To give you an idea of how much atheism unnerves believers (which still comprise the majority of Americans), just consider a recently proposed — then hastily discarded — revision of a congressional committee’s oath required of testifying witnesses.
The congressional dust-up also gives you an idea of how difficult it is to excise religion from government once it is unconstitutionally embedded and normalized.
The House Committee on Natural Resources initially proposed to remove the “so help you God” phrase from its longstanding oath, which then would have read (with new language highlighted in blue):
“Do you solemnly swear or affirm, under penalty of law, that the testimony that you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
The traditional oath (with the relevant language at issue in blue) is:
“Do you solemnly swear or affirm that the testimony that you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
Replacing ‘God’ in oaths
Replacing fealty to a divinity (one which not all Americans acknowledge) with fealty to rule of law (which, presumably, we all acknowledge) is a reasonable proposal, considering we are formally a secular republic not a theocratic one.
However, the committee abruptly jettisoned its oath proposal after conservative congressional Republicans, Fox News and other right-wing media came unglued, according to a report on the oath issue in Church & State, the e-zine of the secular activist group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Hearing that “so help you God” might be excised from the Natural Resources committee oath, U.S. Representative Liz Chenney (Republican-Wyoming) told Fox,
“[The Democrats] really have become the party of Karl Marx.”
Religion: ‘Opiate of the people’
As you may recall, Marx, a 19th-century German philosopher and economist, and the originator of Communist doctrine, is reputed to have once said that “religion is the opium of the people.” The full quote reads:
After conservative blowback hit, Committee member Rep. Jefferson Van Drew, a New Jersey Democrat, issued a statement warning that it would be “hurtful and harmful” if the committee were to “go out of its way to take [the God language] out.”
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Conservatives, it turns out, are not just fixated on the evils and dangers abortion, but of godless Communism, whose 21st-century proxy in American politics is lower-case “socialism,” whatever it incorrectly means to them.
So, the proposed godless, lawful oath never got its leg up in the Natural Resources committee.
Artifacts of faith
Still, why do these religious artifacts remain in our oaths in the first place? They are not constitutionally required but have crept in over centuries and become a matter of tradition, not necessity. Although the oath is used broadly with witnesses in American court proceedings, Church & State notes that in recent years “some courts have shifted to non-religious reminders for witnesses to tell the truth because if they fail to, they’ll be punished with fines or prison terms.”
Removing God from official government-required oaths is not a new thing. Colonial religious-freedom advocate Roger Williams, a devout Christian minister, once said, according to Rob Boston in his Americans United Wall of Separation blog:
“A magistrate ought not to tender an oath to an unregenerate man … and cause him to take the name of God in vain.”
Or to anyone, for that matter.