University of Oregon Professor Azim Shariff and University of Kansas Professor Mijke Rhemtulla published an interesting study in the scientific journal PloS One finding that people who believe in heaven are more likely to commit a crime. It appears that the promise of fire and brimstone of hell is a far greater motivator for good conduct than the harps and cherubs of Heaven.
The study also found that people who believe in hell are less likely to commit a crime. A curious contrast. The data base for the study is huge — the professors collected data from surveys conducted between 1981 until 2007 with 143,197 participants in 67 countries.
The conclusion appears to be a bit of an extrapolation. It appears not based on individual accounts and actions but the comparison of national beliefs with national crime statistics. They compared the beliefs in these countries with data for homicides, robberies, rapes, kidnappings, assaults, thefts, auto thefts, drug crimes, burglaries and human trafficking. I was a bit skeptical about such an extrapolation since countries can have a myriad of different collateral influences. However, the professors do take these variables into consideration in reaching their intriguing conclusion:
Though religion has been shown to have generally positive effects on normative ‘prosocial’ behavior, recent laboratory research suggests that these effects may be driven primarily by supernatural punishment. Supernatural benevolence, on the other hand, may actually be associated with less prosocial behavior. Here, we investigate these effects at the societal level, showing that the proportion of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates. These effects remain after accounting for a host of covariates, and ultimately prove stronger predictors of national crime rates than economic variables such as GDP and income inequality. Expanding on laboratory research on religious prosociality, this is the first study to tie religious beliefs to large-scale cross-national trends in pro- and anti-social behavior.
However, there were individual behavior studies that were considered. In one such test, participants were allowed to pay themselves where there was a correct amount known to the participant. Those who believed in heaven on average took more money than they were entitled to. “Participants in the punishing God and both human conditions overpaid themselves less than 50 cents more than what they deserved for their anagrams, and did not statistically differ from the neutral condition, those who wrote about a forgiving God overpaid themselves significantly more-nearly two dollars.”
The study flips the assumption of many politicians who decry the rise of atheism as threatening our social fabric. It also suggests that human are far more responsive to the notion of threats in tailoring their conduct than redemption. A vengeful God with an appetite for eternal punishment appears to concentrate the mind more than those striving for eternal bliss.