The study, appearing in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE, found that criminal activity is higher in societies where people's religious beliefs contain a strong punitive component than in places where religious beliefs are more benevolent. A country where many more people believe in heaven than in hell, for example, is likely to have a much higher crime rate than one where these beliefs are about equal. The finding surfaced from a comprehensive analysis of 26 years of data involving 143,197 people in 67 countries.
"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," said Azim F. Shariff, professor of psychology and director of the Culture and Morality Lab at the UO. "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, 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," Shariff said. "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."