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Help me understand this

August 3, 2011

The Atlantic reported today that Muslims are the LEAST likely religious group to believe that targeting and killing civilians is sometimes justified, followed by atheists and agnostics. You know who was MOST likely to believe that targeting and killing civilians is sometimes justified? Mormons.

The Gallup poll question was this: “Some people think that for the military to target and kill civilians is sometimes justified, while others think that kind of violence is never justified? Which is your opinion.” A) Never, B) Sometimes, C) Depends.

Here were the results that interested me:

Muslims: 78% Never, 21% Sometimes
Atheists/Agnostics/Nonreligious: 56% Never, 43% Sometimes
Mormons: 33% Never, 64% Sometimes; 3% Depends

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Protestants, Catholics, and Jews trailed Mormons in thinking it’s sometimes justified to target and kill civilians.

“Am I alone in being horrified by the percentage of Americans who are sometimes okay with efforts to ‘target and kill’ civilians?” asks the article’s Conor Friedersdorf. Obviously I’m with the 56% (only 56%?) of nonreligious folk who say, “Never.”

Regardless of your religious affiliation, if you would have answered that it’s sometimes okay to TARGET AND KILL CIVILIANS (and that should be over half of you) please help me understand. Leave a comment and clue me in.


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  1. Jonathan permalink

    This would be an example of the many vulnerabilities of the scientific method when performed improperly. I cannot be more specific at the moment as I’m about to head out of town for a couple of work appointments. However, I would like to address why this study is clearly not reliable, and provide reasons for doubting its validity.

  2. I wish I could help you. I’m hoping it’s a matter of how each group interpreted the question, but I can’t imagine how that explaination would look.

  3. Jonathan permalink

    Well, to at least partially explain, psychologists in particular know that this type of poll can be influenced by the way a question is phrased. I for one misinterpreted it twice before understanding what the actual question was. I first thought the question actually meant the killing of civilians, as in collateral damage. Now mind you, I abhor the death of civilians (and military personnel too, for that matter). However, war is war and soldiers/other militants must die at times to achieve certain ends. Sometimes those ends even justify the sad collateral damage. You may disagree, and that is a difficult decision to make, but take the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as poignant examples: Many civilians died, but it achieved certain important and strategic ends that likely saved lives in the long run. In my mind, it is one of the saddest chapters in the history of warfare, but I feel it was justified, and therefore if the question that I thought was asked actually confronted me, I too would answer sometimes. However, upon my third reading, the key word “target” of course changes the meaning of the question. If I misinterpreted it, I can reasonably believe that others misinterpreted it.

    Now let’s look at a different question in the same poll: “Some people think that for an individual or a small group of persons to target and kill civilians is sometimes justified, while others think that kind of violence is never justified. Which is your opinion? Muslims answered “never” 89% of the time. Guess who answered “never” second most? Mormons with 79%! And coming up in third place, the non-religious oppose such violence with 76% saying “never.” What does this indicate? First, it shows that likely there were various interpretations of the question. For instance, someone else might interpret a terrorist who wears no uniform and belongs to no state military as a civilian. Second, it shows that Mormons do not condone violence in general, because based on any confusion with the first question, the second would generate much of the same answers, whether they interpreted the question exactly as stated or misunderstood just as slightly.

    This poll is also interesting, as those in the U.S. who actually take part in violent plots for political purposes (a.k.a. terrorism) seem to be largely Muslim, and that these plots almost always involve civilian targets and people. Now I am not bigoted against Muslims, as I’ve had friends who are Muslim and have written papers defending Muslims. And while I have not catalogued terrorist plots in the U.S. to compare numbers, it would seem that the number of plots as well as total body counts seem to indicate Muslims are most likely to follow through with such an attack. This even appears to hold true worldwide where the majority of terrorist plots are executed by Muslims (though interestingly, the communist/atheist Tamil Tigers have carried out more attacks than Al-Quaeda, Hamas, and Hesbollah combined, and have at least 35,000 deaths to their credit, thousands of them as civilians).

