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Let’s get rid of Heaven, Hell is what we need! (?)

In the beginning of this week, PLoS ONE published an interesting article suggesting that a country’s crime rates depend on the religious believes its population holds: Societies that believe in heaven are more criminal than societies that believe in hell.

For this study, Azim Shariff (director of the Culture and Morality Lab of the University of Oregon) and Mijke Rhemtulla analysed data on people’s beliefs the World Values Surveys collected over 26 years on 143 197 participants from 67 countries. In these surveys, participants were presented a list of concepts – including “heaven” and “hell” – and asked to indicate whether or not they believed in each of them. Shariff & Rhemtulla compared these belief data (using a series of linear regression equations) to standardised crime rates which they derived from statistics the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime collected on crimes like homicide, robbery, and burglary.


The authors found that in most countries more people believe in heaven than in hell. When they examined crime rates as a function of the degree to which a greater percentage of people believe in heaven than in hell, they found that national crime rates are typically higher in countries with more belief in heaven than in countries with more belief in hell. This effect is not only strong, but also stable when controlling for a bunch of variables that are often discussed as determinants of crime, namely poverty and income inequality (measured by GPD and Gini coefficient), national imprisonment rates, life expectancy, urban density, and also some personality factors.

So, does this mean that X commits some crimes because he believes in heaven and Y goes straight because he believes in hell – and that we can see the effects of this world-wide in our crime statistics?

Obviously, there are a lot of reasons why we cannot directly infer that from Shariff & Rhemtulla’s paper: The study is correlational, so causation might be reverse (higher crime rates in their society might lead people to believe in a better life after their deaths) or a third, still undiscovered variable might be underlying the effect. Moreover, we can assume that there is some noise in the data.* And, importantly, the authors investigate effects on a societal level, so we cannot simply break down their findings to individuals.

But yet we have reason to believe what the study’s author 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.” Recent experiments from his lab showed that students who believe in a forgiving God tended to cheat more in an academic task than students believing in a punitive God. Another (still unpublished) study is reported to show that people who were given the opportunity to commit a petty theft took significantly more money when they were primed on God’s forgiving nature, compared to people being primed on God’s punitive nature.

What do you think about these findings?
If a belief in hell leads to lower crime rates and a belief in heaven to higher crime rates, what should we take from that? Should we talk people out of their belief in a better live after their death even if this belief might be good for their health – and even if we believe in heaven ourselves? Should we tell children that there is a cruel and punishing God, even if this might impair their self-esteem – and even if we do not believe in hell ourselves? Or should what we say on the question whether or not there is a God, heaven and hell be purely a matter of what we regard as true? Is this the type of knowledge gained from science that should not be instrumentalised to shape society in a desired way?


* To give some examples: For each country the number of believers in hell was subtracted from the number of believers in heaven which makes a nation where everybody believes in both heaven and hell ending up with the same score as a nation consisting only of people believing in neither heaven nor hell. Moreover, we do not know what concepts of heaven and hell individuals from different countries had in mind when they were asked about their beliefs. And looking at the crime rates the different countries have been assigned – Sweden has one of the highest – makes me think that they are not totally “noiseless” as well.

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13 Comment on this post

  1. Nadira Faulmueller

    Accidentally, the comment function was disabled for this post. Comments are now open – and very welcome, of course! Sorry for the delay.

  2. I think the most practical option for people is to find a religion, which persistently reminds its adherents of Hell for those who consciously indulge in evil, and Heaven for those who consciously abstain from evil, and strive to do the good.

  3. I’m an atheist, but this makes sense to me. There’s the notion that a belief in god is required to be good, but it seems the opposite to me. If you believe in a god who forgives sins in exchange for belief, then you may as well sin up a storm…. unless you believe there’s a devil waiting to torture you for all eternity if you do.

  4. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thank you for your interesting post, Nadira.
    I take it that the philosophical question is it ethical to encourage a false belief whose consequences are beneficial?
    Let us assume that there is no hell. Further, let us assume that there really is proof that societies where a belief in hell is prevalent suffer less crime. (Personally, I believe the first assumption to be true, and the second possible but not proven. But that’s beside the point : let us assume that both are true.) 

    So back to the question, to which my intuitive reply is «no» : it is not ethical to encourage false beliefs, whatever the beneficial consequences (I leave aside the question of Father Christmas or the Bogeyman, as I think we should confine the question to adults).
    To go a little further, I think you have, wittingly or not, given a nice argument against consequentialism. Of course, it is likely that utilitarians who agree with my reply would argue that this objection can be overcome with a version of rule-utilitarianism. As always, one can always find an argument to support one’s ethical intuitions.
    Perhaps if a society in which virtue ethics was prevalent could be demonstrated to be to less crime-infested than those in which utilitarianism was the dominant philosophy, utilitarians would be obliged to advocate virtue ethics……

  5. Crimes are *a* problem. But there are many other problems in a society, and some of them might be more important. It might well be that bad health, corruption, bad governance or poverty totally overshadow the suffering and problems caused by crime. What really would be interesting is to check whether there is a correlation (say) with human development indices or life satisfaction and belief in hell. My suspicion is that there isn’t.

