Belief in heaven and hell – Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I examined global variations in the prevalence of belief in heaven or hell, both in the total adult population and among Christians and those with other religious affiliations. I found that the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell among Christians in the USA is much higher than in any of the “West” culture zones, or the Orthodox East. In the developed countries other than the USA, only 52% of Christians say they believe in heaven, and significantly fewer say they believe in hell (42%). In contrast, Christians in the USA have a much higher level of belief, and similar levels of belief in heaven (85%) and hell (81%).

In social media, I’ve seen quite a few questions from Christians to atheists, essentially asking why they do not fear going to hell. And responses from atheists like myself, who simply cannot imagine how anyone could believe that a supposedly loving god would condemn people to eternal torture for a list of transgressions which seem to vary across flavors of Christianity and to be cherry-picked from a long list of sins mainly appearing in the Old Testament. A good starting point for understanding such different views are the levels and stages of moral development identified by Kohlberg [1]

Kohlberg’s theory proposes that there are three levels of moral development, with each level split into two stages. Kohlberg suggested that people move through these stages in a fixed order, and that moral understanding is linked to cognitive development. The three levels of moral reasoning include preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

The preconventional level is characterized by a morality determined by fear of punishment or expectation of reward. At the conventional level, moral decisions are based on the expectations of social groups or society at large. In modern societies, most children transition from the preconventional level around age 8-10 years to the conventional level. In late adolescence or adulthood, some adults move to the postconventional level, in which inter-individual’s judgements of good and bad become influenced by universal moral principles. If necessary, people at stage 6 may well take actions based on moral assessments derived from universal values, even if they conflict with laws and societal values. Kohlberg had relatively limited empirical data and estimated that around 10-15% of adults in developed countries reached the postconventional level.

There has been controversy around Kohlberg’s theory, particularly as to universality and applicability in non-Western cultures and as to whether people progress in a regular sequence through the levels and stages. Some studies that found around 20-30% of people appeared to regress to a lower stage in the years after finishing high school, and this led Kohlberg to refine his criteria to minimize the apparent regression by raising the threshold for the postconventional level. However, this resulted in lower prevalences of people at postconventional level, and some researchers argued that the postconventional level was not universal but specific to “Western” culture [2].

A 2007 review [3] of 120 studies in 42 countries found that “Kohlberg was in principle correct regarding the universality of basic moral judgment development, moral values, and related social perspective-taking processes across cultures.” In the years from late childhood to early adolescence, a qualitative shift from preconventional to conventional morality was observed across difference methods of assessment and diverse cultures. The shift typically occurs somewhat earlier for females and much later, if at all, for delinquents and prisoners.

The evidence suggests that moral stage development is facilitated by social perspective-taking opportunities. Higher stages of moral development were associated with education, social class, urban settings and in adults in volunteer community service, or in university or complex work settings. Gilligan [4] has further developed Kohlberg’s framework to take into account the somewhat different . Gebser [5] and Wilber [6, 7] have elaborated the link between these stages of individual development and the broad evolution of cultures over the course of human evolution through magic, mythic, rational, to integral stages. Wilber also refers to the mindsets associated with the three broad stages of moral values as egocentric, ethnocentric and worldcentric.

When it comes to religion, and specifically Christianity, people at preconventional level are motivated primarily by (future) divine punishments and rewards. People at this level interpret heaven and hell in literal terms as the places where they will be rewarded or punished after death for their actions (and in some cases even for their thoughts). This preconventional basis for moral decisions can easily be twisted into a basis for threatening non-believers or into a justification for violence as punishment for those who are perceived as sinful.

Religious people at the post-conventional level, by contrast, are not really concerned with punishments or rewards. Heaven and hell are not prominent concepts and indeed hell in particular is very unlikely to be believed to be an actual place as opposed to a metaphor. People at this level are rather concerned with following universal moral principles (love thy neighbour as thyself etc) and caring for others, even if that entails conflict with the laws or general social beliefs. It is these people who will protest against nuclear weapons or leave water in the desert for refugees.

At the conventional level, where most adults are, moral decisions and beliefs will be heavily dependent on the general level of education and cognitive development, the degree that their society encourages social perspective-taking, as well as the levels of belief in things like heaven and hell at societal level (from where the conventional moralist take their guidance). 

I think these factors go some way to explaining the differences in prevalence of belief in heaven and hell between the USA and most other developed countries.  Outside the USA, involvement in religious practice has been declining for decades, and atheism and non-religiousness have been increasing (see here). There are quite a few countries where the irreligious (atheist or religion unimportant) are a majority of the population. Most of these countries have high levels of education and a strong acceptance of the need for social safety nets such as universal health insurance, unemployment benefits, paid sick leave and parental level etc.

In contrast, the USA still has relatively high levels of religious belief and participation, an unusually high proportion of Christians who are fundamentalists, lower levels of education with fewer universal standards or curricula, and a very individualistic culture with very limited social safety nets and a fairly widespread belief that people who cannot pay for services should not get them.

In the USA, not only those at preconventional level, but also many religious people at conventional level, are likely to believe in heaven and hell because such beliefs are widespread in a culture which has large numbers of people with egocentric and ethnocentric mindsets.

In other high -income countries, not only are more religious people at a higher stage of moral development, but the general culture largely rejects belief in hell because it conflicts with universal moral principles (such as finite penalties for finite transgressions) and, for a large minority, because it is incompatible with a worldcentric mindset. For the many young people galvanized by the global existential issues facing humans today, a belief that the majority of people outside their culture/religion are destined for eternal torture is not only unacceptable but also unbelievable.


  1. Kohlberg, L. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages (Essays on Moral Development, Volume 2). Harper & Row: 1984.
  2. Snarey, J. (1985). The cross-cultural universality of social-moral development: A critical review of Kohlbergian research. Psychological Bulletin, 97, 202–232.
  3. Gibbs, J. C., Basinger, K. S., Grime, R. L., & Snarey, J. R. (2007). Moral judgment development across cultures: Revisiting Kohlberg’s universality claims. Developmental Review, 27(4), 443–500.  
  4. Gilligan, Carol. In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review. 1977, 47(4), 481-517
  5. Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin, authorized translation by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.
  6. Wilber, Ken. Up from Eden. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981
  7. Wilber Ken. Integral Spirituality. Integral Books: Boston and London, 2007.

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