While it’s been a long time—if ever—since weekly religious attendance characterized a majority of the American population, particular religious beliefs continue to be expressed by many, including the idea of a benevolent creator. Confidence in an afterlife isn’t a dead issue, either. We asked Americans about what they think happens when people die. Specifically, we asked, “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?” Overall, just under three out of four—72 percent—Americans said yes.
Mormons reported the highest rate of belief in a conscious afterlife (98 percent), followed by evangelicals, Pentecostals, and fundamentalist Protestants (94 percent). Even mainline Protestants only trailed slightly, at 93 percent. Nine in ten Muslims indicated their agreement, while varieties of Catholic American trailed them (with traditional Catholics peaking at 85 percent). Jews (58 percent) and Hindus (59 percent) were the least likely among religious Americans to believe in life after death. Predictably, those without a religious affiliation (or who called themselves atheists or agnostics) were least confident in life after death, at 32 percent. By contrast, Americans who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious, which represents nearly eight (8) percent of the population, were far more confident in life after death (79 percent).
Education has a rather modest effect on belief in life after death. While 69 percent of those with less than a high school education concur, the share of people who believe in an afterlife increases to 78 percent among Americans with some college education before dipping to 72 percent among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
While most Americans believe in some sort of life after death, not everyone holds a similar vision of what this existence will be like. Most major religions hold that there is some form of conscious existence after death, but they vary on the particulars. In keeping with the monotheistic faiths, we asked those who reported believing in life after death a few follow-up questions, including one about heaven and hell and one about a bodily resurrection from the dead—each a subject with which historic Christian teaching is familiar.
As expected, more particularized beliefs about the afterlife are less common than general confidence in the thing itself. Among afterlife believers, 68 percent said, “Yes, I think both heaven and hell are real places.” If we presume that Americans who do not believe in an afterlife also do not believe in heaven or hell, then belief that heaven and hell are real places can be said to be characteristic of 51 percent of American adults. An additional 8 percent believe in heaven only, but not hell. This is not a new gap; for years, belief in heaven has outpaced belief in hell.15 Predictably, religious service attendance matters here. Figure 3.2 reveals just how much: weekly attenders are about twice as confident that heaven and hell exist when contrasted to those who never attend.
While women are more likely than men to believe in heaven and hell, the difference largely reflects the fact that more women than men believe in an afterlife. Among those who believe in an afterlife, nearly equivalent percentages of men and women believe in heaven and hell.
Among major religious groups, Mormons expressed the highest levels of belief in heaven (83 percent), as well as hell (71 percent). Except for those with no religion, Hindus were the least likely to believe in heaven, while Jewish respondents were the least likely to believe in hell.
Muslims report the smallest gap between belief in heaven and belief in hell, with less than one percent saying they believed in heaven but not in hell.
Figure 3.3 reveals that those with at least a bachelor's degree report slightly less belief in heaven and hell than those with less education. Those with a bachelor's degree or higher were the least likely to believe in heaven and hell, with 54 percent believing in heaven and 44 percent believing in hell.
Will there be a resurrection of the dead?
The resurrection of the dead is a topic commonly on the lips of Christians—and some Jews—but one rarely posed to Americans on a large survey. Fascination with the subject is not, however, confined to the religious, if popular media and films are to be believed. But how many Americans actually believe that the dead will rise again in a bodily resurrection? Fewer than the share that believes in heaven and hell. Overall, 37 percent of Americans believe there will be a bodily resurrection of the dead.
As elsewhere when dealing with afterlife issues, the resurrection is most popular among Mormons, who exhibit by far the highest percentage of belief in it—94 percent of attending members said they believed—with fundamentalist Protestant congregants second, at 86 percent.
Unsurprisingly, Americans who attend religious services more often are more likely to believe in resurrection: 61 percent of weekly attenders report belief, while only 22 percent of those who rarely or never attend say the same.
As with belief in heaven and hell, Americans who are more educated are less likely to report belief in a future resurrection.
15 "Americans' Belief in God, Miracles, and Heaven Declines." Harris Polls. December 16, 2013. Retrieved August 18th, 2014.
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