EP26: 27 June 2008
Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Sharpe. All rights reserved.
Submitted for publication.
Presented to the Research Seminar, Ian Ramsey Centre, Faculty of Theology, Oxford University. Also presented to the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology, Durham, England, 31 March-5 April 1998 (as "Human Behavioral Genetics and Theology"). Copyright © 1998 by Kevin Sharpe.





Human Behavior, Genetics, and Theology



Kevin Sharpe

Graduate College, Union Institute and University, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, Oxford, UK
Oxford Institute for Science and Spirit, Oxford, UK
Science & Spirit Magazine
10 Shirelake Close, Oxford OX1 1SN, United Kingdom


Rebecca Bryant

Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK


Abstract. Genes and circumstances contribute equally to human happiness in the short term, but genes and neurotransmitters cause 80% of the range of happiness people feel in the long term, according to recent research in behavioral genetics and neurochemistry. Happiness arises from living virtuously in this life, and we obtain ultimate happiness in the life to come, according to theology. A clash looms. What can genes and neurotransmitters tell us about the afterlife? Do the genes of believers predispose them to greater happiness? In this paper we examine common theological responses to the scientific challenge, arguing that they prove inadequate for the task at hand. We suggest instead that, in the light of the recent scientific research, the theological notion of happiness requires radical reconstruction. This in turn entails a reconstruction of traditional notions of the Divine. Without this kind of reconstruction, religion pales beside science, and religious thinkers are caught unthinking.

KEYWORDS. The Divine, Genetics, happiness, neuroscience, science/religion, theology.


Happiness and Genetics. 1

Happiness and Religion. 1

Spiritual Thinking versus Genetics. 1

Spiritual Thinking Embracing Genetics. 1

Conclusions. 1

References. 1

Those who find salvation become some of the happiest people around, research suggests.

Oh happy days, Oh happy days,

When Jesus washed all our sins away.

Many spiritual traditions would agree.

Yet most of us feel happy and satisfied with life, whether Jesus saves us or not. From surveys of 1.1 million people from all over the globe, David Myers and Ed Diener conclude that we mostly describe ourselves as Ďpretty happy.í Ninety-three percent feel happy (which includes very happy, pretty happy, and moderately happy) as opposed to sad or neutral. Happiness appears not to rely significantly on external factors: our age, gender, education, race or economic class. Neither does it depend on how the researchers gather their data.

What does happiness depend on?

Happiness and Genetics

For each of us, our happiness fluctuates within a small range that our genes largely determine. So concludes Dean Hamer in his review of studies on the role of genes in happiness or misery.

Identical twins (those with the same genetic makeup) attain the same level of happiness 44 percent of the time. In comparison, fraternal twins, those who share genes as do ordinary siblings, reach the same level only eight percent of the time. Hamer adds: ĎThese data show that the broad heritability of well-being is 40 to 50%í (Hamer 1996: 125). Studies by David Lykken and Auke Tellegen assess the happiness of twins over five to ten years, and show the slight impact of sex, age, race, and marital status, and the short-term influence of job loss or lottery winning.

A recent report by psychologists Christopher Lewis and Stephen Joseph suggests that the Depression-Happiness Scale (which psychologists use to calculate happiness) measures happiness as a trait rather than a state, with subjectsí scores on the scale remaining relatively stable over a two-year period. Other studies show that a personís level of happiness remains stable over many years. Inherited genes account for the majority of this level.

ĎHow you feel right now is about equally genetic and circumstantial,í says Hamer. ĎBut how you will feel on average over the next ten years is fully 80% because of your genesí (Hamer 1996: 125).

A clash looms between those who adhere to biology and explain things genetically, and those who explain things spiritually Ė Jesus washes our sins away and Godís grace showers us with happiness.

