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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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    And I thought I was the only one looking forward to jury duty :)

  • Dan J

    Let’s not forget another good reason: Skeptics/Atheists are more likely to understands their rights and responsibilities as a juror (no matter what misinformation a judge might give them). See the Fully Informed Jury Association for information.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    If a prayer is going to make some of the jurors uncomfortable, then don’t do the prayer! I’m sure atheists aren’t the only ones who would be uncomfortable with this. What about those who practice different religions? Prayer has no place in the judicial system. Obviously!!

  • keddaw

    But all Western democracies are based on the Judeo-Christian model and the Ten Commandments, the fist time humans ever decided killing and stealing were wrong.

    Obviously we have left out the others, blasphemy, worshipping false idols, envy, adultery, dishonouring parents and keeping the Sabbath holy.

    But we kept two of them, so every Western courthouse should have the Ten Commandments proudly displayed to show the roots of our law, even if only 20% of them are actually illegal.

  • NDDave

    I’ve been called for jury duty several times. In all but three of them, it was canceled the night before. (You call a number listed on the card the night before your jury duty, and a recorded voice tells you which juror groups are still required to appear. This prevents having too many jurors sitting around on days with very light case loads.)

    Of the three times I’ve actually had to show up for jury duty, once I sat in the waiting room all day and was never called into a jury pool. The other two times I went through the process, but was not chosen for the jury.

    They’re not required to tell any juror why they were not selected, but in one case, I’ve got a very good idea as to why. It was a rape case, and when the defense attorney was asking his questions of prospective jurors, one of his questions was how serious a crime each juror considered rape to be. I responded that I considered it an extremely serious crime and one which as a consequence should have a correspondingly serious punishment, if found guilty. The prosecutor loved me. The defense attorney used one of his ‘I can reject this person without having to say why’ options to reject me.

    The second time (a murder case), I don’t know why I didn’t make the jury. Unlike the first time, the lawyers made their choices and decisions in private. Maybe they already had enough jurors before they got to my spot in the list. Maybe they didn’t like one of the answers I gave. Maybe they didn’t like that I was a member of Americans United. They didn’t say, and we weren’t allowed to ask.

    In general, the impression I have of juror selection is that the lawyers want jurors that are impressionable and easily influenced. Ones that think for themselves, measure the evidence rather than are swayed by a lawyer’s rhetoric, or (worst of all) might actually understand the evidence being presented (a computer security professional on a computer hacking case, for example) are not people they want on juries.

  • mike

    I served on a jury once and actually came away with a pretty good feeling about my fellow citizens. The one thing I was quite surprised about is the inability of much of the jury to deal with an uncertain body of information, and the “what if I’m wrong?” question. It speaks well to their good intentions that everyone took their job very seriously and really wanted to make the right decision. But it got quite frustrating. One guy even explicitly said he couldn’t vote to convict without 100% certainty (very irresponsible if you ask me). I feel like my exposure to science helped me feel very comfortable evaluating uncertain evidence.

    Nothing came up in my trial regarding religion, in the voir dire or deliberation. It was thankfully a non-issue.

  • mack


    Have served on a jury twice, and was foreman the latter time. Juries are no more the passive groups shown on Law and Order than they are the crusaders of Twelve Angry Men.

    Much of what passes for lawyerly wisdom on juries is bullshit. Complete, utter bullshit. Courtroom lawyers (as opposed to contract or corporate or any of the other branches of law) are control freaks (as is the Judge). That the jury, once it starts deliberating, is out of their control makes them crazy – hence all of the insane and contradictory advice on who to pick, and how to pick, and …

    It’s about the illusion of increasing their control.

    This is unfortunate (for reasons that are completely tangential to this). I do recommend serving, if only because it is a civic duty, and if reasonable people do not serve … who does that leave?

  • Samuel

    So did you suggest the first order utilitarian solution (set the standard so that the number of people falsely imprisoned is equal to the number of lives saved)? Are there other methods- I imagine they are based off this but simplified so that you can actually figure them out in a reasonable time frame.

