Why Atheists Should Do Jury Duty

I’ve never served on a jury, although I’ve had at least two jury duty notices sent to former addresses after I no longer lived in the area. But I’m certain the courts will catch up with me sooner or later, and truth be told, I’m actually looking forward to it. I know that being on a jury is likely to be exceedingly boring, and most of the cases that go to trial probably aren’t all that consequential or all that difficult to decide. Still, I think it would be worthwhile to serve, both to play my role as a citizen and maybe also to bring some rationality to a courtroom where lawyers for both sides try to get away with fallacious arguments.

Precisely because we’re so familiar with the many kinds of logical fallacies and less likely to be swayed by appeals to emotion, I think atheists would make excellent jurors. In this area, as in others, we embody many of the traits that society needs more of. Having more atheists serve on juries would be a much-needed corrective in light of the many criminal suspects who conveniently find Jesus at the courthouse doors, or horrifying practices like jurors who consult the Bible to determine their verdict.

I’ve been thinking about all this because of a link I was sent to a site called The Jury Expert, discussing the pros and cons, from a lawyer’s viewpoint, of having an atheist as your client or going to trial when atheists are on the jury. The article reiterates some stats we’re familiar with, showing how a majority of Americans are still prejudiced against atheists. It also has some remarks about the New Atheist movement that show, at one stroke, how the authors understand far better than all the accommodationist journalists and theologians what motivates criticism of us:

A new group of writers/spokespersons for atheists has emerged who are described as “angry, abrasive and critical of believers”; arrogant; and “fundamentalists” who are as “wrong-headed and dangerous as the bible thumping Christians” (a conclusion consistent with the negative impressions that Americans had of atheists all along).

There’s also this interesting passage:

Atheists are not ‘joiners’ and many of them do not publicly identify themselves due to stigma. Most jury questionnaires only ask about religious affiliation, and since atheism is not a religion, per se, offering atheism as a response to a religion query is gratuitous. You can fairly assume that anyone who publicly identifies him- or herself as atheist is unusually opinionated and might be too unpredictable to have on your jury.

I would assume the point here is that lawyers don’t want jurors who come to a case with strong convictions about the subject being debated; they want jurors whose minds aren’t made up and who will be easy to influence. And I agree that anyone bold enough to self-identify as an atheist without being prompted probably doesn’t fit that mold. Thus, if you want to serve on a jury, I imagine “none” would be the better response to a question about religious affiliation. Of course, if you don’t want to serve, this also works as a way out – that is, unless the lawyer wants someone with strong opinions:

We have seen occasions where juries–and even focus groups–have begun their deliberations with a group prayer. Many atheists (and others) would be very uncomfortable about this, of course, and resistance might have a strong impact on the deliberative process. Of course, if you want a contentious deliberation or a hung jury you may choose to inject a militant atheist…

Naturally, I’m not too pleased by the idea of atheists being thought of as curmudgeons or radicals who’d be brought in deliberately in order to to disrupt the proceedings. (If there is such an effect, it would probably be more likely to occur because of militant religious people on the jury who couldn’t stomach the idea of having a good-faith discussion with an atheist.) And I’m perfectly aware that atheists can be just as irrational and fallible as theists. Nevertheless, the kinds of jury manipulation lawyers are most likely to use are less likely to work on us. For that reason alone, atheists are an asset to the court system, and we should gladly play our part in the machinery of justice.

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