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Who would Jesus torture?

May 02, 2009

The opening line of the CNN article reporting on the survey of attitudes about torture by the Pew Forum on Religion and the Public Life draws this conclusion:  the more a person goes to church, the more a person believes torture of suspected terrorist to get important information is justified. (http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/04/30/religion.torture/index.html#cnnSTCText)
That headline might lead to this question: What is it about church going that causes a person to believe in torture?

Herein lies a common fallacy often drawn from opinion surveys and much of human subject research:  that correlation equals causation - that somehow going to church causes you to believe in torture.  That is not what the survey says. Still, it is interesting and, to me, disturbing, what the survey does say, i.e. that a majority of people who go to church, even as little as a few times a year, hold the belief that torture can be sometimes or often justified to gain information from suspected terrorist, while the majority of those who seldom or never attend church believe torture can rarely or never be justified.  (To read the results of the survey go to:   http://pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=156)

So how are we to understand such information?  First of all, we need to look at the methodology of the survey, to see if the information there is reliable and is represents attitudes across America (that the results are "generalizable" beyond the sample). The sample is relatively small (742 people were interviewed) so we have a right to suspect the generalizabiliy of the results.  However, The Pew Forum is a very reputable research group, and if the sample is done right, the proportions found within that sample will probably hold true (at least 95% of the time).  The Pew Forum uses random sampling techniques that insure a cross section of people are contacted which helps in getting a representative sample of the U.S. population.  Still, if you go deeper into the report (http://people-press.org/report/510/public-remains-divided-over-use-of-torture click on "complete report") you will find that as they subdivide the sample into groups, the reliability of the sample deteriorates.  Thus, while they are 95% confident that the numbers in the whole sample of 742 people are within 4 percentage points (plus or minus), when the sample is divided into three parts (those who go to church once a week, a few times a year or rarely), the survey is only reliable within 7 to 8 percentage points (at a 95% confidence level). This is the truth about the so-called majority (51%) of those who go to church at least a few times a year who believe  torture is  often or sometimes justified:  you can only be 95% sure that the real number is between 44% and 58% (a little higher for those who go to church at least weekly between 47% and 61% of that sample.) If we took the low end of those numbers,  the headline could just as well read: a majority of the church-going public thinks torture is seldom or never justified.  If that were the case, I might not even be writing this blog.


Still it makes me wonder:  what are these people hearing when they go to church?  Is Jesus being preached?  How is it that a greater portion of those who do not go to church (53%) are closer to the position Jesus would hold (it is hard to condone torture and follow these commands: love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, etc) than those that do go to church, even a little bit (46%)?  I have no answers.  I am sometimes tempted to say that the majority of people who go to church and hold that torture is even sometimes justified may be Christians, but don't seem to be followers of Christ.


There is a bit of good news for mainline Protestants, CNN reports that more of them believe torture is never justified (just about three in 10) than do evangelicals (about one in every eight)  But I am still worried about the 46% of the white mainline Protestants who think torture is often or sometimes justified.


When Jesus invited people to learn from him, he said: "follow me."  I really can't imagine that he would have ever lead his disciples to torture, for any reason - even (maybe even especially) the safety of our "way of life."   If Jesus wouldn't lead there, I don't think, as Christians, we should go there.


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