Does the threat of a highway to Hell deter a problem child? New study shows the complications of belief and crime.

A study is published which suggests odd things about belief in Heaven and Hell related to national crime.

Belief in Hell, According to International Data, Is Associated With Reduced Crime

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 journal PLoS 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.

Source: Science Daily

This is a tricky interpretation. But, basically, what the results say is you can not consider religious belief as one big influence on crime. It turns out when you split belief into a “forgiving benevolence” (Heaven), results tend toward more crime. When you split out just the belief in a “supernatural retribution” (hell), that deters crime.

The entire report is available here.

The authors write:

Thus far, researchers have focused their speculation on the idea that divine forgiveness offers individuals a way to cleanse their moral palate, and thereby feel more licensed to transgress again. That is, divine forgiveness, like its earthly variant, may act as a counter-deterrent. This hypothesis garners support from several related studies, but remains open to further testing.

But there are qualifications here. This is an interpretation of complex behaviors of individuals and their societies. Nothing is weirder to understand than human behavior because there are so many variables that you CAN’T control or measure. They note:

The present findings tie rates of belief at the societal level to national crime rates; the direct causal explanation for this effect is that individuals who believe in heaven and not hell take punishment less seriously and are thus more likely to commit crimes. It is also possible, however, that an intervening variable or variables are at work at the societal level. It may be that widespread belief in a forgiving god may lead a society to value forgiveness over punishment, and that this secular value in turn affects crime rates. In this scenario, an individual’s belief in heaven or hell may not directly affect her proclivity to engage in criminal behavior. The direct causal explanation is most closely in line with the experimental findings, but it could well be that both the direct and indirect mechanisms are at work. To assess individual-level effects simultaneously with societal-level effects, it will be necessary to collect data with both national crime rates and individual tendencies toward immoral behavior.

That sound REALLY difficult to do.

This result gives me shivers because it can be taken as justification for belief in the Boogie Man — the devil will get you if you do not behave. This selfish threat undermines a philosophical view that you do good because it’s the right thing to do that benefits everyone. So, to say that belief in a legendary hell (a fabricated story) should be promoted as a crime deterrent reflects on human’s basic nature of fear of the unknown and punishment that will eventually be rendered. But it leaves us unlightened and in dark ages. I’m pretty scared about going back there.

Comments and thoughts welcome on this one. I will update with links to others commentary if I find it. I expect this will make mainstream news (without the AC/DC puns, of course).

  4 comments for “Does the threat of a highway to Hell deter a problem child? New study shows the complications of belief and crime.

  1. badrescher
    June 19, 2012 at 3:42 PM

    “This result gives me shivers because it can be taken as justification for belief in the Boogie Man — the devil will get you if you do not behave. This selfish threat undermines a philosophical view that you do good because it’s the right thing to do that benefits everyone.”

    So true. Too many findings are easily overgeneralized and this is no exception. Best to work it into a bigger picture with other studies and withhold conclusions for now.

  2. June 19, 2012 at 5:43 PM

    Religious beliefs correlate with class and education to some degree in the U.S.. Without more convincing explanatory, rather than correlational, ties between beliefs and crime (given how deeply involved crime, police, and governance is with class), I’d buy that as a more likely factor long before I’d buy a link between supernatural beliefs and crime. Of course, this would not satisfy the evolutionary psychology (what we as anthropologists would call sociobiological) theoretical orientation behind the research (that supernatural beliefs decrease group conflict, and that’s why the existence of religion has been selected for in human evolution).

  3. June 19, 2012 at 8:47 PM

    People are motivated by desire and fear, to approach the former and flee from the latter. So, the results make sense. People will be, mostly, not always, deterred by the threat of bad consequences, whether from ‘belief’ in eternal damnation or just going to jail. The difference is, of course, using a fabricated damnation is a lie and jail is quite real. To the believer, it’s a moot point.
    Being forgiven is a reward, it feels good, thus the religious want more of it (so does anyone for that matter.) The dilemma is obvious, to get forgiveness you have to do stuff that needs forgiving. The cycle of sin/forgiveness is self reinforcing. One might say the church, via absolution, is encouraging exactly what it says it wants to discourage.

  4. June 19, 2012 at 11:14 PM

    I’m yet to read through the study, but I wonder how much the subjectivity of crime and a view of a state authority vs. moral authority plays into this. While many communities see a tight correlation between morality and the law, I’d imagine degrees of fundamentalism would contrast with this. This might be evident in the nature of the criminality, too.

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