Belief in hell, according to international data, is associated with reduced crime

Jun 19, 2012

(Phys.org) -- 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 journal PLoS ONE, found that criminal activity is higher in societies where people's 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 , 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.

"Supernatural punishment across nations seems to predict lower crime rates," Shariff said. "At this stage, we can only speculate about mechanisms, but 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. There is less of a divine deterrent."

He added, however, that these are correlational data, 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.

"This research provides new insights into the potential influences of cultural and religious beliefs on key outcomes at a societal level," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation. "Although these findings may be controversial, dissecting the associations between specific belief systems and epidemiologic behaviors is an important first step for social scientists to disentangle the complex web of factors that motivate human behavior."

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wiyosaya
3.7 / 5 (10) Jun 19, 2012
I find this article quite interesting. So if you have a forgiving religion, you can do anything you want and expect that in the afterlife you will not be punished for it. I think that confirms what I have often thought for the implied association between the catholic church and organized crime.

Then if you believe in hell and a punishment in the afterlife, people are more likely to be civil to each other.

IMHO, it is unfortunate that religion is bent in this manner - where benevolent religion is seen as a haven where you can do anything you want and not expect punishment in the afterlife.

I also think it even more unfortunate that people need hell at all to be civil to each other. Somewhere, it seems to me, there is a complete disconnect between being a good person and being religious, and that is why I think many religions are losing followers as many religions seem entirely hypocritical.
Deathclock
3.3 / 5 (21) Jun 19, 2012
The opiate of the idiot and the immoral alike.
TkClick
2 / 5 (8) Jun 19, 2012
The laws of countries, where the people believe in hell more heartily are less benevolent to the common crime - so I'm afraid, that the religion itself is not the main pillar of morality there. IMO it's because of the more primitive (and more cruel in general) social arrangement in these countries. But I can't deny, it works well in this particular extent - but it's probably more prone to the miscarriage of justice too.
Deathclock
3.3 / 5 (24) Jun 19, 2012
Only immoral people need to be threatened or coerced into acting morally.

If you are a moral human being you act morally on your own accord.
Maat
3.2 / 5 (18) Jun 19, 2012
Only immoral people need to be threatened or coerced into acting morally.


Well said. The fact that Christians represent an overwhelming majority of the prison population in the United States (adjusted per-capita of course) only further drives this point home.

Moral men and women have no need for the archaic rules of Christianity.
Alaric
3.3 / 5 (8) Jun 19, 2012
@Maat the overwhelming majority of Americans are Christian. Is it an unrepresentatively large proportion once you adjust for the proportion of Americans that are religious?Also, what is your income conditional on not being religious? I bet being an Atheist is more common amongst those of higher socio-economic status.
Alaric
2.5 / 5 (13) Jun 19, 2012
This paper is DEEPLY DEEPLY FLAWED and should NOT have been published by a a GOOD JOURNAL (which implies PLoS One may not be a good journal).

If you read the paper you will see that they don't examine the relationship where they only look at a belief in hell without including belief in heaven. If they did this, I suspect that they would get either no significant effect or a mildly negative impact of religion on crime rates. This is because the belief in heaven is highly correlated with belief in hell (about 80-90%).

This is a problem known as multicollinearity between
and it means that the statistical method they use (OLS) inflates the relationship between belief in heaven and crime in one direction while driving the relationship between belief in hell and crime in the other direction. BAD BAD PAPER.

That would only be the beginning of a list of criticisms each of which is sufficient to disregard the paper as close to meaningless.
rwinners
2 / 5 (8) Jun 19, 2012
Religion is the sanctuary of the immoral.

I'm sure someone notable said that......
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.9 / 5 (29) Jun 19, 2012
And so HOW does this explain the fact that the overwhelming majority of people in prison are RELIGIOUS?

Perhaps they think god knows what is in their hearts and will forgive their sins because they believe in him? Or some similar nonsense?
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.9 / 5 (29) Jun 19, 2012
In case anybody doubts this:
http://holysmoke....-pri.htm

-The religious often have their own set of moral precepts, and do not recognize crimes against those with other beliefs as immoral.

And of course there is the primary disconnect of accepting that spirits can grant wishes and provide immortality, which indicates diminished judgment.
Alaric
4.4 / 5 (7) Jun 19, 2012
@TheGhostofOtto1923

Holysmoke puts Judeo-Christians as making up 83% of the prison population. But 80% of the US population are Judeo Christian. Not a particularly big divergence. From the CIA factbook:

Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%, other or unspecified 2.5%, unaffiliated 12.1%, none 4% (2007 est.)

