Answers, part 2: Atheists in court
This time we look at three questions from Crazythoughts.com that all have to do with the practice of having witnesses swear on the Bible before they testify. Practices on this vary throughout the civilised world, so for the sake of simplicity, the answers will be a bit U.S./Common Law-centric.
When Atheists go to Court, they can't swear on the bible, can they?
They can, but they can also refuse. Usually, they are given the opportunity to make a solemn affirmation instead. Statements given under affirmation have the same legal effects as statements given under oath, in that both kinds of statements carry the penalty of perjury.
Does it really count in court when an atheist is sworn in under oath using a Bible?
According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a testimony by an Atheist who swore to God. In earlier times, this was not so. Irreligious people were routinely barred from testifying in court, since it was believed that, since they did not fear punishment in the afterlife, they could not be trusted to tell the truth. As late as 1939, five U.S. states and the District of Columbia excluded the testimony of people who declared themselves to be atheists.
If a Jewish person goes to court and is asked to put their right hand on the Bible, do they use a Torah instead?
Observant Jews cannot swear because their religion prohibits them from doing so. Instead, they make an affirmation.