Biology places the responsibility for our states of happiness or misery on our genes. It helps explain more about well-being than this, too. Hamer directs our attention to two of the more than 300 known neurotransmitters, dopamine (the brainís chemical for pleasure) and serotonin, the neurochemical for misery. Neurotransmitters pass information from the synapse or junction between a nerve cell and another nerve cell or a muscle. The nerve cellís bulbous end releases them from storage when an electrical impulse moving along the nerve reaches it. Then they cross the junction to dock at the other nerve cellís receptor, and either prompt or inhibit the impulses along the second cell. The first nerve cell reabsorbs excess neurotransmitters, but not necessarily all of them. Those that remain free-floating help create our happy or miserable states of being.

Genes carry the instructions for the construction of neurotransmitters, their receptor and re-absorption portals. They also impart information on such things as their storage and release rates. Hence, genes can influence the prevalence, scarcity, and activity of serotonin and dopamine, and, in turn, whatever behaviors and feelings these neurotransmitters induce.

Further evidence for a physical/biochemical basis of happiness comes from neuroanatomy. Richard Lane and his colleaguesí preliminary research indicates that feelings of happiness, sadness, and disgust all co-occur with increased brain activity in the thalamus and medial prefrontal cortex. Greater activity near the ventral medial frontal cortex distinguishes happiness from sadness, whilst happiness correlates with significant increases in bilateral activity near the middle and posterior temporal cortex and hypothalamus. Lane concludes that, Ďspatially distributed brain regions participate in each emotioní (Lane, et al. 1997: 930).

Happiness and Religion

Religions and their philosophies also discuss happiness. For instance:

         Popular spiritual leader Robert Schuller writes about The Be Happy Attitudes: Eight Positive Attitudes that Can Transform Your Life. Along with charismatic and Pentecostal tendencies in contemporary western religion, such books and movements assume that religion intends for happiness.

         Believers might say their happiness arises from God who wants them to feel this way. Reformation Protestants focussed on justification by grace through faith. They believed that through this grace we could share what God offers, a positive loving action. The Bible presents a picture, to their eyes, of a gracious and loving deity who desires everyoneís happiness.

         Saint Augustine accepted the basic tenet of the ancientsí ethical theory: we should aim our behavior toward the achievement of well-being or happiness, the only universal desire.

Highly religious people declare themselves very happy at twice the rate of those with the lowest spiritual commitment, according to a Gallup survey referred to by Myers and Diener. A study of 166,600 people in fourteen countries demonstrates that happiness and satisfaction with life increase with frequency of attendance at worship services. Why is this? Researchers point to the social support and hopefulness entailed in religious affiliation. We need to beware of placing much too much weight on single studies, however, since findings frequently differ. Recent research that measures happiness using a scale based on frequency rather than intensity provides no evidence for a positive correlation between religiosity and happiness or between religiosity and satisfaction with or purpose in life. Why the discrepancy? One problem involves deciding on the exact nature of happiness and how we might measure it (via frequency, intensity, or some other variable). Only by answering these questions can we determine whether religiosity and happiness are connected.

Other religious traditions and churches emphasize more the promise of happiness to come.

         In Christian orthodoxy, happiness lies elsewhere, somewhere of original bliss and innocence (the Garden of Eden) or of future bliss (Heaven, our eternal and happy home where we will see God face-to-face or the Promised Land where we will find happiness and complete satisfaction). A friend with a staunch Roman Catholic upbringing talks of her constant sinning because she fails to say grace before every meal and pray every night and attend church as often as possible. She must overcome this tendency through acts of penance to achieve happiness in the afterlife.

         Buddhist and Hindu scriptures alike advocate withdrawal from the world of pleasure. Spiritually mature people abandon desires, lose their appetite for joys, and withdraw from their senses. The Buddha preached life as suffering. If we accept the intrinsic sorrow of life and observe his teachings, we will find happiness.

