Republicans and Democrats disagree about a lot of worldly things. One thing that unites majorities across parties, however, is the belief that this earthly life is not all there is. A large majority of Republicans along with a smaller but still substantial majority of Democrats believe in heaven, hell or some other form of life after death, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted Sept. 20-26, 2021.
Still, as on so many terrestrial matters, there are big differences between Republicans and Democrats in the specific beliefs they hold about life after death and who can obtain it.
Overall, nearly three-quarters (73%) of all U.S. adults believe in heaven, and a solid majority (62%) also believe in hell. More than eight-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (85%) say they believe in heaven, compared with 64% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Additionally, three-quarters of Republicans express belief in hell, compared with about half of Democrats (52%).
Pew Research Center conducted this survey partly to explore Americans’ views of the afterlife, including whether it exists and what it is like. For this report, we surveyed 6,485 U.S. adults from Sept. 20 to 26, 2021. All respondents to the survey are part of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education, religious affiliation and other categories. For more, see the ATP’s methodology. Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.
A majority of Americans believe in both heaven and hell, including 74% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats. But about a third (35%) of Democrats say that they do not believe in either heaven or hell, compared with just 14% of Republicans who say this.
In fact, when given the option to express belief in some sort of afterlife aside from either heaven or hell, a quarter of all Democrats say that they do not believe in any afterlife at all, which is much higher than the share of Republicans who express the same view (9%).
The religious composition of the two parties helps to explain these findings. A large majority of Republicans identify as Christians, substantially higher than the share of Democrats who are Christians. Conversely, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to be religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religion. Large majorities of Christians in both parties believe in heaven, hell or both, including 95% of Republican and GOP-leaning Christians and 90% of Democratic Christians. And in addition to being more numerous in the Democratic Party, religious “nones” who are Democrats are far more inclined than religiously unaffiliated Republicans to say they believe in neither heaven nor hell (68% vs. 47%).
But even among those who believe in heaven, Democrats and Republicans also differ on who deserves to get in. In general, Republicans who believe in heaven are more likely to offer an exclusive vision of it – as a place limited to those who are Christian or at least believe in God – while Democrats tend to say they believe that heaven is open to many people regardless of their sectarian identities or beliefs about God.
Roughly two-thirds of Democrats who believe in heaven say people who do not believe in God can gain entry, while a third say nonbelievers are excluded. Among Republicans who believe in heaven, a greater share say nonbelievers cannot go there (52%) than say they can (45%).
Similarly, Christian Republicans are about twice as likely as Christian Democrats to say their religion is “the one true faith leading to eternal life in heaven” (40% vs. 21%), while Democrats are more likely to say that “many religions can lead to eternal life in heaven” (65% vs. 53%). And about half of Christian Democrats (53%) say some non-Christian faiths can lead to heaven, compared with just a third of Christian Republicans (35%) who agree.
One subject on which Republicans and Democrats often agree is what heaven and hell are like. Among people in both parties who believe in heaven, overwhelming shares say they think that in heaven, people are free from suffering, are reunited with loved ones who died previously, can meet God, and have perfectly healthy bodies. In the case of those who believe in hell, strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say that hell is a place where people experience physical and psychological suffering and become aware of the suffering they created in the world.