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Belief in hell keeps down criminal activity, but belief in heaven actually boosts it, according to a pair of researchers at the universities of Oregon and Kansas.

Azim Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla scoured 30 years of international values-based surveys and found societies that put more stock in supernatural benevolence than supernatural punishment have higher national crime rates. The relationship is so significant, they found, that it is a stronger predictor of crime rates than are economic factors such as gross domestic product and income equality.

"There seems to be some relationship between supernatural benevolence or supernatural forgiveness that corresponds to higher levels of unethical behaviour," Mr. Shariff said in a Monday interview.

The finding that rates of belief in heaven and hell had significant and opposing effects on crime rates caught the research team by surprise. Mr. Shariff said it would be speculative to try to explain the relationship, but said he thought it might have to do with a person's faith they would be forgiven for their misdeeds in life.

"Something about supernatural benevolence seems to license people to feel they can get away with unethical behaviour in a way that they can't if they believe in a more punitive agent," he said.

Mr. Shariff said the study supports existing research in the field by showing that belief in a "supernatural punisher" serves as a cross-cultural deterrent for unethical behaviour.

The researchers tested the pattern across geographic and cultural boundaries and found the same outcome in Africa, South and Central America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada. The relationship also persists across nearly all major religious faiths including Roman Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, Hinduism, Shintoism and syncretic religions that blend two or more belief systems.

The only place where the pattern could not be found was in predominantly Muslim countries in Asia, where a nearly equal belief in heaven and hell produced little variance.

The authors cautioned that the pattern is a correlation, meaning that other unknown, intervening variables could be at play.

The researchers relied on World Values Surveys and European Value Surveys data for belief in heaven and hell, and standardized crime rates were taken from United Nations statistics. Because crimes are reported at different rates from country to country and definitions of crime are not standardized, Mr. Shariff said "there was noise in the data," but he added it came from the best sources available.

The study, titled Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates, was published June 18 in PLoS ONE, an online, peer-reviewed scientific and medical journal.