DOI: 10.1177/000312249906400603 ISSN:

Americans’ Increasing Belief in Life after Death: Religious Competition and Acculturation

Andrew M. Greeley, Michael Hout
  • Sociology and Political Science

A greater fraction of American adults believe in life after death in the 1990s than in the 1970s. According to data from the General Social Survey, year-to-year changes are significant, but the increase is most evident when we compare across cohorts and separate religious groups. Protestants have not changed; in every cohort 85 percent believe in life after death. It has been Catholics, Jews, and persons with no religious affiliation who have become more likely to believe in an afterlife. The percentage of Catholics believing in an afterlife rose from 67 percent to 85 percent across cohorts born from 1900 to 1970. Among Jews, this percentage increased from 17 percent (1900 cohort) to 74 percent (1970 cohort). Immigration is a key factor in this increase, as immigrants are significantly less likely to believe in an afterlife than are their grandchildren. We connect the increase among Catholics to the organizing and teaching led by Irish American priests and bishops. There is no evidence that contact with Protestants increases belief in life after death among persons who do not convert to a Protestant denomination.

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