The belief that those who live a morally worthy life earn a place in heaven is held across cultures and religions. Even among non-believers, many would say that those who lead a more moral life would certainly deserve to go heaven, if it does exist.
According to Christian doctrine, on the Day of Judgement we must give an account of our lives. Saint Peter weighs up our good deeds and our bad ones and decides whether we should be allowed in to the place of eternal peace or sent elsewhere.
In Catholic theology, after death we may enter an intermediate place, purgatory, where we are cleansed of our remaining sins. Although sins are forgiven in confession, there remains a liability which is expiated in purgatory.
Catholicism is more generous than some forms of Protestantism: not only do sinners get a chance to redeem themselves, but non-believers can make it to heaven if they are morally upstanding.
Some Protestant churches reject the belief that access to heaven is the reward for good moral character. Salvation is granted by the grace of God, and accepting Jesus into one’s life is the only way to be saved, although it goes without saying that living a righteous life will follow the embrace of Jesus.
Most other religions believe that good people go to heaven. Traditional Judaism describes a final judgement where virtue is rewarded and wickedness punished. Heaven and hell feature prominently in Islam and represent the reward or punishment for one’s life on judgement day, although only believers can enter heaven.
For Hindus the accumulation of good karma is rewarded in an after-life or a better reincarnation. Buddhists see heaven as a transitional stage between one earthly existence and the next; too much bad karma results in suffering in one or more hells, but the fully enlightened being can escape the cycle of rebirth and retire to the bliss of nirvana.
What do Australians think?
If most Australians do hold the belief that good people deserve to go to heaven then a good measure of how we regard the moral standing of our political leaders would be whether we believe they deserve to go to heaven. These questions have been explored in a recent national opinion survey commissioned by the Australia Institute.
Overall, 63 per cent of respondents said they believe in heaven or some form of life after death. Twenty-three per cent said they did not, while 13 per cent chose the 'don’t know' option. Women (74 per cent) were much more likely than men (52 per cent) to believe in heaven or an afterlife.
Overall, only a minority of Australians — 33 per cent — believe that those who lead a more moral life are more likely to go to heaven, with 37 per cent of women and 27 per cent of men taking this view.
However, among those who believe in heaven or an afterlife the proportion is higher, with half (50 per cent) saying that people who lead a moral life are more likely to go to heaven, while a third (34 per cent) said they are not more likely (with 16 per cent remaining uncommitted).
Many Australians are unsure or reluctant to say whether their political leaders deserve to go to heaven. A high proportion of survey respondents answered 'don’t know' when asked whether each politician deserved to go to heaven — in fact, between 44 per cent and 51 per cent. This may be due to hesitation in making judgements about these individuals’ private lives, or because they do not believe in an afterlife and cannot enter into the spirit of the question.
Nevertheless, using a normalised score calculated by excluding those who do not express a view, we can get a sense of how Australians judge the moral standing of some prominent political leaders.
Among those politicians included in the survey, Australians believe Labor’s environment spokesperson Peter Garrett most deserves to go to heaven, with 74 per cent indicating that he deserves that fate and 26 per cent saying otherwise.
Green leader Bob Brown scored next highest, with a normalised score of 66 per cent, followed by Kevin Rudd on 61 per cent. Both Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott scored 52 per cent, while Prime Minister John Howard attracted the lowest score, with 47 per cent saying he deserves to go to heaven and 53 per cent saying he does not.
Generally speaking, women are much more positive than men when asked whether leading politicians deserved to go to heaven. Gender differences are most apparent in the case of Peter Garrett — 83 per cent of female respondents but only 66 per cent of male respondents say he deserves to go to heaven. Gender disparities are also notable for Kevin Rudd (67 per cent for females, 55 per cent for males) and Tony Abbott (58 per cent for females, 47 per cent for males).
The gender gap is smallest for Bob Brown: 68 per cent of females and 64 per cent of males say he deserves to go to heaven. Meanwhile, 51 per cent of females who indicate a preference say that John Howard deserves to go to heaven, compared to 44 per cent of male respondents. On this measure, the Prime Minister appears to be viewed least favourably by both men and women.
Moral standing and religious views - a disconnect?
Do these results simply reflect political judgements? It seems that there is more to it. Peter Garrett and Bob Brown generate the highest level of agreement across the political divide, suggesting that their moral standing transcends political differences. Surprisingly, around two-thirds of Coalition voters who expressed a view said that Peter Garrett (65 per cent) and Bob Brown (64 per cent) deserve to go to heaven, with scores predictably higher for both Labor and Greens voters. Meanwhile, three-fifths of Coalition voters (60 per cent) said that Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd deserves to go to heaven.
The Prime Minister divides Australians more than any other figure, with 79 per cent of Coalition voters believing the Prime Minister deserves to go to heaven (on a normalised basis), compared to just 29 per cent of Labor voters and 20 per cent of Greens voters.
