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?


  1. "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information . . ."

    You raise some interesting points. I find it troubling because I see myself as about as conservative as Christians get, in Canada anyhow. And if I knew, if I really knew that I could save a thousand lives by putting the screws to someone who was planning to do exactly that . . . I don't know that I . . . how would I justify NOT getting that information?

    An issue of course is that torture rarely if ever works for getting valuable information. But that's not how the question reads, at least to me. I understand the question as saying,
    'Important information that will save lives WILL be gained via torture – Are you willing to use it?'

    So I wonder, are YOU saying that you would NOT save a thousand lives if you could, because terrorist would be harmed in order to save them?

    Or another way of putting it. Would you rather your children die in a chemical or biological attack, than have someone be tortured if it would avoid their deaths?

    I hope I never have to make that decision.


  2. You bring up the "ticking time bomb" case. With this case, the assumption is that torture is the only way to obtain the required information. Yet there is a lot of information that indicates, as you point out, that torture is not reliable. For instance this report says:

    Is Torture Effective?
    "Is torture effective? Prof. Dershowitz, who is morally opposed to torture, writes that he believes law enforcement officials will employ torture in “ticking bomb” cases. 8 Philosophical supporters of torture emphasize this scenario and even opponents allow that illegal torture should be used to save lives in such situations. 9 The problem is that the “ticking bomb” scenario is a myth. The English commentator Christopher Hitchens makes the wise point that the “favourite experimental scenario—the man knows where the bomb is, put the hooks into him swiftly—is actually a contingency almost impossible to visualise. I certainly know of no such real-life case.” 10 A very careful analysis of the effectiveness-of-torture literature allows that in rare instances threats of the use of physical force might have worked. 11 Against this is the evidence that many anecdotes of successful torture, including three used by Dershowitz, may be less clear on careful examination and that security agencies have not provided careful documentation of success.

    More important, the historical accounts, psychological studies, and case analyses of the failures and problems with coercive interrogation are legion. 12 CIA and FBI reports point out the problems of inaccurate recollection and false confessions. The use of torture in Algiers, Northern Ireland and Israel did not and have not produced desired political results." (




  3. Here is another report on the "usefulness" of torture:

    New declassified information reveals that the CIA’s torture programs produced false information. September 11th mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed admitted he made up stories under torture, refuting a long-standing and still-used Bush administration argument that harsh interrogation yields highly valuable information. Rachel Maddow provides the details.



  4. Mark Friedman

    Without getting into the issue of torture itself, you hit on some excellent insights here Alan. Frankly, I think you hit the nail on the head as to many of reasons xtians can justify torture. Of course in my own experience, I've met very, very few xtians who continue to apply their high morals when it interferes with what they want to do. There is such a huge range of morality even within the smallest sects of xtianity, its a wonder everyone doesn't just start their own individual church…


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