Yep, it's true. Don't scoff. Here's part of the story, from my local newspaper:
In experiments involving 100 students at UBC, the researchers found that a belief in God doesn’t deter a person from cheating on a test, unless that God is seen as mean and punishing.
Students who believed in a caring, forgiving God were more likely to cheat — as likely, in fact, as students who professed no belief in God.
“When you look at the division between nonbelievers and believers, there was no difference in cheating,” Shariff said. “It doesn’t matter so much whether you believe in God, but what God you believe in.”
Shariff said he wasn’t necessarily surprised that students who believe in a punitive God would be less likely to cheat. That’s consistent with a “supernatural punishment hypothesis” that has long recognized that societies can “outsource” the time-consuming task of promoting moral behavior to a supernatural agent, he said.
“Rulers have known for a long time that God is an incredibly effective way of keeping people in line,” he said.
Shariff said he was more surprised that students who believe in a forgiving God were more likely to cheat.
“It almost gives people license to act in an immoral way because they have a supernatural agent who will forgive them regardless of what they do,” he said. “They’ll think, ‘It’s OK to do this because I won’t be judged too harshly because my God is a forgiving God.’ ”
All joking aside, the rest of the article is rather revealing, perhaps as much about the research criteria itself as the results. The piece reports: "Students rated God on 14 traits, half loving, half punitive, and could express belief in a God who was at once highly loving and highly punitive. On the whole, students were more likely to believe in a loving God than a mean-spirited God, Shariff said."
Without having seen the study, it sounds as if students had to choose between polar opposites that are, from the standpoint of orthodox Christian theology, quite misleading and misrepresentative. Further, it sounds as if the notion of "loving" in the study equates, at least in the minds of many of the students, to "letting me get away with cheating", or at least "will forgive me for cheating without asking for anything in return". That, needless to say, isn't a loving God, but a Dr. Spock-inspired, coddling, spineless enabler. And, on the other end, the belief that punishment is somehow part and parcel of being "mean-spirited" is equally misguided. After all, how many of the students, I wonder, believe that criminals should get away with, say, murder, rape, or molestation without being punished in some way?
A basic problem is that "love" is too often divorced from a sentiment-free view of reality that is rooted in the belief of an objective, moral order. If no such moral order really exists, then "love" simply becomes a matter of sliding-scale sentiment, in which one's subjective affections become the arbitrary and voluntaristic basis for relationships, order, and community. Not surprisingly, when people adopt this basic perspective, they read it back into their notion of God. Of course, as Benedict XVI pointed out in his Regensburg address, it was a voluntaristic understanding of God that led, step by logical step, to a relativizing of morality and the creation of a false love severed from any transcendent source:
In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which - as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated - unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul - "λογικη λατρεία", worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).
The understanding of God as love requires a proper grasp of two concepts not mentioned in the newspaper article: justice and mercy. God is love, indeed, but he is also the God of justice and mercy. John Paul II, in his 1980 encyclical Dives in misericordia, reflected at length on the relationship between these three—love, mercy, and justice—and showed that far from being in opposition to one another, they are intimately related one to another, even while being distinct:
In this way, mercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God's justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound. Even the Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection nevertheless love is "greater" than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice - this is a mark of the whole of revelation - are revealed precisely through mercy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up by meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and His mercy. Mercy differs from justice, but is not in opposition to it, if we admit in the history of man - as the Old Testament precisely does-the presence of God, who already as Creator has linked Himself to His creature with a particular love. Love, by its very nature, excludes hatred and ill - will towards the one to whom He once gave the gift of Himself: Nihil odisti eorum quae fecisti, "you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence." These words indicate the profound basis of the relationship between justice and mercy in God, in His relations with man and the world. They tell us that we must seek the life-giving roots and intimate reasons for this relationship by going back to "the beginning," in the very mystery of creation. They foreshadow in the context of the Old Covenant the full revelation of God, who is "love."
Man will, with a certain skewed logic, pit the "love" of God against the "punishment" of God unless he contemplates and encounters the reality of the Incarnate Word, who is the author of perfect justice but also the Lover of mankind. Benedict, in Deus Caritas Est, wrote:
We have seen that God's eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives. Hosea above all shows us that this agape dimension of God's love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity. Israel has committed “adultery” and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! ... My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8-9). God's passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God's love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love. (par. 10)
He takes up the same essential thought in Spe Salvi:
God has given himself an “image”: in Christ who was made man. In him who was crucified, the denial of false images of God is taken to an extreme. God now reveals his true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man's God-forsaken condition by taking it upon himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgement is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing. (par. 43)
To say, in essence, that it is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission to sin is to miss the key point: it is better to love, which includes loving truth and justice, which means loving others and avoiding actions—cheating, stealing, lying, etc.—that are violations of both human and divine love. God does not punish sin because he is "mean-spirited", but because he is holy and just. But because he is love, God does not stop with rightful punishment, but offers mercy and grace for those who are willing to accept the gift in faith and humility:
To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened. (Spe Salvi, par. 44)
If we only obey God because we fear damnation, we will be better off than those who misjudge or spurn the justice of God, but we will also be missing out on the true love of God, who, like the father of the prodigal son, waits for us to admit our need for him, our desire to be in his presence, our longing to come home and to be filled with the divine love of the Triune God.