Atheist Oaths

On his deathbed, dying from a gunshot wound, Charles Marshall lived long enough to sign a document implicating his wife Emma in his murder.  He claimed that she had shot him in the back as he slept at their home in Morgan county, Alabama.  Although Emma contended that her husband had shot himself, his last words led to her arrest and conviction in 1927.  She found herself in the state penitentiary facing a life sentence.

With the help of her lawyer J. N. Powell, she found grounds for an appeal.  In Alabama’s Supreme Court, they argued that Charles Marshall’s accusation could not be admissible in court, due to the fact that he was an “infidel,” and thus not afraid of eternal punishment for his lies.  “An infidel’s dying statement should not receive the same credence as that given to the word of a believer in God and the hereafter,” Powell claimed. “My contention is that if a man is an infidel he would as soon make a false statement on his deathbed as he would in the prime of life.”

What a loaded statement that was!  Powell relied on several notions of truth as it relates to religious belief.  First, there is the curious matter of the deathbed confession.  Christian tradition places great value in the truth of the last words of the dying, because there would be no time to repent of the sin of bearing false witness, and thus the deceased would enter eternity with a blot on his record.  Lying at any other stage of life, while sinful, can be washed clean.  A non-believer, though, lacks that impetus to escape punishment in his final moments.

Second, eternal punishment itself is a key notion for assessing the truth values of statements.  We take oaths in court for multiple reasons.  The legal reason is to place a witness in a special status, under which false statements can be grounds for prosecution if discovered.  While under oath, the witness is vulnerable to punishment by the state.  But the wording of the traditional court oath (“…so help me God.”) fulfills the eternal reason for oath taking: reminding the witness that even if the state fails to discern a lie, God will.  And the torments of hell are worse than anything you’ll encounter in prison.  Holding a belief in a future state of reward and punishment (but most importantly punishment) is so crucial that Maryland and Pennsylvania wrote it into their constitutions.

Finally, there is the matter of the word “infidel.”  Powell most likely chose this word carefully.  He could have referred to Charles as an atheist, an unbeliever, a heretic, a heathen–all terms that would not have been out of place at the time.  Instead, he chose the word that indicted the victim as “faithless.”  Not merely lacking Christian faith, Charles would necessarily be faithless to his own word.  To the other lawyers and the judge, who would all be familiar with the Latin root of the term, “infidel” was as much accusation as description.

Unfortunately for Emma, the court did not accept this line of argument.  Judge A. B. Foster ruled that the testimony of an atheist was indeed admissible in court, denying not only this particular petition, but also the legal precedents in Arkansas and Maryland, where atheists’ testimony was non-negotiable.  Emma Marshall returned to the penitentiary to serve out her life sentence.

Lest you think that this is an artifact of a bygone era, there is also the case of Nicola Cucuz, who, after testifying against his assailant, was asked by the opposing counsel if he believed in God.  Cucuz answered that he did not, which led to an immediate mistrial on the basis that his oath “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” was invalid.  This Manhattan court in 1960 could not accept testimony because the wrong incantation was spoken.

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