    There is a tendency to think that if X is bad and might be influenced by Q that we should do the influencing. But there might be far more important things Y and Z that we should use our “influence capital” to fix, and might even be influenced in the opposite direction by Q. For example, urbanisation leads to higher per capita crime, but that is outweighed by faster economic growth and better efficiency (in turn good for the environment and resource use) [See Geoffrey West’s PNAS paper on allometric scaling of cities].

    1. There never existed a ‘perfect’ society in the past, nor will there ever be a one in the future: the present, we are quite aware of. We are bound to have all sorts of problems, some minor and some major. Crime control is an industry control by very powerful forces within the governments, institutions and certain corporations. How else would the governments control its people that are not productive? Let the drugs flow like water, catch those with buckets and put them behind bars: easy, isn’t it? Running a prison is a highly profitable business: job creation, food and drug suppliers, security equipment and guns manufacturers, torture experts, lawyers, and so on. And here, we sit comfortably in our cozy offices with security guards and cameras, and robotically apply intellectual twists to arguments and data, whereas the real ‘Darwinian’ game outside operates on a totally different frequency.

      1. And what does the cynical perspective add (besides a sense of smug superiority)? What decisions should be made based on it?

        1. Well, the decision should be in the direction of ‘right education.’ Instead of indoctrinating children with the ‘Darwinian’ mode of thinking, teaching them to see their fellow citizens as a reflection of themselves would positively cultivate in them a sense of empathy: when Johnny looks into the mirror, he sees Harry and Sally. The current system of education teaches young minds to be ‘happy’ at the price of making someone else sad, i.e., winning and loosing: what happens to those who cannot win? Crime, perhaps! Or using performance enhancing drugs in competitions? So the goal of the education should be to produce a citizen who will live an ‘examined live,’ i.e., to cooperate, to respectfully coexist with himself and his environment, to exhibit contentment and satisfaction in all circumstances and so on.

          I am not being cynical at all. I am just watching the show through a different lens. Is there something wrong with that? If we are ignorant of X, does it mean that X doesn’t exist? If a placebo can contribute towards good ‘health,’ then what’s the problem with teaching children to believe in hell? Why do we have to tell more stories? Why not take it and see if it works.

          “It is better to fall in with crows than with flatterers; for in the one case you are devoured when dead and in the other case while alive.” Antisthenes the Cynic.

    2. It’s perfectly plausible that the decline in certain sorts of religion are linked with increases in certain sorts of crime. Sometimes morally good changes lead to bad externalities. Increases in women’s participation in the labour force** probably increased social stratification and house prices, but – on simple human freedom/libertarian/etc grounds – was still obviously the right thing to do. Likewise, belief in hell might have had some positive externalities (keeping people from crime) but it also had some negative ones (unnecessary shame, guilt and fear are three). If you think (as I do) that beliefs and policies are entangled in complicated ways (like spaghetti, but moreso) then you expect this, which is why you don’t just experiment willy nilly with institutions. I think it would be remarkable if beliefs, norms, practices and institutions didn’t hang together in a complex, unpredictable way.

      And that lack of predictability confounds the consequentialist calculation, since it’s hard to pick up all the second order effects. Attempts to install dogmas from the top down are usually unsuccessful – attempts to impose communist beliefs on the citizens of Eastern Bloc countries were stunningly unsuccessful, for instance, and I don’t see why we would expect a sort of Platonic Noble Lie to have any success, either. But let’s assume that we were cunning enough to install Noble_Lie_1.0 on everyone’s operating system (except our own, of course, since we need to be clear-headed about costs and benefits). (1) We’d have some issues with democracy since there would undoubtedly be collisions between our software and our other goals (ie it’s not clear that Noble_Lie_1.0 would align well with our other goals); (2) surely if it’s crime we’re concerned about, we’d be better installing some other software, say Empathy_1.5 or Social_taboo_6.8.11, instead?

      **Just to head off any crazy/angry posters who cannot tolerate the idea of good things having bad effect, let me add that I’m a particular benficiary from the freeing of women within the labour market – my mother was a pioneer in women’s aviation in NZ, a career that was frowned upon when she was at school. Her career brought her immense joy, and was benefical to a lot of others (many of her students are now airline pilots).

  6. I really enjoy this post. The article is a fascinating one. I’ve been on the fence regarding religion for years. I am spiritual, according to my own belief system, but not religious. Experience is the best teacher, and my spiritual beliefs reflect my experiences.

    I’m not surprised that people with strong beliefs in some kind of eternal punishment for doing “wrong” has proven to be such a strong deterrent. In my gut though I wonder if there is not something missing in these conclusions drawn from the article.

    I wonder if it’s not so much of an issue as to whether or not it’s individuals belief in heaven or hell as much as it’s an issue that people are taught, at least in my experience, about the connectedness we all share as human beings. Personal responsibility to other people is replaced by personal responsibility to a divine being who has the power to put you in internal punishment.

