Religion people oppose torture

Tom Rees reports on a smart new study which tests the effect of religiosity on attitudes toward torture in the US. Using two different large surveys, the researchers first simply examined the correlation between religiosity and support for permitting torture. Realizing that conservative political ideology can also induce greater support for torture and can itself be driven by religiosity, they then compared the direct impact of religion on torture support with the indirect effect as mediated through political ideology.
What they found is that religiosity (measured in one case simply by how often people attend church, and by also looking at how often people pray, and how important they think religion is in their lives in the other survey) tends to correlate with a decline in support for torture. The correlation isn't huge, but it is statistically significant, and being religious corresponds to a 9-14% decline in support for torture.

When considering the indirect effect, they found that increased religiosity is associated with about 15% increase in conservatism, and that being conservative makes someone between a quarter and a third more likely to support torture. But that effect varies by education and political engagement more generally. In populations with less education, the correlation of religiosity to conservatism, and of conservatism to torture support, both decline. In the least engaged group, there's no significant correlation of religion to conservatism at all, and the least engaged group has less than half the correlation between conservatism and torture as the most engaged.

This makes a certain sense, since religiosity tends to decline with education (education being a good proxy for political engagement), and it's long-established that the folks with high educational attainment who go to church tend to be more politically conservative. That means that the low-education population will have more religious liberals, which ought to cut the correlation of religiosity to conservatism. And it may be that, for cultural reasons, the boundaries of conservatism shift as you move from low-education to high-education populations, such that folks with more liberal attitudes will call themselves conservative and therefore reduce the correlation between torture support and conservatism.

What's interesting is that, despite these shifts in the nature of religiosity across educational categories, you see almost no change in the correlation between religiosity and support for torture. The shifts in attitude that become clear in the indirect pathway remain almost perfectly constant on the direct pathway. Even though the more educated religious folks are more conservative, the basic statistical effect of religiosity holds steady, in opposition to torture.

Whether this explains the disturbing tendency of certain prominent (and putatively liberal) atheists to defend torture is an open question.

Ariel Malka and Christopher J. Soto (2011) "The Conflicting Influences of Religiosity on Attitude Toward Torture" Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167211406508

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So, what are you saying, Josh? That because two atheists have entertained that they are against torture but that they may be interested in examining the utility of torture under specified conditions that atheists are just as bad as religious people when it comes to this ethic? You make it sound as if Coyne and Harris are like, Gung Ho, on torture and ready to put the electrodes to the first terrorist they see on the way to work.

Was that comment gratuitous, or is it more important to you to defend people of faith because you feel like you have to justify the positions you have taken in the past, that the New Atheists should not be seen nor heard outside of academia?

Wow! Talk about cherry picking poor studies to support a particular view. Just looking down the list of other poorly interpreted studies written about by Tom Rees it becomes clear that if a study supports his belief that religion might be better than non-religion then he sounds the trumpets. I thought this was suppose to be a science blog.

I see I was mistaken in my views about Tom Rees in my above comment. Its really Josh that does the trumpeting when a study seems to fit his views. I still see that this study was poorly done and poorly interpreted.

About "cherry picking". This phrase has come to mean "I don't like what you found to support your argument and I don't know about anything else to say so I'll accuse you of not citing other studies that I don't have and which might not exist but which I'll never be asked to put up by other new atheists so I won't have to put my imaginary studies where my mouth is". It's an even lazier version of the "file draw" dodge so beloved of "skeptics".

It has become a dishonest dodge to try to make inconvenient information unusable for no good reason at all.

Scott, let me break this to you, in adult level argument, supporting evidence is often cited to support a contention. That's the way it's done in formal argument. If you don't like it, it's your responsibility to either put up contradictory evidence or to quietly stew in your discontent. If you try to put up contradictory evidence the game goes to both sides supporting their sources.

I'd go into a second tactic of refutation but it would only confuse the new atheists who might be reading this.

I really wish they required a rigorous course in rhetoric in the Jr. year of high school or at least the first semester at college.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 05 Jun 2011 #permalink

You're right, Mr. McCarthy. You and Mr. Rosenau aare. We atheists just LOVE to torture people. It is fun fun fun.

I would like to know what the correlation of materialism with support for torture is but I'm not aware of any study that polls people on the basis of their materialism.

I would argue with the idea that being "religious" has a meaningful correlation with being more conservative. What form that religion takes would be quite relevant. In many ways being Catholic has been correlated with being more liberal than average, in the recent past. In relation to this post, both the current pope and the last one condemned the use of torture. The current one explicitly condemned it in intelligence gathering of the type that some prominent new atheists have called for.

I'd guess that being a Congregationalist might correspond to being more liberal than being a member of the Reformed church and being a Quaker a Unitarian Universalist or an attendee of the Metropolitan Community Church would probably correlate to being quite a bit more liberal than most. And even some rather less liberal religions have formally condemned torture.…

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 05 Jun 2011 #permalink

Josh and I aare what? Mr. Julian?

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 05 Jun 2011 #permalink

Was that comment gratuitous, or is it more important to you to defend people of faith because you feel like you have to justify the positions you have taken in the past, that the New Atheists should not be seen nor heard outside of academia?

I think you nailed the purpose of it, tuibguy. 'Defending torture' was a nice convenient way to phrase it for Josh to score points, at least amongst the readers who won't bother to click to his own hyperbolic post, see what Harris and Coyne actually say, and realize that the brush he used is far too wide with his comment here.

I don't see Harris 'defending torture' as much as investigating the morality of it and if there are scenarios where it is justified in his interview. And apparently, if Coyne doesn't 'reflexively dismiss' torture in all conceivable scenarios, then there's something wrong with his sense of morality since what is and isn't 'objectively moral' has already been established, at least in Josh's mind buttressed by, well, his declaration that it is so.

I especially cringed at the 'If the only way to save civilization is to go around torturing people, then civilization is already lost' line in the 'Torture is Wrong' post; a bit over-the-top and misleading, no? Did Harris or Coyne say anything about 'going around torturing people'? Is that an accurate summation of their point, or is there just a tad bit of straw stuffed in there?

But good interesting post outside of the gratuitous slam. I would have thought the opposite about the religious' support for torture given their tie to the right.

I am not really interested in the survey or whether people are religious, liberal, or whatever.

What concerns me is that there is anyone in the US, outside of a straitjacket or padded cell, who supports torture.