Churchiness and torture

Posted in Politics at 8:47 am by ducky

CNN released a poll that showed that how often an American Christian goes to church corresponds strongly to how much he/she supports torture.

To a liberal, this makes no sense at all.  The Golden Rule says to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, right?  And most people would not want to be tortured, right?  What’s the deal?

It makes sense to me in light of Haight’s findings on morality.  The people who go to church the most often are those for whom belonging to a group is most important, which ties to in-group loyalty.  I can imagine that as in-group loyalty increases, desire to protect the in-group gets fiercer.  Meanwhile, I can imagine that as in-group loyalty increases, respect for/value of people in the out-group decreases.   To put it another way, the higher your loyalty to people who look like you, I bet the less interested you are in preserving the rights of people who don’t look like you.

This is not my value structure.

Update: A friend pointed me to a study that shows that participation in religious rituals (but not how often they prayed) predicts support for suicide bombing!  This was true across cultures — Palestinian Muslims, Israeli Jews, Mexican Catholic, Indian Hindus, Russian Orthodox Christians, UK Protestants, and Indonesian Muslims.  Furthermore, in some of the interviews, they “primed” the interviewee to think about religious affiliation before asking about support for suicide bombing; that turned out to significantly increase reported support for suicide bombing!

This paper thus seems to me to pretty strongly support the CNN poll, albeit indirectly. It seems to me that it not a great leap to replace

  • a suicide bomber from the in-group who kills members of the out-group


  • a torturer from the in-group who tortures members of the out-group.


  1. lahosken said,

    May 1, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Every time after I support torture, I always want to go to church. Someone there will reassure me that I am a good person. And after supporting torture, I need all the reassurance I can get. Hypothetically. I guess?

  2. spacemika said,

    May 1, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    I wonder if it could be tied into Emma’s research on conservatives having disgust-triggered morality, and liberals having harm-triggered morality. (ie, “It’s gross, therefore it is wrong” vs “It harms others, therefore it is wrong”)

    Magic’s a lot more knowledgeable about the current status of in-group-vs-the-world research than I am so hopefully he’ll jump in, but I think that stronger in-group loyalty results in not just apathy to the rest of the world, but active antagonism towards them. “If you aren’t one of us, not only is torture not wrong, it’s downright encouraged because you deserve it for not being one of us.”

  3. ducky said,

    May 1, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    Lahosken — You are assuming that the people who support torture feel bad about it. I would be surprised if that is the case. I’ve seen friends of mine — good liberals, I thought! — support torture with no compunctions.

    Spacemika — interesting that Emma draws lines at disgust-driven vs. harm-triggered. I don’t think that those with with strong in-group loyalty are actively antagonistic towards people who are different. For example, I don’t hear a hue and cry to torture Mongols, people from Papua New Guinea the San people of Botswana, even though they are probably more different from the general US populace (along just about any axis) than Arabs are. The hue and cry seems to be to “get” people who they think are out to “get” us.

  4. spacemika said,

    May 2, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    I’ve been reading Bad Science to kill time, and came across an article saying if media coverage includes details on a suicide, that method of suicide increases in the following months (http://www.badscience.net/2009/03/suicide/#more-1061). Stretching here, and simultaneously revealing my basic ignorance of biblical stories, but if every week an audience is indoctrinated with “we tortured Jesus and he stayed true to his faith & didn’t lie,” (the crucifixion), then in the mimic-the-famous-person mentality, “Others will also stay true & not lie, therefore torture is effective.”

  5. ducky said,

    May 2, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Hmm, I would think that the crucifixion story would argue *against* torture: we gave Jesus our best torture and he didn’t break, therefore torture isn’t effective.

    Now if only they had waterboarded Jesus, then they might have gotten somewhere…

    (I’m kidding, I’m kidding!)

  6. ducky said,

    May 3, 2009 at 10:36 pm

    A Canadian Christian replied to me privately. The important part of his reply:

    “Even the most conservative anti-gay anti-other-religion Christians I know don’t support torture. They may support being tough on crime and think our legal system is too liberal, but torture is a whole ‘nother thing. Maybe the US Bible Belt is different, but in my neck of the Biblical woods (conservative or liberal), torture is most definitely not cool.”

    This does not really surprise me, as Canadians are more urban and therefore more liberal than their US counterparts. (I think that cities, where you have many different, potentially non-overlapping in-groups (neighbours, work colleagues, religion colleagues, club colleagues, etc) foster a greater appreciation for the liberal virtue of fairness; I think that rural areas, with their distance from services promote a greater appreciation for the conservative virtue of in-group loyalty.)

  7. spacemika said,

    May 4, 2009 at 5:43 am

    I think that may be the first time Canada has ever been described as primarily urban. I’m delighted!

    You live right next to the Canadian bible belt. I brought a buddy native to the South through it, and he couldn’t believe I was serious.

    I’ve managed to overly-amuse myself at the thought of a stereotypical Canadian trying to torture someone, and repeatedly interrupting to apologize profusely. Would a similar poll reveal Canadians think torture is wrong because it’s rude?

    It feels sick to make a joke involving torture, but at the same time it’s all so horrifying that it’s hard to take straight-on. All our theories for trying to explain why the poll said torture was fine don’t actually help me internalize that people really think about it, and still say it’s acceptable. Is empathy that rare?

  8. ducky said,

    May 4, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Spacemika —

    I laughed out loud at the image of the Canadian torturers apologizing! 😀

    I had heard that Canada was way more urban than the US. Indeed, around 80% of Canadians live in urban areas:
    I had heard that the US was around 50% urban/50% rural, but I was surprised to find that the US is around 80% urban/suburban:
    Those links also give historical data, and the historical data looks quite similar for the US and Canada. So apparently I was completely wrong about relative urbanization rates.

  9. ducky said,

    May 4, 2009 at 7:02 am

    Spacemika —

    Re your question about empathy being rare or not, I think it’s not that it’s rare, it’s that it’s *selective*. Almost nobody empathizes with onions, for example, even though millions get ripped out of the ground every year. Only a few more empathize with mosquitoes. More empathize with cows, but even a lot of vegetarians (myself included) don’t any sleep over the slaughter of cattle. Onions, mosquitoes, and cows are definitely not in my in-group. I think the big difference between me and torturers is where we draw the in-group/out-group line.

    It’s also likely that they have empathy, but they view torture as a necessary evil. It’s easy to have a value system that says that torture is not as evil as killing, yet the US has been at war for years and years. To kill, people have to believe that the killing will save lives (usually in-group lives) at the expense of out-group lives. I bet people who support torture do so because they believe that it will save lives — definitely in-group lives, but also quite possibly out-group lives.

    (I don’t. I think torture makes things worse for US citizens, but I haven’t been brainwashed by Jack Bauer’s torture porn.)

  10. ducky said,

    May 4, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    MaryW responded to this elsewhere, saying,

    “Hmm, interesting way to report that story. Another way to report it would be : 42% of non-church attenders fall into the “often / sometimes” justified category, but only 33% of mainline protestants answered that way (it’s at the bottom of the article). So there’s a group of people for whom church attendance gives them a +12% likelihood of supporting torture… and another group of people whose church attendance correlates with -9% on supporting torture. Why is the predictive factor in the headline ‘church’, as though all churches have the same position on this?”

    That’s a good point! Good catch, I had not picked up on that.