It’s thought that religions serve as a deterrent against unethical behaviours.
Now,a new study has confirmed the idea after finding that criminal activity is lower in societies where people have strong belief in hell.
The study,published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE,found that societies where people’s religious beliefs contain a strong punitive component have a low crime rate 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,according to the study based on an 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 Shariff,a University of Oregon psychologist,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, Shariff was quoted as saying by the Daily Mail.
In his previous study,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, he said.
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.
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 behaviour.
There is less of a divine deterrent.
However,he added,these are correlational data,and so caution should be taken with the conclusions and more research is needed to explore other interpretations for the findings.