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Religion and torture, polling and statistics

Mark Kleiman
The Reality-Based Community
May 1, 2009

Steve Benen points to a Pew Center on Religion study about the relationship between religiosity and support for torture. Weekly churchgoers are more likely to support torture than those who attend occasionally, who in turn are more likely to support torture than those who never go to services. And white evangelicals are more torture-prone than mainline Protestants or non-Hispanic Catholics. Support for torture is lowest among atheists, agnostics, and those who claim no particular religious affiliation.

Steve, and Adam Serwer, are quick to point to the inconsistency between moral absolutism about sexual practices and flexible standards about torture. Chris Good has other theological reflections: does belief in the Crucifixion increase tolerance for suffering-for-a-purpose (where in this case the claimed purpose is national security)? He might have added that belief in Hell suggests that the Author of Creation isn't opposed to limitless suffering. You could play this game all day, and leave yourself with a pretty smug feeling about your low religiosity.

Would it be intolerably rude of me to point out that this is entirely based on bad statistical analysis? First off, the reported differences are pretty small: torture is believed to be never acceptable by 26% of those who don't attend church at all and by 23% of those who attend weekly or more. On a sample size of 730, that's well within the margin of sampling error.

But even if a larger sample showed the effects to be statistically significant, that wouldn't tell you much about the causal relationships. Attitudes toward torture and other political questions might be correlated with religiosity as measured by frequency of church attendance, with religious denomination, with ethnicity, with sex, with education, with social class, and with age. And any of those other variables might be correlated with religiosity.

I would guess, for example, that person whose ancestors came from the Anglo-Scottish Border region would be more inclined to support torture than an otherwise similar person (matched for religiosity, age, sex, education, social class, and age) whose ancestors were from other parts of England. Similarly, a resident of the southern mountain region of the U.S., or someone whose ancestors lived there, would probably be more torture-friendly than a New England Yankee or someone of Scandinavian descent living in the upper Midwest. ("More inclined," I say: Jim Webb provides a proud counter-example.)

If it's also true that people whose ancestry or region predicts support for torture are more likely to be evangelical Protestants or frequent churchgoers, then we might get a completely spurious correlation between religiosity and support for torture. Any decent sociology paper on this topic would try to rule out spurious correlation before proceeding to speculation, but the conventions of polling and of poll-based journalism don't involve taking that preliminary step.

"Who Would Jesus Torture?" is still a good polemic to aim at those who proclaim themselves "Christians" and also support defacing what they believe to be the Image of God in the form of another human being. And I wouldn't be surprised if a properly-controlled study found that Hellfire religion did in fact have a pernicious effect on moral character when issues of cruelty are involved. Maybe we should find it shocking that weekly attendance at Christian services doesn't have an obvious protective effect against support for torture.* But as it stands the Pew numbers tell us roughly nothing interesting about how religion does, or doesn't, influence attitudes toward torture.

* Footnote A real Bible-believer would be barred from making the argument "Torture may be wrong in itself, but it's justified to prevent terrorist acts." Again and again in the "historical" book of the Tanakh, God tells the Israelites that He, and not material factors such as troop strength, determines success on the in battlefield, and that the key to victory is therefore observance of the Law. As someone who is, for these purposes, an atheist, I have to confront the possibility that history might go terribly wrong if people like me refuse to undertake morally distasteful but necessary tasks. But a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim who believes in a God Who acts in the world ought to have no such worry, and be prepared to do the right thing with faith that God will sort out the results.

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