    I suspect that the reasons for such answers is at least partially influenced by the strong identification of Muslims with each other and their disapproval of military action in the Middle East where many of their faith are killed, whether collaterally or by very bad conscious decisions by military personnel. That could easily influence their opinion. Moreover, Muslims already feel as though they are being targeted (understandably so). If I were a violent Muslim and were polled such questions, I don’t believe I would answer honestly. These are important points of consideration, as they truly and dramatically influence the outcomes of the polls.

    It’s humorous to see left-wing individuals jump to immediate conclusions when a Christian man commits a violent act, such as the recent attacks in Norway, yet always urge caution as to motivation when the offender is a Muslim, such as the Ft. Hood attacks, and are completely silent regarding the violent acts committed by atheist individuals or groups, such as the Sendero Luminoso. Now I know that atheists would say that many atheist murders were motivated by the dogmas of communism or some equally extreme point of view and are not true atheists (just like violent Muslims are not true Muslims, and in spite of the fact that any Christian murderer or Mormon murderer are indeed true Christians/Mormons and are motivated entirely by their faith, right?). But let’s be realistic; most communists are atheists; many atheists are communists. There is clearly a correlation between the two and the resulting violence can be attributed to an extreme atheist viewpoint. If you reject the notion that violent communists are not true atheists, then to be fair you must acknowledge that violent Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Wiccans, Jedi, yogurt-worshipers, etc. are not true members of the faith. At the very least, you must admit that in the faithful and faithless cases, there are more complicating factors and you cannot immediately attribute the violent action of the individual or group to the the faith, dogma, or worldview of the offender(s).

    Finally, it is always interesting to see the discrepencies in the results of different polling agencies. Gallup is known to be a reliable source for liberal commentators (Obama’s numbers are almost always above 50% for example), while agencies like Rasmussen are quoted extensively by conservative talkers (where Obama’s numbers have consistently been below 50% for some time now). I would love to see a differently phrased question posited to address violence and religious affiliation by Rasmussen, Zogby, and others. As has been stated on this blog multiple times, an important part of experimentation is having peers attempt to replicate your experiment. Then we might get a better perspective of religious persons’ approval of violence.

  4. Jonathan permalink

    More thoughts today. I once had a conversation with a Muslim friend whose parents were Pakistani immigrants. I don’t know how representative this statement was, but I assure you this is his genuine argument in a nutshell: as nearly all Israeli men and women are drafted when 18 years old, and because of the compulsory reserves for men that last until their mid-40s, attacking civilians is not really attacking civilians. Instead, one is attacking potential military personnel in most cases, and it is therefore justified.

    I liked this fellow, considered him a friend, had many religious discussions (we were taking Anatomy and Physiology at the time, and found the human body so complex and fascinating as to support our belief in God). But when I heard this argument, I was stunned and did not bother to give my opinion of the matter. I would certainly not consider him an extremist, but he certainly did feel an identification with other Muslims and was unhappy about the situation in Israel/Palestine. If a large number of other Muslims feel that “civilian” is such a loose term, it also could slant the poll.

    This is the caveat which most good polls should include at the end of their report, and which the above poll made sure it did, but which illustrates what I said in my last comment about the effects of phrasing: “In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.” Question wording in particular seems like a weak point to me. If I were to rephrase the question, it might be something like this: “DO YOU think that IT IS JUSTIFIALE for the military to DELIBERATELY target and kill INNOCENT civilians?” A) YES, B) NO, C) DEPENDS ON THE SITUATION. (CAPS indicate altered wording). With this, it would be important to ask a similarly phrased question of individuals/small groups, and then ask about military attacking military targets and individuals/small groups attacking military targets. This would reveal far more about the viewpoints of the religious demographics’ views on violence (i.e. many atheists are incredibly idealistic and always oppose war, though I feel it is at times an unfortunately necessary evil).