    At one time in my life I felt a strong calling to ministry. I’ve always felt I had what I would call a spiritual impulse, and my turning to ministry was the only way I knew, through past experience, to act on this calling I felt I had. Once being involved in the church I found I was expected to believe in spiritual ideals that I had no personal experience. This was very difficult for me to accept, though I tried to for a number of years. As I got to know the other members of the congregation it became apparent that very few people could describe to me a personal, spiritual, experience. Instead their “belief” seemed based more in conditioning due to their upbringing, in most cases, then a strong personal belief based on a personal spiritual experience.

    I don’t think it’s ethical to teach someone that there is a hell that there will go to if they’re bad. I have children and I don’t teach anything like this to them. I do teach them about personal responsibility to others. I live in the United States and looking in my culture I feel that they’re such a strong emphasis on people “getting what is theirs” instead of on being responsible to each other. With that type of mindset I could see how somebody who had a strong belief in a forgiving God might be more willing to do unethical things because their thought isn’t on what their actions might do to others.

    Also I feel that organized religion has a political agenda and controlling the populace with the dogma of a vengeful God was, and still is, effective. I feel that for the most part the belief was designed and perpetuated by people who wanted that control so they could “get what’s theirs”. Over time these beliefs have turned into tradition, and this tradition is a way of life for a large percent of the population. Personal freedom was never part of organized religion.

    I apologize if I seem to be going off on a tangent. This article touches on so many things and my mind wants to address all of them in some way. I can say that, as parent, I want to teach my children to base their decisions on the understanding that what they do impacts more than just themselves. In that way, I feel, that they will learn to cultivate a sense of connectedness with humanity and that connectedness, based in love not fear retribution from a vengeful God, I hope will be the measure they use when faced with the many choices life presents us.

  7. We mustn’t fool ourselves into believing a false dichotomy between heaven-belief and hell-belief; there is non-belief also, and it would be a remarkable fallacy to assume that non-belief is even worse than mere heaven-belief – that hasn’t been tested (and, indeed, non-believers are far less represented in prison). Presuming that the causal effect between hell and low crime rates is actual, I think it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that non-belief would be better still – my own intuitive take on this would be that people who believe in a god that endorses their instinctive morality but who forgives transgressions are more likely to commit worse crimes; those who believe in a god that endorses their instinctive morality and who punishes transgressions are less likely to commit bad crimes; and those who arrive at non-belief through rational skepticism are more likely to adhere to a consistent ethical system after much introspection, and so are less likely to act on irrational impulses and the delusion that god endorses their thoughts and behaviours.

  8. If you believe that you may well be punished for your sins then it would seem to make sense that you ponder whether you should sin or
    not more than someone who believes all sins are automatically forgiven, or that you may or may not be punished for your sins – depending
    on whether the police/parents find you out.

    Having spent time working with serious offenders it seems that most of them lack the same degree of self-control as other people.
    To make matters worse they had a very, very high degree of self regard and self worth. They really did not think that they did
    much,if anything, that deserved due punishment. Sadly I have also found this type of psychological state among “ruthless”
    businessmen who will do whatever they have to do to become wealthy.

    If you really think you deserve immediate entrance into Heaven upon your death – then why are you not a saint – after all what
    are the sufferings of this world compared to the joys to come. Of course your optimistic sense of wonderful worthiness may lead you
    to be somewhat blind to your faults.

    Now if you thought there was a very strong possibility that the way you have lead and are leading your life will justly lead to
    eternal punishment of the most anguished sort – then why do you go out of your way to be so bad ?
    Do you feel that none of your sins are forgivable so as long as I am numbered among the damned I might as well indulge myself
    what little time I have left on Earth or do you do it to spite the enforcer of the rules/punishments – as some do in Dante’s description
    of Hell.

    Perhaps growing up in a world where there is the “Divine Eye” that sees all and duly punishes all evil doing leads one to constantly
    reconsider one’s ethical actions. Now of course a confirmed Agnostic or a devout Atheist might well insist that they, and they alone,
    decide what they will do and no guilt feelings, or dread, or fear motivates their ethical decisions, let alone a non-existent God.

    But can they be so sure ? [ After all are they wholly immune from all societal influences/pressures and are we wholly removed
    from all religious influences as a society ? ]

    I was taught long ago that the conscience is a gift from God, something that we received through Grace.
    If the rain falls upon the good and evil, then perhaps God is abundant without measure in giving out consciences and so none of us have
    an real excuse when we do what we should not do – save pure ignorance.

    For the meantime I will work on being heart-fully sorry and with perfect contrition ask for forgiveness for the evil that I have done.
    Then, and only then, will I be grateful for the mercy that the Creator freely shows and gives to me and you and all of us – for we
    are, after all His Children.

  9. The world need to be in balance how you know that this thing is good or bad unless there was something bad in first place.My point is that there must be line a line the determine what is good or bad.Becouse to all human the bad is good and to other the good is bad.exampel wars is good for some and bad for others however the line say its bad whether you like it or not.Same things go for heaven and hell.Do good you be treated good do bad you be treated badly.As for forgivness this is out of argue becouse only god give it to peopel and other creatures despite they are sinner or not.Noone can oppose that becouse the lower cant judge or talk about the higher one and this is the law from the beginning.

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