Even though I was actually looking forward to my half-day of jury duty, there was one part that I was a little unsure about: swearing an oath.
I don’t have a problem with promising that I’ll tell the truth; I would have told the truth in any case — unlike some people who may or may not stretch the truth about their opinions to try to get out of jury duty. No, my problem was going to be about one little clause:
So help me God.
As an atheist, I feel it’s important to choose my battles wisely. In the case of swearing (or affirming) an oath to be truthful, I decided that I wouldn’t make a stink about the word God being included in the oath. After all, I didn’t know at the beginning of the afternoon when the oath-taking would come into play, or what the exact verbiage of it would be, so I had no way of knowing whether I’d even need to object to the wording of the oath itself.
Turns out that the Lucas County Courts give jurors and potential jurors a version of the oath that goes a little something like this:
Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the answers you are about to give are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as if you were before God? If so, answer, ‘I do.'”
We had to affirm our oath on two separate occasions, and I didn’t quite catch the exact wording the first time through. I listened carefully the second time, in the courtroom, and took note of how it was phrased. Although there was a mention of God, it was more in the subjunctive — as if you were before God — not an absolute “so help me God.”
Even as an atheist, thinking about it in retrospect, I can appreciate what it would be like to give answers before a god. I can answer as if I were before an omniscient being who knows if I’m lying. I have no problem with having affirmed this oath.
If I were to have to testify in court, however, I assume that I would need to give an officer of the court advance notice that I prefer to affirm my oath, rather than swear on a Bible. Hopefully, I’ll never have to find out.
Not only is it disappointing that there is only one openly nontheistic representative in Congress, but it’s amazing that there are laws in several states prohibiting nontheists from holding public office.
It’s also disappointing that there are “closeted” atheists in public office, both in Congress and (likely) around the nation. The unfortunate truth, however, is that many atheist public servants would be voted out of office by their Christian constituents, just like many atheists who “come out” to their families are shunned or disowned (not me, thank goodness — my Mom is loving and understanding, if confused by my lack of belief).
I look forward to the day when believers and nonbelievers alike can get past their personal beliefs and coexist openly in society, without fear of discrimination or prejudice.
The first atheist I ever met — knowingly, anyway — was a boy named Aaron Roberts*. He was two years behind me in high school, and was a Sophomore when I was a Senior. We both sang in the chamber choir, which was a small, tight-knit group of about 16 students. We got to know one another well and to feel comfortable being ourselves, and it was in that context that the rest of us learned about Aaron’s atheism.
I honestly don’t remember it being a problem, or even how it came up in the first place. He never made a fuss about any of the “sacred” songs we sang, and his non-belief was really just kind of a running joke amongst all of us. I don’t remember any of us seriously chastising him for not believing in God — which, looking back on the ultra-conservative cornfield that encompassed our school, is surprising in retrospect. We engaged in a brief high-school-level discussion about proof and reason, and we all (as I remember it) agreed to disagree, with no hard feelings. (Aaron Roberts might remember it differently, I suppose.)
The only time I distinctly remember his atheism coming up, other than the initial discussion, was near the end of the school year. One of the pieces of music we were learning had been photocopied on the reverse side of some letterhead for a Lutheran church, and Aaron was one of the first to notice. He joked about being offended by the photocopies, and we all laughed, and went on singing. The end.
As for myself, I do remember being a little sad for Aaron. After all, I knew God’s Plan. I imagined that Aaron’s life must be so sterile and bleak, not believing in the Hereafter… but Aaron actually seemed quite happy and sure of himself, if still a little introverted and geeky at age 15. (Weren’t we all?)
Before the midpoint of the school year, the chamber choir suffered a tragic loss: Scott, one of our tenors, died in a car accident. For many of us, it was our first experience with the death of a peer, and we didn’t really know how it was appropriate to react. I didn’t, anyway.
Our choir director, Ms. Beall, was sensitive to our feelings, and knew how we would deal best: she led us in “The Lord Bless You And Keep You,” then let us have the class period to cry and talk and deal as we felt best. That was a Monday, as I recall; on Tuesday, we had to get back to work, and the tenors suddenly found themselves underbalanced, with one less member. I think that having to deal with the immediate ramifications of a missing member may have helped us deal with the fact that he was gone for good.
At least half the school went to Scott’s funeral later that week, and I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of the choral program and the sports program turned out to pay their respects. Honestly, I don’t remember if Aaron dealt with Scott’s death any differently than the rest of us — outwardly, at least. If he did, I probably chalked it up to the awkwardness of dealing with strong emotions in front of other people, since I definitely had that problem myself.
Life is so short. So precious. Even more so when you realize that there IS nothing else. This is all we have. In all the eons of time, of all the potential people who could have lived, but didn’t, we get to exist and be present and alive and conscious for a tiny fraction of eternity. Whether that’s 16 short years or 90 short years, we’ve still beaten the odds.
* I couldn’t for the life of me remember Aaron Roberts’ name when I sat down to write this, and had to look him up in the choir photo in my high school yearbook from 1994. Funny how people look different in photos than they do in memories, especially from high school.