Christians and Torture: Part 3, Conformity, Authority and Religious Justification

The first study I want to review was done by Dan, Page, Bonnie and Kelsey. This team of students was inspired to investigate how conformity and authority affect attitudes regarding torture.

The team's research question was simple: What if college students were told that most of the faculty at the University endorsed the use of torture? Would this put pressure on the students to fall in line with the majority opinion of these authority figures? Also, given the When God Sanctions Killing research, what if the faculty endorsing torture were the Bible faculty? Would the opinions of the Bible faculty, people who should know a bit about God's will and Christian ethics, intensify a conformity or authority effect?

The students were inspired by two famous studies in the area of conformity and obedience to authority. Regarding conformity, the students talked a great deal about the the famous Solomon Asch studies concerning group conformity conducted in 1953. That research is replicated in this YouTube clip:

Concerning obedience to authority the students were inspired by Stanley Milgram and his obedience experiments. Milgram's paper, "Behavioral study of obedience," is probably the most significant and controversial paper ever published in psychology. The question of the study was simply this: How many normal people would administer painful and potentially dangerous electric shocks over the protest of a victim simply because an authority figure asked them to? The result was shocking: 65%. You can watch a modern-day replication of the Milgram study here on YouTube.

Inspired by these studies my students devised a simple manipulation to see if conformity and authority effects might influence how college students at a Christian university endorsed the use of torture. The team asked fellow college students to respond to the same question used by the Pew Research Center (i.e., Can torture often, sometimes, rarely or never be justified?). Prior to asking that question the team added an introductory statement to explain the nature of the survey and why we were interested in student responses on this issue. The template for the introduction was this:

Recent polling done by the Office of Research at ACU found that ___ of ACU Faculty supported the use of torture against suspected terrorists. In light of these results, the ACU Psychology Department is following up with a survey to gather more information about student opinions regarding the use of torture.
The blank was filled in with one of two numbers, 20% or 80%. The research question was, would the students informed that 80% of the faculty endorsed torture also be more likely to endorse torture, conforming to the majority opinion of the authority figures? By contrast, would those reading that only 20% endorsed torture move in the opposite direction, following the majority of the faculty in the rejection of torture?

A final manipulation involved inserting the word "Bible" between "ACU" and "Faculty." That is, some participants read "80% of the ACU Faculty" and others read "80% of the ACU Bible Faculty." The goal here was to determine if an explicit religious endorsement of torture would have a more potent conformity and authority effect. (Note to my faculty friends. Participants were debriefed at the completion of the study.)

The overall results were what you might expect. Torture endorsement was highest among college students who read that 80% of their faculty endorsed the use of torture. That is, student opinion tended to conform to the opinions of the authority figures. Further, this conformity intensified when the students were told that torture was endorsed by the Bible faculty. This is the effect we expected given the research regarding God sanctioning killing. Violence is more likely to be approved of when it is given religious warrant and justification.

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11 thoughts on “Christians and Torture: Part 3, Conformity, Authority and Religious Justification”

  1. So why do we tolerate authoritarian systems? Why do we not value critical thinking? Why do humans not value truth more than belonging? What makes social reformers different in their responses or reactions?

  2. Richard,
    In my experience, many of the students raised within the neo-fundamentalist culture of the Churches of Christ are never allowed to enter into an inquisitive stage of faith development and, thus, get stunted and trapped in the associative stage. I wonder if the statistics would have been different on a more openly Evangelical or even theologically liberal campus.

  3. Richard,
    In your first post in this series you asked if there was something about religious people and Christians that makes them pro-torture? It appears you have framed your answer in terms of aggression and obedience, but I'd like to suggest something else, and it has to do with notions of human freedom and responsibility that Christians have.

