A new study just published in the journal PLoS One by University of Oregon psychologist Azim F. Shariff and University of Kansas statistician Mijke Rhemtulla looks at the “Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates.” They find that the fear of God works much better at keeping people on the straight-and-narrow than does belief in divine mercy. Laboratory studies had earlier found that having Christian undergraduates spend ten minutes writing either on God’s forgiving nature or His retribution for sins primed them for a subsequent task in which they could cheat. The students who wrote about divine retribution cheated considerablly less than those who focused on divine foregiveness. As the researchers explain:

“This pattern of results is consistent with theories highlighting the effectiveness of supernatural punishment–specifically–at regulating moral behavior and, as a result, group cooperation. These theories argue that human punishment is a highly effective deterrent to anti-social behavior within groups, but one that faces inevitable limitations of scale. Human monitors cannot see all transgressions, human judgers cannot adjudicate with perfect precision, and human punishers are neither able to apprehend every transgressor, nor escape the potential dangers of retribution. Divine punishment, on the other hand, has emerged as a cultural tool to overcome a number of those limitations. Unlike humans, divine punishers can be omniscient, omnipotent, infallible, and untouchable-and therefore able to effectively deter transgressors who may for whatever reason be undeterred by earthly policing systems.” …

If believers actually are primarily motivated to moral behavior by fear of damnation, it’s no wonder that they don’t much like or trust atheists.