Why Are Churchgoers More Likely to Support Torture? May 1, 2009

Why Are Churchgoers More Likely to Support Torture?

For some reason, white evangelical Christians are more likely to support torture than the rest of us:

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week — 54 percent — said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than 6 in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only 4 in 10 of them did.

The full graphic is below:


It’s not great news for anyone. That’s still a lot of people who don’t go to church who support torture.

But that difference is striking.

Why do you think this is?

Is it just a correlation with politics?

Or is there something about their faith that justifies the use of torture?

(Thanks to Greta Christina for the link!)

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  • It is the evangelical right buying into the GOP talking point that waterboarding is not torture…

  • mkb

    I think that this is a correlation not a causation thing. The same insecurities about our world that tie them to the evangelical church cause them to be willing to do “whatever it takes” to protect us from terrorists (not that I think that torture protects us, but they do).

  • MKB, you nailed it. It’s correlation, not causation. I am the last person to defend the Christian POV on most matters, but we must beware the kind of muddy thinking generated by these idiotic polls.

  • Nancy

    Their thought process:
    Terrorist = Muslim
    Muslim = Out to Destroy Christianity
    Out to Destroy Christianity = Evil
    Evil = Deserves Maximum Punishment

  • I think it’s more like religious people believe that the means justify the ends.

  • What allows them to accept torture is that, as insular groups, they have created a culture of the ‘other’. It’s the same sort of culture that allows any group to dehumanize another.

    It’s what allowed the Imperial Japanese armed forces, the Third Reich and the Shankhill Butchers to do the things they did. Now, it doesn’t matter if non-christian non-whites are tortured, as they are quite as human as ‘us’, you see?

  • Though one cannot prove causation… me thinks that hell hath hardened them!

  • I don’t know about causation or not, but they do worship and try to emulate a God who they believe either created or allows an eternity for most of everlasting torture… and they believe that God created us in His image… fill in the dots.

  • Luther Weeks

    As I have said before, they just have no morals. How can anyone who believes that the world was designed and is operated by a mythical being have any basis for morality as we know it? They believe that the mythical being tells them what is right which not surprisingly agrees perfectly with whatever they would want to do. They also believe that at the last minute they can just say they believe in that mythical being and then have an afterlife of playing harp music or 72 virgins or some such no matter what else they have done. How could that possible lead to any type of good moral life respecting and appreciating life and nature?

  • Infinite Monkey

    5 words:

    In the name of God

    Those words can justify anything.

  • Yes, belief in God is the ultimate moral excuse for practically any action you wish to partake in. In the end, it utterly demolishes the theistic argument Gods existence from morals.

    And atheists can justify their moral beliefs on the simple grounds of “do unto others”, “minimum harm to the maximum number” or similar no theistic moral bases.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    This isn’t the evidence of a fundamental difference between morals of theists and non-theists that same commentators are trying to make it. Take a look again at those numbers. They say that, roughly 40% of atheists, 50% of Catholics and mainline Protestants, and 60% of evangelicals, support torture. That’s hardly a huge difference. And given the sample sizes the statistical error alone is +-5%.

    Atheists are generally Democrats, evangelicals are mostly Republicans. That correlation alone is more than enough to explain the difference.

  • Dave Spencer

    I kind of agree with Autumnal Harvest; the difference is probably able to be explained just by the demographics of the groups involved.

    If we are willing to look beyond that and play games with motivations that aren’t necessarily evidenced by statistics, you could argue that belief in the afterlife would make you more comfortable with anything done to the body, since what’s a couple hours/days/weeks of pain in an eternal life? Even if you’re innocent by the time you’ve been playing the harp in heaven for 150 trillion years are you really going to care about what happened during that one month on earth you can barely remember anymore?

  • I think it’s a really small sample size…

  • Ron in Houston

    Great comments. I agree with mkb about fundamental insecurities in their worldview. I also strongly agree with arkonbey about the concept of the “other.”

  • Soulless

    I agree with Nancy above. I think it’s clear that those of them that can think with any sort of logical progression at all will draw these conclusions based on the typical assumptions they would make.

    Terrorist = Muslim
    Muslim = Out to Destroy Christianity
    Out to Destroy Christianity = Evil
    Evil = Deserves Maximum Punishment

  • Miko

    For the record:

    The error on the overall is approx. +/-4%.
    The error on the WEP is approx +/- 8%.
    The error on the unaffiliated is approx +/-10%.
    (all with 95% confidence intervals.)

    So, yes, large errors. But note that the gap (on the top two boxes) between the WEP and the unaffiliated is more than 18%, so even with the sample size issues, there’s probably something there.

    I’d theorize that those who attend church regularly are more likely to accept the idea of a strongly hierarchical society with leaders who are not to be questioned. Plus the fact that they think that the people being tortured are all going to be Muslims.

