Fire And Brimstone

Topics that we are advised to avoid at dinner parties are politics and religion. When I was young and sometimes paid attention to what I was told, these two topics were basically separate. Now, however, they are all too often as entangled as a bowl of spaghetti.

The irony is that religion is oft times claimed to be the basis for our moral compass, while politics, well it’s just politics. The moral compass thought is an important one and important thoughts are meat and drink to our friends with a psychological bent who love to measure and in this case, measure how well we stand up to the claim.

Previous studies have been lab based. And the results have been both interesting and surprising. For example, groups who were given tasks to write about a god with either a focus on supernatural punishment or caring, benevolence and forgiving support showed quite different behaviors when it came to paying themselves for the work done. Any guesses? The supernatural punishment brigade was very honest, but the forgiving, benevolent brigade was quite dishonest with their overpayments. So the extant data indicated that fire and brimstone was a good thing.

Of course these were just lab experiments and Shariff and Rhemtulla decided to take on the world as their stage and set about meta-data mining on a global scale, reporting out on PLoS ONE (1). They rifled through the drawers of 67 countries for the religiosity level of >14k people and with the magic of the statistical officiando managed a rating per country.

The crime figures were gleaned from the United Nations for the same 67 countries and were analyzed in detail for crimes such as homicide, human trafficking down to stealing a car.

The results cover countries with all the major religions and the big elephant trampling around in our garden of complacency is, quote “The degree to which a country’s rate of belief in heaven outstrips its rate of belief in hell significantly predicts higher national crime rates.

The threat of fire and brimstone is apparently important to keep us honest and not overpaying ourselves. But it is not a great virtue if you watch your fellow citizens starve. Nor does it address the problem of the 1%-ers who overpay themselves to a frightening level and believe that the crumbs from their table are sufficient to “trickle down” to keep the rest of us well behaved and working hard.


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