Dehumanization, Torture, and Christianity

Christian torture

What is dehumanization, and how does it facilitate a host of atrocities? How is it now influencing the debate over waterboarding? What is the relationship of Christianity to dehumanization, and should this ancient religion be a source of concern in our dialogue on torture? These are difficult questions for which I do not pretend to have all the answers, however, this post will attempt to find a starting point in a long-overdue discussion.


Dehumanization is a psychological process in which a defined enemy is perceived as less human and thus less deserving of the moral consideration one typically applies to one's fellow human. Classic examples include African slaves in the eyes of White Americans and Jews in the eyes of Nazis. Contemporary examples include illegal immigrants in the eyes of socially conservative Republicans and "Islamofascists" in the eyes of fundamentalist Christians.

In most cases, dehumanization unfolds gradually, often requiring considerable time. Hitler did not wake up one morning and decide, "Hey, let's blame everything on the Jews." Antisemitism had a long history in Germany before Hitler, as it was a lingering relic of medieval Christianity. However, it is also possible to accelerate this process when a mass tragedy can be blamed on a particular group. Persons of Arabic descent living in America experienced this in the aftermath of 9/11.

The impact of dehumanization is that the normal barriers to mistreatment begin to fall until few remain. Atrocities which would be unimaginable if they were committed against one's own group slowly become acceptable when used against the dehumanized outgroup. Even acts which have widely been considered criminal when perpetrated against one's own people may become permissible against the outgroup. After all, they are monsters, bent on our destruction. Extreme measures are now justified to deal with them. As the psychological distance between us and them grows, our restraints fall.

Dehumanization and Torture

Most humans agree that torture ranks up there with genocide at the top of the list of the worst things of which we are capable. We afford humans at least some basic rights and recognize that torture violates these rights. We examine the Golden Rule and conclude that we should not torture, as we would not want to be tortured or to see our loved ones tortured.

And yet, it is fairly easy to overcome this moral sense through dehumanization. This is not a typical enemy. They are determined to do us harm, and our very lives are at stake in this conflict. They are motivated by things we cannot comprehend. In short, they are evil. As evil beings, they engage in behaviors which no moral human could justify. We must do whatever is necessary to protect ourselves and our way of life. Eventually, we may come to view longstanding prohibitions on torture as quaint or inapplicable. The worst atrocities we can imagine become not just permissible but even morally required to win the great conflict.

By dehumanizing the enemy, we legitimize violence and remove barrier after barrier to extreme methods. We can justify torture or even genocide. Most important, we can eventually reach the point where no justification seems necessary. The world becomes divided between good and evil. That which is evil must be opposed by any means necessary.

Christianity and Dehumanization

Progressive Christians want to emphasize the "love your neighbor" and "turn the other cheek" aspects of their religion, while fundamentalists stress "an eye for an eye" and images of Jesus bringing the sword. But both groups are share the belief that Christian morality is superior to all other forms. The fundamentalists may be more up front with this belief, but it can be found among the progressives too (see this post for more information).

When those who embrace Jesus are perceived as being better people than those who do not, we have an entryway to dehumanization. The Christian bible teaches that god has a chosen people who are favored above all others. This jealous god routinely kills those who disobey his commands and leads his followers in the destruction of multiple outgroups. When god is on one's side, one can do now wrong and one is has a certain moral superiority over all others. The bible teaches Christians that non-Christians are evil, admonishing them to kill nonbelievers and persons who worship other gods.

In contemporary America, the military is infused with fundamentalist Christianity. This is no accident. Soldiers who are convinced that they are defending Christian values against the threat of Islam will have fewer restraints on the battlefield. After all, the enemy refuses to acknowledge the "truth" of Christianity, so how moral can they be?

The propaganda aimed at the American people consistently blends "Islam" with "terrorism," "extremism," or "fascism." We are told repeatedly that our values and entire way of life are under attack. When observers complain that the American Christians hurling these insults are themselves extremists and fascists, we should be reminded that psychologists have long known that dehumanization typically involves some projection (i.e., one's own faults are projected onto the enemy).


Dehumanization is a necessary prerequisite of atrocities such as torture and genocide. To engage in such crimes against humanity, one must come to regard one's victims as somewhat less human. Christianity, despite the many good things some Christians do, facilitates dehumanization through the doctrine that Christians are morally superior to non-Christians. By viewing nonbelievers or persons of other religious traditions and lost, immoral, or even hell bound, Christianity opens the door to the dehumanization of non-Christians. The current American leadership, neo-cons bent on American imperialism, is well aware of this and has forged alliances with Christian extremists with this in mind.