  • http://www.ceetar.com/optimisticmetsfan Ceetar

    Jury’s are disasters. It’s very hard to get a group of people, whether it be 6, or 12, to agree on anything, and the more vague the topic, the harder it is. The case I had was simply a young man in a car accident, an accident already determined to be the fault of the other person, and how much money this guy should get towards medical expenses due to his injuries. (herniated discs and what not)

    It was a disaster of disagreement in my opinion. Most of the jurors could not put aside personal opinions and experience. Things like “I have a bad back, it’s not that big a deal!” and “This kid seems lazy to me, he should just suck it up!” And everyone seemed hesitant to even decide the guy should even get any money, despite the ‘evidence’ pretty much suggesting he should, mostly based on those opinions.

    Then we spent at least half a day nickel and diming about money that’s not even ours. And it’s not like were were talking millions here. One juror didn’t even feel comfortable agreeing with us, choosing instead to be the ‘dissenting’ opinion. We only needed a majority anyway, so luckily there was no needing to try to convince her.

    Obviously one case on Long Island is a small sample size, but I equate jury duty to trying to argue logic with someone that’s already convinced of something.

  • Jerryd

    I was on a jury where the defendant purportedly called the pizza delivery guy to come out to a vacant house. He then went outside and beat the living crap out of the innocent delivery guy and stole his lousy $20 or so. The evidence was cut and dry, no doubt whatsoever. Yet we spent half the day because one idiot, for some reason, couldn’t believe beyond a reasonable doubt this guy was guilty. It was very much like discussing with a believer the existence of an invisible, omnipotent god, who for some reason is unable to do anything, and having to defend why you don’t believe in this myth–very frustrating.

    So jury duty may remind you of what it is like being an atheist in a world full of irrational folks living their lives based upon the words in a book and having faith in something they “know ain’t so,” as Mark Twain said.

    There definitely needs to be at least one rational being there, so, by all means, accept your summons if you are an atheist.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    My mom dated a criminal defense lawyer for a few years while I was finishing college. He said he would never want me on his jury, because as an engineer, I was “too rational”, and he couldn’t appeal to my emotion. This was well before I even identified as an atheist.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    The title of this post seems to suggest you have a choice whether to do Jury service or not. I sort of assumed it was mandatory in the U.S as it is in the U.K?

  • Samuel

    It is very easy to get out of jury duty in the US. It is mandatory, but if you have… the wrong personality, the lawyers will probably want you removed. So all you need to do is adopt the right mannarism. Given “people who want to get out of jury duty and are smart enough to learn how” are people they don’t want either, they don’t complain.

  • Katie M

    @Steve-I think it’s mandatory, but most of us view it as a chore rather than a civic duty. I’m curious-what’s the predominant attitude toward jury duty in the U.K.?

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    You don’t get a chance to skip it really. I’ve never been called. My ex wife has done it twice. You can defer it for holidays or work commitments if your employer backs you up, but you will get another summons within a few months and be expected to serve.
    As to attitude, most people say it’s a nuisance but I think they probably don’t really mean it. If only as a change of routine I would enjoy it personally.
    I’m with Ebon on the thrust of this in the sense that atheists should engage with society in a positive, ethical and rational way. We are less likely to be gender or racially prejudiced (aren’t we?) than many, whether they are religiously impaired or not, so should be fairer in our deliberations.
    I doubt that religion would be a prima facia issue in a UK jury in the way it could be in the US, so I would not necessarily take “atheism” into the courtroom with me should the letter fall on my mat tomorrow.

  • Eurekus

    I’ve said no to jury duty several times in the past. I’ve always used the excuse of me working for an essential service organisation to get out of it. I have to say, I regret not doing it but when there’s a next time I’ll be willing.

    Since I’ve become atheist I can easily see the mind manipulation tactics the clergy are taught to use. For their sake I hope God exists to help any lawyer who tries to use something similar on me.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    The title of this post seems to suggest you have a choice whether to do Jury service or not. I sort of assumed it was mandatory in the U.S as it is in the U.K?

    Technically, it is mandatory. But as a lawyer friend told me (and bear in mind I’m not an attorney myself, so don’t construe this as legal advice), even if you get a jury summons and ignore it, they can’t charge you with a crime unless they can prove you received the letter. Since most municipalities use ordinary mail for jury summonses, that’s virtually impossible. (And I’m sure some of them legitimately do get lost in the mail.) In any case, few localities have either the resources or the desire to spend scarce prosecutorial time pursuing jury duty evaders.

