Bringing in the Sheaves of Data About Americans’ Religious Beliefs

Heaven will be disappointingly crowded—and hell disappointingly uncrowded—if people are right about where they’ll end up. That’s one of the findings we glean from a batch of surveys on Americans’ religious (and quasi-religious) beliefs.

In a Harris Poll, 84 percent of adults said they believe in the survival of the soul after death. Within this cohort, 63 percent expect to go to heaven, while just 1 percent expect to go to hell. Six percent foresee a stay in purgatory, 11 percent think they’ll spend the afterlife “someplace else,” and 18 percent are unwilling to hazard a guess about their final destination. If the number of people who think they’ll go to hell seems low, given all the hellish behavior we witness, bear in mind another of the Harris findings: 84 percent of adults believe in miracles. In any case, belief in heaven is more widespread than belief in hell (82 percent vs. 69 percent).

While surveys consistently show the U.S. is more religious than other developed countries, many Americans believe the role of religion is diminishing. In a Gallup poll fielded at the end of last year, 56 percent of men and 45 percent of women said religion is losing its influence on American life. Among respondents age 18-29, the figure was 62 percent. Similarly, recent polling by Barna Research found 66 percent of adults feel religion is becoming less influential in the U.S. Barna adds an intriguing caveat, though: Even as a majority of respondents expressed the view that religion’s sway is weakening, 70 percent insisted that their own faith is “consistently growing deeper.” Nearly seven in 10 said their faith is “very important” in their lives, a finding roughly consistent with the 61 percent saying the same in Gallup’s poll. Nearly as many of the Gallup respondents (59 percent) said religion can answer “all or most of today’s problems.” Another bit of Barna research has found that baby busters—laggards in church-going during much of the 1990s—have been getting religion as they move into their married-with-children years.

In case conventional religion doesn’t cover all contingencies, many Americans are willing to give unorthodox beliefs a whirl. In the Harris survey, 31 percent of respondents said they believe in astrology. The figure was higher still among women (36 percent) and 25- to 29-year-olds (43 percent). Belief in ghosts was also higher among women (58 percent) and the 25-29 age cohort (65 percent) than among the adult population in general (51 percent). Twenty-seven percent (including 40 percent of the 25-29s) think they’ve already had at least one other lifetime before being reincarnated in their current form. For purposes of the data, though, each of these respondents counted as just one person.