Crime rates are higher in countries where more people believe in heaven than in hell, researchers have found. The finding emerged from a study into 26 years of data involving more than 140,000 people from almost 70 nations.
The results suggest that people are more likely to feel they can get away with criminal behaviour if they don’t believe they could be punished in the afterlife.
Academics discovered that offences such as murders, robberies and rapes were more common in societies where punishment forms an important part of people’s religious beliefs.
This means a country where more people think there is a heaven than a hell, for example, is likely to see more offences than a nation where beliefs are more equally shared.
The study, which appears in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, is the work of two US-based professors – Azim Shariff, from the University of Oregon, and Mijke Rhemtulla, of the University of Kansas.
They looked for references to hell, heaven and God in surveys that were conducted between 1981 and 2007 with 143,197 participants based in 67 countries.
The pair then compared the data to average crime rates in those countries based on homicides, robberies, rapes, kidnappings, assaults, thefts, car crime, drug offences, burglaries and human trafficking.
‘Rates of belief in heaven and hell had significant, unique, and opposing effects on crime rates,’ they found in the study. ‘Belief in hell predicted lower crime rates…whereas belief in heaven predicted higher crime rates.’
Prof Shariff, professor of psychology and director of the University of Oregon’s Culture and Morality Lab, said: ‘The key finding is that, controlling for each other, 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.
‘I think it’s an important clue about the differential effects of supernatural punishment and supernatural benevolence. ‘The finding is consistent with controlled research we’ve done in the lab, but here shows a powerful “real world” effect on something that really affects people – crime.’
Last year, in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Prof Shariff reported 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’, he added. ’Once you split religion into different constructs, 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. There’s no hint of a relationship.’
The professor added: ‘Supernatural punishment across nations seems to predict lower crime rates.
‘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.’
In 2003, researchers at Harvard University found that economic performance was better in developed countries where people believed in hell more than they did in heaven.