This recent article on the BBC News Web Site caught my attention (Nigeria's Vigilantes take on Boko Haram), not so much for what the article was about, although that was interesting too. No, it was one paragraph within it: “Mohammed said that when [the anti-fundamentalist vigilantes] detain a suspected militant, ‘we bring the holy Koran and then ask him to swear on it. If he's lying we are sure he will die’.”
I like this because Christians and Jews also have rather odd beliefs about the sanctity and prowess of their hold books. Just consider this: the typical court room in any Christian-dominated country usually has those who are about to testify swear on the Bible that what they are about to say is the truth. Have you ever wondered why we do this? Why does the President of the United States swear (or affirm, as Franklin Pierce did) to uphold the duties of his office on a Bible (although two Presidents refused this offer [Theodore Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams] one [Adams] swearing on a book of laws)?
What exactly is going on here? Do we expect some lightning bolt out of the blue to strike the liar? Do we expect the holy book to turn bright red, signaling a falsehood? Do we expect those making such a covenant with the godhead to freeze up on the witness stand and be unable to lie? Is any result expected in our reality, as opposed to some bit of divine justice for the offending party to be meted out in the eternal afterlife? Has anyone ever seen any beneficial result from swearing on a holy book in all the many times it’s been used? Why do we continue with the same dumb ritual when there is no tangible benefit?
Don’t just “Believe” it, Test it
As a kid, I remember someone telling me that if you lied while swearing on a Bible, you would die. I was around 9 or 10. I promptly waited that night, and got the family Bible out, and went into my room. Being sure to close the door, so that my sacrilege would not be seen, I placed my hand on the Bible and swore, before God, Jesus and all his angels, that I was a duck, and that if this were not true, may God strike me dead!
Still here. No sign of lightning. Its more than 40 years later.
Over the years, I have met a number of people, all of monotheistic faiths, who believed in the holiness of their written books. Some, like the guys in Nigeria, even told me that God would punish you almost immediately if you committed sacrilege or made a false vow on their holy book. My response has always been, “have you tried it?” No one has ever taken me up on it, that I know of, but perhaps in a few people, a very few, some seed of doubt was sown. But maybe I am just being fatuous.
But religion does give you a lot of chances to test it. No, it’s not part of the official doctrine of any of the monotheistic faiths that swearing wrongly on the holy book will bring death or dire consequences here on earth. But it’s part of the belief system that grew up as mythology around those core beliefs. As a result, many of us are still asked in court and elsewhere to place our hands on a collection of paper and ink and somehow the magic will work and either kill us, or condemn us to perdition, or maybe just give us an extra couple of years in purgatory. Maybe you just get a smaller cloud to sit on in heaven? Take your pick.
But it’s wrong in a modern age to think that placing your hand on a book and lying is somehow going to cause some god somewhere to come down and strike you dead, cause you to get cancer, or lose your job, or maybe just not be able to get an erection that night. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself.
Find an Angel
I suppose I was willing to risk my life on the Bible test because I had already proven to myself that angels didn’t exist a year or two earlier. My mother always told me how they were watching over me and protecting me. “Even when I am on the toilet?” I thought. Why do they want to see that? Are they making sure you don’t pee on the seat? Also, I reasoned, if it’s ok for angels to see you naked all the time, why is it bad for people to see you naked? I wasn’t a particularly deep thinker, as you can tell.
I also couldn’t understand why people got hurt in accidents. Where were their angels? Mom said that everyone had them. She had told me that “even the bad people” had their angels, probably like the little cartoon angels and devils that sit on the shoulders of cats pondering the consumption of cute mice (you have to watch “Tom & Jerry” to understand this one).
But if angels were there to protect you, why did they sometimes fail in this task?
The Lutheran Pastor told me that sometimes it was “God’s Will” that bad things happen to people to test them, but that, yes, the angels were still there. OK, so angels will protect you unless God tells them not to? I didn’t get it. So I closed my bedroom door and window (so the angels couldn’t get out) and proceeded to try to touch one. I swung my arms out, I tried to fake them out with a move one way only to jump, arms flailing, in the opposite one. Then I decided they must be closer to the ceiling, so I got on the bed and jumped up and down trying to touch one.
This last course of action must have caused some commotion, because my mother came into my room and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was trying to touch an angel. She told me not to do that because they don’t like to be touched. So I asked her how she knew this. Had she touched one? She told me that sometimes they kiss us when we sleep (It was a good thing that I hadn’t read the bit in the Bible about the “sons of God and the daughters of men” [Genesis 6:1-8] or the attraction angels have for women’s hair [1Cor 11:10] or I probably would have put on an extra pair of underpants at night time…)
I do think I slept with my head under the covers for the next couple of nights.
But looking back on it, I realize that I didn’t worry about it anymore. I don’t think I ever seriously thought about an angel again, ever. They were not really there, and I knew it as surely as I knew anything.
Accept the Result
But I do have to leave you with a caveat.
Once, a new son-in-law went to his father-in-law’s house with his new wife. The father-in-law was very religious, and wanted to test the young man, about whom he had heard some rumors about his character. He called the young husband into the room, and asked him to swear upon the holy book that he was of upright character.
The young man looked at the book, and asked what would happen to him if he didn’t speak the truth. The father-in-law, trembling with righteousness, averred that immediate death would certainly be the outcome.
Drawing a deep breath, and casting a smile towards his wife, the young man solemnly placed his hand on the holy book and intoned that, “before God, I swear that I am a duck, and may God strike me dead here and now if this is not the truth.” The wife gasped.
The young husband looked at the father-in-law, who was looking at the holy book. Everyone was silent. Then, slowly the father-in-law raised his eyes towards the young husband. They looked each other in the eye. The father-in-law leaned back, with a look of awe on his face and said “I never knew you were a duck!”