    Federal jury duty, so I’m told, is a different matter altogether: they deliver the summons through process servers, not through ordinary mail, and they will prosecute people who don’t show up. Even so, it’s still pretty easy to get out of it if you don’t want to do it. As several commenters have demonstrated, it’s not difficult to get one side or the other to reject you during voir dire.

  • KShep

    I’ve never served. Called once, and my pool was never called.

    I have a comment though, about the “appealing to emotion” tactic attorneys use. We all followed the OJ Simpson trial, at least a little, right? I barely did, but after the trial came a light bulb moment for me. Oprah Winfrey had one of the jurors on, via satellite, and let’s just say that she wasn’t all that bright. The defining moment: Oprah, mic in hand, giving the obviously angry audience a chance to question the poor woman, who was getting frustrated and defensive at the accusatory tone of many of the questions. At one point, an audience member asked about the bloody glove evidence, and Oprah followed with, “and what about the victim’s blood in the Bronco?”

    The wide-eyed look of sudden realization that swept over the juror’s face said it all. She had completely forgotten about it. Johnny Cochran had done his job. She mumbled something about it “not being very much” but it was too late. Unfortunately, Oprah got distracted and moved on to another question–I don’t think she heard the juror’s answer. I was floored–how do you forget such powerful evidence?

    I learned that day about how attorneys choose jurors. They don’t choose thinkers, that’s for sure.

  • DSimon

    Can anyone come up with a good theoretical jury selection system that wouldn’t have a preference against rational jurors, but would still allow us to screen against biased jurors?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    In theory, they would be interrogated and selected by a judge not assigned to the trial, with neither party cognizant of the trial to which the prospective juror will be assigned.

    I’m sure this is impratical; I’m just blue-skying it.

  • EEGuy

    I survived two voir dire examinations and made it into the juries even though I am an Engineer and an atheist. My religion, or lack thereof, never came up during any questioning. My first case was a circuit court case and the entire jury had no trouble acquitting the defendant because the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. The second trial was a federal drug trafficking case. (The jury summons did arrive via regular mail.) That trial ended with the defendants changing their plea to ‘guilty’ at the conclusion of the prosecution’s case, so the jury didn’t have to render a verdict.

    The one comment that I would like to make is with regard to the attorneys’ conduct. In all cases, they tended to conduct themselves as though they were actors in a courtroom drama, and I noticed that all members of both juries ignored the hysterics and concentrated on the evidence. We made comments to one another on the dramatic performances made by the lawyers (especially the defense attorneys).

  • Herb

    I sat for jury selection once (wasn’t selected). It took place in a courtroom which displayed “In God We Trust” in big brass letters on the wall opposite the jury box. Ugh. I wondered if I would be treated fairly if I were accused of something in that room.

  • Dan

    I served on several juries when I was younger. I was constantly amazed at the ignorance of some of my fellow jurors and their willingness to disregard the judge’s instruction to the jurors. All in all, though, I think justice was properly served, despite the irregularities, in all but one case. That was a rape case in which one juror, a woman, could not vote to convict because she didn’t understand the terms “oral sex” or “fellatio” and claimed to have not listened to that testimony in the courtroom because she was praying at the time. When the foreman asked the judge to send in an alternate, the judge refused and ordered a vote, which was a clear interference with the jury. So it was 11-1, and the defendant walked free. We were all interviewed by the judge and attorneys following that verdict, so I suspect a mistrial was called.

    I’m older now, with a PhD, been a victim of a violent crime, been a corporate director, been an expert witness, etc … and never get beyond filling out a juror questionnaire when it comes to jury duty. Lawyers want people who are easily swayed and will rely on emotion and instinct rather than a rational appraisal of evidence.

  • bbk

    This lawyer is right on the money in some respects. There are lots of reasons why a lawyer wouldn’t want to present his case to an atheist. But this is irrelevant to whether or not an atheist should serve. Accommodating a lawyer’s motives is not the primary function of a jury, but their thought process is an amazing insight for an atheist juror to be aware of. Based on my own personal experience, trial lawyers don’t really care to present evidence or even to understand it themselves. What they’re really after is to manipulate the witnesses and jury by regurgitating some sort of pattern or approach that they’ve learned over time and are familiar with.

