New study finds that belief in Hell is associated with reduced crime

From Science Daily. (H/T Wes)


Religions are thought to serve as bulwarks against unethical behaviors. However, when it comes to predicting criminal behavior, the specific religious beliefs one holds is the determining factor, says a University of Oregon psychologist.

The study, appearing in the Public Library of Science journalPLoS ONE, found that criminal activity is higher in societies where people’s religious beliefs contain a strong punitive component than in places where religious beliefs are more benevolent. 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.

“The key finding is that, 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, professor of psychology and director of the Culture and Morality Lab at the UO. “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 had emerged as a very effective cultural innovation to get people to act more ethically with each other. In 2003, he said, Harvard University researchers Robert J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary had found that gross domestic product was higher in developed countries when people believed in hell more than they did in heaven.

Here’s a quick re-cap on what counts as atheist morality, according to atheist scholars:

“Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either. “
– Cornell University evolutionist William Provine, in a debate with Phillip E. Johnson

The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory. (Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

I’ve often argued on this blog that it is impossible for atheists to ground morality on an atheistic worldview. Atheism not only makes it hard for them to ground self-sacrificial actions rationally, but it even excuses them from having to make moral choices – since on their view they are only doing what they are programmed to do in response to certain instincts and sensory inputs. They don’t think there are any real objective moral values and objective moral duties, nor is there any free will, nor any afterlife. What kind of rational basis for self-sacrificial morality do those beliefs create? Morality isn’t doing what makes you feel good, or doing what most people like. Morality is doing hard things because they are right objectively. They can know right and wrong, and they can choose to do right and wrong, but none of that is rationally grounded by what they believe.

Ultimately, I think that people’s actions are bounded by what they think is rational. It’s easy to do things right when it feels good, but what about when it feels bad?

3 thoughts on “New study finds that belief in Hell is associated with reduced crime”

  1. I argued several years ago with an atheist who said I (and other religionists) had no right to “force your beliefs on me” (you know the standard trope) since there is no God to whom I would ever be answerable.

    In a moment of – dare I say inspiration? – I responded, “By your own belief system, you are correct. I have no right to do so. But I do have the power, and at bottom godless evolution is only about power. Perhaps you are correct that you are repressed by the religious believers in America. Maybe you are correct that they curtail your freedom.

    “So what? If they have no ‘right’ to repress you, you have no right to complain about it. They have power and you do not. That’s evolution in action, bub.”


  2. Other thoughts. The scientists do not seem cognizant that the concepts of heavenly reward or hellish punishment are very limited among the world’s religions. The Eastern Mystic religions have no such categories, nor did African nature religions. Nor did Meso- and South American native religions. In the Mayan religion, for example,

    … the afterlife consisted primarily of a dangerous voyage of the soul through the underworld, which was populated by sinister gods and represented by the jaguar, symbol of night. The majority of Maya, including the rulers, went to this underworld. Heaven was reserved for those who had been sacrificed or died in childbirth.

    Mayans did not connect their fate in the afterlife to morality or lawfulness while living.

    I am very skeptical of this study mainly because of its apparent religious homogenization across the 67 countries and because there are hugely significant differences between how different religions describe, define or prescribe moral or even legal behavior. Unquestionably, Canada and Saudi Arabia have widely differing teachings on those subject, yet both countries’ dominant religion teach of heaven and hell as a consequence of earthly conduct.

    Sorry, it sounds lie another case of “I know what I want to prove, now let me generate the data to prove it.”


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