In UK courts both witnesses and defendants have to swear or affirm to tell the truth. The oath is ‘I swear by Almighty God [to tell] the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’ Christians say this whilst holding the bible, and those those of other religions can say the oath over their own holy books. Atheists on the other can can ‘solemnly, sincerely and truly affirm‘ to tell the truth rather than swearing on a religious text.
The Magistrates’ Association (the body which represents three-quarters of the 23,000 magistrates in England and Wales) recently debated whether to abandon the holy books and references to god. As the BBC reports:
The plan was put forward by a Bristol magistrate, Ian Abrahams, who claims many people are no more likely to tell the truth after using it to swear an oath. He believes what is needed is a greater sense of how seriously lying in court is treated. Mr Abrahams’ alternative oath would include an acknowledgement of the duty to tell the truth. “I understand that if I fail to do so, I will be committing an offence for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison.
Abrahams claimed that people are no more likely to tell the truth under oath than otherwise, whilst religious leaders have argued that the oath has meaning for the religious. The change was, however, rejected by the Magistrate’s Association, meaning that people will continue to swear on the bible and other religious texts.
This comes after The Girl Guides stripped all religious references from their promise and The Scouts introducing a secular pledge whilst also retaining the religious version. This got me thinking whether religious oaths should be used in court or not. Given that a secular affirmation is available as well as the religious oaths, the religious oath is not being forced upon anyone, but is that the end of it?
Much like there is considerable debate over whether atheists are more or less likely than the religious to engage in criminal behaviour, I wonder whether the religious or atheists are most likely to lie under oath. I also wonder whether the religious would be more or less likely to lie in court in if they used a secular as opposed to a religious oath.
The key question is, would a religious person feel less obligation to tell the truth if they used a secular affirmation rather than a religious oath. Both the affirmations and oaths are examples of what Austin called performative speech; that is an utterance that is neither true nor false and an utterance, the saying of which is the doing of certain kind of act (e.g. I swear to…). On the purely linguistic level, there is no difference between the religious oath or the secular affirmation. Furthermore, the secular affirmation in no way denies the existence of god, and one assumes that religious affirmers would still be operating under the religious diktats to honesty (such as they are), therefore I do not think that that switching to a secular affirmation for all would have any detrimental effects. If anyone knows of any situations where the likelihood of people to lie under oath has been researched, I would love to know.