Monday, August 24, 2009

Most Americans Believe In Hell—Most of My Readers Don't

According to the latest Pew Forum poll, 59% of Americans believe in hell. This poll is consistent with other recent polls that confirm that slightly more than half of Americans believe that hell exists. Traditionally, hell is considered to be a place of eternal torment where nonbelievers go to be punished forever after they die.

Among the industrialized democracies, this level of belief in hell is uniquely American. European countries usually poll around 10-20% for belief in hell. America is truly different in this particular way.

Apparently the readers of my blog do not agree with the majority position on this question. Not a single person out of 45 respondents to my unscientific poll voted Yes for the traditional view.

Among the other choices that I offered, 71% of voters picked the simple, straightforward choice that hell is not real. About 40% say hell is real, but only in our minds. About 13% think hell is real, but only on this earth, a view that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in Ebony magazine 48 years ago. The numbers do not add up to 100% because voting for more than one option was allowed.

Does any of this matter? I think religious beliefs influence the way we weave our social fabric. For example, in the current debate over health care, it is clear that Americans view this issue very differently from the rest of the industrialized world. Something that seems completely normal and natural to most of the world, namely universal health care, seems to be extraordinarily upsetting to many Americans. This reaction is too extreme and too visceral to be simply a matter of economics. People react to this idea as if it were the end of American civilization. Something else is going on beneath the surface.

I believe that part of our uniquely American and deeply troubling response to the possibility of universal health care has to do with religion. From the Calvinism of the pilgrims to the evangelicalism of the religious right, our society has long harbored an unconscious tendency to see the human family as split, divided by God into the saved and the damned, God's people and the outsiders. That is what the hell story is all about. Some will win and others will lose in life.

When you mix this deeply divisive religious component of our culture with the extreme individualism of the pioneer movement and the insensitivity of unregulated capitalism, you get a society that distrusts any idea or program that seeks to serve all the people without dividing them into winners and losers. The uniquely high level of belief in hell in America is one of the components of our deep suspicion of universal solutions to anything.

This divided way of looking at the world may have worked, or appeared to work, on the frontier, at least if one were not a Native American or an African slave. But in the 21st century, characterized by interdependence and the need for cooperation, it is a formula for failure, both moral and economic. It is time for us to change. Do you agree?


  1. You make an excellent point! The doctrine of Hell, specifically, and the dichotomizing of humanity in general, certainly does have a way of lulling people into moral duplicity.

    I've actually written an entire book on this topic--"Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell," (for anyone interested, one can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website:, and the point you make is very complimentary to the chapter of my book entitled "Why Hell Retards Morality."

    It will be very interesting to see what happens to our general sense of responsibility for the suffering of others, as I surely hope it does, should more and more people reject the doctrine of Hell in the coming years.

  2. Thank you for articulating what must be going on regarding the strong reaction over health care (insurance) reform. If I could have responded to the woman at the forum a week or so ago who exclaimed, "I want my country back!", I would have said, it is not "your" country, it is OUR country, and there is no "going back". The artificial sunnyness of the 50's died with the assassinations of Jack, Bobby, and Martin. The wars brought on by the power hungry (both East and West)have and are changing our country and this world daily.
    Yes, much of this hell on earth has been caused by greed. The greed of Wall street, the greed of realtors and other unregulated power brokers,the greed of power mad religeous leaders here and in the middle east. So here we are today, with the president being held up as the cause for all that was placed in motion before he came into office. The religeous right whose ears are glued to the Limbaugh radio, to the FOX network, are all taking this selfish stand of not wanting helath care reform because it might change their fragile footing. They have so little control over anything in their worlds, that they have taken up this reform topic as a personal vendetta. I see the anger that people display in their rude driving habits, and their "me first" attitudes at the groocery store, and on the ugly reality shows that feed so many small minds. Civility has been replaced with utter selfishness. These are some of the reasons I believe hell is here on earth. If there is a "real' hell, it will become very crowded, very fast.

  3. Nicely put, Michael. Thanks.

  4. i was one person who voted that hell was only in our minds... because for me it is. i have an anxiety and panic disorder, and i guess i am ok with the whole world knowing it because i am posting it here for all of you to see!

    when my *mental illness* gets the best of me, i experience hell. i believe in it. i have been there and back again. (and back again feels like heaven, let me tell you!)

    so if anything, perhaps a belief in hell- the way we humans often suffer with physical and mental illness- should be a GOOD reason for acessible and affordable health care for all. to know other humans suffer should be reason enough for us to love one another- and want what we would want for ourselves.

    jen mcdaniel

  5. and btw, michael, i so enjoy your blog articles. i have many nods of agreement and "ahhs" of discovery. your statements are like fertile seeds planted in the furrows of our community. first they lie still...and then they begin to grow!

    jen mcdaniel

  6. Rick Lannoye,
    Thank you for your comment. I took a look at your website and the Table of Contents of your book which I will read more carefully soon. We have a number of areas of common interest and agreement. How the hell doctrine negatively impacts morality is one of them. I appreciate your thoughts.

  7. jen mcdaniel,
    I also perceive hell to have meaning to describe a state of mind that we can sometimes experience. One of the things that impresses me about your experience is that you come back! That version of the hell story makes sense. We may go through hell but we can get out! It's not eternal. Many myths tell that story, the journey to hell and the return. Part of my concern with the orthodox version is the idea that one can never get out. There is a big difference between those two ways of looking at it. Thanks for your interest and insight.

  8. Anonymous,
    Yes, greed is a big piece of the puzzle. Both capitalist greed and the theology of saved and damned see the world as divided into winners and losers. I don't think this is an accident. This similarity in outlook is one way of beginning to understand the strange alliance between the religious right and big business. I don't think capitalism is inherently bad, but it needs to be tempered with more compassionate values to be morally acceptable. The hell mythology doesn't supply that compassion but rather accentuates (and sanctifies) the gap between winners and losers. Thanks for the comment.