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March 25, 2006

Are Atheists More Moral? -- II

Here some data to add to the discussion. Percentage of respondents who think torture is never justified:

Catholics 26%
White Protestant 31%
White evangelical 31%
Secular 41%
Total 32%

This from a survey by Pew, reported by the National Catholic Reporter, digested by (the prolific and wise) Pharyngula (who wonders about the other 59%), after being alerted by Andrew Sullivan.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at March 25, 2006 6:57 PM


Have you seen anything about this University of Minnesota study which suggests that atheists are America's most distrusted minority?

Posted by: Dayv at March 25, 2006 11:33 PM

I assume with those numbers you are trying to say that such a small number of religious people think torture is never justified, therefore the majority of them is immoral. While it's certainly true that religion destroys morals (or inverts them as Nietzsche shows), in this case your reasoning is flawed. You assume the fact that torture is in fact immoral. I disagree, I think torture is often moral. Sam Harris the outspoken atheist does also, incidentally, and has a whole section of his book dedicated to this.


Posted by: Andrey at March 26, 2006 7:57 PM

It's reassuring to know that people like Sam Harris are out there, helping atheists to keep our bad name.

Posted by: Dayv at March 26, 2006 8:37 PM

i agree 100 % with andrey ... i assume deep down you don't believe in objective morality, so you should just stay away from this question ... i do find this poll interesting, though. a prime reason i think i support torture is because i've gotten rid of the doctrinaire, non-empirical rules that are often the result of the type of thoughtlessness that assumes there is some divine being who knows more than us and can hand down rules (same with the death penalty)... i'd really stay away from any over-arching argument in favor of atheism. atheists are probably, on average, more intelligent, more liberal, and quite a bit more depressed. not sure what that proves ... but maybe i'm just bitter because i was raised an atheist and never seriously considered the existence of god and lie in bed every day as soon as i get home from work in an unbearable despair. on the few occassions i interact with the outside world, i often see people who have never doubted the existence of god and also seem to have never had to struggle with their own happiness ... perhaps that explains the poll: atheists are against torture because they're more sensitive to its feeling; 42 percent of their lives are, in a sense, torture.

Posted by: seth at March 27, 2006 4:41 PM

i guess my pessimistic (and depression-colored) view on the history of atheism: God died sometime in the 19th century. Before then, there were a lot of Western, legitimately religious people. it wasn't an absurd position to hold because we basically had no idea what underlied the world. Might as well be that we live forever. Now, very few people are really religious. Even the people who say they are religious break down at funerals (that would be interesting ... did 'religious' people always deal so poorly with death?). how can you be religious when you study evolution and genetics and all the rest in your childhood? Philosophers (or at least a philosopher) understood that this was dangerous, that religion offered a lot of comfort to a very rough world. They (or He) tried to offer a way out. But we've basically failed with that. If there was potential to the death of God, most of it is unrealized: the society hasn't gotten significantly more compassionate (probably the opposite); any romantic view of the world that could have avoided deep despair and angst hasn't really caught on, and depression is way up; if God was allowing for the oppression of certain classes, the ruling class has just found new tools ('freedom;' 'country') that have, if anything, been more effective.

Posted by: seth at March 27, 2006 4:55 PM

As an athiest, I can reach the conclusion that torture is wrong thusly:

Each person has only a finite period of existence. Anything that reduces the quality of that finite existence is to be avoided. Torture is unpleasant, so it qualifies as a reducer of quality of life.

Even things that reduce another person's quality of life may be justified (by those more morally flexible than myself) if such actions result in increased quality of life for a greater number of persons, so if torture saves lives, it may still qualify as moral, but torture does not meet this requirement.

Torture, as an intelligence-gathering tool, does not collect any information the torturer does not already know. Tortured persons lie. The claim that useful information can be obtained through torture has been disproven on more than one occasion.

Torture, as a deterrent, does not deter. It convinces your opposition even more strongly of your inhumanity and more firmly entrenches their hatred of you.

Torture is not punishment. Punishment must be visited on the guilty. Torture has no requirement that the tortured be guilty of anything.

So Torture reduces the quality of life for an individual without improving the quality of life for anyone. It is cruelty without purpose. That meets one of my definition of (secular) evil.

Posted by: Crosius at March 27, 2006 5:59 PM

I agree with Crosius's points on torture, particularly those regarding torture simply not working to gather reliable ew information from the tortured.  A victim of torture, when broken of resistance, will say whatever they feel is most likely to end the torture soonest -- usually this is what they think the torturer wants to hear, regardless of the truth of it.

Additionally, allowing torture in the most extreme cases will result in two things: some innocent suspects will be tortured in error, and torture will be allowed in more and more cases as the judgement call of what suspects warrant torture slowly expands.

It's srt of like the three laws of thermodynamics, simplified: you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't leave the game.

