Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Imagine there's a heaven

Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes regularly sponsor survey questions on unusual topics.  In a 2012 survey co-sponsored with the NY Times and CBS News, they asked "Assuming they both exist, which do you think is more important for the human race - Heaven, to reward the good, or Hell, to punish the evil?"  Although the meaning of "more important" is open to interpretation, my guess is that most people understood it as asking which made more difference for behavior.

About 85% said heaven, and only 10% said hell (5% volunteered that they were equally important). When combined with a fairly small sample (less than 1000 respondents), that means there's not much power to detect group differences.   However, I looked at what seemed like the most plausible candidates:

1.  Politics:   there was no clear difference between people who had voted for McCain and Obama in 2008.  People who said they hadn't voted were a bit more likely to choose hell.  There also was no clear difference by self-described political ideology.  There was a hint of a tendency for the extremes (very liberal and very conservative) to be more likely to choose hell, but it wasn't statistically significant.  The choice of hell seemed more common among Tea Party supporters and people who said the country was on the wrong track.

2.  Demographics:  Men and less educated people may have been more likely to choose hell, but the evidence wasn't strong.  There were no clear differences by income, race or Hispanic ethnicity.  Age made a difference:  younger people were more likely to say hell was important.

3.  Religion:  Now we get something:  people who said they had no religion were considerably more likely to say hell--22% compared to only 9% for people who named a religion.  The differences between Protestants and Catholics were not statistically significant (there weren't enough Jews or Muslims to say anything definite).  There was a separate question on whether they thought of themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians--there was no difference between those who did and those who didn't.

There seemed to be a tendency for people who were disgruntled or alienated to choose hell.  That makes sense, since it could be regarded as the more cynical answer.  The absence of a clear left/right difference is interesting, since soft-hearted vs. tough or optimistic vs. pessimistic views of human nature have often been proposed as a key difference between left and right.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

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