Hell to Pay: Religion and Punitive Ideology Among the American Public

Document Type


Publication Date



Historically, religious frameworks—particularly conceptions of evil—have been tied to attitudes about criminal behavior and its corresponding punishment, yet views of transcendent evil have not been explored in the empirical literature on religion and punitive ideology. We examine whether and how different aspects of religiosity shape punitive attitudes, using a national sample of Americans. For both general punitiveness and views of capital punishment, belief in the existence and power of transcendent religious evil (e.g. Satan and hell) is strongly associated with greater punitiveness, while higher levels of religious practice (service attendance, prayer, and reading sacred scriptures) reduces punitiveness. The effects of other aspects of religiosity on punitiveness such as self-identified fundamentalism, scriptural literalism, and images of God are rendered spurious by accounting for perceptions of evil. We discuss these findings in light of cultural and comparative approaches to penology, arguing for the inclusion of conceptions of the “transgressive” sacred in studies of, and theories about, penal populism.