Religious beliefs and national health

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Religious beliefs and national health

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I heard this joke a few years ago. An American rabbi was concerned that his teenage son was not religious enough, so he decided to send him to Israel. After spending a year in the Jewish state, he came home and said, “I converted to Christianity in Israel, and it’s all thanks to you.” So his father consulted a fellow rabbi, but his friend also confessed that his son converted to Christianity after spending some time in Israel. So the two went to a synagogue and prayed to God. God responded to their prayer and said, “I understand what you are going through. I sent my son to Israel 2000 years ago.”

Even a father and a son can clash over religion. The anti-American protests sweeping the Arab world were ignited by an anti-Islam movie on YouTube. Pope Benedict XVI said, “It is not uncommon to see the two religions in the same family. If this is possible within the same family, why should it not be possible at the level of the whole of society?” All religions advocate love, peace and tolerance, but why do they trigger discord and division? Former U.S. President George W. Bush is said to have sought divine advice before attacking Iraq, and what kind of answer did he get?

It is not God’s will; it is the fault of people who have misguided beliefs. Research shows that nonreligious countries tend to be more prosperous. WIN-Gallup International surveyed 57 countries and released the Religiosity and Atheism Index. For many countries, per capita income was reversely proportional to religiosity. Within individual countries, the wealthy tend to be less religious and the poor more religious. American sociologist Phil Zuckerman said Denmark and Sweden are the least religious countries among Western democratic states. They are also the healthiest and most successful in terms of income, medicine, welfare and gender equality. In contrast, the United States may be the most religious country in the West, but firearms are common, the poverty rate is high, punishment is severe, and children and pregnant women are not guaranteed basic health benefits.

You cannot directly compare Denmark and Sweden, where the Lutheran tradition is alive, and the immigrant communities of the United States. However, in “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment,” Zuckerman argues that religion “is not a necessary ingredient for a healthy, peaceful, prosperous and deeply good society.”

How about Korea? In the Win-Gallup survey, 52 percent of respondents said they are “deeply religious,” 40th highest among the 58 surveyed countries. Korea had the fifth-largest number of respondents who said they were atheists.

Those who have religion may find the outcome unsatisfying, but I am sure there are people nodding in agreement.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun

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