times at a hearing. You would think it would be quite the opposite, judging by the gravity of the situations involved. Why isn't this so? Is it that they know their God doesn’t care?

But before we consider this question, we might look at oath-taking involving God. One biblical scholar (John Allegro?) has said that the 2nd commandment alone, "taking the Lord's name in vain," does not refer to blasphemy. It has to do with using the name of God as one's witness to support lying under oath. If believers were aware of this, would it make a difference? I doubt it; I suspect they know the punishment for breaking this won't happen.

By placing one hand on the bible, the Christian witness makes a public gesture of being honest. To on-looking believers who assert that that book itself contains "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," the implication is: this is the one book which is the very Unquestionable Source of Truth itself, so it's the best foundation to swear on. But is it really? Because if it's a book containing contradictions, even lies, shouldn't its writers and defenders be held up to skepticism, asked to provide evidence for their claims to be examined for truth claims, before their book is used in an evidence-finding courtroom? Shouldn't it, rather, be flung out the window? Allowing this book to be used to support an individual's truth-telling, as it is under current usage, is akin to swearing on a book of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Religious belief is indifferent to providing evidence through all sides of issues necessary to finding out what is true. Such belief is really all about hoping. Hoping that what is believed is true or will come true. Oath taking is the hope, on the part of the affirmer, that what he/she says will be believed as true, and will be accepted as habitually unquestioningly as the bible he swore on. We have witnessed ourselves how the religious take vows with fingers crossed. A marriage vow to be faithful is, for too many, hope they will not be suspected of or caught violating that vow. Other oaths are taken with the expectation that "I hope I never have to live up to what I just said." No God involved.

Oaths are rituals, and rituals are somewhat magical, and the fusion of the two can lead to the expectation that one can, magically-backed, live up to the oaths, or even, magically, lie one's way out of them without being caught. So, oaths and faith and hope and lying, and rituals and the bible on which they’re sworn, can all be connected in a big tangled web of lies, each justifying the other. For those who do not want to take responsibility for their actions, this tangled web is habitual. And those who swear to God know that their god is impotent and absent to do anything to stop them himself. So there.

Whether in the courtroom or not, with or without "as God is my witness," this whole business of oath-taking is overdone. It's a short-cut to getting it over with. The taking of oaths is ritualistic and, seriously, rituals usually aren't taken seriously. Do immigrants who hold up their hands and pledge allegiance to a nation "under God," mean what they say? If they're Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Pastafarians, etc., they sure don't. Believers did, way back when the wrath of gods brought misfortune, even death, for disobeying a god. Perhaps only the most radically minded believer will still go along with those beliefs. Most of us swear not very seriously.

Let me share some information I found. Since the Enlightenment, "truth" is defined as: evidence, fact-based knowledge, being subject to verification, and falsifiable. But past civilizations interpreted “truth" far differently in their teachings. Mythology, superstition, and tall tales were mixed in with known facts, actual places and events, to make them "credible." (Backwardly, even in the 21st century, believers prefer the myth of intelligent design to the evidence for evolution.) Previously, there was no way to fact-check the unknowable. People created their own realities and explanations, just like evangelicals do today. They relied on dreams, entrails, the effects of drugs, damage or other aberrations in the abnormal brain activities of others, etc., for their "truth-access." These are some of the ways, then and now, most believers claim to "know the Truth."

Religious belief is indifferent to providing evidence through all sides of issues necessary to finding out what is true. So, fabricated truth-histories and stories were concocted to enable tribes and eventually, civilizations, to have cohesive cultures. "Truth" had an entirely different meaning then. All scriptures are birthed in that practice. Truth was what is said for effect on the audience, because the audience is willing to believe. Psychologically speaking, it makes sense that the lie-tellers themselves either came to believe their own lies, which made them all the more convincing, and/or, must have known that repetition "made them true." Simply put, what we are also describing is "religious tradition." The fact that people still won’t care about this in the 21st century is disturbing.

The fact that there are people who swear to tell the truth while placing their hands on ancient scriptures means that the methods used to promote those texts makes them acceptable in making civil judgments. If you don't want to take the responsibility of thinking about them, habitually, you'll accept bullshit "on faith." As one author put it, "Faith is Not wanting to Know what is true," even though the means for finding truth have been available for centuries now.

Why do people perjure themselves in public, even before an audience of millions watching them on TV? One reason has to do with responsibility. They don't want to believe they're responsible for their actions, or try to make excuses, or blame others, etc. And they often expect judge, jury, and observers to take their words on faith, just as they'll take claims of faith to be unquestionably true. It works for faith; why not for them?

Do believers truly believe what they claim to believe, judging by their actions, even if they swear to believe?