Last week I was summoned for jury duty and so I had to sit for 3-4 hours reading a book while other people were actually asked to serve on juries, so it was not a tremendous imposition on me (although I did have to get a substitute to administer a test for me). I even got to bring home a “Juror” sticker to put on my 2-year-old’s shirt. He loves stickers, and I liked the idea that people might think he had actually served on a jury. I imagine he would be an improvement on the average American.
Still, there was one thing that bothered me about the experience. They administered a swearing-in for the group to swear an oath to do our duties as jurors. You can probably guess how my story ends. The oath basically said that jurors would do their best to uphold their responsibility as jurors, be without bias in decision, etc. “so help me God.”
Obviously, then, when we were asked to say “I do”, I couldn’t affirm that. Nobody paid any attention to me, and probably most of the people were only half listening anyway. In some sense the swearing-in was just a meaningless formality, but it illustrates how pervasive religion is in important aspects of American public life. Moreover, the addition, “So help me God,” is otiose or nonsensical.
First, it’s clearly unnecessary. The oath has only to do with doing one’s epistemic best. The oath is a deontological construct put purely in terms of internal strivings of the agent, not in terms of consequences or actual reality. If the oath were to discover the truth, or render an accurate verdict, that might reasonably be thought to require God’s aid since we have no absolute certainty about the criminal or direct access to the criminal act. But the oath was given reasonably in terms of trying to uphold our responsibilities as jurors, and we don’t need God’s help to do that.
In fact, second, it doesn’t even make sense to ask God for help in doing that. If we are not already doing our best, then God cannot make it so that we are doing our best because then God would be doing that for us. If God is required to assist us, then we clearly have not done our best and have failed in our oath and no action on God’s part can make it so that we tried any harder to fulfill our obligations. If on the other hand, we are doing our best, then God’s assistance is completely unnecessary for we have already fulfilled our oath. It is not even logically possible to ask for God’s help in fulfilling this oath since the oath is to do something that is entirely, and necessarily, under our, and only our, control.
Perhaps my argument is unfair to theists. Christians tend to think of God as a stern but loving father who approves of good moral behavior and frowns on immoral behavior, and so God’s influence operates indirectly through our own beliefs and attitudes given God’s approval or disapproval. God’s presence is more like the presence of our parents (deceased or not) whose standards we try to live up to. Perhaps, then, the reference to God is primarily there not as a literal request to God to help us accomplish something that is completely and only within our power. Instead, this admonition is to request God to be present in our minds so that God’s peering over our shoulder encourages us to do our best.
However, either God is not present, and the idea of God is what pushes us to do our best, or God is present, and our fear of God influences us to try just a little harder. If it’s the former, then appeal to God could be nothing more than a reminder to focus on our idea of God, and that idea then helps us to try harder. If it is our idea of God that allows us to do our best, then God is not necessary for that. If it’s the latter, if we are calling on God to be actually present in our minds exerting some influence over us, then we have given up the idea of our own autonomy and responsibility.
I won’t review the role of religion in public life and the rather obvious violation of separation of church and state involved. But what I always find disturbing is the degree to which the public utterances and affirmations of faith are fundamentally senseless. People who believe should be the ones most disturbed by the nonsensical nature of the oath. Unsurprisingly, however, no one really thinks about what they are saying. The fact that the oath mentions God is enough to keep the religious happy, and not enough to upset the vast majority who take it to be a meaningless formality. This episode just illustrates one more way in which people are expected to abide by an inherently nonsensical religion without question.