Fire, brimstone, eternal suffering — hell is not a pleasant concept. But research has pointed to the societal benefits of a belief in supernatural punishment, including higher economic growth in developing countries and less crime.
But there are also drawbacks, even in this life. A new study links believing in hell, and perhaps even thinking about it, with lower levels of happiness and satisfaction in life.
"It seems there is this trade-off," said Azim Shariff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.
In research published in January in PLOS ONE, Shariff and a colleague looked at international survey data to see how belief in heaven and hell affected people's daily emotional states, along with a more long-term measure, life satisfaction. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]
Because many, but not all people believe in both heaven and hell simultaneously, Shariff and Lara Aknin of Simon Frasier University in British Columbia focused on those who believe in one but not the other. In the vast majority of cases, this meant people who believed in heaven unchecked by hell.
Looking at survey data from 63 countries, the researchers found that the more a belief in heaven outstripped a belief in hell in a country, the happier and more satisfied the residents were. When researchers looked at individual responses, they found a similar pattern — people who believe in heaven reported greater satisfaction with life.
The survey data came from the Gallup World Poll, the World Values Survey and the European Values Survey. Of the 63 nations surveyed, Christianity or Islam dominated in all but eight. However, an analysis of individual responses found no meaningful difference in this pattern of belief and life satisfaction between members of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and those of non-Abrahamic religions.
But these studies did not rule out the possibility that miserable people are more inclined to believe in hell — rather than that a belief in hell causes people to be more miserable. To look for evidence of such a causal relationship, the researchers conducted their own survey, asking 422 respondents on Amazon's Mechanical Turk to write about heaven, hell or what they had done the day before; researchers then asked participants to rate the extent to which they were experiencing seven emotions: happiness, sadness, guilt, security, shame, fear and calmness.
It turned out the emotional ratings of those who wrote about heaven did not differ in any meaningful way from those who wrote about the previous day's activities. This suggests that the belief in heaven on its own does not make people happier, Shariff said.
"Religious people tend to be happier, or at least they report they are happier, and that is probably driven by the social aspect of religion," he said. Other research suggests that the social benefits of religion spring from the community and connections to others it provides.
Meanwhile, participants who wrote about hell reported feeling less happiness and more sadness than the others. This was true not only for religious people, but also for nonreligious people.
There are several possible explanations for this hell-sadness link, Shariff said. For instance, because hell is a negative concept, writing about it may prompt negative feelings for that reason alone. It is also possible that thinking about hell prompts nonbelievers to think about what they may face if they are wrong in their nonbelief, he said. Past research by Shariff and Mijke Rehmtulla of the University of Kansas revealed that countries in which residents put more stock in heaven than hell have higher crime rates, and the bigger the gap in belief, the worse the crime. The link, the two researchers say, is likely that belief in supernatural punishment suppresses antisocial behavior and motivates people to cooperate for fear of punishment.
This line of research fits into a larger theory about the evolution of religion that Shariff and others have developed. Historically, religion appears to have been a powerful force in promoting societal rules and fostering trust. However, effective police, courts, contract enforcement and so on allowed secular society to take on much of this responsibility. This shift may have allowed new religions — such as Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses, which emerged in the 19th-century United States — to strike a positive tone that does not emphasize hell, the researchers speculate.
A more positive message could have helped these religions recruit new members, Shariff said.