    They’re performers first and foremost. They’re interested in flustering a witness by repeatedly asking accusatory or misleading questions, trying to incite anger, and continue to ask idiotic questions that completely ignore the actual answers given by a witness. They really don’t care if a jury receives actual facts or if they end up wholly confused about the case. They’re more than happy to play on the emotions and prejudices of that jury. One could say that they’re putting the interests of their client first, but I don’t even think so. Half of them don’t seem to know their clients from a jack in the box. To be a truly exceptional lawyer must require a vast intelligence, memory, quick wits, and strong bearing. The best that most lawyers can muster is to try to fake it.

  • http://www.atheistrev.com vjack

    I would imagine that it is not always advantageous to one’s case to have jurors capable of critical thinking. Still, excluding atheists solely on the basis of atheism does little to ensure that the jury composition represents the population from which it is drawn.

  • http://www.unequally-yoked.com Leah

    It’s certainly the case that I (and other skeptics) have higher standards of evidence than my religious friends. My perspective is based a great deal on Michael Shermer’s <a href = "http://www.amazon.com/People-Believe-Weird-Things-Pseudoscience/dp/0805070893/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1275523566&sr=8-1&quot;”>Why Do People Believe Weird Things and Actual Innocence by Scheck, Neufeld, and Dwyer, both books that have nothing good to say about eyewitness testimony.

    If you don’t accept evidence on weighty matters on the basis of appeals to authority or hearsay evidence, you may well be an atheist, and you’re certainly a liability to a prosecutor.

  • Demonhype

    I’ve been called three times and served once. The first time was the one I got called for, and I was appalled at how all my fellow jurors walked into that courtroom with the a priori bias towards a guilty verdict. They seemed to have a pre-conceived notion that if someone goes to trial, they are guilty, and would (as Bill in King of the Hill said) “do their duty” in getting a conviction on the “scumbag”. Every bit of evidence on the prosecution side was inflated beyond its relevance, and the much more compelling evidence in favor of the defense was almost completely ignored or dismissed. The prosecution’s major argument was “if you think that this POLICE OFFICER in the SERVICE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is LYING, you go ahead and find not guilty!” As if a cop is the Lord God Almighty with the sun shining out his ass, that he can’t be lying or even perhaps mistaken. I was only nineteen and very intimidated, so even though I seemed to be the only person in that jury with an ounce of logic or reason, I ended up reluctantly going with the flow and have regretted it ever since. I also wasn’t an atheist at the time and not very aware of law, politics, civil rights and such.

    The second time I never even made it to the questioning part, and the third time I was in college so they waived it and didn’t call me back. Haven’t had one since, but then there are many more registered voters since then (thanks, Bush!) so that might account for the sudden draught of jury notices in my life.

    I am, to this day, so nauseated at my jury experience that I have hoped I wouldn’t ever get called again. It was disgusting to see so many people get together in what could only be described as an irrational lynch mob. I don’t think I could control myself today if I found myself in the same situation.

  • Zietlos

    Jury duty… Never been called for it myself, but I’ve played a lot of Pheonix Wright and seen a lot of CSI, so I guess I’m too qualified for them. :p

    Apparently, the bloodlust here is not as bad as it is in other nations, some countries have in the high 90%’s of conviction rates, but I think there could be a part of it that goes “they’re interrupting my day, so they’ll pay” kind of mentality. I could be wrong, but it does seem that way by the tales I hear; people are out for blood because they have “better things to do”.

    I wouldn’t be good for jury duty, since I can’t be swayed by emotion fairly well, and “beyond reasonable doubt” to me requires a great deal of evidence, not theatrics, not witness testimony, but real evidence. Facts don’t lie. People do. I probably wouldn’t be picked even if I did show up.

