by David Briggs
Which religious concept is embraced by the poor, is associated with increased giving and service attendance and may help improve work satisfaction?
And is in general more likely to be rejected by Americans as their incomes rise?
The answer is Hell, which still retains much of its fury – along with potential social benefits and ills – in the modern age, according to a growing body of research.
The idea of a place of eternal damnation may not have the popularity of a place such as heaven, but some seven in 10 Americans believe in the existence of Hell.
And the more religiously engaged people are, the more likely they are to believe in Hell. Nearly eight in 10 Christian worshipers said they believe in Hell, according to the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey.
Other significant factors predicting belief in Hell include:
Race: Fifty-nine percent of blacks, compared to just 42 percent of whites, strongly agreed with the statement, “I believe there is a Hell where people experience pain as punishment for their sin,” according to the 2006 Portraits of American Life Study.
Education: Fifty-nine percent of high school graduates, but just 35 percent of Americans who have done postgraduate work, “absolutely” believe in hell, according to the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey.
Religious tradition: Nearly eight in 10 evangelical Protestants, but just 48 percent of Catholics and 44 percent of mainline Protestants, said they “absolutely” believe in Hell, the Baylor survey found.
Income: Belief in Satan, Hell and demons declined nearly every step up the wealth ladder, with people having household incomes of more than $150,000 being the least likely to express certainty about the existence of Hell, sociologist Joseph Baker found in analyzing data from the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey.
Hell and Satan can be mixed blessings for religious individuals, research indicates.
A strong belief in demons was consistently linked with lower levels of psychological well-being in young adults, researchers Fanhao Nie and Daniel Olson of Purdue University found in analyzing data from the National Study of Youth and Religion. They reported their findings at the recent annual meeting of the Religious Research Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
There are also more positive outcomes associated with belief in Hell, however.
Analyzing data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, Baylor University researcher Brandon Martinez found a strong positive correlation between belief in supernatural evil and church attendance, tithing and sharing faith.
Believing in the devil, Hell and demons also appeared to be a powerful predictor of self-perceived religiosity, with the odds of considering oneself “very religious” being 32 percent greater for each step up a scale measuring belief in supernatural evil, Martinez reported in an article on “Is Evil Good for Religion?” in the Review of Religious Research.
The 2010 Baylor Religion Survey found people who “absolutely” believe in Hell were more likely to report being satisfied with their jobs, to be motivated by their faith to pursue excellence and to say that the organization they work for has a great deal of personal meaning to them.
Several powerful biblical passages heralding rewards to poor people of faith and divine punishment to those who ignore their suffering also seem to offer special comfort and hope to disadvantaged groups.
Yet the millennial-old warnings not to place too much faith in the comforts of this age – lest one end up like the rich man in the Gospel of Luke, condemned to eternal torment while the beggar outside his gate is carried by angels to Abraham’s side – appear less compelling for Americans as they advance in wealth and social class.
With a major exception, Baker found in his study on “Who Believes in Religious Evil?” reported in the Review of Religious Research.
While social class had a more pronounced influence predicting lower belief in Satan, Hell and demons among those not participating in organized religion, its influence was “neutralized” for those people with a high level of religious activity, Baker found.
Hell still seems to matter for most Americans with an active faith.