Britons Look on the Bright Side of Afterlife

by Josephine Mazzuca, PhD
Senior Staff Writer, Toronto Bureau

With the attacks of Sept. 11 and the intensifying of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle in the last year, religious conflict has become an issue of greater concern to many Westerners. One source of insight has been the examination of different opinions on the afterlife. In predominantly Christian countries such as the United States and Great Britain, attitudes are similar for the most part, but there are a few differences.

Most Americans believe in the existence of two possible eternal destinations for their souls: heaven or hell. While Americans are no more likely to say one destination exists than the other, Britons have a more positive picture of the afterlife -- they express a firm belief in heaven but tend to be a little less unified about the existence of hell. Religious affiliation, not surprisingly, influences these views.

Heaven

Over the past decade, Gallup has asked Americans a variety of questions regarding their views on heaven. In 1994*, an overwhelming majority (90%) of Americans said they believed in heaven, compared to 8% who said they did not. In a 1999 survey**, Gallup asked Americans whether they agreed or disagreed that if you are a good person you will go to heaven, whether or not you believe in God. Respondents were more divided on this question -- 44% agreed and 50% disagreed with the statement.

The British are also fairly likely to believe in heaven, although not nearly as likely as Americans. When asked in a 1999 survey*** if they believed in heaven, a majority (62%) said yes. From 1968 to 1989, the number of Britons who said they believed in heaven remained around the 51% to 55% range, before spiking slightly in 1999. A third (33%) of British residents do not believe in the existence of heaven, more than three times the number of Americans who held that view in 1994.

The 1994 U.S. survey indicated that Roman Catholic and Protestant Americans are very likely to believe in heaven. Ninety-four percent of respondents of each faith agree with this statement. However, Protestants are stricter in their belief that one must believe in God in order to be granted admission to heaven. In 1999, almost twice as many Catholics (63%) compared to Protestants (32%) agree with the statement "if you are a good person you will go to Heaven, whether or not you believe in God."

Results from the United States vary by religiosity. Ninety-seven percent of those who attend church on a weekly basis believe in heaven, compared with 93% who attend church on a monthly basis only, and 81% who seldom or never attend church.

In the 1999 British survey, respondents were asked whether they were self-described Christians or self-described non-Christians. Not surprisingly, the self-described Christians were more than twice as likely (77%) than their non-Christian counterparts (35%) to believe in heaven.

Hell

While both Americans and Britons are at least relatively optimistic about the existence of heaven, Britons are more skeptical (or perhaps more hopeful, depending on how you look at it) about the reality of hell. Approximately a third (32%) of Britons said they believe in hell in 1999, compared to 73% of Americans who expressed the same belief in the 1994 survey. While only about a quarter (24%) of Americans said they do not believe in hell, a majority (63%) of Britons were unconcerned about the possibility that a fiery destination may await the wicked.

Along religious lines, Protestants and Catholics in the United States expressed similar views about hell, with 77% and 80% respectively believing in its existence. In Great Britain, self-described Christians, although twice as likely to believe in hell as non-Christians, are more skeptical than American Christians regarding hell. Only 40% of Christians in Great Britain believe in hell and barely a fifth (19%) of non-Christians agree.

Again, the U.S. results differ depending on one's commitment to their faith. Eighty-six percent of weekly church attendees believe in hell, compared with 74% who attend on about a monthly basis, and just 59% who seldom or never attend.

Judgment Day

We are left with the eternal question, what will happen to our souls after we die? A majority of Americans and Britons believe that heaven is the ultimate destination for good people. While most Americans also believe in hell, the British seem to take a more cavalier attitude toward its existence. According to the 1999 survey, a vast majority of Americans (79%) think there will be a day when God judges whether you go to heaven or hell; only 19% disagree with this sentiment.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,016 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, conducted December 1994. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,037 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, conducted December 1999. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

***Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,013 British adults, aged 18 and older, conducted November 1999. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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