God and The Good Life

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Listen to “God and the Good Life” by Fred Smith

 

Listening to Meghan Sullivan this week at the Augustine Collective Conference describe her introduction to philosophy course at Notre Dame titled “God and the Good Life” I started thinking about what the “good life” would mean. While there are a few outspoken critics about the role of religion in creating a good life – like the late Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins – it’s nearly a universal consensus that the role of religion is central in any consideration. But what religion? Is it all religions or just a few? Is it a defined orthodoxy or perhaps a combination like we call “Judeo-Christian” in this country? If I were searching for a religion that would be most likely to play a major role in creating a good life for as many people as possible, what would it be?

The question reminded me of Robert Bellah’s description in “Habits of the Heart” of the composite religion of a young nurse, Sheila Larson, who has settled on a faith she calls “Sheilaism.” “I believe in God. I am not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Or, it might be what Christian Smith labels the religion of many adolescents today: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” A god exists and wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, but he need not be involved in life except when a problem arises. Meanwhile, the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself and know that all good people go to heaven when they die. Are these the religions most likely to support the good life around the world for billions of people?

Why not make a list of some basic markers for the good life and see which religions in the world are most supportive of those? Maybe it is Christianity, or it could be Sheilaism, Buddhism, Shinto, Animism, Judaism or some I’ve never considered. What religion(s), if any, are most associated with the good life?

So, I jotted down my list along with what countries in the world rank highest and the dominant religions of those countries. While no one would say this is rigorous research, it works for me and the results were encouraging. Here are my markers and the dominant religion in each country.

Health and Health Care: According to the Legatum Institute, Luxembourg has the best healthcare system and Sweden, according to the Bloomberg Global Index is the world’s most healthy country. Luxembourg is 67% Catholic and Sweden is 70% Lutheran.

Personal Freedom: According to The Human Freedom Index, New Zealand ranks the highest in personal freedom. They also have a diverse Christian population with 12% Catholic, 12% Anglican and 8% Presbyterian.

Education: According to U.S. News and World Report, Denmark has the best followed by Finland. Both countries are heavily (70%) Evangelical Lutheran.

Happiness: The World Happiness Report ranks Finland as the happiest country in the world. Again, an Evangelical Lutheran majority.

Employment: Surprisingly to me, Cambodia has the lowest unemployment rate in the world and the major religion is Buddhism.

Safety: The safest country in the world with the least violent crime is Iceland with Christianity (Catholic and Lutheran combined) being the religion of 80% of the population.

Materialism: While China is the most materialistic country in the world, Sweden is the least materialistic. Marie Kondo has more work to do in China.

Family: Sweden is the most family-oriented country in the world and deemed the best place to raise kids. Again, a high concentration of Evangelical Lutheran.

Quality of Life: The findings of the Social Progress Imperative rate New Zealand as the country with the best quality of life.

Overall Best for Living: The Business Insider grades Norway as the best country in the world for the most number of categories over the last 13 years. It’s no surprise by now but the major religion of Norway is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway.

I realize one could argue with my list that the categories are incomplete or wrong. The sources are, in some cases, slanted and carry a bias. Some will say that many of these countries have such a diluted version of their dominant religions that you could barely call them dominant. They are ghostly memories of a time that is past. Members are enrolled at birth, congregations are State supported, and lightly attended in many places. Still, you could (and I would) argue the other side. Even when they are on the decline their “half-life” of continuing influence is remarkable. Yes, they are not in some places the vibrant churches they might have once been, but they contribute far more to “the good life” than all the other world religions combined.  Maybe we should be more hopeful in our own country that the weakening of religious ties may be less disastrous than we fear – at least for the good life.

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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Showing 12 comments
  • Tav Lupton
    Reply

    I have a freshman son at college asking the same kinds of questions.
    Looking forward to the responses.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Tav. So far there have not been many comments other than people wondering why I wrote a blog on that topic!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I hope you got my response to your voicemail. You are welcome to use whatever you want.

      • Tav Lupton
        Reply

        I did get your response to my voicemail .
        I will share “ Is the amount of light worth the cost of the candle? “
        Also appreciate the responses to your blog on the good life.

  • Jmcilhaney@medinstitute.org
    Reply

    So right

    Joe

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Neither you or I are putting all our chips on “the good life” but on eternal life – and that’s a different category altogether.

  • Gail C McGlothin
    Reply

    Your blogs are always interesting but I was a little sad that the USA was not listed as the top on any of the major topics. Sad but not surprised.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I was a little surprised myself. I didn’t exclude the USA in the search but it just never popped up in the lists. I wonder what part of the good life and religion would include us? There must be another category I left out.

  • Jana Jamison
    Reply

    Is there a “good life” part from Christ? If our country is any reflection of the vestiges of weakening spiritual ties, the good life looks amazingly bleak.
    Godly influence is, perhaps, faintly commendable in a residual sense, but to be absent of Christ is to be without life altogether – good or otherwise.
    Interesting perspective.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I agree, Jana. Religion, per se, can support the “good life” but is that enough. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” I do not want the religion of the good life. I want the faith that brings eternal life.

  • ann
    Reply

    Fred, I like the topic and how you researched a correlation with religious influence and society values. Of course, there are many other markers but those listed certainly reflect important qualities that we, as Christians, would want to see in loving, healthy communities. I also read that, thanks to a large grant, the popular course will be taught in many other colleges as well.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes,there are many other markers but these seem to be most common for people. Of course, these are only markers for the good life in the here and now and do not consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” The good life is not enough.

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