  • James H

    The “often justified” numbers are fairly consistent across groups — 15 percent to 18 percent. The disparity lies in the “sometimes justified” category.


  • The God they believe in couldn’t find any better way to offer salvation than to have himself tortured to death. With this kind of violence at the heart of their belief system, I’m not surprised that they think torture is OK.

  • TXatheist

    In Texas I am baffled by the number of liberals for the death penalty. Basically “they deserve the punishment” is what I hear.

  • Erik

    I wish this survey had data on other religious groups, not just christian and unaffiliated. What would American muslims say to this question? Jews? Hindus?

  • SarahH

    Correlation possibly due to the ties many Christians (especially serious, church-going Christians) have to the Republican party. The RP has supported the Christian agenda and Christian values, therefore many Christians have come to agree with and identify with the RP platform – even in ways that might not fit so well with Christianity in other ways.

  • Larry Huffman

    I believe the view that the world is just a staging and proving ground for the real deal (= eternal life with god or in hell being punished), lowers their regard for human life in many ways. I also think their bibles support some pretty grim things, such as genocide…as with the slaughter of the people of canaan…which are sanctioned and even commanded by their god.

    Their god does some pretty atrocious things in the bible…and their only recourse as humans trying to rationalize this is to somehow justify it. And…if they can justify one group of people killing every man, woman and child in a community…as takes place in their bible…then of course they can justify mistreating a few bad apples.

    I wonder if they agree that other nations would sometimes be able to justify the torture of our soldiers? I mean…if they think we have justification…would they not rationally have to give other nations the same kind of consideration?

  • astroheel

    Why is this surprising? Oh, wait, it’s because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

  • Brooks

    This isn’t the evidence of a fundamental difference between morals of theists and non-theists that same commentators are trying to make it. Take a look again at those numbers. They say that, roughly 40% of atheists, 50% of Catholics and mainline Protestants, and 60% of evangelicals, support torture. That’s hardly a huge difference. And given the sample sizes the statistical error alone is +-5%.

    I think that’s a good point, but whether it’s a correlation or causation, I think it also disproves the claim that being a Christian will automatically make you more moral than the rest of society. As for why specifically those evangelicals would support torture, as already stated, I think it’s because they already have a warped sense of morality as it is. Most of them already believe that eternal torture in hell is perfectly justified although they may deny that it is eternal torture. They also believe that it’s ok for God to do whatever he wants because he’s God and I think many of them wish for a Christian theocracy where they get to rule the world. As for the question if they would allow other countries to do the same, I somehow doubt it. Most fundies consider themselves to be more human than anyone who disagrees with them and that anyone who defies their theology doesn’t deserve the same rights and privileges as them. So while they might think it’s justifiable for them to torture people, I doubt they’d let other people do it to them because they consider themselves to be more important and more deserving than the rest of society.

  • Polly

    Fundies worship a god that sends innocent people – like you and me – to a fiery, eternal torture chamber. Remember what that megalomaniac, Jesus, said: “Where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”

    That’s torture. And it’s for EVERYONE…unless they happen to believe what these guys believe.

  • Kay

    I have to think FOX news and the show 24 have some sort of connection to this.

    You watch the show and you go “hmmm maybe the ends DO justify the means… Jack only has our best interests at heart…” and then if you happen to stay on the channel you get the FOX news… and the next thing you know you are chanting “tie him up, waterboard his ass” after Sunday school.

  • Richard Wade

    Everybody please stop for a moment and realize that four out of ten of the “unaffiliated” (presumably including atheists) still consider torture to be acceptable.

    Having that large a portion of torturers in our midst is nothing for us to be proud of.

  • Roger

    Because hello….now we finally know what Jesus would do! the whole WWJD bracelet question solved. He would torture people and not to mention that crazy guy would go as far as torturing someone that is just a suspect in a crime…Jesus rules!

  • Polly

    Quite right Richard Wade. My first thought upon seeing the graphic was, “that’s not a very big difference.” And, yes, it is entirely too many little Eichmanns we have running around our fair country.

    I guess all we learned from history was that OTHER people are bad guys – so we can’t be because we’re fighting them. We’re still blinded by our own exceptionalism.

  • Nick Wallin

    I’d guess it’s because of Republican/Democrat affiliation. More Evangelicals are Republican, and Republicans tend to support torture.

    However, it does raise questions over whether Evangelicals are also gullible enough to follow whatever policies the GOP espouses, rather than following their own “moral” values. Death penalty anyone? “Thou shalt not kill… unless they deserve it.”