Posted by: Dayv at March 28, 2006 10:44 AM

A sprinkling of %s does not make a scientific fact, and a highly abreviated report of the Pew poll can hardly be the basis of any intelligent conclusion. If there is anything of interest in this little exercise in headcounting, to me it is the (unreported here) fact that in all categories 16-17% responded that torture is rarely (i. e. almost never) justified, which I find the only reasonable response. To give undue weight to the "nevers" is to favor the black & white moral extremists, who believe they have the answer in advance to all future situations and refuse the challenge of individual case decisions.
It is certainly not true that torture is never effective (just read of an instance in which it was in Samuel Beckett's war experience, reported in D. Bair's biography).

Posted by: Mark Shulgasser at March 28, 2006 8:47 PM

"Torture, as an intelligence-gathering tool, does not collect any information the torturer does not already know. Tortured persons lie. The claim that useful information can be obtained through torture has been disproven on more than one occasion."
can anyone point me to these studies? or is this just your intuition?

Posted by: seth at March 29, 2006 12:41 PM

I was going to ask for proof myself but Seth beat me to it. Torture works very well as an intelligence gathering method, it seems, since it is practiced ubiquitously across the world and in history for that very purpose. Especially if the torturee who is withholding valuable information knows that he will receive a tenfold worse treatment if his information proves incorrect. Besides, in the absence of an alternative, it is the best thing. Is it more moral to send an army into an ambush and have many die because you failed to properly "interrogate" the prisoner you're holding?

Torture as punishment is an interesting question.

Posted by: Andrey at March 29, 2006 10:19 PM

Torture works very well as an intelligence gathering method, it seems, since it is practiced ubiquitously across the world and in history for that very purpose.

More commonly, when torture is used, it is for the amusement of the torturer or to force a confession out of a political prisoner before executing them.

Posted by: Dayv at March 30, 2006 5:07 AM

Under torture, innocent people in American and Europe (during the witch hunts and inquisitions) confessed to flying around on broomsticks, consorting with the devil (sexually), and otherwise overcoming the laws of nature at will. Torture doesn't work.
The problem with defining torture as immoral is that there is no objective morality. Value and meaning, upon which morality is based, cannot be assigned empirically or logically. Decisions of morality are therefore highly subjective despite the near universality of certain moral principles. However, based on my fundamental moral principles, I feel free to condemn torture as always immoral with no guilt whatsoever for the subjectivity of that statement. (Whether or not an immoral act is sometimes justified is another matter altogether.)

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 12, 2006 10:07 AM

How could a justified act be immoral? Picky, picky...(me)

Every interrogator I have seen on the tube has said torture does not work. If there was one credible witness to the contrary I cannot imagine the Corporate MSM would not have him debating all those professionals. How are we to know the truth without talking heads yelling at one another?

Morality is like God; a word that means so much it means nothing. Every act we perform is done to make us feel better. We think mostly to rationalize the way we feel, not to figure out how we should feel. Morality is the symbol we attach to the seeming values that arise from those rationalizations.

Torture is used by the powerful to feel powerful. Fortunately it often seeds the forces that topple the torturers. Unfortunately the replacements are most always just as humane as those they succeed.

Humane: the one word oxymoron.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 12, 2006 12:39 PM

To your question, being justified and being moral are two different things. An immoral act can be justified when it is less immoral than the alternatives available. The lesser of two evils is still an evil.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 12, 2006 12:56 PM

Than it is relatively moral, no?

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 12, 2006 6:45 PM

I think we're playing your favorite game here, JS, semantics. The distinction that can be created by a manipulation of vocabulary is irrelevant. An example: 0%C can be described as relatively warm when compared to -30%C, however, one could hardly call the freezing point of water warm.

Posted by: Anonymous at September 18, 2006 4:03 PM

I was unaware that semantics was my favorite game. Thanks for the heads up. I thought it was tennis (sports) and actually rearranging symbols visually and musically. But I can see where you might think otherwise only having my posts here as your evidence.

I am assuming that Anonymous is Melinda again (semantics again I guess), you straw dogged my question.
The lesser of two evils is the right moral choice, no? Than it is the moral choice relative to the more evil of two evils, no?

Moral questions are seldom clear and obvious.
Should I lie to my wife to spare her feelings?

And when we try to figure out the right thing to do we always have to ask, "compared to what?"

The distinctions created by vocabulary (words) are all we have to talk about and with.

And a difference of 30deg C is relatively meaningless on the Sun or Pluto. On Pluto the freezing point of water would be HOT! On the Sun it would be COLD! Plus or minus 30deg would be a mute question on either orb. Earth is actually one of the few places in the Solar System where it is relevant.

Perspective is everything, especially when it comes to morality.

To say one thing is more evil than another is to say the other thing is more moral than the first.

And finally, "evil" is a religious word. Bad is the opposite of good. Sacred would be the opposite of evil. So maybe those of us who are not bound by relgious beliefs should stop using the vocabulary of the believers in Hell, etc.

Good: that which brings beings closer in empathy.
Bad: that which drives beings apart.

It is not a code that is any easier to apply but it is simpler to determine what the good answer is.

So are atheists more moral? No, but they should have an easier time figuring out what IS the relatively best choice since they are not confused by faux edicts from God.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 18, 2006 4:59 PM

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