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Does Belief in Heaven & a Forgiving God Lead to Higher Crime Rates?

"Belief in a benevolent, forgiving god could license people to think they can get away with things."

Can we blame God's mercy for higher crime rates? This is the seemingly bizarre question that the NewScientist is asking this morning, as the outlet explores eternal damnation and the ways in which faith interacts with, complicates and impacts criminal activity.

The focus of the article is a new study from the University of Oregon in Eugen, which seems to show that there could be a correlation between belief in heaven and a forgiving God and...breaking the law.

Dr. Azim Shariff, a psychology professor, and his team looked at global data that highlights peoples' beliefs about life after death and also looked at information collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The massive examination included 143,000 individuals living in 67 nations. Obviously, such a massive sample enabled the team to include a diversity of religious backgrounds.

In most of the countries examined, it was more likely that people reported a belief in heaven than in hell. From this, the researchers were able to examine the intensity and degree to which each nation's belief of heaven outpaced its acceptance of hell. The goal was to explore how differences in belief surrounding both post-mortem localities impact crime.

Interestingly, here's what the researchers found: Even after controlling for crime-related issues like GDP, income inconsistencies, population density and life expectancy, national crime rates were higher when nations believe strongly in heaven but have weak acceptance of a hell.

"Belief in a benevolent, forgiving god could license people to think they can get away with things," Shariff explains, but he cautions that this speculation is preliminary and that causation hasn't yet been proven between religious beliefs and crime rates.

The abstract for the study, entitled, "Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates" reads:

Though religion has been shown to have generally positive effects on normative ‘prosocial’ behavior, recent laboratory research suggests that these effects may be driven primarily by supernatural punishment. Supernatural benevolence, on the other hand, may actually be associated with less prosocial behavior. Here, we investigate these effects at the societal level, showing that the proportion of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates. These effects remain after accounting for a host of covariates, and ultimately prove stronger predictors of national crime rates than economic variables such as GDP and income inequality. Expanding on laboratory research on religious prosociality, this is the first study to tie religious beliefs to large-scale cross-national trends in pro- and anti-social behavior.

When exploring the issue, the notion that a weaker belief in hell could spawn greater crime rates does make some sense. After all, acceptance that heaven exists indicates that individuals see themselves as being rewarded for their lives on earth. However, the central underpinning of an unpleasant place such as hell is that people will be punished for poor behavior on earth. If a culture embraces the former and not the latter, then the only thing its inhabitants look forward to after death is guaranteed pleasure.

And when considering the existence of hell, one must also think through his or her actions. If, indeed, an unpleasant afterlife exists, people will likely try their hardest to avoid it. This, naturally, would lead -- one would assume -- to lower incidents of crime and other illegal acts, as individuals attempt to do good (or simply avoid doing harm) so that they can reach heaven.

Clearly, a study focused more upon the faiths that regard hell in a more fervent light would help to delve deeper into the issue. It will be intriguing to see what Shariff and his team come up with next.

(H/T: NewScientist)

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