Torture and Religion: A Curious Correlation

Torture and religion. That’s sort of an oxymoronic sounding phrase, isn’t it? But in fact, a recent Washington Post poll suggests that torture and religion are not entirely unrelated. Specifically, the poll shows that one’s religion–or lack thereof–is correlated with one’s view on torture.

Torture and Religion

Of course, I am dismayed at the the overall number of people that consider waterboarding, extended periods of sleep deprivation, forced “rectal hydration”, prolonged shackling in “stress positions”, and inducing hypothermia (in at least one case, fatally) to be not torture. But what I find particularly interesting is how those views vary by religious belief. In particular, those that have no religion are significantly more likely to consider such treatment as torture.

These results seem to support the observation of the Nobel Laureate in Physics, Steven Weinberg, that:

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.

To many, Mr. Weinberg’s observation triggers a reflexive objection: God is the only sound foundation for morality. Thus, it is the lack of God (and religion) that allows people to do evil. But, such reasoning is a just-so story that works by definition. The very notions of goodness and evilness, by this reasoning, are differentiated for us by God against the backdrop of a Universe otherwise devoid of morality. Without God to guide us, there is no reason beyond self-interest to make any decision.

However, like any just-so story, god-is-the-basis-of-morality is an unverifiable, unfalsifiable claim. To accept this story as fact is an act of faith.

Let’s instead reason about Mr. Weinberg’s observation. For this, we need definitions of “good” and “evil” that do not derive from a just-so story. I find it useful to think of “good” and “evil” as labels on opposite ends of a “well-being spectrum” (rather than binary conditions). Good acts increase well-being while evil acts reduce well-being.

Of course, this approach still leaves room for debate. Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and others have argued over nuances, such as whose well-being are we talking about? Individual well-being? Group well-being? Human well-being? And so on. Still, most agree that we can (and should) consider the consequences of an action as a key ingredient in determining it’s goodness or evilness. Further, such consequences of actual actions are observable phenomena. That is, they provide evidence.

And what does the evidence suggest about torture? We can obviously see that the physical and mental effects of torture are not good things: pain, fear, suffering, despair, physical injury, and even death. In fact, the effects of torture are, by design, sufficiently evil as to compel some type of behavior desired by the torturer. In a simplistic, Jack Bauer sort of world, the ends sometimes justify the (evil) means. But in the real world, that reasoning is moot because the evidence shows that torture does not work. Torture is wrong.

Yet, many educated people continue to argue for, and indeed, carry out, government sanctioned torture programs. Some would “do it again in a minute.” The invention of so many euphemisms to avoid the word “torture” is likely a byproduct of the cognitive dissonance of advocating evil acts unjustified by facts. But there’s another way to reconcile uncooperative facts: ignore them.

Recall that faith, by it’s very definition, is belief without, or in spite of, evidence. Consider the words of Joel Osteen, American preacher, televangelist, author, and the Senior Pastor of Lakewood Church, the largest Protestant church in the United States;

Faith then, provides a mechanism by which religion allows good people to do evil things. Religion provides a rationale for disregarding evidence. For example, it allows otherwise good, educated people, to go along with the claims that condoms exacerbate the spread of aids, that withholding sex education reduces the number of teen pregnancies, that withholding medical treatment from children is a “good” thing.


Too many people still accept torture. Even the 72% figure among the non-religious, while better than the 49% overall figure is, to my mind, far too low. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of the other 28% (or 51%) would quickly change their opinion after being subjected to the same treatment.

Some people, it seems, sincerely believe that torture works (despite lack of solid supporting evidence and despite evidence to the contrary) and, at times, is justified. Further, a disturbingly large number of people, mostly religious, avoid the moral dilemma of advocating torture by rationalizing that “EITs” are not “torture”. But such rationalizations rely on willful ignorance of evidence.  Religions are based on faith, which is, by its very definition, belief without evidence or in spite of evidence.

I would never argue that torture is a necessary consequence of religion, nor that religion is a necessary antecedent to torture. But religion does develop faith (in fact, elevates it to a “virtue”) and discourage skepticism. And this, in turn, makes it easier for good people to do bad things. The above poll numbers seem to bear this out.

Using “torture and religion” in a sentence is not so oxymoronic as it may at first sound. Torture and religion are, in fact, curiously correlated.

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