The Divergent Effects of Heaven and Hell

One of the earliest lessons that I learned about religion that didn’t come from religion was that you can’t trust a priest. This is not to say that there are no priests who deserve trust; I mean it rather in the abstract sense- that if you know nothing about a person other than that they are a priest, you have no reason to trust them over anyone else. It was a hard one to learn, too. It took long years and many disappointments to make me understand.

The reason that it took so long is because the myth of religious respectability is planted so deeply in our culture that even atheists believe it. There are studies cited about how faith priming keeps people on the straight and narrow; of course, under the right conditions, so do cameras. In these studies religion plays the role of placebo for an authoritative observer and then people behave as though someone were observing and judging them.

P.Z. Myers responds with a good points; first that using religious discrimination as the basis for breaching social norms that ensure the livelihood of local taxi drivers in the hypothetical scenario posed by Bering is kind of a dick move. The second point is that the relevant numbers- likelihood of pro-social behavior correlated with a person’s overall religious attitudes- are not addressed in the studies Bering refers to. If you look at those numbers, religion doesn’t make a difference.

Of course, failing to make an overall difference does not mean that religious attitudes are irrelevant to behavior. Sometimes finding out the particulars about why something you would expect to have an effect does nothing in particular overall can be enlightening. And/or confusing. Last month PLoS published an interesting regression of belief in heaven and hell with tendency toward criminal behavior. It’s interesting for a few reasons. First, it breaks down religious influences by the content of religious belief rather than by attendance or strength of belief. That really isn’t something that I’ve seen a lot of and it’s definitely a strategy that I would like to see more often.

Second, the wildly divergent effects of belief in heaven and hell are something I doubt I would ever have predicted. The belief in hell seems to function like the cameras- deterring crime. Heaven, by contrast, seems to give people a license for criminal behavior. The effect appears particularly strong in the cases of assault and rape.

Finally the effect size is massive. We think of things like income inequality and urbanization fueling crime (motive and opportunity), but it seems that they get blown away by the effects of specific supernatural beliefs. Presumably these effects are generally hidden because the belief in heaven correlates strongly with the belief in hell and the diverging effects compensate for each other, but the predictive capability of belief structures is well beyond what I would have suspected.

There also seems to be a solid case that there is a causal relationship somewhere in there. The correlation is very strong and does not diminish when the usual confounding factors are removed. It’s not possible to say which way the causation goes from this (i.e. does crime increase belief in heaven or does belief in heaven increase crime) or whether this is an individual or social effect (is the person who believes in heaven more likely to be a criminal, or is his community more likely to have crime).

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