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Can Atheists Be Trusted?

by rdf Thu May 17th, 2007 at 03:35:18 PM EST

Recent surveys in the US have found that 40% of voters (63% of Evangelicals) would have reservations in voting for an atheist. I think part of this stems from a feeling that atheists can't be trusted.

[This diary may make no sense to those in Europe, but I figured I'd toss it out anyway...]

Let's start with a common occurrence - swearing to "tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth" in a court proceeding. Such testimony is said to be given "under oath". Until fairly recently people would swear on a Bible. This makes little sense on the face of it since the US is supposed to be a secular society. In fact when a newly elected official chose to take his oath on a Koran instead it produced criticism. (I should point out that such ceremonies are only symbolic, the actual pledge is to uphold the constitution.)

The thing that must motivate such attitudes is that swearing falsely in the view of God leaves one open to divine retribution. In other words, one is promising to tell the truth out of fear. Since an atheist has no such fear, there is no assurance that they will actually tell the truth.

We, of course, know that such affirmations have little effect in the real world. The crime of perjury wouldn't exist if the possibility of lying under oath weren't common. So, apparently, the argument from fear carries little weight in many cases, even among the nominally religious. Perhaps those breaking their pledge think they will be able to compensate for their misdeed later by repenting or some other action. This may be so, but what we are concerned with here is the reliability of the testimony.

From this point of view those taking the vow are no more reliable than those who just make a simple affirmation. This leaves the question of why should an atheist tell the truth, especially if lying would benefit their cause? Well, it would seem that the motivation is the same as for any one else, some people have a strong sense of fairness or justice and believe in "doing the right thing". Others fear that their lies may be uncovered and then they will prosecuted for perjury. So is the worry of temporal punishment less of an inhibition to lying than that of divine punishment? This seems unlikely. If most people really thought this than we wouldn't need perjury laws, we would just assume that the God would meet out justice eventually.

Aside from truthfulness the religious are skeptical about atheist's moral compass. If God doesn't supply the rules of right and wrong than where do they come from? This type of belief system is rooted in those religions which have a codified set of commandments. This is primarily those stemming from Judaism and the ten commandments. In other cultures such a formal set of precepts is not as common, yet these societies have managed to come up with almost the same sets of moral underpinnings. Those that deal with interactions between people (as opposed to those which specify one's relationship with God) involve protection of one's person and property. When reduced to their basics they are restatements of the golden rule: don't do unto others what you wouldn't wish done to you. This leads directly to prohibitions against murder and theft. Atheists have the same concerns for their wealth and safety as anyone else and so can be expected to support the same general restraints on behavior. There is no need for an externally supplied set of rules.

Trustworthiness seems not to depend upon the belief in the supernatural, yet bias against atheists persists. I find the explanation elsewhere, in the wish of a small group to control the behavior of the majority. If this small group can persuade others that only they can be trusted then they have a free hand to run things as they wish. If it is admitted that others can live moral lives without acknowledging the privileged status of this small group then the leader's claims become undermined. Whether these leaders really feel that they are special or whether they are just power hungry and hypocritical is sometimes hard to determine. It is also irrelevant. The fundamental issue is one of the type of society one wishes to live in. A truly democratic society has to allow for varieties of opinion. When any group is criticized for its beliefs, rather than for any anti-social overt actions, this is a sign that democratic ideals have already been compromised.

We live in an era where the number of nominally democratic societies is greater than ever before, but in too many cases only the mechanism of democracy is observed, not the fundamental rights. Many countries are willing to hold elections and thus proclaim they are democratic, but frequently the process is flawed, not only by outright corruption, but by institutional structures which prevent all from participating freely. Several of the most common techniques include limitations on voter eligibility, suppression of political parties which are in opposition to those in power, and gerrymandering and other apportionment tricks.

