Christians For Torture Coalition

Monday, May 4, 2009 18:30 | Filed in Faith & Forteana, Media, Politics, Science

At least, that’s how the statistic was presented to me.

Christians more likely to support torture: God must be turning in his grave

Only if you actually look at the research itself, that’s not quite what it’s telling us. For example, there are estimated to be around 2 billion adherents to Christianity (one third of the world’s population), spread across most of the countries of the globe. The sample was taken of 742 people, in one country: the question was also asked “…against suspected terrorists”.

Does this justify “Christians more likely to support torture”? No.

What about if that one country was the US, where over the last ten years or so, the state machinery has condoned the use of torture in some circumstances, and has repeatedly told the public that it is necessary to get information from terrorists. Would that shift the sample further away from being representative of all Christians?

I would suspect that it might, particularly when you consider that the Christian Right, associated with the Evangelical movement are particularly strong in the United States, and tend to be supportive of the belief that things they deem necessary to protect the United States must be Christian.

If you look at the breakdown of results, you can see this clearly:

Group No of people % thinking torture can often be justified % thinking torture can never be justified
Total 742 15% 25%
White evangelical protestants 174 18% 16%
Unaffiliated with religion 742 15% 25%
Total 94 15% 26%

So, what we have established is that a small group (174) of white evangelical protestants — in one specific country which has used torture — believe torture can be justified more often than those unaffiliated with religion can be, and from this, Ben Goldacre reckons that Christians are more likely to support torture.

Of course, you could look at the statistics slightly differently…

Group No of people % thinking torture can often be justified % thinking torture can never be justified
Total 742 15% 25%
White mainline protestants 150 15% 31%
Unaffiliated with religion 94 15% 25%
Total 94 15% 26%

Looking at this sample, Christians are more likely to believe torture is never justified than those unaffiliated with religion. It’s those bloody atheists which support torture!

Now personally — although I have no evidence to support this — it is my belief that the support of torture is far more closely tied to the politics of the groups than the faith. If only there was sme research tying torture beliefs to politics that could be used as a comparison, before people come out with unjustified anti-Christian rhetoric. Oh wait… here’s a bit of research. Oh, wait, it is in fact that same bloody piece of research. So it’s not like the information wasn’t there for anyone who didn’t have an anti-religious agenda to promote…

Group No of people % thinking torture can often be justified % thinking torture can never be justified
Republican 188 15% 14%
Democrat 254 12% 38%
Independent 260 19% 19%

Hmm. It would appear to me — without bothering to do any form of statistical analysis, mind you — that the connection between torture “okayness” and religion is a lot more tenuous and less clear than that between torture “okayness” and political ideology. But let’s not let that get in the way of the religion-bashing, eh?

I am very disappointed in Ben Goldacre for this. This would be the Ben Goldacre who wrote the excellent book Bad Science (which I reviewed). This would be the Ben Goldacre who wrote, when castigating the way the statistics of medical research are misleadingly portrayed in the media:

I want to know who you are talking about (e.g. men in their fifties), I want to know what the baseline risk is…Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, p259

So the survey shows that a small sample of white evangelical Christians are more likely to support torture than either white mainline protestants or those with no religious affiliation; but those with no religious affiliation, while being less likely to think that torture can sometimes be justified than white mainline protestants (equally ranked for “often”), are less likely to think that torture can never be justified.

Ben would seem to suggest this is as simple as:

Christians more likely to support torture@bengoldacre

I certainly don’t think so. I suspect it’s a hell (or underworld/equivalent atheist term of choice) of a lot more complicated than that, I suspect Ben knows it (or he ought to), and I think he does himself a disservice by promoting a seemingly pro-atheist agenda from such a small sample. If someone had produced a pro-Christian headline from such a small, potentially skewed sample, Ben would have been correct to point out that mistake. On that basis, whether or not Ben intended it as a throwaway line, I think it’s fair to pick him up on it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Ben Goldacre is bad; he’s brilliant for poking holes in flawed theories, or in pointing out people are using statistics badly, and I will continue to read his articles — his recent ones about parmageddon and Tamiflu have been excellent (even if I prefer the term ‘aporkalypse’).

It’s just that I can’t help being slightly disappointed in him over this, when I know he’s capable of looking into the statistics in more detail, to come out with as simplistic a story as he did. He will have known it was a small sample; he ought to have known that such a small sample — particularly from the US — might not be representative. And yet he ignored that — throwaway line or no — to imply that Christians (the whole group) are more likely to support torture, whilst not mentioning the much stronger link between Republicans and torture…

Of course, it might actually be that Christians on the whole are more supportive of torture than atheists, irrespective of their political beliefs: but it’s not appropriate to draw that conclusion from these statistics.

I think a chap called Rab, commenting on this site the other day, summed it up perfectly:

The thing I find weird is that a lot of folks see religion or atheism as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing. What matters is the actions of the individual.Rab

On a personal note, as a staunch agnostic, I don’t believe torture can ever be justified. However, a conversation with a vicar produced an interesting concept: I suggest that, had I ever tortured someone, I would not be able to forgive myself. The vicar said that whether or not I could forgive myself, the whole point of Christian grace was that it would be possible for God to forgive, if someone was repentant. Again, this adds further layers of complexity, but when you tie this in with a potential belief in an afterlife, it’s entirely possible that Christians (or other religious adherents) might have a different stance on torture than atheists.

But if you are going to — justly — criticise other people for using statistics poorly to promote their agendas, you need to make sure you don’t make the same mistake yourself, otherwise you might find that your ‘moral high ground’ is eroding rapidly…

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