The devil is in the theology: Supernatural evil and religious commitment

Americans find it is a lot easier to contemplate an eternal paradise than a place of everlasting damnation.

In the 2006 Faith Matters Survey, 49 percent of respondents said they were “absolutely sure” of the existence of Hell. Two-thirds of respondents said they were “absolutely sure” there is a heaven.

Ask people in the pews, and slightly less than four in five worshipers say they believe in Hell, while 94 percent say they believe in heaven, according to the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

But is something lost when only the more rewarding side of religious teaching is emphasized?

A new study suggests this may be the case.

Analyzing data from the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, Baylor University researcher Brandon Martinez found a strong positive correlation between belief in supernatural evil and church attendance, tithing and sharing faith.

Believing in the devil, Hell and demons also appeared to be a powerful predictor of self-perceived religiosity, with the odds of considering oneself “very religious” being 32 percent greater for each step up a scale measuring belief in supernatural evil.

In an article in the latest issue of the Review of Religion Research – “Is Evil Good for Religion? – Martinez notes past research indicating that belief in divine punishment appears to be related to greater cooperation and less selfish behavior. Heaven and Hell, some researchers have said, allow people to be more certain of what to expect from God, and in turn what is expected of them.

“I argue that the belief in supernatural evil is a pivotal component in religious commitment. … The belief in supernatural evil should hinder the natural tendency to free-ride and produce a greater sense of devotion to one’s religion,” Martinez writes.

Both themes, the promise of heaven and the dangers of Hell, can be found throughout the Bible, and are emphasized in traditional Christian teaching.

So it should not be surprising that those who are the most religiously active are the most likely to believe in Satan.

Nearly nine in 10 respondents to the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey who reported attending services weekly or more said they “absolutely” believe the devil exists. Less than half of respondents who attend several times a year hold the same belief in Satan.

However, there are significant differences among religious groups.

In the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, 96 percent of conservative Protestant worshipers and 82 percent of Catholics said they believe in Hell. Just 64 percent of mainline Protestant worshipers said they believe in Hell.

The differences narrow significantly when it comes to heaven. Ninety-eight percent of conservative Protestants, 95 percent of Catholics and 87 percent of mainline Protestants reported believing in heaven.

The temptation is great to downplay Hell and the devil, particularly competing in a secular culture that idolizes immediate gratification. But delivering churchgoers from the concept of supernatural evil may tend to empty rather than fill the pews.