Why do we refrain from doing things we know are bad? Why do we sometimes do them anyway? What makes us choose one way or the other? Why do bad things happen?

Question like these have intrigued humanity for all time.

Of course, the answers we give have evolved over time. Demons, evil spirits, atavism, low self-control, delinquent peers, malnutrition, psychopathy — all have been offered. Of these, two camps have been seen as almost mutually exclusive: Religion and science.

Increasingly, scholars have begun to postulate that we don’t necessarily maintain strict boundaries between the two when we look to explain major life events, especially as we get older. A study published in the June issue of Child Development asks how people tend to meld "biological" and "supernatural" explanations for events such as illness and death.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that reliance on supernatural explanation tends to increase as we age. Moreover, they found that this trend holds across cultures and levels of economic or technological development.

"As children assimilate cultural concepts into their intuitive belief systems — from God to atoms to evolution — they engage in co-existence thinking," said Cristine Legare, assistant professor of psychology and lead author of the study. "When they merge supernatural and scientific explanations, they integrate them in a variety of predictable and universal ways."

Legare’s take-home point was simple: "The standard assumption that scientific and religious explanations compete should be re-evaluated in light of substantial psychological evidence. The data, which spans diverse cultural contexts across the lifespan, shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education or technology."

Another recent study entitled, "Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates," asks to what degree religious beliefs influence pro-social (i.e., good) behavior. The real genius of this study, authored by Azim F. Shariff at the University of Oregon and Mike Rhemtulla at the University of Kansas, is that they interrogate how belief in heaven and hell affects how people make behavioral choices.

They start by noting, "A growing program of research from across the social sciences now supports the long-held claim that religion positively affects normative behavior. Religiosity shows consistent positive correlations with charity and volunteerism, and negative relations with lax attitudes about the justifiability of moral transgressions. Moreover, experimental work has shown that religious priming increases ‘prosocial’ generosity and cooperation, and decreases cheating."

While this is all well and good, they note that it’s not quite that cut and dried. It seems that one’s proclivity to transgress is dependent upon how one regards the nature of God.

As they state, "research reveals the concept of supernatural benevolence to be associated with decreases in normative behavior. For example, university students with stronger beliefs in God’s punitive and angry nature tended to be the least likely to cheat on an academic task, whereas stronger beliefs in God’s comforting and forgiving nature significantly predicted higher levels of cheating."

In short, if you believe God will forgive you, you may be more inclined to participate in "non-normative" behavior. If you fear Old Testament smiting, you’re more likely to cool your jets.

Taken together, these two studies make for an odd juxtaposition of religiosity. In the first instance, we might reconcile some of life’s less pleasant or more mysterious events to God’s will, especially as we get older. In the second, our likelihood of less prosocial behavior is increased as long as we figure God will forgive us, in effect validating a life led by our own will.

Frankly, all of this leads me to a scene from the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou."

After breaking out of prison, three men happen on a deep water revival. Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) takes the spiritual plunge: "Well that’s it boys, I been redeemed! The preacher washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight-and-narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting’s my reward!"

To this, his companions, Everett (George Clooney) and Pete (John Turturro) debate whether divine absolution carries forth into more earthly matters — criminal justice in particular.

Everett sums it up, "Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the state of Mississippi is more hardnosed."

Ain’t that the truth.


Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com