Oct 28, 2014

Heaven, hell and the crimes between

Belief in the hereafter, the argument goes, is really a means of social control.

As the old International Workers of the World song would have it, social unrest is suppressed by the belief that there will be "pie in the sky when you die." People are kept in line by the doctrines of eternal reward. 

Maybe the idea of heaven suppresses revolutions, but doesn't do anything to stop crime, according to a study by two American professors.

Azim F. Shariff, of the University of Oregon, Eugene, and Mijke Rhemtulla, of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, have charted the relationship between beliefs and crime statistics. They used international data sets that showed comparable numbers from places with high rates of crime, such as Columbia and South Africa, with low crime places such as Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. They also looked at values surveys from 67 countries around the world, which report rates of self-identified beliefs. Comparing these two data sets, in a peer-reviewed study published in Public Library of Science in 2012, they found that beliefs in heaven and hell were reliable predictors of how much the crime rate would deviate from the mean.

In fact, belief in the afterlife had a more significant correlation with crime rates than some more practical factors that are often thought to be the cause of crime, such as income inequality.

But the effects of the belief in the afterlife are a little more complicated than the IWW would have you think:
  • Where a societies have high rates of belief in heaven, crime is reliably higher
  • Where a societies have high rates of belief in hell, however, crime is reliably lower
That is to say, the study found that "rates of belief in heaven in hell had significant, unique, and opposing effects on crime rates."

This is at least a little weird, since heaven and hell are typically thought of together. Like peas and carrots, ying and yang, or the Lone Ranger and Tonto, there's a strong association between heaven and hell.

Not all religions teach symmetrical conceptions of the afterlife, though. And even when they do, it turns out that people are more likely to latch onto the idea of eternal rewards than infinite punishments.

As Shariff and Rhemtulla point out, in almost every contemporary society more people believe in heaven than hell. And the difference between the percentage of people who believe in heaven but not hell is the most reliable predictor of crime rates.

They write,
The degree to which a country's rate of belief in heaven outstrips its rate of belief in hell significantly predicts higher national crime rates. Statistically, this finding manifests in two independent effects: the strong negative effect of rates of belief in hell on crime, and the strong positive effect of rates of belief in heaven on crime.
As the Economist glossed the findings, "a little more preaching on the fiery furnace might be beneficial in this life, if not also in the next."

The Economist also provided a chart of what this correlation looks like:


The left-to-right axis shows the percentage of people who believe in heaven but not hell. In Columbia that's nearly 40 percent, while in European countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany, it's about 20 percent. In Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, on the other hand, about equal portions of people believe in hell and heaven.

The up-and-down axis shows the crime rates, measured by standard deviation from the mean. The data is from national reporting to the United Nations. Crimes measured here include rape, homicide, assault, theft, car theft, robbery, burglary, drug violations, kidnapping, and human trafficking.

While there are some serious outliers, when graphed this way, using these numbers, there is a clear pattern.

The authors of the study suggest that there is a causal connection between these beliefs in the afterlife and crime rates. Following some other psychological research on this question, they think the idea of heaven is associated with the idea of forgiveness, and allows people who have broken laws "a way to cleanse their moral palate, and thereby feel more licensed to transgress again." If someone believes in hell, on the other hand, they take punishment pretty seriously. They're less likely to do things they think will get them punished.

Interestingly, the study did not find a significant pattern for those who believe in neither heaven nor hell.

For atheists, the afterlife is irrelevant. Sheriff and Rhemtulla write that "for them, their lack of belief is not predictive of anything. Instead, the findings suggest that the lack of belief in hell predicts crime only for those who believe in heaven."

The authors of the study do caution -- though probably not strongly enough -- that this correlation between beliefs about the afterlife and rates of crime has only been shown on the societal level, not at an individual level. There is not any evidence here that one person's belief in heaven or hell has an effect on his or her behavior.

It may be that a man who believes in hell in a society that doesn't is more likely to commit a crime than someone whose neighbors all believe in hell just like he does. Conversely, maybe a woman who doesn't believe in hell in a society that does is less prone to break the law than she would be if she lived in a place where her beliefs were in the majority.

It's possible there's another variant that affects the causation. Perhaps societies where many people believe in hell also have stricter earthly punishments that deter crime. Perhaps, conversely, societies where people believe in heaven more than hell are also societies where communal bonds and social ties have been been weakened.

Right now, what the study shows is a correlation.

There are objections to the statistics, but even viewed skeptically, the study at least raises the question about the real effects of that vision critiqued in the old left folk song about "pie in the sky." Maybe it doesn't keep people in line. Maybe heaven actually makes self-forgiving lawbreakers.