A couple of studies found a correlation between belief in hell and unhappiness.

Both studies only showed a correlation between the belief in Hell and unhappiness. But does believing in Hell make a person unhappy, or are unhappy people more likely to believe in hell?

“While we suggest that a belief in Hell leads to lower levels of well-being, these data cannot rule out the possibility that individuals with low levels of well-being are more likely to adopt the belief in Hell or that some third variable is responsible for this pattern,” Shariff and Aknin explained.

It certainly seems to me a very grim thing to believe – a place of eternal punishment for things done during a very non-eternal life. It’s a nightmare belief, really.

Belief in Hell may persist — despite its tendency to reduce happiness — because it provides a social function, the researchers said. Namely, the belief in a punitive afterlife may help promote ethical behavior.

“Thus, the belief in Hell, and religious malevolence more generally, may contribute to the encouragement of rule following, through the deterrence value of supernatural punishment, but may do so at the cost of well-being,” Shariff and Aknin wrote.

I don’t see why you need hell for that. You could believe there’s supernatural punishment without believing it never ends.


  1. freemage says

    Yeah, but Purgatory wasn’t scary enough. Also, once you eliminate eternal punishment, you free up the ability of people to decide that this (forbidden) pleasure, now will be worth suffering in Purgatory later. There’s even real-world experience to fall back on, there–many people I know who have gone through a temporary period of privation depended, in part, on memories of good times to get through it.

    So without capital-H Hell, you will see that suffering in Purgatory would be more endurable, not less, if you sinned for pleasure rather than out of malice. This breaks the whole control function of divine punishment in the first place. Someone who had a happy, healthy sex life would be able to recall memories of lovers and love shared, while someone who deliberately stunted their sex life, but indulged in hatred (for instance) would be left just wondering why they bothered.

  2. says

    I suspect that people who are unhappy for whatever reason believe in hell because they are unhappy, not the other way around. And I really don’t buy the idea that belief in hell is a deterrent to bad behavior in the here and now! I do a lot of outreach work with people in prison, and the bank robbers, drug dealers, rapists, child pornographers, etc. in my circle of acquaintances do not seem to have weighed the costs vs. benefits before they acted. There was something they wanted to do, and they did it. In every case I can think of, they might have thought they could get away with it, or thought they were entitled to do it, but they weren’t thinking about whether the possible penalty made the risk worthwhile. They’re sorry now, but on the whole, they mostly seem to be sorry that they got caught.

    I think we badly need to overhaul our criminal justice system, because if we want to have a safe, productive society, the threat of punishment for transgressing, “if you hurt me, I will hurt you worse”, is a lousy way to achieve it. We need instead to do more to help people to overcome their disordered thinking.

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    I don’t see why you need hell for that. You could believe there’s supernatural punishment without believing it never ends.

    I would hypothesize that it serves a dual purpose. One is to deter rule-breaking, where any sufficiently severe punishment would suffice. The other is to serve as porn for the righteous. How much better the righteous are than you, stands in direct proportion to how horrifically God tortures you for not being one of them. That, and titillating the little sadist in all of us.

    No wish fulfillment fantasy is complete without everyone who ever doubted you lining up to eat crow and confess that you are way, way awesomer than them, and that they totally regret ever misjudging you, just so you can personally tell them to suck it, whereupon they dissolve into inconsolable weeping. Hell is basically that. With demons sticking hot pitchforks in them for good measure.

  4. RJW says

    “…the belief in a punitive afterlife may help promote ethical behavior.”

    Belief in a punitive afterlife may promote adherence to the rules, however it’s doubtful whether that is, in fact, ethical behavior. It’s quite different from the belief in a set of ethical principles for their own sake, or that they provide a model for the way members of societies should behave towards one another independent of supernatural sanctions.

    It’s obvious that some religious “ethics” are remarkably stupid, inhumane or just simply barbarous, they’re reminders of our primitive and ignorant origins.

  5. theoreticalgrrrl says

    You can go to hell even if you’v been a good person your whole life. How you believe in Jesus makes a difference. You have to be the right denomination. When my brother left our church I was terrified that he would go to hell. So it’s not just fear for yourself, you fear for your family and friends if they don’t go to the true Christian church.

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