    Having read a little more of this poll, let me point out a real humdinger in their questioning: “Now thinking specifically about Muslims, do you think each of the following applies, or does not apply, to Muslims living in this country? Muslims living in THIS COUNTRY are sympathetic to the al Qaeda terrorist organization?” First, as mentioned in my last comment, in a country where phone taps of Muslim terrorist sympathizers have taken place extensively, how honest do you think a Muslim who already feels persecuted is going to be? He/she does not wish to be associated at all with a terrorist group, and therefore is going to provide the answer he/she feels least likely to raise suspicion, even if he/she feels there are al Qaeda sympathizers in the country. I know I’d do that in their shoes. Second, I’m surprised that only 92% said American Muslims don’t sympathize with al Qaeda. I think much of the country recognizes that most American Muslims are peaceful and tolerant. But a Muslim would feel especially passionate about this topic and would immediately dismiss the thought that he/she and family or friends could possibly be sympathetic to that cause, while members of other groups are more likely to feel ambiguous or even strongly that they do sympathize. What’s more, the question leaves no room for “sometimes” or “only some Muslims” or “it depends” or even “only a small minority.” The question is all or nothing, take it or leave it, all Muslims in this country do or do not support al Qaeda! If a question regarding violence or polygamy or the support of some other generally socially unacceptable behavior were posed regarding Mormons, you can bet the the group most likely to answer “does not apply” would be the Mormons. It’s a loaded question.

    The above paragraph of course does not invalidate the first two questions in the poll, but it does reveal sloppiness on the part of the pollsters, and it points out the importance of the phrasing of the question. While the effects might be more subtle in the other questions, I am certain they are present.

    The following link from the infallible Holy Grail of the Web shows that a variety of extreme positions can lead to terror (even animal rights in one case!), but that Islamic views or connections account for a disproportionately large number of terrorist attacks:
    The following article, while emphasizing the reduction in Islamic terrorism, still says, “The Triangle Center notes in its report that with ‘Muslims comprising about 1 percent of the American population, it is clear that Muslims are engaging in terrorism at a greater rate than non-Muslims — though at a low level compared with overall violence in the United States.'”

    Let me add again that I am no bigot. My dad thinks of me as a Muslim apologist at times because of my defense of their beliefs and their largely peaceful nature. But I’m present logical points not to criticize Islam as a whole, but merely to demonstrate that this study is not reliable, or at best is inaccurate. It would be interesting to do more research focusing on the non-religious demographic.

    People are violent, people are bigots, people are flawed, and

    • I appreciate your comments and your thoughtful responses, Jonathan! I’m hoping you’re right, that most people just misunderstood the question and thought the question was referring to (to use the creepy Rumsfeldian phrase) “collateral damage.”

  5. Jonathan permalink

    A bit long-winded, I know! But I think I that could easily be a significant reason. Hmmm…either I wrote something that was cut off or I began something and forgot to finish. Let me try to wrap up that sentence. “People are violent, people are bigots, people are flawed, and yet most people in most groups are good.” Thanks for the response, Kevin.

  6. chris permalink

    What the poll was referring to is is it ok for the US military( an individual or a small group of persons ) to kill civilians(osama bin laden, suicide bombers, terrorist, planners of terror, etc etc). I for one am for it and i am really surprised that a higher percentage of mormons catholics etc are not for it too. I guess that illustrates how compassionate they are.

    Muslims, of course, would be least likely to approve of target killing civilians(osama bin laden, suicide bombers, terrorist, planners of terror, etc etc), because its targeting their comrades.

    What i would really like to see is a poll asking christians, jews, mormons if they think suicide bombings of civilans is ok. Both you and I know that the percentage would be next to zero. Yet muslims are at 20% overall and 25% of young US muslims belive random death to others is A-OK. Hell 60% of US muslims dont believe Arabs did 9-11.

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