  • Frank

    I certainly agree that these numbers are nothing to be proud of. And it is certainly true that this data does not demonstrate causation of any kind. However, I do think there is causation there. Christianity, particularly the evangelical variety, and to a lesser extent the catholic variety, is very big on unquestioned acceptance of authority. It’s not a big leap from there to saying that torture is ok if the authority says so. And as has been pointed out, the god of the bible doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with torture. The symbol of their whole religion is an instrument of torture!

  • greysells2

    It is a correlation; not causation. It might have something to do with the absolute certitude of their religious beliefs being applied to other social and world problems. There is some connection between this and the stronger play that the Old Testament plays in their world view. A good follow question would be to ask — “In your belief system, how confident are you that your faith will answer all life questions?” Absolutely, Very, Moderately, Very little, None. Then correlate that response to the torture question.

  • Wow. Like wow. Check out that HUUUUUUGE sample size.

  • I wonder. Was there also a correspondence between religiosity and support for slavery, back in the 1860’s? It seems possible, because after all, the industrialized North may have been a less religious place than the rural South even back then…

    Anyone have the data?

  • lindsey

    I think that Christianity is a religion that highly emphasizes retribution. The whole burning in hell for eternity thing is a pretty solid example. Also, their god beats the shit out of entire cities/populations for practically no reason at all. That’s not exactly sending a positive message for people.

    You even see this dynamic with Jesus. He had to die and suffer significantly for everyone’s sins. So there will always be someone who has to pay.

  • john

    I’m curious about something. If the wording were changed to “confirmed” terrorists instead of “suspected” terrorists how would the results be different? My main objection to the torturing that has been done in the name of the war on terror has so far been that they haven’t first proved them guilty. I’m probably against any torture, but I’m considerably less strongly against torture of somebody who has been proven to be guilty. This is kind of a moot point because there aren’t any justice systems that I know of that are all that good at figuring out who’s guilty and who’s not. So the list of people that have been sufficiently proven to be guilty is a very short list. Even then, you have to factor in the negative impacts on the torturers so I don’t know that it is ever justified. But, my question still stands. How would the poll results be different.

  • Erp

    Few thoughts.

    1. White mainline Protestants were the group most likely to think torture was never justified (31% to 26% for unaffiliated).

    2. This is a small survey (a big group missing is African-American Protestants both mainline and evangelical).

    On the slavery issue, religiosity fueled both sides (think of the Quaker abolitionists as well as the religious justifications given for slavery) and it did lead to some denominations splitting (including the Episcopalians temporarily [a southern bishop, Leonidas Polk, even became an incompetent Confederate general and was killed]).

  • Luther Weeks

    I’m curious about something. If the wording were changed to “confirmed” terrorists instead of “suspected” terrorists how would the results be different? My main objection to the torturing that has been done in the name of the war on terror has so far been that they haven’t first proved them guilty.

    But cruel and unusual punishment is supposed to be illegal. The supposed purpose of torture was to get information not to punish.

  • AJ

    I think it has to do with believing in an objective morality. Most Objectivists I know are atheists and believe torture can be just fine.

  • GullWatcher

    Most Objectivists I know are atheists and believe torture can be just fine.

    Just one more reason to find objectivists objectionable.

    I wonder what the geographical distribution of this study was. Lots of the churches in my town have anti-torture banners and messages outside of them. It almost made me stop grimacing when I went past them, for a while anyway, until the banners came down after the election. I suspect it was on the grounds that they thought the problem would be fixed now.

  • Brooks

    I think it has to do with believing in an objective morality. Most Objectivists I know are atheists and believe torture can be just fine.

    Which I find to be ironic since one of the major criticisms Objectivists have with moral relativism is that if morals are relative, then you can never say something is absolutely bad or good. Isn’t Sam Harris also an Objectivist? But I’m not sure whether or not he supports torture as his book The End Of Faith was confusing on the subject and I still can’t figure it out.

  • Aj

    I don’t think the poll questions are useful, but that’s often the case. I would say torture is never justified for suspected terrorists. Also, I have no idea what the “unaffiliated” group represents in these polls, they might as well say “other”.

    My understanding of Sam Harris’s opinion on torture, although I might be projecting because it is also my own, is that torture can be justified in a set of extremely rare specific circumstances. If torture works, there is a “ticking time bomb”, there is someone who knows where that bomb is in custody, then it would be moral to torture them to save lives. Although mistrust of government and the improbability of such a circumstance ever arising means that torture should not be legal. He was made out to be a big proponent of torture by some writers, but apparantly once you’re labelled a “new atheist” people can lie about you. I’m quite confident Sam Harris isn’t an Objectivist.

  • Erp

    Unaffiliated I think means that; people who gave no religious affiliation. The survey omits those who are otherwise affiliated (e.g., Hispanic Catholics, Black Protestants of all varieties, Jews, Muslims, etc) as the numbers in those groups in this survey were too small to give valid info.

