The secular oppose torture more than Christians do

Not surprisingly considering the content of the Bible, a Pew poll shows that 57% of those who are “secular” think that torture is never or only rarely acceptable, while only 42% of Catholics and 49% of white Protestants and white evangelicals feel that way. (I’m not sure why the poll only looked at white Protestants and evangelicals.)

The survey question was “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 poll was taken of 2,006 adults between October 12-24, 2005.

The possible answers were Often, Sometimes, Rarely, Never, and Don’t know/refused to answer.

The results:

Total U.S. public:
Often: 15%
Sometimes: 31%
Rarely: 17%
Never: 32%
Don’t know/refused: 5%

Often: 10%
Sometimes: 25%
Rarely: 16%
Never: 41%
Don’t know/refused: 4%

Total Catholic:
Often: 21%
Sometimes: 35%
Rarely: 16%
Never: 26%
Don’t know/refused: 4%

White Protestant:
Often: 15%
Sometimes: 34%
Rarely: 16%
Never: 31%
Don’t know/refused: 4%

White evangelical:
Often: 13%
Sometimes: 36%
Rarely: 16%
Never: 31%
Don’t know/refused: 4%

I score this one as a point against the thesis that religious people are more moral than non-religious people.

(Via Andrew Sullivan’s blog.)

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About Jim Lippard
  • Jewish Atheist

    Insane. I had to steal it for my blog. :-)

  • Alonzo Fyfe

    Your conclusion, of course, begs the question.

    Another legitimate conclusion: Religious people are more moral than non-religoius people who would refuse to use torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information. We coddle suspected terrorists, as opposed to religious people who treat suspected terrorists with the brutality that they deserve.

  • Jim Lippard

    That conclusion may be legitimate for some kind of utilitarian, but I think mere suspicion of being a terrorist isn’t sufficient to justify torture on any plausible form of utilitarianism, especially given the unreliability of information acquired through torture. I don’t see how it’s consistent with a moral absolutism that opposes abortion even for zygotes on the grounds of an inviolable right to life.

    BTW, my answer would be “rarely.” I think there are possible situations where torture could be part of an overall best available course of action, but that public policy should absolutely proscribe torture and anyone who engages in it should be tried and punished even if it occurs in one of these rare circumstances (with some mitigation possible on the grounds of a necessity defense).

  • Jim Lippard

    BTW, I do think the Christian view is consistent with a morality that says all human beings are sinful wretches with no rights, that slavery is acceptable treatment of fellow human beings, kings are granted divine rights of rulership, including ownership, of other human beings, that it is proper to execute those who try to induce apostasy, refuse to honor their parents, or engage in homosexual acts, and that, when God wills, it’s morally right to commit genocide on a group of people in order to acquire possession of their land. I.e., biblical morality.

  • Alonzo Fyfe

    Jim Lippard:

    My claim was not that the conclusion that I gave was justified, only that the conclusion given in the post was question-begging. The claim that an argument is invalid is not the same as claiming that its conclusion is false.

    My answer also would be “rarely.”

  • the metaphysician

    Steve Hays has a response to this post over at Triablogue:

  • Jim Lippard

    Thanks for the reference to the Steve Hays post. He does a good job of attacking some straw men. I wonder why he quoted my post but didn’t actually link to it–that seems like an attempt to avoid engagement.

    I’ve posted a comment on his blog responding to his three main points of criticism.

  • Jim Lippard


    If the argument were explicitly stated as follows, I don’t see any question-begging. Do you?

    1. Torture is prima facie wrong; it is only justifiable, if ever, in rare circumstances.

    2. Those who advocate widespread, common use of torture against suspected terrorists are less moral than those who oppose most or all use of torture against suspected terrorists. (I could also insert here some premises about the use of the word “suspected” here–I believe the intent of the use of the term is to make the point that we don’t know that these are terrorists and probably wouldn’t have sufficient grounds to convict them in a court of law–e.g., like many of those being held in Guantanamo Bay).

    3. Those who describe themselves as secular are more likely to oppose torture than those who describe themselves as Christians.

    4. Those self-descriptions are mostly accurate.

    5. Therefore, with respect to the subject of torture of suspected terrorists, those who are secular tend to be more moral than those who are Christian.

    6. This is a point of evidence against the thesis that those who are Christian are more moral than those who are secular.

  • James Still

    Jim states a premise (correctly I think) that: “Torture is prima facie wrong; it is only justifiable, if ever, in rare circumstances.” Steve Hays and others have taken him to task for the truth of this premise. In Steve’s case, he invokes the highly improbable but emotional “time bomb” argument in which torture might be justified if the act extracts information from a terrorist that would help to defuse a bomb about to explode. This utilitarian argument, which may or may not be correct, is a far cry from the man who said “Do not resist one who is evil… if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

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