Yesterday I was interviewed on the radio and the discussion wandered to the issue of violence in schools and the recent school shooting in Connecticut. I sometimes get asked about this topic due to my background as a homicide detective, and I’m happy to share my three pronged (and hopefully balanced) view related to the issue. I do believe that one leg of this controversial “stool” involves the secularization of our culture. It’s not the only factor that is in play (issues related to gun control and mental health are also important parts of the equation), but I think it’s impossible to deny that a culture that slowly rejects the transcendent grounding of objective moral truth (and, therefore, an eternal consequence for violating such truth) will eventually become more and more violent. Current surveys and investigations have only confirmed this truth.
A recent study published by the Public Library of Science journal, “PLoS ONE” reported that criminal activity is lower in societies that are more focused on “supernatural punishment” rather than “supernatural benevolence”. In other words, the fear of hell is far more likely to motivate people to do the right thing than the promise of heaven. This is supported by a 2011 Harvard study that found that undergraduate students were far more likely to cheat if they saw God as loving and forgiving than if they saw God as punishing. A 2008 study also found that opportunistic selfishness is restrained by a belief in, and fear of, eternal punishment. Finally, a 2003 Harvard study found that the gross domestic product of developed countries was higher when people believed in hell than when they believed in heaven alone.
Now, none of this serves as evidence that our beliefs in heaven or hell are actually true, and as an atheist for most of my life, I simply argued that hell was an evolutionary construct that emerged within the species because it assisted us in “getting along” and surviving. But if there is no God, and evolution alone accounts for the existence of beliefs related to heaven and hell, this same process now seems to be moving the species away from such beliefs. As societies become less and less religious, the results seem less than beneficial. Evolution, as an explanation, seems rather slippery; it appears to be leading us toward an understanding of reality that results in more crime, more dishonesty, more selfishness and less productivity. How precisely does this benefit the species?
If an understanding of eternal punishment and reward is simply a social construction, don’t expect it to have any staying power. Unless the reality of eternal punishment is transcendently true, it can come and go like other societal fads and fashions. A healthy fear of eternal punishment has a long term benefit to our species only if it is grounded in transcendent truth. The fear of punishment must be something more than a temporary, useful delusion; it needs to be rooted in an eternal reality. Thankfully, it is.