It does look like good old Atheists are underrepresented in Prison (there should be twenty times more atheists) but I suspect that this is confounded by the fact that atheists tend to be affluent relative to the rest of the population (particularly in the US).

MandoZink
3.5 / 5 (8) Jun 20, 2012
I've always said that being atheist saves you the emotional wreckage of having to reconcile the unpredictable actions of a magical mystery being.
CardacianNeverid
3.1 / 5 (13) Jun 20, 2012
Religions are thought to serve as bulwarks against unethical behaviors

Bullshit! Education and critical thinking is the bulwark for ethical behaviors and much more besides.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (24) Jun 20, 2012
Holysmoke puts Judeo-Christians as making up 83% of the prison population. But 80% of the US population are Judeo Christian. Not a particularly big divergence.
-Except that religionists claim to be superior moralists. Their beliefs are at least immaterial aren't they? Ineffective. And the list I provided includes all major religions represented in prison. None seem to work very well at all.

Add to this all the religion-caused strife around the world and I would have to conclude that religionist morality is a detriment.

How many crooks are active religionists? Hard to say. How many were praying that they wouldn't get caught, and are now praying they survive to get out? Hard to say.
OwaisVasundhara
4 / 5 (8) Jun 20, 2012
Have they controlled for the severity of the punishment for a given crime in the 'Nations'? Islam is typical scare-mongering religion, and with the possible exception of the '72-virgins' pull for young wannabe terrorists. Islamic clerics always scare you of the evil, ugly and vengeful nature of Allah, and much less do they focus on his benevolence. Christians tend to focus more on their God's benevolence. However, Christians Nations generally typically have less draconian laws than Islamic Nations. So, if a wannabe thief is less scared in the USA, than he is in the Saudi Arabia, then it has little to do with the said Saudi National's belief in hell, than the reality of weighing the same reward with the risk of getting his hand cut off versus a possible prison term for a US National! The researchers seem to be working on some kind of an agenda... other than what is outlined in the paper!!
OwaisVasundhara
3.4 / 5 (5) Jun 20, 2012
The researchers (Shariff and Rhemtulla) seem to have prescriptory delusions. I quote... "Supernatural punishment across nations seems to predict lower crime rates," Shariff said. "At this stage, we can only ... divine deterrent." ...Are they trying to say that we should undo all human progress in all branches of knowledge and return to the era of uneducated men from deserts running their writ and scaring people into being less criminal... and BTW, the crimes would certainly include women attending school... or driving... or men collecting firewood on the day of Sabbath... or outcastes pulling water out of the village well... I wonder how they plan to shackle those minds which have already seen through the whole plan, and can no more profit from prophetic fraud! Hang the sorcerers / witches till death... as done in Christain dark ages... and in Saudi Arabia recently, in the current Islamic Dark Age?
MandoZink
5 / 5 (6) Jun 20, 2012
Bullshit! Education and critical thinking is the bulwark for ethical behaviors and much more besides.

Absolutely! As an atheist, you discover you have to answer to yourself for what you do to others. You cannot be unjust and expect to get off the hook by having an omnipotent supreme being to forgive you for the devils influence. It is YOU who must maintain integrity. That is what most Christians get completely backwards.

Integrity, understanding, and empathy for the human condition are the hallmarks of character that enlightened beings come to realize. Those awakened to intelligent atheism understand that this recognition of human quality is essential to a sane, compassionate, and universally moral society. ALL good people, both atheists and theists, should realize this
beyondApsis
4.5 / 5 (8) Jun 20, 2012
Belief in hell, according to international data, is associated with reduced crime

Specifically what kind of hell? Is hell supposed to be one place? Is it Satan's homebase of evil operations?

I find it entirely bizarre that one can believe in an "omnipotent" god and also a devil who their god has no control over. How omnipotent is that?

Why would you a sane person want to even belong to a religion that had Satan as one of their gods. I suppose when you inherit a belief system, you're stuck with it if you can't rationally understand it's absurdities. I do admit though, an out-of-your-control deity such as Satan would come in handy if you require a scapegoat for your less-than-honorable actions.

Be a man! Be good for goodness sake!
PussyCat_Eyes
1.6 / 5 (13) Jun 21, 2012
Bullshit! Education and critical thinking is the bulwark for ethical behaviors and much more besides.