Whether achieved in this life or in an afterlife, religions usually ascribe happiness to divine action. Do sciences like behavioral genetics mean the genes of those whom Jesus saves predispose them toward greater happiness? Perhaps spiritual commitment and experience draw people with these genes, maybe especially when something blocks their happiness. Further, how do genes and neurotransmitters relate to an afterlife? We might more pointedly ask what these sciences could say about the truth claims of religious experience and involvement, including the activity of God in peopleís lives. Divine deeds and biological biases seem incompatible as explanations.

Spiritual Thinking versus Genetics

Religious believers may well try, then, to ignore or rebut claims for the genetic basis of happiness. Several paths open to them. Divine grace and will or human will, they might claim, figure more in happiness than does biology. They set up a dualism: on one side lies the mind with its feelings and on the other lies the brain with its neurotransmitters. The spirit in the machine. Perhaps they might exact a special spiritual status for happiness, which they thereby divorce from the biological stuff of genes and brains.

Religious believers might also try to undermine the genetic research. Several claims for the genetic basis of various behaviors run into trouble because follow-up studies fail to replicate the original research. Sharon Begley refers to four such claims, and the other two she mentions (Hamerís one on happiness and a yet-to-be published one on neuroticism) await their follow-ups. The reader might conclude from her reporting that genetic-basis research carries a poor track record and merits skepticism. Yet Begley fails to mention other gene-behavior studies, most of which have not met their Waterloo. On the other hand, the failure of researchers to replicate any study does sound against it. And we should approach with caution those studies for which follow-ups have yet to appear.

Begley also refers to an often-raised suspicion of twin studies. Identical twins frequently dress alike and create a private world for just the two of them. People treat them alike too. Fraternal twins, on the other hand, typically behave no more alike than other siblings. Identicals thus share more influences from their environment, according to Marcus Feldman, which in turn means their happiness levels would show a greater similarity. But this criticism overlooks a technique employed in twin studies, including the one on happiness. Researchers not only look at identical twins reared together, but also at those separated at birth and reared apart. The environments of the subjects in these split-twin studies would differ. But the results of such investigations, at least in those concerning well-being, reinforce those conducted with non-split identical twins.

Lawrence Wright throws further doubt on twin studies in his recent book, Twins: Genes, Environment, and the Mystery of Human Identity, in which he recounts the puzzling case of a pair of identical twins: one healthy, the other with a fatal version of the genetic disorder muscular dystrophy. John Burn, the doctor examining the case, concluded, Ďeven though they [the twins] share the same genes, a genetic trait doesnít have to be sharedí (Wright 1997: 95). We must exercise caution with twin studies. In the case of happiness, however, we have evidence from studies of individuals as well as twins to support the existence of a genetic set point. Also, muscular dystrophy is a disease involving unequal distribution of faulty genes, whereas happiness is a normal trait of healthy human beings Ė it is not obvious that we can draw a useful parallel.

Scientists used to assume that identical twins were born in the same gestational sac and non-identicals in different sacs. Wright points out that DNA testing has proved this reasoning faulty Ė roughly one third of identical twins are born from separate placentas and occasionally placentas belonging to fraternals merge. He concludes: ĎMany same-sex twins who believe that they are fraternal may actually be identical, and vice versaí (Wright 1997: 90). This observation by Wright does not sound against the twin studies on happiness. The bulk of the confusion concerns identicals who are really fraternals. Those fraternals mistakenly placed in the identical pool will decrease the degree to which identicals apparently attain the same level of happiness. Statistics for identicals attaining the same happiness levels are already high (44 per cent as opposed to 8 per cent for fraternals) Ė if some of these identicals are really fraternal, the statistics should rise above the 44 per cent. We need ideally to compare the old results with new results employing the new criteria for distinguishing types of twin-hood, but at the moment it looks as if even more support for the heritability of happiness springs from the confusion.

