By David Coppage

A psychologist has determined that belief in hell reduces the crime rate.

A finding like this might belong in the “Well, duh” category, but more interesting is the interpretation: what does the correlation mean?  Science Daily explained how a research team led by Azim F. Shariff decided to check the intuitive idea that worry about afterlife consequences tends to make people behave better.  They studied crime data covering 26 years from 67 different countries, and found that hope for reward in a blessed heaven is not enough; that hope by itself is actually a predicter of higher crime rates.  The fear of hell is what changes behavior:

“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.”

For instance, last year “Shariff reported that undergraduate students were more likely to cheat when they believe in a forgiving God than a punishing God.”  He published this in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  (There is not, apparently, an International Journal for the Religion of Psychology.)

The article recognized that “these are correlational data, and so caution should be taken with the conclusions.”  Correlation is not the same as causation.  As for what the findings might mean, the article did not explore whether heaven or hell have any basis.  Instead, it and the researchers appear to have assumed that beliefs about heaven and hell evolved by a kind of cultural selection.  “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.”

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