June 20, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Belief in Hell Lowers Crime

A psychologist has determined that belief in hell reduces the crime rate.

A finding like this might belong in the “Well, duh” category, but more interesting is the interpretation: what does the correlation mean?  Science Daily explained how a research team led by Azim F. Shariff decided to check the intuitive idea that worry about afterlife consequences tends to make people behave better.  They studied crime data covering 26 years from 67 different countries, and found that hope for reward in a blessed heaven is not enough; that hope by itself is actually a predicter of higher crime rates.  The fear of hell is what changes behavior:

“Supernatural punishment across nations seems to predict lower crime rates,” Shariff said. “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.

For instance, last year “Shariff reported that undergraduate students were more likely to cheat when they believe in a forgiving God than a punishing God.”  He published this in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  (There is not, apparently, an International Journal for the Religion of Psychology.)

The article recognized that “these are correlational data, and so caution should be taken with the conclusions.”  Correlation is not the same as causation.  As for what the findings might mean, the article did not explore whether heaven or hell have any basis.  Instead, it and the researchers appear to have assumed that beliefs about heaven and hell evolved by a kind of cultural selection.  “The new findings, he added, fit into a growing body of evidence that supernatural punishment had emerged as a very effective cultural innovation to get people to act more ethically with each other.”

That statement does not elaborate on what, or who, caused supernatural punishment to “emerge,” or why hell would prove more effective than heaven, when PhysOrg just announced a contrary finding, that “Carrots, not sticks, motivate workers.”  Furthermore, assuming the psychologists are evolutionists (a safe assumption), they did not explain why evolution would select for ethical behavior in the first place.  After all, another PhysOrg article had just stated that “Evolution by definition is cold and merciless” (see 6/08/2012 entry).  Ethical behavior or cooperation should, it would seem, be regarded as contrary evidence to “evolution by definition.”

Maybe there really is a hell.  Did anyone consider that?  There is credible eyewitness testimony.  Maybe that’s why it acts as a deterrent, because it’s true.  A good scientist should examine all the evidence.  Since fear of judgment appears to be a natural trait of humanity, it would seem natural that a solution exists.  Fortunately, there is one.






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  • MwolfW says:

    One error. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus was a parable and not literal.

  • Escovado says:

    Actually, the story of the rich man and Lazarus was not a parable.

    After the Jewish leadership rejected Jesus (in Matt. 12, for example), he began to use parables in his public speaking to hide the meaning of his teachings (Matt 13:35). Notice that Jesus never uses specific names when he speaks in parables. Besides fulfillment of prophecy, some scholars believe that Jesus began using parables as an act of mercy towards the Pharisees because the more knowledge they had of truth, the greater their condemnation would be.

    The rich man and Lazarus is a straight forward story which has no indications of being allegorical, so it cannot be a parable. I believe it was a true account that Jesus used to convey information about the afterlife before his death and resurrection and as a forewarning that true repentance comes through faith in God’s word.

    That’s my two cents worth.

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