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Do we want Old Testament or New Testament jurors?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

This year at the conference for the American Society of Trial Consultants, there was a discussion about regional differences in voir dire and jury selection. One Bible Belt consultant mentioned that rather than only Judeo-Christian religiosity–she was often interested in whether jurors were Old Testament or New Testament Christians. That is, did the jurors believe in a God of vengeance and punishment or did they believe in a God of forgiveness?

This comment came back to me as I read some new (to me) research on how this sort of variability in religious emphasis has impact on our individual behaviors. It’s an intriguing twist on the research we’ve written on before about the impact of “eyes” on our behavior. That research has suggested we behave more morally when we believe we are being watched. New research says maybe not so much. Instead, whether we behave morally or amorally depends on just whom we believe is watching! Here’s a hint: Is it the Old Testament God or the New Testament God?

Researchers examined data from the World Values and European Values surveys conducted between 1981 and 2007. From this survey, they looked at belief in hell and heaven, belief in God and religious attendance. They also looked at crime data from United Nations records on murder, robbery, rape, kidnapping, assault, theft, drug-related crimes, auto theft, burglary and human trafficking. Additionally (these folks were thorough!) they included factors such as the dominant religion of the country, income inequality, life expectancy and rate of incarceration. As they examined this international data, they found the more prevalent a belief in hell (i.e., eternal punishment for bad acts) was in a given country, the lower the crime rate! In other words, the authors say, when you live under a belief in some sort of supernatural or divine punishment for your bad behavior–you are less likely to engage in bad acts.

So they decided to look at whether belief in an angry/punishing god (versus a loving and compassionate god) would have impact on cheating behavior in this country. What they found was that overall [self-reported] level of religious devotion did not directly predict cheating behavior. Nor did a [self-reported] belief in God.

This is intriguing as these are variables often examined in jury selection. This research says it isn’t the “degree” of religiosity that makes a difference. It is instead in your conception of just who God “is”–or rather “how” God is.

Viewing God as a more punishing and less loving figure was reliably associated with lower levels of cheating”.

And that relationship held even when they controlled for a number of demographic variables (e.g., gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation). The authors suggest that a belief in “mean gods” results in more moral behavior while a belief in a “forgiving god” results in our willingness to engage in bad acts.

Put another way at the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion [ICBSR] website:

“At least some instances, the fear of a vengeful God correlates with better moral behavior. Religious liberals tend to pride themselves in their tolerant religious views and their all-loving God. Yet it seems that religious conservatives, those who believe in a judging God, are the ones who actually act more morally upright. Religious conservatives act wisely precisely because they have the fear of the Lord.”

It’s an intriguing study to ponder in the context of litigation advocacy. If overall religiosity does not predict cheating behavior but your conception of just “who God is” does, we want to look at this more thoroughly.

Does your concept of “who God is” make a difference in your beliefs about the level of punishment deserved for bad acts?

This study (conducted in the Pacific Northwest) would imply it isn’t just the Bible belt where this sort of belief perspective makes a difference. If jurors tend to be harsh critics of cheating (for themselves), it stands to reason that they will be less tolerant of cheating by others, too.

Shariff, AF, & Norenzayan A. (2011). Mean gods make good people. Different views of God predict cheating behavior. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21, 85-96 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2011.556990

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