Much mention has been made lately of a recent Pew Research Center study showing that two-thirds of American Christians condone the use of torture. When asked whether the use of torture against terrorism suspects was justified to gain important information, about 15% of white Christians in general, and about 20% of white Catholics, said that it was “often” justified. (Other ethnic groups were not polled.) About an additional 50% said that it was “sometimes” or “rarely” justified. By contrast, 41% of respondents who self-identified as secular said that torture was never justified. And while 41% is still far too low, it bears pointing out that this surpasses, by a stunning 10-percentage-point margin, the proportion of people who gave the same answer from any surveyed Christian group.
What could the reason be for this dramatic discrepancy? Though this is only speculation, my best guess would be that a clash of worldviews is playing out here. Religious people, especially the arrogantly dogmatic and inflexible members of the religious right who currently dominate the national discourse, are apt to see the world in a judgmental, black-and-white way, where all who disagree with them are the enemies of God and deserve whatever they get. No treatment can be wrong, in this view, when used against the agents of evil; and on the other side of the equation, those applying or defending the torture feel that they are on God’s side and cannot possibly be in the wrong, a belief which conveniently paves over lingering questions and moral ambiguities.
By contrast, the secular worldview does not offer such simplistic rationalizations. As evil as the actions of some individuals may be, in this view, torture is never the appropriate response; it tends only to brutalize the torturers and degrade our image around the world, spawning yet more terrorists, while ironically failing to produce any useful information in the vast majority of cases. We are better than the terrorists, and we should show that. As well, the secular worldview lacks the conviction that our political leaders are infallibly guided by God (a conviction that seems quite common in the conservative cult of personality which the religious right has become), which makes it harder to dismiss the unsettling possibility that many people who are currently being detained under suspicion of terrorism may be innocent after all. This makes it all the more essential that we strengthen, not weaken, the legal protections afforded to suspected criminals, to ensure that no innocent person is swept up. (Frighteningly, it seems very likely that many of the people swept up in the dragnet are innocent, as is shown by the fact that the U.S. has released many prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, without charging them with anything and without apologizing, after holding them in a legal black hole for several years. See also the cases of Maher Arar and Khalid El-Masri, both of whom have made credible allegations that they were kidnapped, imprisoned without charge for months and repeatedly tortured with the approval of U.S. law enforcement agencies, in accordance with the policy of “extraordinary rendition”).
For the record, my own answer to the survey question would be “never”. While I do not rule out the possibility that there may be extremely rare cases where physical torture would be necessary – the only one that comes to mind is a “ticking bomb” scenario where there is no other way to get information about a direct and imminent threat, a highly unlikely circumstance to say the least – answering “rarely” would, I feel, give a misleading impression of what my position actually is. In any case, I would never advocate any policy allowing the use of torture. On the contrary, I feel it should be unambiguously prohibited in all circumstances. If a law enforcement officer feels there is no choice but to break that prohibition, it is right that they should have to explain their actions before a competent tribunal later, and bear sanctions for them if necessary.
In any case, this study offers a powerful piece of evidence against the claim that atheists are immoral. As well, it strongly refutes the preposterous apologetic claim that atheists can have no intrinsic basis for morality and can only behave morally by illicitly “borrowing” a moral framework from theism. If this is the case, then why do these results show that we are more moral than believers?
On the other hand, if an evangelist confronted with these results starts to argue that torture of terror suspects can sometimes be justified, it is appropriate to point out that they have now strayed into moral relativism, attempting to defend an action selectively depending on who does it. By contrast, the secularist can – and should – reply that torture is wrong, period. Neither divine decree nor legal fiat can change this plain fact.