Magazine article Insight on the News

More Americans Than Ever Embrace the Hereafter Now

Magazine article Insight on the News

More Americans Than Ever Embrace the Hereafter Now

Article excerpt

Four out of five Americans believe in life after death, according to a survey that has tracked such convictions in the United States for nearly 25 years. The meaning of this statistic is open to interpretation.

As the third millennium approaches, more Americans than ever before say that they believe in life after death. A new survey suggests that 81 percent of the U.S. population is convinced there is a heaven or hell -- or something -- awaiting them on the other side. The number of people holding this conviction has been edging up every year since the 1970s, when 77 percent said they believed in the afterlife, according to the General Social Survey, an ongoing study of the American population begun in 1973 by the National Opinion Research Center.

"The expectation of an afterlife may be the most central of religious doctrines because it asserts, in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary, that there is purpose and grace in the human condition"' says Andrew Greeley, best-selling novelist, priest and sociologist, who assessed the findings in a paper he delivered last month at a conference of the American Sociological Association in Toronto. "Humankind is born with two incurable diseases, life from which it inevitably dies and hope which hints that death may not be the end."

Although acceptance of the afterlife has increased among Catholics, the study found, it has remained relatively steady among Protestants for the last quarter-century. Catholics have just caught up with Protestants in recent years, a surprise to the researchers who note "the strong doctrinal orthodoxy of American Catholics on most religious (as opposed to sexual) matters."

And while neither the resurrection nor the world to come are central to Jewish tradition, more Jews, too, are inclined to believe in an afterlife. According to the survey, 48 percent of American Jews are convinced that there's life after death, up significantly from 19 percent 25 years earlier.

Most surprisingly, the conviction that humans survive death has increased from 44 to 57 percent among those who claim no religious affiliation. Researchers also discovered that people born in the fifties and sixties are more inclined to believe in life after death than those born in the thirties and forties. This trend seems to have been going on for several decades, with each succeeding generation more disposed to believe in the afterlife than the one before it -- "a shattering blow to those who think that religious belief in America is going down over time," notes Greeley. The turning point appears to have come some time between the Great Depression and the outbreak of World War II.

Not all the survey's findings have been analyzed, but they are tantalizing nonetheless: Married couples who share the same backgrounds, as well as widows, for instance, were found to believe in the afterlife more than couples in mixed marriages, couples who have divorced or are separated or people who are single. Whites are more likely to believe in life after death than blacks, women more likely than men, rural inhabitants more likely than urban dwellers.

Oddly enough, the burgeoning belief in the afterlife doesn't correlate to an increase in religious fervor. According to Greeley's study, church attendance hasn't changed, prayer has declined to a small extent and there has been virtually no change in the number of people who believe in God. Studies also show that belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible hasn't increased. …

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