  • Stephan Goodwin

    What I want to know is if these people that think torture is justified also think that all of the confessions of witchcraft during the dark ages were legitimate.
    I mean, if torture works, then all those people were having sex with demons and flying through the sky and whatnot…and not just forced to say ANYTHING to make the pain stop.

  • Pseudonym

    I agree with Lex Fear. There are no statistically significant results here whatsoever.

    So much for critical thinking.

  • Not_A_Theist

    Although there isn’t enough data here to make detailed remarks, these are some general things I think.

    I think that it has something to do with fear and also the fact that the torture that most people think about is torture being done to others (who are usually non-whites) so there’s actually a slight prejudicial thing going on. If you asked how people felt about some other country torturing their citizens in the same way, they would most certainly not like or support it and that’s really the only way to know if someone is being hypocritical about their take on an issue.

    I however, would like to see this same survey data but showing what the race of the participants were, to see if there really is some bigotry going on here.

  • Matt

    I am a Christian.

    I think I see this pragmatically when I say that if torture is leading to information that stops terrorist attacks, it has to be considered. Before 9/11, terrorists killing thousands of people in a single strike wasn’t concievable to most people. Now it is a legitimate threat. Priority number one should be to stop such attacks. In a controlled setting, interrogation techniques such as waterboarding should not have long term negative health consequences, and it’s actually pretty mild compared to what passed for torture in the middle ages.

    Ethically, I might place techniques like waterboarding in the always immoral catagory. But I can also concieve of a situation where my family has been kidnapped, and after finding the culprit I come to the conclusion that the best way to get information from him is to use the threat of force or force itself. My priorities might change if the lives of people I love are at stake. Similarly, if the lives of Americans are at stake, the most pragmatic course would be to at least consider the use of force in interrogation.

    Also, it’s disconcerting to look at some the posts here. Automatically, many assume that the opinions Christians hold in regards to torture – or anything else – is the one consisting of the least logical thought. It gets frusterating to look at.

  • Personally, I’m just horrified that our governments have created a society where torture is at all acceptable.

  • Mort

    When I finally gave up religion it was frightening at first, because I was really only giving up a greater ‘moral authority’ on which to depend. Afterwards, it became liberating to realize that I had at last become responsible for myself.
    I think the survey simply shows the deference religious people allow their church to have over their beliefs. It is understandable to let someone else answer the hard questions for us. What is worrisome is the lack of responsibility of the men behind the pulpits to stand up for the golden rule.

  • Annie

    If I were to repeat this study, it’s actually quite likely that I will get opposite results. I’m really surprised that people who don’t believe in God so easily and willingly believe in these statistics, or the generalizations these state make.

  • Bethany

    Could someone explain something to me that I truly don’t understand? Why is everyone so upset about torturing terrorists? I’m not trying to start a fight here, I really don’t understand. These people would think NOTHING of torturing our soldiers. They would kill us in the blink of an eye. Why do WE have to be the ones that they laugh at? They ARE laughing. They aren’t afraid at all of being caught or captured. I think getting information to protect our country and our people is of utmost importance. Please don’t comment back with how stupid and ignorant I am. I really want to hear back an explanation from the other side. Middle Eastern countries would torture our people in a heartbeat and laugh while they do it. Don’t we WANT them to be afraid of us? Do we want to be the country that everyrone knows will accept anything? Everyone that I know agrees with my viewpoint. I just want a logical explanation of the other side. Thanks

  • bethany, sometimes a captive doesn’t have any useful information, and sometimes she’s just innocent. i don’t know that most statements gained from torture lead to any benefit at all.

    you seem to support also publicizing the torture to strike fear into those who would otherwise seek to harm us. we are not modern-day mongols. besides, some people think they wont be caught, and some people are more afraid of displeasing their creator than being captured. when this is the case, torture is no deterrent.

    need i remind you, even u.s. xians have no difficulty sinning against their lord who will lovingly set them in a lake of fire forever, so the threat of torture isn’t protecting anyone.

    you say torturing terrorists should be okay, but how are you defining terrorists anyway? would you like john walker lind, the american al quaeda, to be waterboarded? what about our own sadistic serial attackers, or charles manson? what good, that you know of, does it do? and how do you know it?

    sorry you didn’t get a reply sooner, but you did ask your q pretty late in the game.

  • personally, i love to have my bloodlust satisfied, but only in fiction. it’s very disappointing to see the bad guy, who’s caused tons of suffering, shot in the head at the end of a movie. i want the bad guy to suffer directly at the hands of those he harmed – in my fiction. otoh, watching that viet cong captive actually being executed at point blank range is terribly disturbing.
    and seeing those “witches” burned alive in a video here on FA was absolutely sickening (despite my comments on the subject).

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