The rise of the mass media and the expense of reaching the public via this avenue has also made it difficult for the non-wealthy to seek office. Discrediting of atheists or other out groups can be seen as part of this money-based propaganda effort. Those who developed the ideas of democracy during the Enlightenment didn't anticipate the degree to which public opinion could be influenced by big money and the ruling elite. We have yet to develop ways to deal with this new landscape and to maintain the rights of everyone to equal participation. We are all aware of the number of genocidal programs which occurred in the 20th Century and thus the need to protect society against such massive propaganda efforts should be high on the list of issues social philosophers should address.

I think that historically allowing confirmation instead of swearing oaths would perhaps be because of the Religious Society of Friends in most of the "British" (ex)colonies - with Scotland being an exception (there may be other exceptions). There were probably a lot more Friends around than atheists way back when.

33Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:
34But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne:
35Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.
36Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
37But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
Bible New Revised Standard Edition http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%205;&version=9;

'Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no'
Quaker Faith and Practice http://quakersfp.live.poptech.coop/qfp/chap20/20.43.html

By the late 1700s, Quakers were sufficiently recognized and accepted that United States Constitution contained language specifically directed at Quaker citizens -- in particular, the explicit allowance of "affirming," as opposed to "swearing," various oaths.

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Thu May 17th, 2007 at 04:15:08 PM EST
Do you have a link to the survey(s)? (Pew?)

The paradoxal result of early Americans' attachment to religious freedom has been that it has turned into an unspoken obligation. You're free to be whatever religion you like (however zany), but it's assumed you belong somewhere, somehow. The one position that is not tolerated - at least, is demonised and discriminated against - is the refusal to believe.  

(I know, I'm generalising. Shoot me.)

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 02:45:37 AM EST
Which is very like the traditional Muslim position - excepting the more recent batshit variations.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 07:57:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well here is one Pew survey:

I can't find the one which says that more people would be willing to vote for a convicted felon than an atheist...

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 09:01:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, you're preaching to the choir, but agreed on all points.

(As always I have to ask: Which ten commandments? As I recall even Jews, Protestants and Catholics do not agree on what these are, they're supposed to be using the same sources.)

So what do you swear on/by other countries?

by Number 6 on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 05:43:18 AM EST
I meant "what do you swear on/by in other countries".
by Number 6 on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 09:07:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Modern English court practise is to offer a choice of religious books (at least in areas where members of non Christian faiths are numerous). If the required book is not available or if the witness does not want to swear an oath, then an affirmation is taken instead. All have exactly the same legal effect.

As I recall the obligation of the court to enquire into someones opinion on religion before allowing an affirmation, was abolished in 1971.

I do not believe many people in modern day England would consider an oath more of a safeguard against lying than an affirmation. I am not aware of any survey evidence on the point. It is simply not an issue in the UK.

by Gary J on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 10:54:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Atheists could swear on the Origin of Species, just to confirm the libels hurled at them by combative theists. (Could, not should.)

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 05:23:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I swear by dog!

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 05:30:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is there any reason to assume that atheists are less trustworthy than believers? After all the believer might see it as a religious duty to lie in certain situations.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri May 18th, 2007 at 06:22:36 AM EST
Here's my favourite quote about the the influence of religion in the US ; h/t preemptive karma

"Senator, when you took your oath of office, you placed your hand on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. You didn't place your hand on the Constitution and swear to uphold the Bible."

-- Jamie Raskin : Responding to to a question from Maryland Republican State Senator Nancy Jacobs about whether marriage discrimination against gay people is required by "God's Law."

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 11:51:25 AM EST
There is an irony to be gained from the obeservation that of advanced western nations, it is only the US that has formally declared a separation of church and state. All of us old europe countries are still hopelessly in thrall to superstitious mythologies, thank god (;-)) the US is free of all that tosh.

Actually, swearing on some Holy book is akin to signing the Official Secrets Acts in the UK. You are not more subject to the law of secrecy by signing a copy of it, anymore than you are more subject to the law of perjury by swearing on some book. Therefore it only makes sense as an act of official intimidation.

By signing, or swearing, you are making a formal declaration of complicity with the state and its laws. You are no less subject to them if you refuse on principle, but you are seen to be engaging in an act of resistance that makes your testimony suspect.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun May 20th, 2007 at 11:59:30 AM EST

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