Crime doesn’t pay, the old saying goes. What’s more, for those that believe in an afterlife – in heaven or hell – turning to a life of crime isn’t likely. But, if you believe there’ll be punishment in the afterlife for bad deeds you do in your current life you are more likely to stay away from crime.
Researchers at the University of Oregon found what the rest of us probably already knew – religions serve as barriers against unethical behaviors. But, taking it a step further, when it comes to predicting criminal behavior, the specific religious beliefs one holds is the determining factor. The researchers found that criminal activity is lower 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.
To come to their conclusions the researchers did a comprehensive analysis of 26 years of data involving 143,197 people in 67 countries.
67 Countries Studied
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 the researchers. The same researchers in a previous study found 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,’ they said. Once you split religion into different constructs, you begin to see different relationships.
In the more recent study, they 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. But, supernatural punishment is a very effective cultural innovation to get people to act more ethically with each other.
The researchers concluded that 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.