God and The Good Life
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.
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.