How Atheists Under Oath Can Affect Verdicts

I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

With this familiar phrase, uttered in some form every day in courts of law around the world, trial witnesses invoke a divine power to bolster their credibility.

In countries such as Britain and Australia, those who prefer not to make a religious commitment can opt instead for a secular affirmation. Rather than citing God as their witness, they instead “solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm” that they will tell the truth. The non-religious option is no less legally binding, but may not be as effective as the religious oath in conveying trustworthiness to onlookers.

Moral suspicion of atheists is widespread and deeply entrenched. In Britain, 22% of survey respondents explicitly agree that morality is impossible without belief in God, while the figure is much higher in the US and higher still in many other countries.

Now new research that one of us was involved in, spanning 13 diverse countries, confirms that distrust of atheists is pervasive and intuitive even for non-believers. Participants in most of these countries, including the UK, the US and Australia, were more likely to associate wrongdoing with atheists than with religious believers. This moral prejudice against atheists was evident even in those who professed complete disbelief in God.

Atheists on the stand

Prejudice against atheists has important implications in the judicial system. In systems where witnesses can choose between a religious oath and secular affirmation, the first action that the judge and jury see a witness make may be viewed as a clear signal of the witness’s religious belief, or lack thereof. Jurors cannot be unaware of the options, because they must make an equivalent swearing-in decision themselves before hearing evidence.

The upshot is that when witnesses are called to the stand – where perceived credibility is paramount – they may be compelled by legal procedure to signal their belief or disbelief in God. This is an influential cue of morality or immorality and could bias trial outcomes in any number of ways. There is a real risk that defendants who take the religious oath when giving evidence may, by that very fact, enjoy more favorable verdicts and sentencing decisions than those who opt for the secular affirmation.

Recent research indicates how judges’ rulings can be swayed by individual experiences and other factors. One study gathered…

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