When it comes to predicting a country's crime rate, sociologists typically look at such factors as income inequality and GDP. But new research suggests that a better place to look might be inside the religious beliefs of the population — or more accurately, their belief in Hell and the prospect of eternal damnation.

Religion is typically seen as a psychological defense against bad behavior, and even a form of social control. But as researchers from the University of Oregon recently learned, these beliefs can also translate to prosocial behaviors. It's often thought that "religious values" are what drives religious people to be good – but it turns out that it's the fear of punishment that's causing them to exhibit virtuous behavior.


This conclusion, which was reached by Azim Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla, was made after a thorough investigation involving over 25 years of data that consisted of 143,197 people in 67 countries. What they discovered was that significantly lower crime rates could be found in societies where many people believed in Hell compared to those where more people believed in Heaven.

What they also discovered what that these effects still stood once they accounted for other factors like economic and social well-being. The Heaven/Hell dichotomy within societies proved to be a more accurate way of assessing a country's potential for crime than the usual suspects. And fascinatingly, the difference had to do with the very nature of God's personality.

As an example, the researchers discovered that university students with stronger beliefs in God's punitive and angry nature tended to be the least likely to cheat on an academic task. But stronger belief in God's comforting and forgiving nature significantly predicted higher levels of cheating.


In terms of explanation, the researchers theorized that it has to do with an individual's take on the supernatural. From the Shariff and Rhemtulla paper:

This pattern of results is consistent with theories highlighting the effectiveness of supernatural punishment–specifically–at regulating moral behavior and, as a result, group cooperation. These theories argue that human punishment is a highly effective deterrent to anti-social behavior within groups, but one that faces inevitable limitations of scale. Human monitors cannot see all transgressions, human judgers cannot adjudicate with perfect precision, and human punishers are neither able to apprehend every transgressor, nor escape the potential dangers of retribution. Divine punishment, on the other hand, has emerged as a cultural tool to overcome a number of those limitations. Unlike humans, divine punishers can be omniscient, omnipotent, infallible, and untouchable-and therefore able to effectively deter transgressors who may for whatever reason be undeterred by earthly policing systems.

In other words, belief in a forgiving and kind God is typically used by people as a loophole, or excuse for bad behaviors. Belief in an omniscient and angry God, on the other hand, doesn't allow for that.


Looking ahead, the researchers are hoping to get a better understanding of how religion and prosocial behaviors translate to larger and more wide scale societal effects.

You can read the entire study at PLoS.

Via Medical Daily. Image via Shutterstock/Jag_cz.