Going Off Half Cocked

Notice the gun imagery in the title?  Does this mean I believe in gun violence?  Does this mean I am insensitive to the lives torn apart by firearms in this country?  Do you think I support torture?

CrusadesIn the past couple weeks, some survey information was shared that indicates that Christians are more supportive of torture than non-Christians, and that the majority of Christians feel there are times when torture is warranted.  This is a data point — it reflects a correlation between two things: Christians and attitudes about torture.  The findings generated a flurry of responses on both sides, but for the most part the more pacifist and liberal among us began arguing how such an attitude is unChristian.  The biggest problem is that most people heard the correlation, thought it was information, and reacted to it as if it were bona fide knowledge.

It reminds me of the flurry three or four years when it was reported that Christians were three times as likely to own a gun as a non-Christian, and were six times more likely to discharge a weapon at another human being.  I don’t even know the source, but it was as if the modern media had called all Christians poopie-heads.  The reaction was epic!  If you think the Christian-gun connection is minor, type “gun ownership and Christianity” into your search engine and check out the results.  They are impressive.

The main problem is not in the correlation, but in the limited nature of the presentation and the lack of critical thinking applied to the results.  As a data point, it is true that the majority of Christians favor some form of torture under the “right” circumstances, but is there any way to get our heads around which Christians we’re talking about?  Let’s explore some other simple data correlations to find out:

  • 190407secondlower income people favor torture over higher income people
  • lower education (high school grad or below) people favor torture four-to-one over higher education people (college or better)
  • older Americans favor torture more than younger Americans
  • conservatives favor torture more than liberals
  • Southerners favor torture more than Northerners

Just with these five added data points, some perspective emerges.  In the United States the average Christian is at or below the national mean income, they tend to have a high school education, be conservative politically, older than the national average, and the south and southeast segments of the country account for 63% of the Christian population.  So, in total, the correlation is more exacting to say that older, moderate-to-low income, high school educated, conservative, Southerners are more in favor of torture in certain circumstances.  Of course, even this is presented as a distribution, where we’re talking about 50-60% falling close to this category with approximately 20% spreading out to either side (somewhat like a bell curve).

The same data correlations work with gun ownership with one exception: while almost seventy percent (68.7%) of gun ownership exists in families with annual income $75,000 or less, an additional 17% exists with families making over $1 mil per year.  These stats are based on the federal database and only include registered weapons, and don’t include many hunting and “recreational” weapons.  It is also only based on income reported to the IRS.

In an article I wrote two years ago, “Packing Heat for Jesus,” I noted the rise in churches that train ushers in the use of firearms, the churches that give guns away as prizes, those that host hunting trips, and even a few that offer “gun defense” training at area firing ranges.  For a large segment of the Christian church, owning and using guns is not a problematic issue.  Protection of home and family is viewed as a God-given right that cannot be taken from them, and they don’t want to feel guilty about doing something they feel their faith allows.

I had a conversation with a pastor in Austen, Texas once where he showed me multiple stories from the Old and New Testament where violence was either condoned or commanded.

There is evil in the world, and those who follow Christ must fight it with every tool at our disposal.  We fight it spiritually from our pulpits and the airwaves, we fight it ethically by saying ‘no’ to our government when it tries to undermine decency and Christian values, and if we must, we will fight it with sticks, and swords, and guns.  This is not an option.  It is our duty.

What about turning the other cheek? I asked.

That means you don’t back down, don’t back away when your critics try to destroy you and tell you you’re wrong.  Every time we stand up to evil, it tries to strike us down.  Well it can strike us as many times as it wants to.  For now we turn the other cheek.  But if evil doesn’t finally give up, we will strike back.

I don’t agree with this person, nor do I choose to subscribe to any of his beliefs.  But HE believed every word he said, and he lives on the strengths of his convictions.  And he doesn’t fit the data profile — he’s college educated, making a six-figure income, and he’s in his thirties (he is Southern and conservative, but this shows how even a “profile” is just an indicator, a correlation, and not a causal fact).

The problem most readers of data point revelations face is they mistake correlation for cause.  Those who are Christian and approve torture do not approve torture because they are Christian (at least, not many of them).  People don’t buy guns because they are Christian.  In fact, some studies have shown that the decision not to own a gun is more influenced by faith than the decision to own one.

This is the world in which we live.  It is almost statistically impossible for 54+% of Christians NOT to support torture, given all the other metrics involved.  “Christian” is just one part of the complex matrix that makes any person what they are.  Faith, education, income, worldliness (people who travel abroad are less in favor of torture than those who do not…), political leaning, age, gender (women own 11% of the firearms in America, men 89%), geography, and a host of other measures need to be factored into the equation.

What most of the articles failed to mention this past couple of weeks is that Christians lead the crusades against gun violence, torture, civilian casualties of war, terrorism, domestic abuse, teen and gang violence, and capital punishment.  For example, the average Amnesty International member is of moderate means, higher-than-average education, liberal, younger, and Christian.

Data, statistics, surveys, and factoids can be manipulated 1,001 ways to say almost anything one wants.  (So, do you trust me now…?)  A data point indicates a correlation: interesting, and nothing more — without some serious critical thinking and examination of other related issues.  Don’t take anything — ANYTHING — at face value.  Take a few moments to ask:

  • what exactly is being said here?
  • what isn’t being said?
  • what’s missing?
  • does this say anything about causal connections or is it merely a correlation?
  • are their confirming sources?
  • what does this really MEAN?

Not all information is good, useful, or helpful information.  Read carefully, think deeply, discriminate between the good and the bad, and hold onto that which really informs.

(Note: references to statistics come from Bureau of Justice, U.S. Census, Gallup, and a variety of web sources.  All are confirmed and fall within a +/-5% range.  All are easy to find, and all can be refuted by other sources.  See?  Statistics are tricky…)

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