We have mixed feelings on God in these parts, but it turns out "He" had one thing right: if you threaten to punish bad deeds with an eternity spent in fiery misery, people shape up really fast. Or so says a new study that found that countries where there is a strong belief in hell also have lower crime rates. Who needs the law when you've got fire and brimstone?
The study was conducted by Azim Shariff, of the University of Oregon, and Mijke Rhemtulla, of the University of Kansas. They used survey data taken between 1981 and 2007 from nearly 150,000 people in 67 different countries. These people were asked if they believed in "Heaven," "Hell," and "God." The researchers then calculated crime rates using UN crime statistics that covered everything form auto theft to human trafficking. What they found was that having a stronger belief in hell led to less crime, but the same wasn't true for believing in heaven. In fact, those countries that had a stronger belief in heaven had higher crime rates, and the bigger the gap between the belief in heaven and hell, the worse the crime rate.
Interestingly, religious belief in general didn't have any effect on crime. According to Shariff,
Once you split religion into different constructs (a belief in hell versus heaven, for example), 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.
The researchers say these results fit with the idea that supernatural punishment was an invention of ancient societies which spread and took hold because it was so good at keeping people in line and getting them to cooperate with each other. As for why our modern ideas of heaven and hell are connected with crime, Shariff has this theory:
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.
True, but surely even if you don't believe in hell, you can bring yourself to believe in the proven possibility that you might spend a significant chunk of time in prison here on Earth, which you'd think would be as much or more of a deterrent than the faraway chance that you mind end up spending eternity sitting on an uncomfortable bench wedged between Ann Coulter and Donald Trump in a giant overheated room with no windows and not even a vending machine in sight.
But probably the real takeaway here is that people need something supernatural—bigger than themselves—to scare them off from a life of crime. So, in these times of deep budget cuts across America, maybe the way for police department to handle their thinly stretched budgets is to pull off large scale hoaxes instead of trying to patrol the streets. If the Devil's not enough to keep people out of trouble, rumors of a giant alien who's taken up residence in the local quarry and likes to feed on car thieves and flashers might do the trick. Is spreading such falsehoods unethical? Sure it is. But what's the worst that can happen? They'll go to hell for lying?
Hell Helps Keep Society Safe [LiveScience]
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