Absolutely! As an atheist, you discover you have to answer to yourself for what you do to others. You cannot be unjust and expect to get off the hook by having an omnipotent supreme being to forgive you for the devils influence. It is YOU who must maintain integrity. That is what most Christians get completely backwards.

Integrity, understanding, and empathy for the human condition are the hallmarks of character that enlightened beings come to realize. Those awakened to intelligent atheism understand that this recognition of human quality is essential to a sane, compassionate, and universally moral society. ALL good people, both atheists and theists, should realize this
- Mando

These qualities are not always prevalent in either theists or atheists. More so in atheists who may shrug them off as being for those of weak character and intelligence.
Mike Mangan
2.5 / 5 (13) Jun 21, 2012
Atheists are responsible for over 100 million dead in the 20th century. They are clearly not the people you want in charge of a civilization. Besides, have you ever met anyone as arrogant and annoying as today's fundamentalist atheists? Proclaiming their intellectual superiority over "religionists" has become a form of Tourette's Syndrome with them.
roboferret
5 / 5 (5) Jun 21, 2012
Atheists are responsible for over 100 million dead in the 20th century.

Swap "Atheist" for "Men with moustaches" and you can see how ridiculous that statement is. Correlation is not causation (BTW, Hitler was a self-professed Christian).
They are clearly not the people you want in charge of a civilization.

Yes, theocracies are great places to live, much better than moral-less atheistic hell-holes like Japan or Sweden.
Besides, have you ever met anyone as arrogant and annoying as today's fundamentalist atheists? Proclaiming their intellectual superiority over "religionists" has become a form of Tourette's Syndrome with them.

Yes, you for a start. There is a constant stream of prosletysing babble from the religious, on T.V, on street corners, knocking on doors - threatening honest folks with eternal torture, and it's been that way for 2000 years. The boot rubs when it's on the other foot doesn't it?
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.8 / 5 (26) Jun 21, 2012
Atheists are responsible for over 100 million dead in the 20th century. They are clearly not the people you want in charge of a civilization.
As roboferret points out this figure is religionist propaganda. Foisting it when correct figures are readily available is immoral. Lying is immoral is it not?

Religionists have fared far worse as leaders, when they should have been expected to do much better. Because they claim to be superior moralists yes? The Japanese emperor was worshipped as a god. Marx, while decrying traditional religion, frequently appealed to the peoples preconceptions of 'soul' and 'spirit', and so was clearly using the tools of religionists to construct his own.

Lenin, Stalin, Mao, hitler and the rest were sold as superhuman saviors with their own mythologies and extraordinary abilities. And their own special right to write their own moral code as a result.
MandoZink
5 / 5 (2) Jun 21, 2012
Atheists are responsible for over 100 million dead in the 20th century. They are clearly not the people you want in charge of a civilization.

Those who point out past atrocities by so-called "atheists" are significantly mistaken as to the fundamental nature of the people who committed those acts. While religious violence is carried out by extremists in the name of their religious beliefs, the frequently mentioned historic atrocities by non-religious tyrants were committed by maladjusted individuals. They were either paranoid, narcissistic, megalomaniac, psychopathic, totalitarian or a combination thereof. They did not have any comprehension of the inherent moral sense of human kindness that the majority of rational atheists come to know.

The mental imbalance of these tyrants was irrespective of any religious belief.
panorama
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 21, 2012
Proclaiming their intellectual superiority over "religionists" has become a form of Tourette's Syndrome with them.

[sarcasm]
You're right, it makes much more sense to put stock in a book that is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of an error ridden series of letters, second and probably third hand accounts of a supposedly magical guy that is also his own father.
[/sarcasm]
beyondApsis
4.4 / 5 (7) Jun 21, 2012
Those atheists are undoubtedly possessed. Since they say possession is nine-tenths of the law, then those atheists might be legally correct.

