Field of Science

An eye for an eye

Religious people are more likely to approve of capital punishment. That's something that's always intrigued me - partly because I find the idea of killing another human being in cold blood absolutely horrific. To be fair, however, there's a lot of variation between different religious groups in the support for the death penalty, and perhaps that holds at least a partial answer. Maybe there's something in the creed of certain religions, or sects within religions, that encourages notions of revenge and retributive justice.

When you look at the bare data, it seems that's likely to be the case. Evangelicals are more supportive than Catholics, for example. Black Protestants are even less supportive that the unaffiliated. Perhaps that's down to leadership. After all, some religious leaders are vocal in their support for the death penalty, but others are equally vocal in their rejection of it.

Kevin Wozniak and Andrew Lewis, Political Scientists at American University in Washington DC, set out to discover whether affiliation really does play a role in support for the death penalty. To this end, they mined data from the 1998 US General Social Survey (the last year in which the survey assessed all the items they needed).

Throwing all the data into the pot, they first adjusted for relevant non-religious factors. Men, for example, and right-wingers are more likely to support the death penalty. African-Americans, however, are less enthusiastic - no doubt because they are disproportionately likely to be on the receiving end.

Then they also adjusted for religious beliefs. So, for example, those who believe in a compassionate God are less supportive of the death penalty than those who believe in a harsh God. They also adjusted for Church attendance, Biblical literalism and a factor they called 'forgiveness' (which combines notions of a forgiving God with secular ideas of forgiveness).

When you take all this into account, they found that all Christian groups they looked at - Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant and Catholic - were still more in favour of the death penalty than the unaffiliated.

So it seems like there really is something intrinsic being religious that increases support for the death penalty - regardless of your views on the nature of your god.

Why this should be, they don't know. They were most interested in learning whether denominational leaders influence the attitudes of their flock. If this analysis is correct (and they point out that it may not be attuned to the right level of detail) then it seems like this is not the case. Despite the fact that many leaders are anti-death penalty (most notably the Catholics), their flocks seem undeterred.

What they couldn't determine was whether local leaders, the individual priests and pastors, can influence the attitudes of their parishioners. They may well be, but even if true it wouldn't alter the fact that the average religious person is a pro death penalty.

I suspect that this is shining a light on something fundamental about religion, which has to do with notions of good and evil, of us and them. What precisely that is, I don't know. But I suspect that support for the death penalty is actually a manifestation of intolerance, and of preferential support for your group or tribe, that seems to be such an  intrinsic part of religious belief.

ResearchBlogging.orgWozniak, K., & Lewis, A. (2010). Re-examining the effect of Christian denominational affiliation on death penalty support Journal of Criminal Justice DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2010.07.011

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. I think we'd also have to consider whether a belief in the afterlife factors in. For you and I, putting a person to death is permanently destroying the arrangement of molecules which constituted that person. For someone with a belief in the afterlife -- especially a God-sitting-in-judgment style of afterlife -- you are merely divorcing the body from the soul, getting the latter into the judging queue a little faster.

    Of course, as you've posted about before, those who believe in an afterlife are also more likely to take drastic measures to prolong life in the case of terminal illness, so belief in an afterlife can by no means be the whole story. But I imagine it factors in.

    It would be interesting to compare the religious/SBNR unaffiliated with the explicitly agnostic/atheist. Or even ask about belief in an afterlife directly.

  2. It would be interesting if they also studied religions other than Christianity.

  3. The interesting thing, from a Christian perspective, is that everyone is a sinner but that you can atone for sin. But if you kill a wrongdoer, then they can't atone. So it's fundamentally at odds with the theology, and even so they are more likely to support it. That makes me think there is something pretty primal - untouched by the niceties of theology - going on here.

  4. To the reasons you've pointed out ("notions of good and evil, of us and them") and those that James brought to bear (relating to an afterlife belief), I'd add a strong notion of teleology.

    It seems to me that in the minds of believers, it is what they think their god wants that is most important. This solves the apparent contradiction that James brought up between support of the death penalty and support of prolonging life in face of illness. If a god wants a criminal to die and a sick person to live (and you give priority to this criteria), there is not a contradiction.

    To me, I understand this as the religious person representing events in life as the intentional actions (or at least in line with the "will") of a their particular supernatural agent.

  5. Agree with SteveED. Until other religions are studied in the same way, it's hard to make a sweeping statement about the intrinsic nature of religion. You do, however, raise some good points about good v. evil, us v. them. That's probably part of the explanation.

  6. Could education or class have more to do with it than religion?

  7. It would be interesting to see this compared with Christianity in western Europe.

    Certainly religion plays a role, but I imagine culture plays a huge factor WITHIN religious attitudes as well.

    I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were significant differences between US Christian attitudes and European Christian attitudes.


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