Magistrates have missed their chance to join the 21st century

Justice ScalesNews is a cruel mistress. This morning, I was surprised and rather delighted to read a BBC report on a motion to end the practice of swearing an oath on the Bible or other holy book, and to replace it with a secular, non-specific recognition of the responsibility to tell the truth and the potential consequences for not doing so. By this evening, that move had been rejected, preserving the status quo. That’s right, raise my hopes and then dash them, why don’t you?

What annoys me about this isn’t so much the continuation of a long-standing practice, seeing that different groups are allowed to make promises appropriate to their beliefs, but the arguments given in favour of it. Those who supported the old oath (including, inevitably, church leaders) claim that swearing on the Bible strengthens witnesses’ evidence. Nick Freeman, a solicitor known as “Mr Loophole” for his brass-necked efforts to defend celebrity clients, expressed this point of view very succinctly:

“Evidence must be strengthened if people swear on religious texts,” said Mr Freeman. “The way you stamp out lying under oath is to punish people who do so, not to get rid of the religious oath. By changing it you are depriving people with a religious faith of the chance to reinforce their evidence by swearing on their religious text.”

Just ponder that one for a minute. Is it just me, or is he implying very heavily that swearing an oath on a religious text (a curious practice in itself seeing that Jesus wasn’t all that keen on that sort of thing) gives your evidence greater weight? He presumably thinks that this is self-evidently positive, but where does that leave atheist witnesses? It surely can’t be his deliberate intention to relegate atheists to a second tier of reliability or truthfulness.

Hand on BibleIf swearing on a holy book does reinforce the testimony of witnesses over and above some other form of affirmation, that in itself should be sufficient reason to dispense with the practice. There can be no hope of impartial justice when verdicts can be swayed by the theological positions of the people involved.

On the other hand, if there’s no difference in the weight that should be applied to the testimony of people from different religious backgrounds, what’s the benefit of the current arrangement? At best, it unnecessarily intrudes into the irrelevant details of a witness’s personal beliefs by forcing them to choose the oath that’s most appropriate or meaningful to them.

It could be argued that the current arrangements both treat all testimony equally and are better than the proposed secular alternative, but it’s hard to understand how that could be, when atheists would end up taking virtually identical oaths under either system. The idea that evidence is strengthened by swearing on religious texts also raises the terrifying possibility that believers are only likely to tell the truth if they think their god’s keeping a close eye on them.

I’ve never previously considered the swearing in of witnesses to be a big issue of equality and fairness, but if the arguments made here are typical, I may have to reassess that view.

Images courtesy of srbichara and juliaf, used with permission


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

9 responses to “Magistrates have missed their chance to join the 21st century”

  1. chialphagirl says :

    I always took as symbolic of the acknowledgement that you were accountable to a higher power (in this case the actual power is the law) to tell the truth. It seems to me that it is an archaic practice. And yes, Jesus was opposed to the idea of oaths all together. Just let your yes be yes and your no be no. If you have to swear that you aren’t lying then that says something about your character.

  2. Neil Rickert says :

    The idea seems to be that if you begin your testimony with a deliberate lie (the swearing an oath is itself a lie), then you are more likely to be telling the truth.

    I see it as laughably silly.

    On the other hand, if I were called to testify in a court case, I would go along with the oath. If I make a fuss, it is hard to tell how that would influence the jurors.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      And that’s the rub, isn’t it? It seems nice and liberal to allow people to make an oath appropriate to their own beliefs, but it also marks them out as different and allows for at least the possibility of bias against a minority group.

      I have no idea how I’d handle it – probably depends on how much the right result in the case matters to me, and how bolshie I’m feeling.

  3. alexmylles says :

    I want to know whether religious people would be more likly to lie if they used a secular oath. If you believe that god comands you to tell the truth, do you need the oath on order to be honest? – I’d love to see some research on this.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      It would be interesting. But for most purposes, I don’t think it matters.

      Having said that, I think I recall some research which found that people are less likely to lie if they think they’re being watched, or if they’re reminded that they’re being watched. I’ll see if I can find the details.

  4. Karin says :

    I had to swear an oath with my hand on a Bible the other day. I didn’t have to mention the Bible at all, though. I couldn’t see the point. If I wanted to lie I don’t see how putting my hand on a book deemed holy is going to stop me, but perhaps a high proportion of liars are superstitious.

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