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Debate on Religion and Happiness

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The cover story of the June/July issue of Miller-McCune magazine looks at whether it is the government's role to try to make its citizens happier — a notion that has gained far more traction in Europe than in the U.S. Coincidentally, an interesting debate has been taking place in the blogosphere over the past couple of days about religion and happiness — and again, Europeans and Americans seem to be coming to different conclusions.

The discussion began with the Cato Institute’s Will Wilkinson, who commented on his blog about his ongoing argument with Arthur Brooks, a professor of business and government policy at Syracuse University and author of the book Gross National Happiness. Wilkinson concedes Brooks’ basic point that in the United States, “religious participation is positively correlated with higher levels of self-reported happiness.”

But he adds that, if you take an international perspective, the picture becomes much murkier. Wilkinson notes that “countries with some of the lowest levels of religious participation in the world, such as Denmark, Norway or Finland, show up again and again in international rankings as some of the world’s happiest places, usually ahead of the U.S.”

Ross Douthat of picked up on this idea, asserting that he suspects “the benefits of belonging to a religious community are greater in the U.S. than in Europe in part because our welfare state is smaller, and religious participation provides both tangible and intangible forms of security that are more valuable in a society where the free market is more freewheeling and the welfare state weaker. If you're a Christian who prefers the American model, you might say that the Europeans use government as a substitute for God; if you prefer Europe's path to modernity, you'd probably say something about Americans clinging to churchgoing because it's the only protection available against the harsh brutality of our jungle capitalism.”

Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly adds this thought: “Europe has suffered through centuries of devastating religious wars that didn't end until fairly recently. If you live in Western Europe, there's a pretty good chance that you associate strong religiosity with death, destruction and massive societal grief, not with church bake sales. So whatever you think of religion itself, seeing the end of religious wars, religious terrorism and massive state-sponsored religious bigotry is almost bound to make you happy. You'd have to be almost literally crazy not to be happier in today's secular Europe than in yesterday's religious Europe.”

So, to bring the discussion back to Ryan Blitstein’s Miller-McCune article: Perhaps European governments are more intrigued by the notion of promoting happiness because, unlike ourselves, they have given up the belief that religion can successfully serve that role. Hundreds of years of warfare and an inquisition or two will do that to you.