Traditionally religious beliefs have been considered a private matter in Australia. Unlike in the United States, most Australians look askance at those who declare their love of God from the rooftops, and they do not like to see those beliefs intrude into the public realm. Perhaps this helps to explain why health minister Tony Abbott, the former seminarian whose strong Catholic views have coloured his political decisions, scores relatively poorly, while Peter Garrett, who keeps his firm Christian beliefs to himself, scores well.
On the other hand, Bob Brown, an atheist, seems to receive strong support across the political spectrum because, although many may disagree with his views, he commands respect for the principled positions he has taken over the years.
The Prime Minister seems to work hard at signalling his Christian beliefs without going over the top and alienating the non-believers and those who believe religious belief should be kept private. But after more than a decade in office his moral standing seems to have been tarnished by a widespread view that he is 'mean and tricky'. Perhaps God will be invoked more in the forthcoming federal election than ever before, but those who want to imply that they have the deity on their side should make sure that their own moral standing lives up to divine expectations.
Thanks are due to Josh Fear for his contributions to the research.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
09 August 2007
Christian Theology teaches Jesus arbrtrates at the Last Judgement not St Peter. We choose Heaven or Hell by the choices we make every day..See G.K. Chesterton's "The Great Divorce" for a great allegorical account of this process
09 August 2007
What a load of balony. Catholic teaching, indeed Christian teaching explains that judging others is sinful. Judge not lest ye be judged. Political correctness sinking to new lows.
09 August 2007
With Peter Garrett and Bob Brown being supporters of abortion and embryonic cloning for research it is difficult to understand how the majority believe that this pair will go to heaven But Abe Lincoln summed it up when he said: "Youc can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time but ......"
09 August 2007
I'm surprised that Clive Hamilton was prepared to waste his otherwise valuable time in writing about this issue. Are we going to let the electorate canonise people before they're dead?
09 August 2007
Kevin Rudd is vocal about his religious beliefs, so what's the difference between people's opinion of him and Tony Abbott? Perhaps many people, like me, do not consider Tony Abbott's values and conduct in Parliament a reflection of his professed religious beliefs (but then I don't think God, Who is Love, wishes anyone to go to hell, let alone spend eternity there).
09 August 2007
I think this is a great survey, contrary to some of the other comments. I do wonder how their such a disconnect can exist between those who have a so-called 'moral, christian' position, and those who are less 'god-toting' but apparently more morally fit though. perhaps australians are smarter than we think at detecting when smoke and mirrors are in play.
09 August 2007
Literally, God help us in our hour of real need - in education, the poverty traps, and in the very structure of our political system. Howard and his bunch of neophylic jackanapes have actually done SFA in creating some kind of fair balance between the needs and aspirations of the 'haves' and the 'half haves' and the 'have-nots' in our society.
10 August 2007
I am a Protestant reader, and I have in front of me the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification agreed by the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches in 1999. How does its statement that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace (pare 38) square with Clive Hamilton's view?
10 August 2007
Catholic social teaching since Leo XIII pedagogy on Christian Democracy, calls all people to live their faith in public life. Therefore what this research demonstrates is Catholic socia teaching's failure to make inroads into Australian politics.
11 August 2007
May I suggest that some of the comments to date have missed the point that Clive was making. His article was not a discussion of the theology of heaven and hell but an observation on how the voters in his sample assesed the morality of our politician; Clive was using views about whether various politicians 'deserved' to go to heaven as a proxy for what people thought of the morality of those politicians. And the interesting thing is that it was not the religiosity or doctrinal positions of each of he politicians so assessed that seemed to matter, but the voters' perceptions of their basic common honesty and decency. And if that truly refects the attitude of Australian voters, then I'm comforted.
11 August 2007
Based on the results of this survey even the Pope will get lower scores than Garret, Brown & Rudd et.al.
Look out Cardinal Pell you don't deserve to go to Heaven as well if the results of this survey is applied to you.
12 August 2007
Mr Howard is already in heaven (it's Australia!) and he might well have to leave it behind when he passes on to the next life unless he makes atonement for the Tampa affair and his merciless refusal to let thousands of boat people into the heaven we call Australia. Jesus might well ask, why did you not let me in when I was a boat person seeking to enter your heaven? Unfortunately, Mr Howard is supported in his stance by millions of us Australians who ought also to examine our consciences to see when we would have agreed with Mr Howard in denying to thousands any hope of a heaven in our Australia.
27 August 2008
Well the Pope has now declared that Purgatory does not exist and that it was an invention by Augustine so we don't have to worry about that one any more. But if there was such a place as heaven, the likes of the racist Pauline Hanson, the lying and cold-hearted John Howard and especially the sleazy, creepy Tony Abbott, would certainly NOT be going there.