New study reveals causality, but there’s conflicting data
“The primary purpose of religious belief is to enhance the basic cognitive process of self-control,” says psychologist Kevin Rounding of Queen’s University, Ontario, “which in turn promotes any number of valuable social behaviors.”
In his article in Psychological Science, Rounding reveals the results of a series of four experiments, where researchers consistently found that when religious themes were made implicitly salient, people exercised greater self-control, which, in turn, augmented their ability to make decisions in a number of behavioral domains that are theoretically relevant to both major religions and humans’ evolutionary success.
Those valuable social behaviors are often cited as the impetus for the anthropological formation of religion—to bring anonymous strangers together in society in unselfish ways. In this study, participants came in with a wide variety of religious beliefs, and were primed in religious terminology without being aware of it. Even when compared with morality- or death-related concepts, the study showed that religion has a unique influence on self-control.
The four experiments had participants enduring discomfort, delaying gratification, exerting patience, and refraining from impulsive responses. Yet the findings overwhelmingly supported the idea that invoking religious beliefs provides important psychological “nutrients” necessary for a variety of socially beneficial behaviors.
But What About Crime?
If religion grew from a societal need to enhance self-control, which, in turn, promotes prosocial behavior, what are we to make of the conflicting research published in PLoS ONE (via The Economist) by Azim Shariff at the University of Oregon and Mijke Rhemtulla at the University of Kansas? This research compared rates of crime with rates of belief in heaven and hell in 67 countries and found that though religion has been shown to have generally positive effects on prosocial behavior, these effects may be driven primarily by supernatural punishment. Supernatural benevolence, on the other hand, may actually be associated with less prosocial behavior.
In other words, the proportion of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates. These effects remain after accounting for a host of covariates, and ultimately prove stronger predictors of national crime rates than economic variables such as GDP and income inequality.
The authors write, “Indeed, these findings coalesce with theoretical and empirical work suggesting that beliefs in punishing and omniscient supernatural agents spread across historical societies primarily because of their ability to foster cooperation and suppress anti-social behavior among anonymous strangers.”
Perhaps it is the threat of punishment that makes religion “work” for societies. The first study didn’t differentiate between punishment and benevolence in religious behavior. However, these findings are correlational, whereas the first study’s are causal. Nonetheless, the two studies are interesting juxtaposed against each other.