  • John

    Only served once on a jury and it was a pretty difficult experience. The defendent was a 17 or 18 and the crime was some pot and a gun found in a bedroom of a house the kid’s aunt was renting. The kid was on probation, so the gun charge would be significant even though it was found inside a residence. There was no scientific evidence or testimony from anyone that the kid lived there or ever stayed in that bedroom. The police did find one letter in the house from the school district which was addressed to the kid, but at a different (his grandmother’s) address. The prosecution put on a expert witness to explain away the lack of physical evidence, but she said some facts about pot that seemed incorrect or at least overstated such that we were just supposed to believe it because she said it even though it was clearly just an opinion or possibility. The prosecution also went into a couple stories which undermined the defendent’s credibility, showing him to lie to police almost as a first reaction when there wasn’t even any likely advantage to it. Then the main bit of evidence was finally introduced, his confession. The prosecutor or one of his police witnesses even said the kid was trying to strike a plea deal during his interview. The pro bono defense was worthless.

    Into deliberations, the first vote 11-1 to convict. The rest of that day and the next was spent responding to pleas or accusations. The confession seemed to satisfy everyone. “Why are you being so difficult? He confessed.” There is no way I’m going to send a kid to prison for 20 years or more because of something he supposedly said to a cop. “So you are calling the police officer a liar?!!” No, but police tend to see the world a certain way and that perspective is going to influence how they interpret (and write down) things said to them. “So you are calling the police officer a liar?!!” On and on for hours on end. I did seem to be able get a couple people to say I had valid points. But it basically came down to the likely fact that the kid was a punk; and the prosecution wouldn’t be wasting time on this, if he wasn’t guilty.

    It ended with a hung jury and I’m not sure it was retried; I think the kid was convicted of armed robbery (which took place before the trial I described) soon after this trial. It was also interesting after the trial we were able to be told that the reason the aunt wasn’t involved in the trial in any way was that she and her parolee boyfriend who also lived in the house had fled the state.

    Not sure what the lessons are here, but jury duty is a miserable experience. I certainly wouldn’t want my life put up to a vote especially when the vote is public and people get to spend hours directly yelling (or trying some other persuasion that was more likely to work) at anyone who was on your side. And finally, some people lead some lives really different from your own. I mean this kid’s supposed bedroom had some pot, a gun, and a couple shirts in it. But he couldn’t even get anyone to credibly say he lived somewhere else. And the government couldn’t find anyone to say he did live there.

  • DSimon

    Zeitlos, unfortunately I don’t think Phoenix Wright would be very good training for a jury trial. Only the lawyers get to point their fingers across the room and shout “OBJECTION!” at the top of their lungs. The jury only gets to make vague background noises.

    And anyways, wasn’t every case in Phoenix Wright decided by the judge? I think the only jury case was that one at the end of Apollo Justice, which was a weird one in a lot of other ways too.

  • Zietlos

    John: You would think the fact the aunt, whose house it was, who was with a parolee, could have possibly had the gun between one of those two as well. Don’t all Americanos own 2.3 guns anyways? That’s your stereotype, at least. I actually think the relationship to a criminal of the owner of the house would have been fairly important evidence. But you (general, not specific) USAers are so crazy, a woman can get 180 days for premeditated murder (Alaskan case), and a kid can get 10-20 years for burning a few plants. I’m not surprised about the proof of residency thing, though. As a student, I often rent places that don’t report the income, and use my mother’s home as my mailing address, and since I’m not that social, I don’t invite people over. During those types of months, no one would be able to tell where I lived except myself, and maybe the landlords, who in this case were absent. It isn’t hard for a young person to disappear completely by the government’s eyes, unless they’ve geotagged their laptop.

    DSimon: Yeah, they were judge cases, not jury ones, but I was making a joke point that as someone who played a fictitious, likely extremely inaccurate, game about the law, I would have too much knowledge to serve as a juror since I “knew too much”, and the “ideal juror” of the lawyers being one who is basically an invalid who votes for whoever shouts the loudest.

  • Chas, PE SE

    I’ve done the jury thing 3 times. The last time I was empaneled for a civil case. The great thing is that the judge would ask jurors, witnesses, etc. to “swear OR AFFIRM that they were telling the truth…” I didn’t even have to change the oath to an affirmation. I’ve done that twice while being a witness. Nobody did anything but nod when I did. Instead of “So help me dog”, one says “Under penalty of purjury”.