Logic, my latest hobby, is proving to be a real minefield.
Mike Mangan
2.9 / 5 (8) Jun 21, 2012
Yes, pay no attention to the fact that atheism is the only allowable form of religion in communist dictatorships. That apparently has nothing to do with the millions who died at their hands. Just remember all bad things done by "religionists" are due to their ignorant belief in a higher being. Wait, what...?
Mike Mangan
3.3 / 5 (7) Jun 21, 2012
Now, can any of you brilliant atheists tell from my prior post what religion I believe in? Or do always just assume things and let your bigotry run wild? Ooh, ooh, I can do this , too! I'm going to guess that you are all young, white, male, and raised in an upper-middle class environment. You felt unloved as children and you were angry little nerds in high school, ignored by girls and picked on by jocks. More than anything else, you embrace atheism because it makes you feel smarter than all the people who routinely rejected your sorry asses all of these years.
Am I right?
roboferret
4.3 / 5 (6) Jun 21, 2012
Yes, pay no attention to the fact that atheism is the only allowable form of religion in communist dictatorships. That apparently has nothing to do with the millions who died at their hands. Just remember all bad things done by "religionists" are due to their ignorant belief in a higher being. Wait, what...?


I hope you can see your own hypocrisy here. Your claiming that an atheists beliefs (rather, lack of them) makes them do bad things, but when a person of religion does it, you say that their beliefs have nothing to do with it.
Atheism is the lack of a belief in god/s. That's it. there's no creed, no moral code, just non belief. I don't particularly care what religion you belong to because all supernatural claims tested by science have been found to be false. I reject religion for the same reasons I reject santa claus. By the way, so-called communist countries tend to be party/personality worship (Kim Jongs, Lenin, Mao etc). And please don't use ad-hominems.
Deesky
5 / 5 (3) Jun 21, 2012
Yes, pay no attention to the fact that atheism is the only allowable form of religion in communist dictatorships

First, atheism is the opposite of religion.
Second, despot dictators shun organized religion because just like any mass movement, it could become a threat to their dictatorial rule. It's no different than banning protests or large public gatherings and imposing curfews.
Deathclock
1.7 / 5 (6) Jun 21, 2012
I'm impressed by how well the reasonable people here (I'll let you guess who I am referring to) have stated their case... for once I don't feel the need to chime in... in fact I might even copy this discussion to my facebook page for all to see.
PussyCat_Eyes
1.5 / 5 (15) Jun 22, 2012
Here's my 5 cents, 3 cents for inflation. Nobody really cares what atheists believe or not believe, as long as they're law-abiding and don't go crazy with their contempt for believers. Believers don't usually go up to people and ask them whether or not they believe in God, or any god. First of all, it's rude and unnecessary to ask anyone such questions. The same for atheists...it would be rude and a breach of etiquette to snoop into someone's belief system.
Why should it matter anyway? I don't ask the guy who works on my car engine if he's a believer or atheist and it wouldn't even occur to me to ask. But for some reason, on this website, it seems like a matter of life and death for atheists to explain their position on those who believe in God. And believers enter threads to extol the virtues of their religion as though they'll die if they don't push it. It's ridiculous to keep on this way. There are so many more important things to talk about than religion or non-religion.
Estevan57
1.8 / 5 (24) Jun 23, 2012
Go Oregon Ducks!
DarwinSaves
3 / 5 (4) Jun 23, 2012
It's disturbing that this study contradicts what you observe in the world. For one, non-religious people do not clog the prisons in the United States and to my knowledge, any other country.
Also, what religion has a Heaven, but not a Hell? And I can't imagine many non-religious people believing in either of these ideas.
And when you put into context that faith is lying to yourself for a divine figure, it makes one even more doubtful of the studies' claims. Additionally, it's sad that a study like this is being implemented when there are so many other factors to put into consideration for the claims of this study.
My gut tells me this study is an attempt by the religious to encourage others like themselves to maintain being a liar for a divine figure(s) until death, even at the cost of truth. Taking into context Intelligent Design and all the other ridiculous theological arguments for Christianity, my intuition does not seem so far-fetched.
Why is this garbage on this web site?
DarwinSaves
not rated yet Jun 23, 2012
To have people believe in either Heaven or Hell, you will likely have to convince these people that blind submission to an authority figures interpretation that anyone can interpret themselves is a virtue, and being stupid is favorable for the most important thing in life. Many atrocities committed in history have been conducted due to the latter, and the religious to non-religious ratio in prisons do not reflect the assertions presented in this article, but this study proves otherwise!
chardo137
1 / 5 (3) Jun 24, 2012
I don't know why you are all taking this so seriously. I quit believing most of what psychologists said many years ago. Besides nutritionists, no group who calls themselves scientists is more likely to get it wrong than psychologists. If by some miracle the psychologists happen to actually look at any data, they know what the answer is first anyway.
bob456789
5 / 5 (3) Jun 25, 2012
If there was a god, religions would not exist.