Then He will also say to those on the left,
"Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal
fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels."
Among the famous stories of Calvin Coolidge's laconic quips is one about the day he attended church alone, his wife being under the weather that Sunday. When he returned, Grace asked what the theme of the minister's sermon had been. "Sin," was the President's reply. "Well," persisted the first lady, "what did he have to say about it?" Coolidge replied, "He was against it."
As developed in "You Never Have to Die," a cross-national study of postlife beliefs, not only are Americans least likely to harbor any doubts about a post-mortem existence, they are also most likely to definitely believe in the existence of the devil, the personification of sin and evil.
I first became interested in this particular belief when I happened across the following story in 1974 in the San Francisco Chronicle:
According to a 1974 national survey conducted by the Center for Policy Research, between 1964 and 1974 the certainty in the belief of God's existence has dropped 8 percent to 69 percent believing, while in the same period, belief in the existence of the devil had increased 11 percent, with 48 percent believing definitely in his existence with another 20 percent considering it probable.
How would you interpret these changes in belief? Certainly the years between 1964 and 1974 were an period of intense social change and considerable doubt about the goals of this country and the morality of the ways for obtaining them. Indeed, 1974 was the year of the moral crisis of Watergate as well as the continuing unpopular American presence in Vietnam. One may also note the demonic themes prevalent in American culture during the latter years, evidenced in the Exorcist-genre of movies at the time. More recent studies, such as Gallup's late 1990 study (reported in U.S. News and World Report's cover story on March 25, 1991), report beliefs in hell and the devil are once again on an upswing (along with angels and the use of gargoyles, our protectors of evil--one even appears in the new Denver airport, which hopefully is helping with its baggage problem) in the United States.
In the Spring of 1997, I asked my death and dying class to explore with me Americans' beliefs in heaven, hell and the devil, using the results of NORC's 1991 General Social Survey. A majority chose to analyze beliefs in the latter. Below are some of our findings.
Beginning the with marginals of responses to the question "Do
you believe in the Devil" we find that nearly two-thirds of American
adults believe that he probably or definitely exists:
|No, probably not||16.8%|
|No, definitely not||17.8%|
Not surprisingly, beliefs in the devil's existence are highly related with beliefs in heaven, hell and an afterlife. Among those definite about the existence of heaven (which is 63% of the American adult public), 86 percent believe the devil definitely or probably exists, compared with 50 percent of those thinking heaven's existence is probable, and only 6% of those believing heaven is probably or definitely not there. Among the fifty percent of Americans who definitely believe that there is a hell, 95% believe the devil definitely or probably exists, compared to 80% of those 21% of Americans believing hell probably exists, and only 6% of those believing hell is probably or definitely not there. While 78 percent of the three-quarters of Americans who believe in an afterlife believe the devil at least probably exists, only 30% of those unsure of or not believing in an afterlife think he exists.
Looking at the role of religion and religiosity, it is evident from the row and column TOTALS below that belief in the devil's existence increases with religiosity and the more fundamentalist the faith:
|NO RELIGIOUS AFFIL||26%|
Combining the Protestant faiths, we find Protestants are 13.35 percentage points more likely to believe in the devil's existence than Catholics. Differences in gender, age, education and religiosity explain less than 5 percent of this difference.
Considering how belief in the devil (combining the categories "definitely" and "probably" yes) varies among categories of the standard predictors in any sociological analysis we find:
Belief in the devil are undoubtedly historically related to times
of great social change when things are apparently going in unanticipated
and unwanted directions. Among the more interesting correlations that we
turned up is the relationship between belief in the devil's existence and
responses to the statement "In spite of what some people say, the
lot of the average man is getting worse, not better:" From the zero-order
relationship, it appears that not much is going on: 66% of those agreeing
the lot of the average man believe the devil definitely or probably exists,
compared to 64% of those disagreeing. However, when we look at responses
within categories of religiosity, some intriguing interactions appear:
|% BELIEVING DEVIL EXISTSS||TOTAL %
Notice how among the more strongly religious that it is those who disagree that the lot of the average man is getting worse who are more likely to believe that the devil exists, whereas the reverse is true among those who are not very religious or who have no religious affiliation.