Torture and Church Attendance

NRT enthuses over a survey that confirms his view of religion.

This is scary: according to a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the more often you go to church, the more likely you are to support torture. Conversely, those who seldom or never attend religious services, and those who classify themselves as “unaffiliated” … are least likely to support torture. So much for the old claim that morality cannot exist without religion – instead, it seems the opposite is the case, and that religious fanaticism undermines morality.

Well, not necessarily.

First, I/S conveniently misses out the actual survey topic: the use of torture against suspected terrorists. This is not about forcing the local vicar to talk, it’s talking about hardened, ideological terrorist who are highly likely to have knowledge of future plots, knowledge that in the hands of law enforcement will almost certainly save lives. So it’s not quite as cut and dried a moral issue as all that.

In fact, this survey may simply show people’s opinions on what a suspected terrorist is. The left (who generally don’t go to church) spend much of their time emphasizing those caught by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the right, those hardened thugs who have spent years planning mass murder.

Second, what is torture? The big problem is the vast gulf between what people mean. The Bush administration put some considerable effort into desigingin limits to their interrogation techniques to ensure they stopped just short of it, but Democrats have gone balistic on those guidelines. So what was meant here?

But to the data.


What immediately struck me was that there was no “always” or “frequently” category. No one is supporting the regular and routine toture of supected terrorists.

So the worst is “Often”. That term is vague, and once again, depends on your worldview of what a “suspected terrorist” is.

My second observation that “sometimes” and “rarely” aren’t that clear either. Both really mean the same thing – that person thinks torture can be justified in some circumstances, but not in most cases.

Now, if your definition of torture is sleep deprivation and some tummy slapping, this is common sense. If it’s an hour of electric shocks, no one would tick either of these two boxes.

The only category that really means anything certain (outside the all-consuming uncertainty of the definition of torture), is the “Never” category. Now, my statistics are a bit rusty, but I’m picking that the margin of error for a survey in the USA (pop. approx. 304M) with a sample of 750 people is a heck of a lot more than the 1% difference shown here.

Not exactly strong grounds to decry that “religious fanaticism undermines morality”. (But again, is taking tea and cake with the vicar every week really religious fanaticism?)

Interestingly, one thing that does jump out is the 3% difference in “Don’t know/Refused” between those who regularly and never attend services. This suggests that religious people have spent more time thinking about their moral position and/or are more prepared to give it. Which doesn’t surprise me at all.

But even there, it may simply have been that the non-religious were less keen to answer a vauge survey.

In fact, the more I think about this survey, the more I think it shows nothing at all.


  1. The survey is sufficiently meaningless that the likes of NRT can add whatever meaning they so choose.

    With that much freedom, one wonders why they never chose wisely.

  2. I was tempted to do an analysis on these numbers, perhaps I should but people are so innumerate these days that I doubt anyone would take note – especially anti-Christian partisans.

    But the differences is these percentages are small as are the numbers in each group which essentially render these worthless in terms of drawing any meaningful conclusion from them.

    I did my own take on this survey a while ago

  3. “Torture and Church Attendance”…well that certainly chimes with my childhood experience…

  4. It’s not quite significant, p ~ 0.07 for a linear increase of ‘torture attitude’ with increasing religiosity, so not clear cut but something to think about.

    You might also want to think about why you happily believe the results of this poll from the same people and with pretty obvious methodological flaws but feel the need to squirm so thoroughly on the one that is the topic of this post?

    1. There’s a 1% difference in a survey concerning two things that are extremely variable in their definitions.

      On the other hand, why exactly would a single atheist admit to believing in fairies?

      1. There’s a 1% difference in a survey concerning two things that are extremely variable in their definition

        Yeah, but to say that you need to pick 2 of the 12 datapoints in the survey. I know you said your stats are rusty but this isn’t considered best practice. Even if you think the question is vague (I don’t) unless you think there is a systematic difference in the way religionists would interpret the word it won’t matter. When you analyze the data as two sets or ordinal categories with count data you get the ~0.07 p-value I talked about (I can show my working if you want)

        On the other hand, why exactly would a single atheist admit to believing in fairies?

        Because they think the existence of fairies is a good tell more probable that the existence of gods? I think you could make a good argument actually…

        More to the point in that survey most ‘non-religuous’ people believe in god, it’s not about atheism it’s about people that don’t go to church (which probably includes a lot of new-age whackos). Only 4% of USAians identify as atheists. And not including believing in God as a paranormal belief seems a bit odd.

        We all have confirmation bias, you’d like atheists to be credulous loons so you, *ahem*, credulously accepted the results as reported. Is that so different than I/S accepting the results of the torture survey with out pulling it apart?

  5. “you’d like atheists to be credulous loons”

    No, the survey you mention is embarrassing for (those that claim that Atheism is more rational) and amusing for those that think differently like me, but not much more.

    “Because they think the existence of fairies is a good tell more probable that the existence of gods? I think you could make a good argument actually…”

    Well, that comment shows how seriously you take what is possibly the most serious question of all time.

    But with the terrorism survey, if you came to me with these 4 options, with 4 different definitions I could see myself giving all 4 options depending on the definition. The most clear of the 4 options has a 1% difference.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: