Attitudes toward Torture, with a Focus on Religious Factors
September 17, 2012 1 Comment
This is the first portion of a paper I wrote for a sociology research methods class during grad school:
While Jesus taught love, even love of enemies, religiously active Christians in North
America support torture more than their less religious neighbors and fellow citizens. Because the
Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church has traditionally shunned violent activities such as
military combat duty and has instead promoted life-enhancing ideals such as the “health
message” and Sabbath rest, the question arises whether church member attitudes toward torture
are similar to or variant from the general Christian populace. Little is known about Adventists’
attitudes on this specific human rights issue. Does increased frequency of church attendance
correlate positively with support for torture as it does for Christians in general, or are Adventists
an anomalous denomination? Additionally, do characteristics such as gender, education level,
and perceptions of God have a consistent interrelationship with attitudes toward torture? These
are the questions which will be explored in this study.
Review of Literature
This review is divided into three primary sections. First, the legality of torture and its
global context are briefly considered. Next, attitudes of North Americans toward torture are
reviewed, including specific demographic sub-groups defined by gender, political affiliation and
other characteristics. Most significantly, attitudes of Christians toward torture are analyzed.
Finally, North American Seventh-day Adventist demographics and attitudes toward various
human rights issues are addressed.
Torture—Definition and Global Context
Horne (2009) points out that torture has been difficult to adequately define in the legal
arena. Because of the challenges inherent in operationally defining torture, the description
codified in the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture, UNCAT or CAT) is overly cumbersome.
[A]ny act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is
intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a
third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third
person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or
coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any
kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the
consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official
capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or
incidental to lawful sanctions. (“UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel,
Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” 1987, p. 1)
In addition to the prohibitions outlines in UNCAT, torture is also banned by other
international agreements such as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
the Geneva Conventions (Articles 3 and 4), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights (Bennoune, 2008; Ip, 2009; Ratner, 2008; Richards & Anderson, 2007). Legal statutes in
the United States (e.g., Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, US Torture Victims Protection
Act of 1992, US War Crimes Act of 1996, Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, and Military
Commissions Act of 2006) further protect the rights of detained individuals (Carson, 2008;
Dominick, 2008; Mariana, 2008; Richards & Anderson, 2007).
While the “law in this area is clear: torture and various other forms of mistreatment are
illegal,” public opinion is not so unequivocal (Ip, 2009, p. 36). The BBC reported on a survey
conducted in 25 countries which found 59% of respondents were against all torture, whereas
“some 29 percent think that governments should be allowed to use torture in some cases”
(Marcus, 2006, p. 19). Even though this study of 27,000 individuals around the world
demonstrates that the majority of people are in fact against torture, a sizeable minority disagrees.
Furthermore, in the real world beyond public opinion, “Amnesty International documented
instances of torture and other cruel, degrading, or inhuman forms of treatment in 81 countries in
2007” (Hoffmeyer, 2008, p. 206).
North American Attitudes toward Torture
The attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, forced both the national
government and citizens alike to face the ethical ramifications of fighting a “war on terror,”
specifically regarding the use of counterterrorism methods such as torturing captured suspected
terrorists. As U.S. government lawyers began to discuss the legalities of questionable
interrogation techniques (e.g., waterboarding, stress positions, loud and constant music, etc.), the
American people wrestled with these issues in culturally accessible venues such as the television
shows Battlestar Galactica and 24 (Horne, 2009; Ip, 2009).
A number of opinion polls by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
(2009) between July 2004 and April 2009 revealed quite consistent attitudes toward the use of
“torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists” (p. 1). A snapshot of results
from April 2009 show that people believe torture is appropriate in this situation often (15%),
sometimes (34%), rarely (22%), never (25%) and don’t know (4%).
This Pew Research Center question qualified the information being sought as
important—“torture to gain important information.” Haider-Markel and Vieux (2008) study the
significance of this qualifying adjective by presenting the basic question in four different
contexts or situations, where there is (a) a modest chance or (b) a strong chance that the suspect
has information about either (c) a member of a group or (d) about an attack. This allowed
Haider-Markel and Vieux to quantify the power of the context to shape attitudes toward torture.
For example, scenarios that involved a strong chance of gaining information about an attack
solicited higher support for torture for a number of the fifteen specific techniques surveyed as
compared to scenarios where there was a modest chance that a suspect had information about a
member of a terrorist group. However, the degree of attitude change was not equal toward each
of the fifteen techniques being surveyed. For example, women’s attitudes against especially
harsh techniques such as sexual humiliation did not increase with more extreme scenarios,
indicating these techniques are disapproved of regardless of the situation. Overall, this study
demonstrates the power of phraseology or contextual frames in determining public attitudes
toward torture, as well as the usefulness of evaluating various interrogation techniques rather
than referencing the single term torture.