    Let me start off with an analogy from a different moral situation. There are certain rules that are simply accepted when it comes to someone making use of a hand-gun. If a man walks into a crowded street, pulls out a gun and starts aiming it at passers-by, children, adults, whoever, the police will arrive and make assumptions. They will assume that the man really intends to use the gun. He has it out, he is pointing it at people. He is a human being and so is probably not doing it accidentally, but is really and truly making a choice that endangers others. If the man points the weapon at one of the officers on the scene and will not follow their directions to put down the weapon, there is very little doubt regarding what they will do and that it is the right thing. In retrospect, people might question: the gun was a toy gun, the man had written a suicide note, etc. might come to light. But the cold fact remains: he had a gun, he pointed it at people, he didn't have to do it, but he was doing it. And we don't say the police murdered a man. We say, "That man got himself killed."

    I think that Christians might be open to extracting information forcibly from terrorists because, while we don't believe torture is ever right, we do believe that a terrorist can "get himself tortured." There is a certain level of responsibility that goes with entering a country, forming cells of violent people, and acquiring explosives. There is a loaded gun. When authorities arrive on the scene, they can tell them to drop the gun: give us the information, or, as in the case above, there will be consequences.

    The way you are framing the current situation is very like the liberal media. The situation is painted this way: a group of Republicans were actually delighting in the fact that there were a couple of people they could justify torturing based on 9/11 and that that was why it happened. They were aggressive and obedient. Somebody woke up one morning in Cuba and said, "Wow, I really feel malicious today!" and went over to do some torture.

    I think Christians might be more pro-torture because the Christian moral view does allow us to act on the loaded gunman though, especially if the loaded gun is a cell of men who can murder thousands of men, women and children. Christians may be ready to act because we accept that the person with the loaded gun is a human being and responsible and free and has gone to war against the United States. If someone goes to war with the United States they may get shot and killed. If someone at war with the United States has information about threats they themselves have developed, loaded guns, information that would allow the United States to defend its citizens and that someone is unwilling to give it up, they may get that information forcibly extracted.

    What the media wants to do is create a card-board cut out of people who did torture known terrorists who indicated the possession of such loaded guns. They also want to make card-board cut outs of Christians. Most Christians aren't simply aggressive or mindlessly obedient though. Most of them have no desire for revenge, at least in my opinion. Maybe they just see deeper into the moral issue than you are allowing. Ultimately, the issue might be a lot more about Christian understandings of responsiblity and what that means and consequences for being a danger to other people.

  4. I've very seldom heard the expression "that man got himself killed" in describing death by cop. In fact, there's a term for wrongful shootings and executions--"judicial murder." Police officers are always described as "shooting" the person they shoot because its more accurate. And they are routinely investigated by the courts and by citizens bureaus to determine whether it was a "righteous" shoot or not.

    As for your description of "the liberal media" the "liberal media" such as it is has turned up proof positive that specific orders to torture came down the chain of command and were used to overrule both the "feelings" and the legal training of a wide variety of individuals in the armed forces and the CIA and FBI (each of whom had their own regulations against torture.) Only the Bush administration put torture at Abu Ghraib down to a "few bad apples." The rest of pursued the question until it was amply demonstrated by documentary evidence that the "few bad apples" had been ordered to carry out specific acts of torture. Acts of torture which, of course, were wholly unjustified by necessity since they never turned up any actionable intelligence.

    If Christians identify with the right wing and with torture that's down to them, you know. The media can't be blamed for the fact that you believe your co-religionists willfully engage in a counterproductive, illegal, and immoral practice because you were petrified that you might get killed. I don't remember Jesus telling his followers to do everything in their power to love their enemies up until the moment it was inconvenient. But no doubt your know your bible better.


