In the Media

Eternal damnation, the punishment that truly deters criminals

PUBLISHED June 21, 2012

Nations with a strong belief in eternal damnation have lower crime rates, while those where religion emphasises eternal life in heaven have higher ones.

Religions in general have long been held to serve as a protection against unethical behaviour.

But when it comes to crime, specific beliefs appear to be a deciding factor, researchers discovered.

Their work was based on 26 years of data involving 143,197 people in 67 countries.

"The key finding is that, [allowing for overall religious belief], 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 Shariff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, who led the study.

"I think it's an important clue about the differential effects of supernatural punishment and supernatural benevolence."

He said that the team's finding backed up laboratory research but "shows a powerful 'real world' effect on something that really affects people - crime".

He added that when they simply looked at overall religious belief in different countries, they could not see any hint of a relationship to crime rates.

The relationship only became apparent once they looked at the specific beliefs in different countries.

"Supernatural punishment across nations seems to predict lower crime rates," he 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 behaviour.

"There is less of a divine deterrent."

The researchers, publishing in the journal PloS One, said that more research was needed to interpret the findings, as the data only showed a correlation not a clear cause.

But they pointed to a growing body of evidence that, they said, suggested supernatural punishment had emerged as an effective cultural innovation to get people to behave better towards each other.

Last year, a study showed that undergraduates who believed in a forgiving God were more likely to cheat than those who believed in a punishing God.

Another, by Harvard University in 2003, found that gross domestic product was higher in developed countries when people believed more strongly in hell.

Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation at Oregon University, said: "Although these findings may be controversial, dissecting the associations between specific belief systems and epidemiologic behaviours is an important first step for social scientists to disentangle the complex web of factors that motivate human behaviour."