In a small meta-analysis that looked at 30 opinion polls in the United States between
January 2001 and January 2009, Rejali and Gronke (2009) found that 56.14% of the
approximately 30,000 respondents were opposed to the use of torture, while 39.43% supported it.
Reviewing the discrepancies between polls, Rejali and Gronke conclude, “Apparently the more
vaguely one words a question regarding coerced physical interrogation, the more approval one
receives” (p. 8).
Richards and Anderson (2007) moved beyond a single attitude measure by soliciting
opinions on 18 interrogation techniques. Respondents classified the techniques as either
“acceptable in some cases” or “unacceptable in all cases” (p. 31). Of the 18 techniques, only five
were deemed acceptable by more than half of participants—not allowing the suspect to sit or lie
down (64%), not allowing the suspect to sleep (60%), hooding the suspect for long periods of
time (59%), humiliating the subject via degrading language (59%), and louse noise for long
periods of time (55%). By contrast, the two most highly opposed techniques were sexually
humiliating the suspect (89% disapproval) and sexually assaulting the subject (98% disapproval).
Similarly, Rejali and Gronke (2009) report on two polls—PIPA/Knowledge Networks and ABC
News/Washington Post—where sexual humiliation was the most opposed technique, 89% and
Predictors of Attitudes toward Torture
In addition to gaining insights regarding views of specific forms of torture, researchers
have also looked at characteristics of individuals who oppose or support torture, such as gender,
age, political ideology, past violent experiences and other qualities. Regarding gender, The Pew
Research Center for the People and the Press (2009) found that 51% of men and 47% of women
“believe that the use of torture is at least sometimes justified.” This modest gender difference
was more pronounced in a study by Crowson and DeBacker (2008), which found that women
exhibited less support for the restriction of human rights and civil liberties than men.
Furthermore, when reviewing 15 interrogation techniques in four different contexts, Haider-
Markel and Vieux found that women opposed harsh techniques more strongly than men (2008).
They also report that “women are consistently more likely to oppose violence in the media,
violent punishment for wrongdoing, and the violence of war” (p. 8).
When considering opinions between people of various ages, the Pew Research Center
(“Public Remains Divided over Use of Torture,” 2009) found differences to be “relatively small;
however, a greater percentage of those 65 and older (33%) than those younger than 65 (23%) say
torture should never be used” (p. 2). In a review of 15 different questionable methodologies,
Haider-Markel and Vieux (2008) discovered that “Older respondents were somewhat more likely
to oppose several interrogation techniques, including withholding food or water, punching or
kicking, and threatening with dogs” (p. 16).
Attitudes toward torture have also been correlated with education levels. Haider-Markel
and Vieux (2008) found that “more educated respondents were more likely to oppose hooding
detainees, punching or kicking, and electric shock. Educated respondents were also more likely
to support the use of positive incentives” (p. 16). Similarly, “Those with a high school diploma
or less education are somewhat more likely to say torture can be justified compared with those
with at least some college” (“The Pew Forum,” 2009b, p. 1).
Regarding other demographics, it has been found that “Whites are slightly more likely
than blacks to say that torture can be justified, and southerners are more likely to take this view
compared with people in other regions” (“The Pew Forum,” 2009b, p. 1).
Crowson and DeBacker (2008) note that willingness to restrict rights and liberties has
also been positively correlated with (a) the personal need for information to be clear, structured
and simple, (b) experiential information processing that is rapid and nonverbal, (c)
epistemological beliefs about the nature of knowledge wherein truth is passively received, (d)
right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), and (e) political and religious conservatism. In their own
research, Crowson and DeBacker found “men and individuals scoring high on authoritarianism
and belief in simple knowledge were likely to support rights and liberties restrictions” (p. 305).
Trust has also been correlated with torture attitudes. A pattern of trust in Americans and a
distrust of people in general is positively correlated with support for torture. Conversely,
Americans who have a general trust in humanity but a lack of trust in Americans are less
supportive of torture (Binning, 2007).
The relationship between political ideology and attitudes regarding torture has also been
explored. According to the Pew Research Center (2009), Republicans tend to support torture
more than Democrats. Sixty-four percent of Republicans were in favor of torturing suspected
terrorists in order to gain important information either often or sometimes, compared to 36% of
Democrats. Conversely, 35% of Republicans supported torture rarely or never, whereas nearly
twice as many Democrats held these beliefs (60%). The most frequent Republican response was
sometimes (49%) and for Democrats it was never (38%).
Similarly, though to a greater extreme, Richards and Anderson (2007) find that “a
majority, 66%, of Republicans view the act of torture as acceptable in some cases, while a
majority of Democrats, 77%, view it as never acceptable” (p. 38). As noted above, Crowson and
DeBacker (2008) also found a positive correlation between acceptance of restricted human rights
on the one hand and political and religious conservatism on the other. When studying attitudes
toward 15 interrogation methods, “Republicans were more likely to support all harsh techniques,
except electric shock” (Haider-Markel & Vieux, 2008, pp. 16, 23). In fact, “being Republican is
the single most important predictor of attitudes toward torture” (p. 28).
