Belief in an angry God is the strongest predictor of a country's crime rate

Illustration for article titled Belief in an angry God is the strongest predictor of a countrys crime rate

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.


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Hypatia Terran

Well, I find this interesting because for years I have come across data that shows a correlation between belief in God and higher crime rates, usually broken down by nation.

And as some other posters have mentioned, if the only reason men aren't lining up to rape me is because they fear punishment from their god (even though the Bible has a pretty nasty attitude towards rape) then those are people I fear, people that disgust me.

My mother, a devout Mormon, got in an argument with my sister and basically started yelling things along the lines of, "Well, if I stop believing in god what is to stop me from stealing and killing?!" My sister told me that she had never heard such a fearsome line from anyone, and I would have to agree.

I'm an atheist and actively volunteer my time and money. I don't do it because I think I'll be punished if I do something bad or rewarded for doing something good. I do it because it's good, right, and I believe that good deeds make the world better for all of us.

Edit: I thought more about the article and read through it again and I see more clearly now that is comparing more the discrepancy between emphasis on punishment vs emphasis on reward not a disparity between belief and non-belief. Just wanted to add that to clarify that I understand that.