So posts might be sporadic, depending on my productivity level as the end of the month approaches. I’ve been asked by my Freethinker group to write up and present for 10-20 minutes on the history of oaths and whether or not people care about that kind of thing anymore and whether or not they should.
I’ll come up with a snappier, easier to remember title than that, of course.
This is the first presentation I’ve been invited to do. Hopefully I’ll do alright with it. Last year I’d been to a talk by Margaret Visser for the Whelen Lecture Series put on at the University of Saskatchewan. The talk was called I SWEAR: Oaths, Curses and Modernity. I was really hoping the video at the site still worked, but I guess it was only up for a limited time. I wasn’t keeping notes when I saw her and a year later it’s kind of tricky to recall what got said.
It doesn’t feel like something I’ll be able to whip together in a couple hours, and I don’t want to fuss with audio/visual projector stuff which means finding adequate things to hand out so people can peruse those instead of looking at me all the time. I also want to make sense and be concise. It’s a pretty big topic to get into, I’m finding.
I’m thinking to start at playground level with the notion of “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye,” the first oath kids learn how to make and the punishment they claim they’ll go through if they can’t keep their word. Then add to that the ritual of crossing one’s fingers to void what just got said. Did you know that they’ll still do that in the American military? There’s a photo of a soldier shaking hands with Hillary Clinton and that’s why his fingers are crossed in it, to subtly announce that he didn’t actually support her.
From there I’d have the choice to continue in a military theme, which would get me to the Oath Keepers and a brief history of oaths used for military purposes (and the problems when an oath to follow orders leads to following some pretty terrible orders), or segue into the political arena where all manner of oaths are given, although not always gladly. In 2008, MPs in England put in a request to reword their 500 year old oath so they could direct their allegiance toward their constituents rather than the Queen, who doesn’t even pay taxes. I can’t find anything to suggest there’s been success with that.
From there, I could briefly touch on the history of swearing loyalty to kings and the like maybe, but since the MP oath mentions God, that’d give me the in to get into sacred oaths and perceived eternal punishments for breaking those. Whether it’s Islam, Judaism or Christianity, all manner of sacred oaths have had power over people.
I could even take a philosophical angle on some of this, and will probably have to in order to discuss why oaths have power and what they say about a person’s desire to be seen as honourable, noble, loyal and trustworthy. They also tend to be legally binding, so no matter how many times people swear to god that they’ll behave, “tell the truth, the whole truth,” it’s still necessary to have some kind of punishment ready to dole out in case they don’t. A god might be waiting around to punish you in the afterlife, but your current life’s reputation is at stake now…
I’d like the main aim here to be centered on the secular nature of keeping one’s word today and whether we as secular humanists, freethinkers, atheists etc. have a greater need to be responsible for the promises we make. How do we make sure that others (ie, religious folk who think we’re all unethical heathens) know we understand the value of that? Does it become more important for us to set good examples as we go about our daily lives?
As you can see, a lot of things to consider. I’m open to suggestions if anybody can think of something I could add, links to related videos or podcasts that I can pass on if my audience wants them, that sort of thing.