An intriguing new study suggests how religious belief can have measurable effect on secular society.
In recent years, research findings have indicated that individuals with strong religious faith are happier, have better health outcomes, and show greater flexibility during times of crisis than people without religious practice. But beyond individuals, on a broader social scale, how does religious belief matter?
Well, it turns out there’s a clear indication that the type of belief does make a difference beyond the individual. As reported in the June 2012 issue of PLoS ONE, the online journal of the Public Library of Science, there is a direct relationship between crime rates and the degree to which citizens believe in hell.
Small-scale laboratory testing has shown that people who believe in hell cheat less than those who believe in heaven. At the University of Oregon, psychologist Azim F. Shariff wondered if those beliefs might carry over to influence society at large, and with statistician Mijke Rhemtulla at the University of Kansas he went looking for an answer.
The two analyzed large datasets from 67 countries, with a total of 143,197 people, regarding belief in hell, belief in heaven, belief in God, and religious attendance. The data about belief were analyzed relative to those for the ten crimes for which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime had reliable statistics: homicide, robbery, rape, kidnapping, assault, theft, drug crime, auto theft, burglary, and human trafficking. Shariff reports,
As predicted, rates of belief in heaven and hell had significant, unique, and opposing effects on crime rates.
Whereas belief in hell predicted lower crime rates, belief in heaven predicted higher crime rates, both at the same level of significance, p<.001.
The report continues: “Controlling for the effect of belief in heaven, a 1 SD [standard deviation, a measure of confidence] increase in belief in hell resulted in an almost 2 SD decrease in national crime rate; conversely, controlling for the effect of hell, a 1 SD increase in belief in heaven resulted in an almost 2 SD increase in national crime rate. Analyzing each crime individually revealed the same significant pattern of effects for 8 of the 10 individual crimes (kidnapping and human trafficking excepted).”
You can read the entire article here, with its detailed description of methodology and statistical findings.
What are we to make of this uncomfortable information? Should it surprise us? Clearly, although this is likely not to be a popular finding except in conservative religious settings, the psychological and moral implications need thought. Will our personal security be at risk as more and more people claim to be “spiritual but not religious”? Is a higher crime rate merely the inconvenient price of a more compassionate spirituality? And just what is the intersection between psychology, sociology, and theology among post-moderns who prefer to focus on individuation as central?
Plenty to think about.