  5. First note: terrorism isn't "inconvenient." People are dying. Wake up. We have to respond to murderers. So, again:

    There is a man in the street with a loaded gun and he is pointing it at people. At what point is it appropriate for police to cause him some pain? Is it after he has shot someone dead? Is that the point at which it is okay to open fire? The child is dead in the street: "Okay, let's act now!" Oh, and no one said anything about wrongful shooting. My post was about human intentions and responsibility, that a criminal should understand society will prevent deaths. If someone intends to make war, to perpetrate acts of terrorism and destruction on a nation that has it in their power to prevent that person from doing that, is it reasonable or moral for that nation to use whatever measures necessary to prevent it? I wasn't trying to make torture legal in the United States. To try to deflect what I said with reference to unlawful shootings by police officers doesn't really answer the question or address the issue.

    You make caricatures about people who have to live in the world and keep other people safe. A group of men flew planes into buildings. There were other men in the plot who were arrested and who indicated they were capable of more violence in the United States. You want to make the response a right wing thing. I got it. Republicans are bad. Liberals are good. Torture is wrong, and President Bush ordered it to happen.

    Causing another human being suffering or killing another human being is always wrong. But is self-defense wrong? How far can we, as a nation go to defend ourselves, especially when we have someone in custody who has indicated they have information that they are unwilling to give you, a loaded gun, and the clock may be ticking? What is the connection between getting vital information and self-defense? Does a person who is a terrorist not give up some of his rights when he tells us "I have a bomb ready to go off and you can't do anything to get the information out of me because of the ACLU! Muahahhahahahaha!?" Answer the question.

    I don't think Christians identify with torture. That is just another shallow, reductionist caricature. What Christians may identify with, I hoped to suggest, was with a moral dilemna that the liberal media doesn't really have to deal with from the bleachers. The media comes along afterwards and paints it black and white: "Christians love torture. They are down with this because they are all Republican." LOL

    A terrorist is in custody. In several hours the bomb is going off in a major city at an elementary school. Do you call the terrorist's lawyer and send flowers to the mass of funerals a week later, or do you recognize that the person sneering and bragging in front of you, who knows where the bomb is, has made a choice to enter a battle and that there may be consequences for him, including life and comfort?

    Your answer: "Let the children die. We have our principles to stand by." The Christian answer might be something else. It might be that our country has the right to defend itself against such people. We shoot people in self defense. Water boarding to me seems less than that. I would choose water boarding over a bullet in the head. But if I was in a war, I would understand the reason behind both.

    You can point out any mitigating circumstances you want. The question is about self defense and how far we can go. Do we owe it to a terrorist who makes war on the United States to protect him as he sits in jail with his loaded gun? Do we have a responsibility to unload it. Don't evade the question.


  6. Mark, we are not talking about terrorists, we're talking about accused or suspected terrorists, without recourse to Habeus rights or a fair trial by jury, whether US citizen or non-. In practice (and as defended by administration lawyers), it equated to whoever the president wanted, for whatever reason the president wanted.

    I've read accounts by actual military interrogators. Every one I've seen says that the "ticking time bomb scenario" belongs almost exclusively to the realm of fiction. Allowing for torture on that basis is like abolishing speed limits because sometimes people may be in a rush to get to the ER.

    In any case, the "ticking time bomb" is not at all the circumstances under which we tortured. In the case of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, we waterboarded him 183 times over the course of a month--and this after he had been cooperative with interrogators.

    You said, "We have to respond to murderers". Do we?

    You said, "The Christian answer might be something else [other than nonviolence in the face of violence]". Would it?

    It just seems very odd to me, coming from a tradition founded by an act of submission to torture.


  7. I think that you probably need to do more history review, Daniel. I'd suggest reading a bit more about what happened at Gitmo. What I see happening here in both of the responses that I've received is people lumping together Abu G and Gitmo and a pretty simplistic understanding of interrogation. I'd read this for starters:
    Marc Jacobson's analysis is pretty good, and not at all biased. He presents war as it really is, and the legal and moral issues surrounding decisions of the Secretary of Defense and president.

    While there was no ticking time bomb and it is a very rare incidence, it does occur. Most of the interrogations that have been brought up by you and aimee were done for actionable intelligence, intelligence that might effect a soldier's life or death on the battlefield. But it also had to do with the complex network Al Q has set up, their techniques, history, ways of thinking and planning: and all of it was valuable in the protection of human lives.

