Since the dawn of history, many people have believed that human beings do not simply cease to exist upon their death. Numerous religions and cultures teach that the physical body may die and decompose but that some element of the person goes on to what many call the "afterlife."
Between 1972 and 1982, when the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research asked the American public, "Do you believe there is life after death?" 70% said they believed in an afterlife, and 20% said they did not. In 1996, when the Roper Center asked the same question, 73% of respondents said yes, and 16% said no. A 2002 poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, as part of its General Social Survey, revealed similar results. Seventy-two percent of those polled said they believed that there is a life after death, 17% did not, and 11% were undecided. Clearly, the proportion of the U.S. population believing in an afterlife appears to have remained relatively consistent over three decades.
An October 2005 CBS News poll researched what the most religiously observant Americans said on the subject of afterlife (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/10/29/opinion/polls/main994766.shtml). About nine in ten of those who attend religious services weekly or almost every week believe that humans transition to an afterlife after the physical body dies.
When asked in polls conducted by the Gallup Organization about an afterlife and what that "eternal destination" might be, many Americans expressed a belief in heaven, where people who led good lives are eternally rewarded after death, and hell, where unrepentant people who led bad lives are eternally punished. From 1997 to 2004 a majority of Gallup Poll respon-dents—72% in 1997 and 81% in 2004—acknowledged a belief in heaven. (See Figure 11.1.) In the 2004 survey 10% were unsure whether they believed in heaven, and 8% did not believe in it. In addition, a majority of respondents—56% in 1997 and 70% in 2004—acknowl-edged a belief that hell exists in the afterlife. (See Figure 11.2.) In the 2004 survey 12% were unsure whether they believed in hell and 17% did not believe in it.