A further line of investigation considers past experience with and exposure to violent
situation. When comparing past violent experiences (either as victim or perpetrator) with current
attitudes toward torture, Richards and Anderson (2007) found no significant relationships
involving rape, assault, hazing or animal cruelty. However, they “found a very strong
relationship between one’s attitudes towards the spanking of children, and one’s attitudes
towards torture such that persons who believe spanking to be an appropriate punishment for a
child were also very likely to be acceptant of torture” (p. 50).
The final area of Richards and Anderson’s research looked at past witnessing of violence
and current attitudes. They report that people who “witnessed violence as a child were shown to
be more torture-averse than others who had not witnessed violence as a child” (p. 52).
Religion and Torture
An additional variable that has been studied in relation to torture, and one that is central
to the present study, is religion. In 2006 the Pew Research Center released data from a
nationwide survey of more than 2,000 adults which found that Catholics support torture more
than protestant and secular populations (Carney, 2006). Fifty-six percent of Catholic participants
felt torture of suspected terrorists is either sometimes or often justified, which is seven points
higher than for both white Protestants and white evangelicals. Those most opposed to torture
were secular responders; only 35% felt torture is sometimes or often justified. This group also
had the highest percentage of never being in favor of torture (41%). By contrast, of the Catholic
participants “only 26 percent said [torture] is ‘never’ justified, which is the official teaching of
the church” (p. 1).
Two years later another Pew Research Center study focused on Southern evangelicals,
finding this group to support torture more than evangelicals in the 2006 study, 57 percent and 49
percent respectively, as well as more than the total public (Banks, 2008). This study also looked
at respondents’ ethical thought processes and found that they relied on life experiences and
common sense more than on Christian teachings or beliefs when forming opinions about torture,
44 percent and 28 percent respectively. The percentage asserting that torture is never or rarely
justified jumped from 38 percent to 52 percent when the question was rephrased to reflect the
golden rule—“The U.S. government should not use methods against our enemies that we would
not want used on American soldiers” (p. 1). This is consistent with Haider-Markel and Vieux’s
(2008) findings that how the torture question is presented significantly alters responses.
In 2009 the Pew Research Center divided Christians into three groups according to
frequency of church attendance and analyzed the torture opinions of each group (“The Pew
Forum,” 2009a). Higher frequency of church attendance was positively correlated with more
permissive views on torture. Justifying torture sometimes or often rose from 42 percent for those
who seldom or never attend church to 51 percent for those attending monthly or a few times a
year and to 54 percent for people attending at least weekly. Four sub-groups of Christians were
also analyzed. Support for torture sometimes or often was lowest among unaffiliated believers
(40%), next were white mainline Protestants (46%), then White non-Hispanic Catholics (51%),
and finally White evangelical Protestants (62%). Despite these clear trends, political “party and
ideology are much better predictors of views on torture than are religion and most other
demographic factors” (“The Pew Forum,” 2009b, p. 1).
Researchers at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion have pursued a more in-depth
analysis of Christian belief and practice in the United States by using a survey with nearly 400
items covering a broad spectrum of religious beliefs and practices (“Losing My Religion? No,
Says Baylor Religion Survey,” 2006). Rather than divide Christians along denominational lines,
the Baylor survey determines participants’ view of God—Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical or
Distant—based on beliefs regarding how engaged and how angry God is.
Baylor researchers found that “the type of God people believe in can predict their
political and moral attitudes more so than just looking at their religious tradition” (“Losing My
Religion? No, Says Baylor Religion Survey,” 2006, n.p.). For example, people “who believe in
an Authoritarian God (Type A) are nearly twice as likely (23.4%) to believe that abortion is
always wrong” as compared to the American public (12.2%) (Bader et al., 2006, p. 31). Other
correlation patterns between God-concepts and political/social issues are found on issues such as
gay marriage, pornography, the death penalty, distribution of wealth and environmental concern.
Two political issues were correlated with the four views of God—(a) increased military
spending and (b) increased government authority to fight terror. Attitudes on torture were not
specifically addressed. Support for these two issues varied significantly for each category—
Authoritarian (63% and 76%), Benevolent (55% and 63%), Critical (46% and 64%), and Distant
(34% and 40%) (“America by the Numbers: What We Believe,” 2006). While these relationships
are informative, the researchers did not directly address the question of torture. By combining
Baylor’s 26 questions that define one’s perception of God with an assessment tool to determine
attitudes toward torture, the present study will not only expand the understanding of Seventh-day
Adventist opinions on torture, but will also shed new light on the relationship between views of
torture and the four God-concepts.
