Science: People Who Believe in Heaven More Likely to Commit Crime?

That seems to be the implication of this story by CBS News, which is headlined:

Study Finds People Who Believe In Heaven Commit More Crimes

I guess we should all stop believing in heaven in order to have a more orderly society.

Okay. Let's phone the Pope and give him the bad news, tell him he can start closing churches and winding down that whole new evangelization thing.

It seems the whole 2,000 year experiment has produced undesirable results, and it's time to close up shop.

Or . . . wait.

Maybe, just maybe, there's another possibility.

Could it be that this is just a misleadingly headlined news story from a press that doesn't understand how to report either religion or science?

Could it even be that this is one of the many, many "scientific" studies (1/3rd or more) that is misdesigned and are quickly (or not so quickly) corrected by other studies? There have been whole books written on that subject.

I can't answer the second question, but the answer to the first is a resounding "yes!"

Let's read a little bit of the story:

SEATTLE (CBS Seattle) — Believing if you are on a “highway to hell” could impact whether or not if you commit a crime.


A study published in the scientific journal PLoS One by University of Oregon’s Azim Shariff and University of Kansas’s Mijke Rhemtulla finds that people who believe in hell are less likely to commit a crime . . .


I just got whiplash.

The headline of this story promised me evidence that people who believe in heaven are more likely to commit crime. Now it's telling me that people who believe in hell are less likely to commit crime.

. . . while people who believe in heaven more likely are to get in trouble with the law.

Okay . . . we're starting to return to the theme of the headline.

But now it sounds like there are two groups of people: those who believe in hell and those who believe in heaven.

Maybe we should have these two groups of people battle each other on a reality TV show. They could live on an island and have tugs of war and eat icky bugs and stuff.

Or was that LOST?

Just precisely where are these heaven-believers and hell-believers supposed to live?

Doesn't the Christian faith (among others) teach that there is both a heaven and a hell?

I suppose that the study means to divide people who believe only in heaven and not hell from those who believe in both. But if that's what the study does, then that's what the story should say. It shouldn't convey the impression it does.

It's just bad writing.

On the other hand, if the study itself is parsing the data that way then Team Bigfoot is even further up the science creek without a paddle.

And we're dealing with not just bad writing but bad science.

The two professors collected data for belief in hell, heaven and God from the World and European Values Surveys that were conducted between 1981 until 2007 with 143,197 participants based in 67 countries. They compared the data to the mean standardized crime rate in those countries based on homicides, robberies, rapes, kidnappings, assaults, thefts, auto thefts, drug crimes, burglaries and human trafficking.


“[R]ates of belief in heaven and hell had significant, unique, and opposing effects on crime rates,” Shariff and Rhemtulla found in the study. “Belief in hell predicted lower crime rates … whereas belief in heaven predicted higher crime rates.”


Not exactly a reassuring quotation. Makes it sound like the study may have biases and weird data parsing built into it. But maybe not. Maybe it's just a quotation out of context and the study is fine.


They also found that a recent social psychological experiment found that Christian participants who believe in a forgiving God gave themselves more money for the study.


“Participants in the punishing God and both human conditions overpaid themselves less than 50 cents more than what they deserved for their anagrams, and did not statistically differ from the neutral condition, those who wrote about a forgiving God overpaid themselves significantly more-nearly two dollars,” the study found.


Shariff and Rhemtulla believe that the study raises “important questions about the potential impact of religious beliefs on global crime.”


Well, I think most people could have told you that if a person believes his actions will have only good outcomes (heaven, forgiving God) that he will be more likely to break rules, while if he believes his actions can have consequences, he will break fewer ones.

That's not exactly a shocking discovery.

And it would be interesting to know how much money was spent on "proving" this.

Still, it's nice to have scientific(-ish) concurrence with something moralists have been saying for centuries.

What are your thoughts?