New research published in PLoS ONE claims to have found an interesting correlation between belief in a heaven or hell, and the effect of this on national crime rates. The data on religious belief were collected from World and European Value Surveys between 1981 and 2007, and came from 143.000 people in 67 countries. What they found was this :
The present analysis has uncovered two strong, unique, and reliable relations between religious belief and national crime rates. 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. Statistically, this finding manifests in two independent effects: the strong negative effect of rates of belief in hell on crime, and the strong positive effect of rates of belief in heaven on crime. Both of these effects follow from predictions based on recent laboratory findings ,  and on theories that ascribe socio-cultural functions of religions . 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.
I don’t know about this, especially the hell part. For one, this research seems to ignore the really huge pink elephant in the room, which is the fact that prisons (to a relatively higher degree that society) are full with religious people, not unbelievers. And secondly, as far as I’m aware the fear of punishment doesn’t prevent crime, it’s the prospect of getting caught that deters from committing one. So maybe it’s not so much the fear of burning in hell that prevents some religious people from committing a crime, but rather this notion of believers that their god knows everything, and that he will know what they did come Judgment Day.
Then again, if the rate of belief in heaven (or a higher heaven/hell ratio) is indeed positively correlated with higher crime rates, there might be something to it !
The thought that belief in a punishing supernatural agent may have fostered cooperation and suppressed antisocial behaviour in previous societies is not new, and there is likely some truth to it. But I doubt that this theory can be applied to the 21st century, when some of the highest crime rates are today found in places with high religiosity, like the USA or India, and when we have countries with relatively low crime rates and low religiosity, like for example in Scandinavia.
Here is the thing that I don’t quite understand : If the death penalty does not deter from crime, in particular homicide, then why should the belief in a hell ? Maybe some religious person can explain it to me in the comments.