Adventists Attitudes to Violence and Human Rights
Little is known about Seventh-day Adventist members’ beliefs on torture. Are Adventists
similar to Catholics and southern evangelicals who support torture more strongly than the
general public? Is frequency of church attendance associated with increased approval of torture
as was found for other Christians? These are the primary questions the present study seeks to
answer. This portion of the literature review will outline what is known about SDA attitudes
toward war, violence and a range of social justice or human rights issues.
Adventist historian and educator, Doug Morgan, states emphatically that “the Seventh-day
Adventist Church began as a peace church” (2007, p. 43). Similar to Quakers and
Mennonites, early Adventist members refused to participate as combatants in the Civil War
despite their ethical and passionate support for saving the Union and defeating slavery. In 1865
two members were even disfellowshiped for enlisting in the war (Brock, 1991). From this
sectarian, pacifist beginning, it might follow that Adventist views on violence and torture are
quite different from dominant Christian views; however, Adventist military involvement has
increased to the point that in 2006 there were some 7,500 combatants enlisted in the U.S.
military (Lechleitner, 2006). Consequently, it is difficult to use this historical attitude to predict
what SDA views may be. In addition to analyzing attitudes toward torture, this study will also
assess current Adventist opinions toward combat duty.
In the area of political ideology, a factor that has been shown to be highly correlated with
attitudes about torture, the early Adventist church insisted that as an organization it “must avoid
party politics” (Morgan, 2001, p. 30). More recently, Roger Dudley, an Adventist theologian and
researcher who has spent years studying the political views of North American church members,
concluded that “Adventists identify highly with the Republican party” (Byrd, 2009). For
example, a survey Dudley conducted in 2004 found that 44 percent of Adventists voters
supported Bush while only 16 percent favored John Kerry.
Leading up to the November 2008 presidential election, Dudley surveyed over 1,000
students at six North American Adventist universities. He found that approximately 28 percent
planned to vote for McCain and 38 percent supported Obama despite the fact that “more students
consider themselves Republican than Democrat” (Byrd, 2009). If the correlation between
political affiliation and support for torture holds true within Adventism, we may expect to find
more support for torture among Adventists than the general public unless there are other more
powerful mediating factors.
In 1992, Valuegenesis, a research project analyzing the beliefs and practices of Adventist
young people, was launched across North America. This study revealed a number of insights that
relate to the current study on torture. First, Adventist young people report high levels of
religiosity; they are “nearly twice as likely to emphasize the importance of religious faith as are
those in mainline Protestantism” (Dudley & Gillespie, 1992, p. 21). This indicates that
Adventists may be qualitatively different from other Christians, meaning trends and correlations
previously highlighted may not hold true for Adventist populations. Second, strong attitudes
toward racial and gender equality lead the researchers to conclude that “Adventist youth have
developed keen powers of moral judgment and a sense of social justice” (p. 28). How this “sense
of justice” is translated into thought on torture is uncertain. Third, considering the area of social
justice and politics more broadly, only 31 percent of respondents said they “try to apply [their]
faith to political and social issues” (p. 62). This low percentage could possibly lead to greater
support of torture. Fourth, while there was support for social justice, most participant time and
energy was spent on acts of local volunteerism. Altruistic activities (i.e., acts of service) were
quite common; for example, “helping people who are poor, hungry, sick, or unable to care for
themselves” (52%), “helping friends or neighbors” (86%), “promoting social equality” (36%),
and making their “own town or city a better place to live” (44%) (p. 134). Even higher than most
of these reports of service were attitudes to social justice—83 percent agreed that “young people
should be taught how to help make society more kind and just,” and 63 percent said they “would
favor a good plan to help the poor, even if it cost [them] money” (p. 137).
These and other findings from the Valuegenesis project led Dudley (1992) to conclude,
“We need to help young people to realize that a vibrant, mature faith not only prepares for a
world to come but also assumes a responsibility for making this one better” (p. 280). How well
the church has done this, and how this worldview influences attitudes toward torture is unclear.
This may depend on whether the supposed safety derived from torturing suspected terrorists is
believed to constitute a better world or a morally comprised world.
Seventh-day Adventists have also supported pro-life issues and activities such as healthy
lifestyles, medical missions, disaster relief, international development, peacemaking and quality
education (McGill, 2009; Morgan, 2005, 2001; Plantak, 1998). However, I was unable to find
documentation of links between these topics and attitudes on torture, so they have little
predictive value for the current study.
From the preceding review, it can be seen that much research has focused on attitudes
toward culture, including specific groups such as Catholics and southern Protestants. Moreover,
numerous variables have been studied in conjunction with torture to ascertain the relationships
between these variables. However, I was unable to locate any research regarding Adventist views
on torture. Furthermore, views of God have not been studied in relation to torture, which means
the proposed study should shed light on both of these important questions.