Christians and Torture: Part 6, Hell and Torture

This is the final post surveying our research into the relationship of faith and torture endorsement. This final study was also done by the team of Alison, Whitney and Courtney.

Recall that our research was stimulated by the Pew Research that had found that Christians were more likely to endorse torture than non-Christians. Thinking through that trend the students and I had enough experience with Christianity to know that "Christian" is so broad a label as to be almost worthless. And yet many people, the media in particular, us the word "Christian" as if they are talking about a homogeneous and like-minded group of people. But nothing could be further from the truth. Christians are all over the map. Some are Republicans. Some are Democrats. Some are pacifists. Some serve in the military. Some are creationists. Some are evolutionists. Some are orthodox. Some are heterodox. Some are exclusivist. Some are inclusivist (or pluralists).

In short, there are many, many different kinds of Christians.

So when we saw the Pew Research we asked the question: What group within Christianity is driving this pro-torture trend? Because when you see a trend about Christians that is what is going on, some subgroup within the faith is pulling the "group" average in one direction or another. So we asked, which group was doing the pulling in this case?

In approaching this question we wanted to focus on theological issues rather than political affiliation. That is, we wanted to know if there was something within Christianity itself that promoted torture endorsement. We ended up focusing on three variables:

  1. Fundamentalism/Dogmatism: Biblical literalism combined with a strong sense of certainty.
  2. View of God: Is God primarily perceived as wrathful or loving?
  3. Traditional View of Hell: Belief that non-believers will be tortured in hell forever without end
One of the measures used to assess fundamentalism/dogmatism was Batson's Quest scale. One of the things the Quest scale measures is how one feels about religious doubt and the value of questions in the faith journey. Sample items on the Quest scale include:
  • I am constantly questioning my religious beliefs.
  • For me, doubting is an important part of being religious.
  • I find religious doubts upsetting. (reverse scored)
We predicted, like with all fundamentalisms, that Christian fundamentalism would be predictive of torture endorsement. That is, low Quest scores would predict pro-torture ratings.

We also felt that God Image would affect torture sentiment. Is God experienced as wrathful, vengeful and punishing? Or is God experienced as merciful, loving and forgiving? When one looks at Christian hate groups one finds their God to be as hate filled as they are. That is, was we saw in the When God Sanctions Killing research, God is often viewed at the source of violence or hate. Consequently, we predicted that a wrathful God image would predict pro-torture sentiment. We assessed this by asked participants to rate two items asking how wrathful and merciful they felt God to be.

Finally, we assessed beliefs about hell. Specifically, if God is going to horrifically torture people, even many good and decent people, for all eternity then why should we get squeamish about torturing bad people for a short time in this life? In short, we predicted that admitting torture into the life and nature of God would function as a tacit endorsement of torture in the name of justice (or God). We could find no measure of hell belief in the literature so the students created their own. The items were:
  1. Hell is a real place.
  2. The pain and suffering in Hell will be worse than anything experienced on Earth.
  3. Hell is everlasting, it never ends.
  4. Hell is an experience of extreme pain and torment.
  5. If one is condemned to Hell they can never leave.
  6. The biblical description of “burning in a fire” is an accurate description of Hell.
  7. God created and controls Hell.
The items were drafted to assess the reality, duration, severity, never-endingness and God-sanctioned facets of hell belief. We predicted that high scores across these items would predict pro-torture sentiment.

What did we find?

Christians who were more fundamentalist and dogmatic were more likely to endorse torture. Conversely, Christian who entertain doubts and value questions were less likely to endorse torture.

Christians who saw God as wrathful were more likely to endorse torture. Christians who saw God as merciful were less likely to endorse torture.

And, finally, Christians who believed in a horrific and never-ending hell were more likely to endorse torture. As God tortures so we torture.

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7 thoughts on “Christians and Torture: Part 6, Hell and Torture”

  1. On a methodological note, if you collected the data it may be worthwhile to control for political conservatism. Many of the religious views you measure covary with political conservatism and in some samples do so at a pretty high degree. It would be interesting and theoretically meaningful to know if the religion effects exist over and above the political effects.

    Plus, depending on if and where you send the paper for review the reviewers may ask the same question...

  2. I think that's right. It's kind of a chicken and egg problem. Does a particular theological configuration produce political conservatism? Or does political conservatism produce a particular theological configuration?

    My guess is that they are of a piece, rising and falling together.

  3. i'd be curious to know the actual numbers which "more likely" and "less likely" represent in your research. --just curious because i can think of a few people in my circle of friends (including myself) who would believe in a traditional view of hell but who would not endorse torture.


  4. Guy,
    That's an important point. As with most social and personality corrrelational research the correlations in this study, although statistically significant, were all around .30. Small effects. In short, there are many, many outliers to this trend.

  5. I wasn't arguing for a causal arangement because they covary and impact one another is what is likely some sort of feedback loop.

    However, to make the argument that religion--specifically the religious beliefs and orientations you and your team measured--is an important *unique* determinant of attitudes towards torture then it would be interesting and theoretically instructive to see if religions attitudes impacted attitudes towards torture over and above political ideology.

    Of course this comment assumes three things. 1) You think and are interested in the idea that religion is a unique predictor of torture attitudes. 2) There would not be major multicollinearity problems when including political ideology in the equations with the religious measures (this is very sample dependent). 3) You and your team measured political ideology in this study.

    Reguardless it is interesting, I just think political ideology provides equally plausible alternative explanation that should be rule out. I think you will continue to find unique effects.

  6. How interesting, and helpful, this is... I am actually throwing around some ideas for a paper on the topic of Christianity and torture, which seems to fit right in with all of this: My thesis? That many Christians may be soft on torture precisely because they believe God tortures. Richard, I may ask for your help... :-)

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