    Yesterday I read a survey of Christians that basically asked if they thought there would be any situation that would justify the use of torture and almost half answered "Yes." As is typical, a bunch of lopsided views of Christians can be the result. So far I have been told I am a hypocrite by you and aimee for simply creating an analogous situation, "the man with the loaded gun in the street" and asking about whether causing someone suffering could really be justified as self-defense.

    You again deflect the question. Or maybe not. When you ask: do we have to respond to murderers, your answer appears to be: no. We have no right to acquire information through making someone physically uncomfortable, even if it might save lives.

    I just don't think the Christian answer has to be "Let the children die" as you seem to say it has to be.

    I love Christ. I know he was wrongfully condemned and tortured to death. My favorite philosopher is Emmanual Levinas, and I not only recognize the fundamental dignity of every human being, that it cannot be reduced by any ideology so that we become capable of disposing of that dignity, I think every person is an image of God and sacred.

    And that is the reason I think we should not let soldiers die and women and children be killed. Another caricaturist might come along and say that I want to break bones and bring people to the point of death and that is not the case. I just think that it is okay to cause someone some pain and serious discomfort if they have actionable intelligence that will make our nation safer.

    And neither you nor aimee seem to want to discuss that.

  8. We say, "That man got himself killed."

    Good points on both sides of the above blog.

    I am guessing/hoping that Dr. Beck will extend the conversation/series of "Christians and torture" as it might apply to the popular/prevalent doctrinal practices of today in regards to eternal torment in hell.

    Many Christians apply the same rationale -
    "That man got himself killed." to imply something like "that man got himself in hell".

    Being that allegedly many (like well over 90%) will be condemned to hell to burn for all of eternity, that can't just include the Adolf Hitlers in life. That sentence of eternal TORTURE will be imposed upon "many" who didn't make a decision to follow Jesus, go to the "right church", believe in the "correct doctrine", "walk with the Lord", whatever all of that means.

    Gary Y.

  9. Mark, I've done the "history review" - the US has tried and executed soldiers who have engaged in torture in past wars.

    I, too, believe "every person is an image of God and sacred". Which is precisely why I cannot fathom approving of torture, no matter what "ends" you imagine may justify it.

    Torture is dehumanizing: to the tortured, to the torturer, and to the society that approves it.


  10. A quick correction re: the Milgram authority experiments. In the original design (and some of the follow-up designs with different parameters), the answer to "How many normal people would administer painful and possibly dangerous shocks over the protests of a victim simply because an authority figure asked them to?" was not 65%. It was 100%. Everybody.

    As the protests went from mild to forceful to agonized/panicked, some of the people administering the shocks quit. 65% kept going even to, and beyond, the point they were led to believe they had possibly killed the victim. But nobody refused to follow the tester's requests to some uncomfortable degree.

  11. Do these (obedience) experiments speak to the role the learner's initial consent played? It seems like it should matter that the teacher knew the learner had voluntarily agreed to participate in a process that involved electric shock, agreed to be strapped to a chair, etc., at least when judging the teacher's willingness to go along with the early levels of aversives. It seems like the teacher judging when the learner has crossed the threshold from consenting to non-consenting is no small piece of the equation and that piece occurs prior to the obedience issue.

    Did the original experiments mark the point at which the teacher first decides the learner has crossed the consent threshold? It seems like that would be the significant baseline from which to judge the obedience factor.

    The notion of 'consent' seems to be coming into play with the loaded gun scenarios as well ... we're talking about the notion of the gunman's responsibility for the consequences of his actions but is that actually the same thing as consenting to those consequences? Would the analogy be that the learner was responsible for getting himself electrocuted because he willingly agreed to participate in something where severe electrocution was a possibility even though at some point he withdrew consent?

    ~ Debra

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