16. June 2009 · 4 comments · Categories: Atheism
The Pew Research Center recently (April 14-21 2009) conducted a survey of 742 American adults (The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate) asking them the following question:
Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?
The results were surprising, especially for those believers who think morality requires a god, or more specifically, the Christian god. Here are the percentages of those groups that thought torture was often or sometimes justified:
White Evangelical Protestants: 62%
White non-Hispanic Catholics: 51%
White Mainline Protestants: 46%
Non-Affiliated: 40%
In attempting to gauge the depth of “religious” commitment, the Pew Research Center also broke down the survey by the frequency of church attendance:
Weekly or more frequent: 54%
Monthly or a few times a year 51%
Seldom or never 42%
What are we to think about these results? Do religious people really think that it is morally OK to torture another human being? The numbers seem to indicate that; however, we do need to be careful in the interpretation of this survey.
1. The sample size was low and although there was only a 4 percentage point error rate at the 95% confidence level (+/- 4 points) for the overall survey (see Report), I can’t find the confidence levels for the religious affiliation especially when the total numbers dropped from 742 to 540.
2. I haven’t seen the questions used to determine religious affiliation. For instance, how does one define an Evangelical Christian? Does the person use their own definition or does Pew supply a definition? What if you are in a mainline Church but consider yourself an evangelical? Where are you placed?
3. Is frequency of church attendance really a good indicator of religious commitment or depth?
4. There seems to be a higher correlation between political party affiliation and belief in torture than there does in religious affiliation. Republicans are more likely to agree that torture is often or sometimes justified (64%) vs. Democrats (36%). (see The Torture Debate: A Closer Look) Since the Religious right is associated with the Republican Party then perhaps we are just seeing an artifact of political, not religious, belief. Yet if this is true, what does it say about ones religion, when a political party can hijack what should be a religious conviction?
Even given these concerns, there appears to be some legitimacy to the correlation. For instance David Neff at Christianity Today doesn’t argue with the results, stating that: First, the survey is probably accurate. Other studies have shown similar results (Evangelicals and Torture). He correctly states that how you ask the question can affect the outcome. Still, the question asked couldn’t be much simpler.
If the results of this survey are accurate, what could explain the belief that the torture of another human being is justified? There are several possibilities:
1. As stated above, political concerns and ideology may trump religious convictions. If this is so, the church is in a heap of trouble. Far from being “salt” and “light” to the world (Matt 5:13-16) the world is using religion to promote a political agenda.
2. Perhaps torture really isn’t all that bad from a religious standpoint, after all god the Father supposedly tortured his only son on the cross! Does this belief cause one to become deadened to the actual horrors of torture?
3. Perhaps the Christian god really does approve of torture. After all he has supposedly, in the past, ordered the wholesale slaughter of entire towns and peoples, including men, women, children and animals. Does such brutality, desensitize believers to the suffering, pain and torture of others?
4. The church, both Protestant and Catholic, has used torture in the past to destroy their enemies (called heretics). Is this much different than using torture as a political means to gain information?

5. The concept of hell may also desensitize believers to torture. Their god will torture unbelievers for all eternity for committing finite crimes.

Or maybe, just maybe, religion has less influence on people and what they believe than the church would like to think. Perhaps, many of those who call themselves Christian really have no idea what they believe or how to consistently apply a belief. They may believe in the sanctity of life and strongly oppose abortion and stem-cell research, but then once life has been born they may have no problem with “sanctity” issues relating to everything from the death penalty to torture. David Neff in the Christianity Today blog post referenced above stated that “there is (as there always is) a gap between leadership beliefs and grassroots attitudes“. In other words, until the leaders lead (e.g. tell their sheep what to think) the sheep don’t quite know what to think. If this is true, it’s insulting and sad, but then again, what more can we expect from mere sheep?

Recently articles dealing with Intelligence and Religion have been published on various web sites such as Breaking: Intelligence and Religion – Negatively Related and Godless Science.  In these articles the authors try to make that case that there is a negative correlation between IQ or Intelligence and religion. In other words, the higher your IQ the more likely you are to be an atheist. The case is built using several lines of evidence:

1. While a majority of the population believes in some type of god only 7-10% of eminent scientists have the same belief. Of members of the National Academy of Sciences, 72% are outright atheists.
2. The more your training in the sciences the less likely you are to believe in god.
3. A review of several studies (the websites list at least 31) tend to indicate those with high IQ’s and/or education levels (measures of Intelligence) are less likely to believe in god.
4. The general decline of religious belief as a person moves from childhood (87-96% belief in god) into adolescence (56-70% belief rates).
5. The general decline in religious belief as the population in general becomes more educated.
6. Atheists tend to score higher on Psychometric g measurements.
7. Nations with higher general IQ’s tend to be less religious than nations having lower average IQ scores.
One author stated: “The consensus here is clear: more intelligent people tend not to believe in religion. And this observation is given added force when you consider that the above studies span a broad range of time, subjects and methodologies, and yet arrive at the same conclusion. This is the result even when the researchers are Christian conservatives themselves.”
While it is tempting to play this game, I have strong reservations against the hypothesis that non-belief in god is related to IQ or Intelligence.  I think the above studies show that there is a correlation but it is always difficult to make the leap between correlation and causation without very well designed studies. There are many factors that go into a measurement of Intelligence and even more in trying to decide the religiosity of an individual. Trying to devise questions to get at the heart of an individuals religious beliefs are fraught with problems: How do you define your terms in relation to the subject’s definition?  What or who is “god”? How is “god” being defined? What exactly is a “personal” god? Is church attendance related to spirituality? How do you define commitment to a deity? What is an orthodox belief? What even constitutes a belief in god? Is the subject being honest in answering the questions? I think everyone would agree that a Deist’s view of god and spirituality is very different from that of a Hindu, which is very different than that of a fundamentlist Christian that believes in a personal, invisible friend in Christ.
What I think may be going on here is that as a person gets more educated, regardless of “intelligence”, the less superstitious his or her world view becomes.  As education increases a person begins to think more logically and has more and more facts explaining the world at their disposal. If such a person goes on to higher education, especially graduate school in the sciences, he or she is trained to think in terms of the scientific method and experimentation and “proofs”. A large part of graduate education is challenge:  You believe what? What evidence do you have for such a belief? What experiments can be designed to Falsify your belief? Have you considered these studies? How do you know this is true?  Everyone with graduate training in the sciences knows what it is like to have a pet theory demolished by the evidence and knows what it is like to re-evaluate results and come to a new understanding. In other words, they are trained to constantly re-evaluate and re-think. When this type of thinking is carried over into other areas of their life and applied to religion the result is often devastating to religious belief.
Yet very intelligent people can and do believe in god and not just the Christian god, but all types of gods. Why, when the evidence is so weak for the existence of just a being?  I believe there are at least 3 main reasons:
1. Humans have a very high capacity for compartmentalization of their thinking. A person can be extremely intelligent and rational in one area of their life and highly emotional in another.
2. Humans seem to have a very high need for meaning.  A world without god appears to be meaningless and, for many, religion (god) brings meaning to ones life.
3. Intelligent people are better able to defend ideas they may have arrived at for non-intelligent reasons (paraphrase from Dr. Michael Shermer). For instance Francis Collins former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute came to belief in god through very non-intelligent reasons: “I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.” I’m sure he wouldn’t conduct scientific experiments or practice medicine with such “insight”.