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Swear words

For centuries, those who have dispensed justice in England and Wales have relied on the Bible to force people to tell them the truth. But although this practice now seems anachronistic to many, a recent proposal to end the swearing of oaths on the Bible and other holy books in England & Wales has been rejected by magistrates.

The Magistrates' Association - which represents three-quarters of magistrates - debated a motion to instead ask witnesses to promise to 'very sincerely tell the truth' but voted against the plan. (If the motion had passed, it would have needed the approval of parliament to enforce the change.)

It had been proposed by a Bristol magistrate, Ian Abrahams, who claimed many people are no more likely to tell the truth after using it to swear an oath. He argues that what is needed is a greater sense of how seriously lying in court is treated and his suggested alternative would include an acknowledgement of the duty to tell the truth.

Opposing, the solicitor Nick Freeman claimed that 'The way you stamp out lying under oath is to punish people who do so, not to get rid of the religious oath. By changing it you are depriving people with a religious faith of the chance to reinforce their evidence by swearing on their religious text.'

The oath has given the English language one of its most famous sentences: 'I swear by Almighty God [to tell] the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.' Other faiths can take the oath on their own holy books and atheists are allowed to 'solemnly, sincerely and truly affirm' instead of swearing: 'I understand that if I fail to do so, I will be committing an offence for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison.'

The existence of this non-religious affirmation has encouraged religious leaders to argue that those who do have a faith should be allowed to continue to profess it. Elsewhere the story is more mixed. Earlier in the year, the Guides decided to strip all religious content from the promise made by its members. Yet last month the Scouts opted to keep their pledge to 'do my duty to God' and simply to introduce an alternative version for non-believers, as with the legal oath. Surely though, our worries should not be with those of strong feeling on either side, but the great ranks of indifference in between.