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Phil Zuckerman

Phil Zuckerman

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Who Would Jesus Torture?

Posted: 05/ 5/09 03:00 PM ET

You might think that after all those tens of millions of Evangelical Christians watched The Last Temptation of Christ, they perhaps developed at least a mild disdain for governments that hire soldiers to inflict violent brutality upon their prisoners.

Guess not.

A new national survey just released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that it is precisely those folks who ate up Mel Gibson's blockbuster -- church-going Evangelical Christians -- who are far more likely to support the use of torture than non-religious Americans. And of several groups representing various religious orientations, it is secular Americans that are actually the group most opposed to the use of torture.

What's the deal? I thought Christians were into things like mercy, love, and forgiveness. Not water-boarding. Maybe I missed it, but of the thirty or forty times that I've read the New Testament -- particularly the Sermon on the Mount -- I just don't recall the "Thou Shalt Torture" passages. It is fascinating that on this clear question of morality, church-going Christians seem to be the most, well, challenged.

One might be tempted to view this survey as some sort of anomaly or outlier. But it isn't. Rather, it is simply the latest of many such surveys reporting what a small minority of us secular folk already know: that when it comes to numerous issues of morality and ethics, religious Americans actually come up quite short on a host of measures when compared to their atheist and secular peers.

Consider what many recent surveys have found in recent years on a variety of issues of moral/ethical concern:

• The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq: it is the most religious Americans that have been most in favor of the war, while it is the least religious Americans who have been the least supportive.

• Women's equality and women's rights: it is the most religious Americans who are least supportive of women's rights and equality, while secular folk are the most supportive.

• Full civil rights and equality for homosexuals: again, the correlation is quite strong, with religious people being less supportive of gay rights and scoring higher on measures of homophobia than atheists and secular folk.

• The death penalty: the more religious are the most in favor, while the less or non-religious are the most opposed.

• General treatment of Prisoners: Strong God-believers and regular church-goers generally favor harsher treatment and strict retribution, while atheist tend to favor more humane treatment and rehabilitation.

• Doctor-assisted suicide: the religious tend to oppose, the secular tend to support.

• Stem cell research: ditto.

The list could go on and on. Whether we are talking about environmental protection or corporal punishment for children, sane drug laws or responsible sexual education, religious Americans are more likely to take a less ethical, less merciful, or less rational position than atheists and secular people. And just to top it off, sociological and psychological studies since the 1950s have consistently shown that strongly religious Americans, on average, tend to be more ethnocentric, prejudice, anti-Semitic, racist, intolerant, nationalistic, and authoritarian than those who forgo church and don't believe so strongly in God -- if at all.

How strange, then, that "immoral" is a word people often associate with atheism, while "moral" is a word people often associate with religion. Studies show the exact opposite correlation.

Are there lots of immoral atheists? You bet. Are there lots of moral Christians? Hell yes. But study after study consistently finds -- this one on torture being merely the most recent - that when it comes to questions of how we view others unlike ourselves, what kinds of rights we want other human beings to enjoy, or how we generally seek to treat other people, our fellow Americans with the little crosses around their necks and the fish on their bumpers just don't appear as loving, merciful, or forgiving as those of us without.

Phil Zuckerman, Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at Pitzer College and the author most recently of Society Without God (NYU, 2008).