I remember attending a talk a few years ago by my political science colleague John Huber in which he discussed cross-national comparisons of religious attitudes. One thing I remember is that the U.S. is highly religious, another thing I remembered is that lots more Americans believe in heaven than believe in hell.
Some of this went into Red State Blue State—not the heaven/hell thing, but the graph of religiosity vs. GDP:
and the corresponding graph of religious attendance vs. GDP for U.S. states:
Also we learned that, at the individual level, the correlation of religious attendance with income is zero (according to survey reports, rich Americans are neither more nor less likely than poor Americans to go to church regularly):
while the correlation of prayer with income is strongly negative (poor Americans are much more likely than rich Americans to regularly pray):
Anyway, with all this, I was primed to be interested in a recent study by psychologists Azim Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla, “Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates.” It’s published in PLoS One, which seems to be the new Arxiv: they’ll publish anything, and studies there seem to be able to get publicity.
Shariff and Rhemtulla find the interesting result that, in a cross-national comparison of countries with data from the World Values Survey, the prevalence of belief in heaven correlates with higher crime rates, and belief in hell correlates with lower crime rates. These patterns remain after controlling for some country-level variables including indicators for the dominant religion in the country. This result surprised me at first—if asked, I would’ve had the vague idea that belief in hell is associated with violent, unsettled lives—but it makes sense from simple psychology: belief in a pleasant afterlife reduces people’s inhibitions while belief in a punishing God could deter one from crime. One can also imagine these effects at an aggregate level whether or not they appear for individuals. A society with widespread belief in hell could have a more punitive culture in which crimes are more strongly frowned upon, etc.
Unfortunately the open-data movement has still not reached universality. All the authors’ data sources are freely available but the numbers have not been released with the published article; thus if I actually want to check the numbers or do my own analysis I’d have to put in the work of finding the data, downloading them, and reformatting. (I’m just as bad in my most of my own published research: I analyze publicly-available survey data but I don’t always have the processed data in a convenient form for others.)
I thought about this after studying Shariff and Rhemtulla’s (only) graph:
You can click to see the plot full-sized. I was stuck (a) trying to figure out which countries are which, and (b) puzzling over the crime numbers. I started with the US, which appears to have above-average crime numbers (check) and only 10% more belief in heaven than hell. I’d thought the difference was more than 10%, but I’m probably misremembering John Huber’s talk. Other countries: it appears that Venezuela and Guatemala have higher crime rates than South Africa. That surprised me, but hey, there it is on Wikipedia. But what about “SE” and “NO”—are these Sweden and Norway? There’s no way they have higher crime rates than the U.S. So I’m not sure what’s going on here.