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Religion: It’s the hell part that makes us behave, study finds

June 22, 2012
Courtesy of University of Oregon
and World Science staff

Re­li­gions are thought to en­cour­age us to be good. But a spe­cif­ic as­pect of re­li­gion may be the key to achiev­ing that: hell.

A new study in­di­cates that crime is lower in so­ci­eties where peo­ple’s re­li­gious be­liefs con­tain a strong pu­ni­tive com­po­nent than in oth­er places: a coun­try where many more peo­ple be­lieve in heav­en than in hell, for ex­am­ple, is likely to have a much high­er crime rate than one where these be­liefs are about equal.

The find­ing sur­faced from a com­pre­hen­sive anal­y­sis of 26 years of da­ta in­volv­ing 143,197 peo­ple in 67 coun­tries.

“Con­trolling for each oth­er, a na­t­ion’s rate of be­lief in hell pre­dicts low­er crime rates, but the na­t­ion’s rate of be­lief in heav­en pre­dicts high­er crime rates, and these are strong ef­fects,” said Azim F. Shar­iff, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Uni­vers­ity of Or­e­gon who led the stu­dy. “The find­ing is con­sist­ent with con­trolled re­search we’ve done in the lab, but here shows a pow­er­ful ‘real world’ ef­fect.”

Last year, in the In­terna­t­ional Jour­nal for the Psy­chol­o­gy of Re­li­gion, Shar­iff re­ported that un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents were more likely to cheat when they be­lieve in a for­giv­ing God than a pun­ish­ing God.

The new find­ings, Shar­iff said, fit in­to a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence that su­per­nat­u­ral pun­ish­ment emerged in hu­man cul­ture as a very ef­fective in­nova­t­ion to get peo­ple to act more eth­ic­ally. In 2003, he said, Har­vard Uni­vers­ity re­search­ers Rob­ert J. Barro and Ra­chel M. Mc­Cleary found that gross do­mes­tic prod­uct was high­er in de­vel­oped coun­tries when peo­ple be­lieved in hell more than they did in heav­en.

“It’s pos­si­ble that peo­ple who don’t be­lieve in the pos­si­bil­ity of pun­ish­ment in the af­ter­life feel like they can get away with un­eth­ical be­hav­ior,” Shar­iff said. He added, how­ev­er, that the da­ta don’t show which way the cause and ef­fect goes, if any, so cau­tion should be tak­en with the con­clu­sions.

The da­ta for be­lief in hell and heav­en, be­lief in God and re­li­gious at­tend­ance were culled from World Val­ues and Eu­ro­pe­an Val­ues sur­veys done across var­i­ous time pe­ri­ods be­tween 1981 and 2007. Crime da­ta were pulled from Un­ited Na­t­ions records on hom­i­cide, rob­bery, rape, kid­nap­ping, as­sault, theft, drug-related crimes, au­to theft, bur­gla­ry and hu­man traf­fick­ing. Oth­er fac­tors ac­counted for in­clud­ed such things as na­t­ions’ dom­i­nant re­li­gion (Ro­man Cath­o­lic, oth­er Chris­tian and Mus­lim), in­come ine­qual­ity, life ex­pect­an­cy and in­car­cera­t­ion rate.


* * *

NOTE: This story has been corrected since its original posting; a sentence mistakenly stated that crime was found to be higher in societies with a punitive component to their religion.

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Religions are thought to encourage us to be good. But a specific aspect of religion may be the key to achieving that: Hell. A new study indicates that crime is higher in societies where people’s religious beliefs contain a strong punitive component than in other places. A country where many more people believe in heaven than in hell, for example, is likely to have a much higher crime rate than one where these beliefs are about equal. The finding surfaced from a comprehensive analysis of 26 years of data involving 143,197 people in 67 countries. “Controlling for each other, a nation’s rate of belief in hell predicts lower crime rates, but the nation’s rate of belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates, and these are strong effects,” said Azim F. Shariff, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who led the study. “I think it’s an important clue about the differential effects of supernatural punishment and supernatural benevolence. The finding is consistent with controlled research we’ve done in the lab, but here shows a powerful ‘real world’ effect on something that really affects people—crime.” Last year, in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Shariff reported that undergraduate students were more likely to cheat when they believe in a forgiving God than a punishing God. Religious belief generally has been viewed as “a monolithic construct,” Shariff said. “Once you split religion into different constructs, you begin to see different relationships. In this study, we found two differences that go in opposite directions. If you look at overall religious belief, these separate directions are washed out and you don’t see anything. There’s no hint of a relationship.” The new findings, he added, fit into a growing body of evidence that supernatural punishment emerged in human culture as a very effective innovation to get people to act more ethically. In 2003, he said, Harvard University researchers Robert J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary found that gross domestic product was higher in developed countries when people believed in hell more than they did in heaven. “It’s possible that people who don’t believe in the possibility of punishment in the afterlife feel like they can get away with unethical behavior,” Shariff said. He added, however, that the data don’t show which way the cause and effect goes, if any, and so caution should be taken with the conclusions. Though Shariff and study co-author Mijke Rhemtulla of the Center for Research Methods and Data Analysis at the University of Kansas tried to account for obvious alternative explanations, more research is needed to explore other interpretations for the findings. The data for belief in hell and heaven, belief in God and religious attendance were culled from World Values and European Values surveys done across various time periods between 1981 and 2007. Crime data were pulled from United Nations records on homicide, robbery, rape, kidnapping, assault, theft, drug-related crimes, auto theft, burglary and human trafficking. Other factors accounted for included such things as nations’ dominant religion (Roman Catholic, other Christian and Muslim), income inequality, life expectancy and incarceration rate.