Views on torture not influenced by religion

Virtually every major religious group in the United States has renounced the use of torture. Surprisingly, however, the American public still shows strong support for the use of torture as a tactic in fighting terror. Perhaps even more surprisingly, once other factors are taken into account, one’s religious beliefs and frequency of worship appear to have quite modest effects on views about torture.

John G. Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron and Senior Fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, has an article (PDF) in the Review of Faith & International Affairs that discusses a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey on torture and faith. Pew surveyed public opinion on torture and terrorism in 2004, 2005, and 2006, for the entire public and for six large religious groups: white Evangelical Protestants, white Roman Catholics, white Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, all other religious communities, and the religiously unaffiliated.

The study found evidence of only a modest effect of religious denomination, particulary when political affiliation–a much more important factor–was taken into account:

Overall this survey found that 17.7 percent of the American public said that torture was “often justified” against suspected terrorists and another 27.8 percent said it was “sometimes justified.” Hence, 45.5 percent had what might be called “permissive” views on torture under these circumstances. Meanwhile, 18.8 percent said that torture was “rarely justified” and 32.8 percent said it was “never justified.” Thus, 51.6 percent of Americans held what might be called “restrictive” views on torture as a tactic in security policy. The results from the fall of 2006 survey were very similar to 2004 and 2005.

Moreover, there was only modest variation in opinion among the religious communities. White Evangelical Protestants were the most permissive of the use of torture, at just over one-half (51.6 percent), and White Catholics were almost evenly divided—47.5 percent accepting and 46.3 percent opposed. Black Protestants (52.8 percent) and white Mainline Protestants (53.2 percent) had a slim majority in opposition, while solid majorities of the composite All Others category (56.4 percent) and the unaffiliated (55.9 percent) held restrictive views.

Frequency of worship attendance was modestly associated with restrictive views on torture as well. Note that for the entire public weekly worship attenders were more likely to oppose torture by a few percentage points than the country as a whole.

The largest influence on views of torture was not religion, but political views:

Not surprisingly, party identification was strongly associated with views on torture. For example, 66.8 percent of Republicans held permissive views on torture, while 66.4 percent of Democrats had restrictive views. The independents were arranged in-between, but with a solid majority of the “pure” independents holding restrictive views. A similar pattern held for ideology: 59.0 percent of respondents who said they were “very conservative” reported permissive views, and 66.4 percent of those who said they were “very liberal” had the opposite position on torture. Here, too, a majority of moderates had restrictive views


The most interesting aspect of the study, however, was that once political views were taken into account by statistical regression analysis, those who worshiped at least once a week had more restrictive views on torture regardless of denomination:

Once the effects of political attitudes were taken into account, being a weekly attending Evangelical was associated with more restrictive views on torture, while being a less observant Evangelical had no impact on torture attitudes (due to a lack of statistical significance). A similar pattern held for Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and the composite group of all other religious groups. These findings are a bit counter-intuitive because weekly worship attenders tend to be more Republican, conservative, and supportive of the Bush administration than their co-religionists. However, it is precisely the impact of such political attitudes on torture attitudes that the statistical model has take into account.

What explains these patterns for weekly attenders? One possibility is that other demographic

characteristics of regular worship attenders are at work behind these figures. And there is some evidence for this possibility: women and older people tend to have more restrictive views of torture, overall and in each religious category. Of course, women and older people are also more likely to be religiously observant compared to men and younger people, so the order of causality is not entirely clear. However, including gender and age in the statistical analysis does not change the basic patterns . . . . very much.

Another possibility is that the flow of information within denominations and congregations encourages a restrictive view of torture. After all, people who attend worship regularly are much more likely to hear messages from denominational leaders and the parish clergy, and it could be that the leader’s statements against torture have reached receptive ears in many religious communities. A final possibility is that the weekly attenders are more familiar with religious teachings that may raise doubts about the morality of torture. While the specific beliefs may well differ from tradition to tradition, an emphasis in the dignity of human beings is common to many faiths.

Read the entire study here.

Is it surprising the religon plays such a small role in influencing views on a moral issue such as torture? Why is this not true of other issues such as abortion and stem cell research?

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