Other critics say that behavioral geneticists like Hamer try to reduce the holistic human experience of happiness to nothing but the actions of genes and electrical activity and chemicals. The critics thereby push anti-reductionism and claim that geneticists and their popularizers ignore the real subjective realm. Behavioral genetics oversimplifies the reality. Yet Hamerís and his colleaguesí work suggests genes provide only a percentage of input into a behavior. ĎThough genes may determine our average [level] of happiness, they donít specify where we are within our individual range at any particular point in timeí (Hamer 1996: 126). We and our circumstances can affect how we feel here and now. But, whatever else may influence well-being, genes still play a part, probably a significant part. To observe this does not mean adopting a determinist approach to the research; all human traits involve environment and individual willfulness, as well as genes.

Spiritual Thinking Embracing Genetics

Neither ought spiritual thinkers play a wait-and-see game: we will only approach these studies seriously when someone else adequately answers all possible criticisms. While later research may modify the results of the gene studies, the bulk and tone of the work will probably remain. We suspect more and more evidence will mount to show a genetic basis (along with an environmental basis) for such traits as happiness. Given the rate of progress with the human genome project, before too long research may unravel the complex of genes that produce happiness. It will catch spiritual thinkers unthinking.

The problem is more serious than this sounds, an academic exercise. The human genome project will (and does) connect behaviors such as happiness, as well as diseases and physical traits, with particular clusters of genes. How will society and entrepreneurs use this knowledge? What constitutes misuse of this information? Current genetic engineering of plants and animals presents a challenge only in its infancy.

Apart from an occasional glance through its ethics spectacles, religion ignores this work. Theologians, religionists, ethicists, and philosophers could constructively engage the scientific findings and their implications for spiritual beliefs. They should. When the conclusions of the human genome project pour upon us with their ethical, philosophical, and spiritual implications, theologians should find themselves well prepared and knee-deep in the discussion.

This seldom happens. Spiritual thinkers continue to deny the potential usefulness of behavioral genetics with more science bashing, continued ignoring of science, and segregation of subjective qualities like happiness from the physical world of genes. Such dualism allows for the further irrelevance of religion for daily life.

We either enjoy happiness or we do not. We can control some of the circumstantial factors of our current state of happiness, but 20 percent over the long run leaves little for God or us to change. Theologians will hopefully refrain from a God-can-change-the-genes response. If God works toward our happiness, rule out interventions as the way God employs. And hopefully theologians will resist the temptation to wipe happiness off Godís agenda; of all things, well-being lures as the most common goal toward which we strive.

God may want us to feel happy, but we should cease thinking of well-being as a moral quality we should aspire to. What does that leave for the theologian to ruminate about over God and happiness? Perhaps we could look at the nature of God and Godís relationship with the universe and with humans as part of creation. If we take all this stuff about genes and behavior seriously, we need to revisit the human images we project onto God. The genetic and neurotransmitter basis of happiness suggests God feels neither happiness nor sadness. This means a reconstruction of our idea of God.

Similarly, the gene studies indicate we cannot hope for happiness in an afterlife; happiness is a mental state brought about by neurotransmitters and these things disintegrate with our bodies. A nonphysical form of happiness generates as little sense as a nonphysical digestive tract. Metaphorical reinterpretations of happiness lose touch with reality as well-being depends so much on biology.

But then we empty meaning out of life if we give up all hope of images and opt for the extreme of saying nothing about God or the afterlife. We need to think more deeply about the nature of God and the afterlife.

One approach to this need for theological reconstruction starts by thinking of God as the totality of all that exists, the universe-as-a-whole. This whole resembles other wholes we experience. The Republican Party possesses a spirit, a system of belief, and a life which includes but transcends the spirit of President Bush and his system of beliefs and his life, and those of all other of its members. How does happiness then relate to God as the universe-as-a-whole?

Bush is a member of the Republican Party, and, in a similar way, happiness is a property of God. As we are part of the universe-as-a-whole, of God, our happiness is also a property of God Ė but happiness thought of differently from ours. The party influences the President and the President the party. Our happiness influences God and God influences our happiness. The party enfolds the political attitudes of Bush and creates something more of them, something that reflects the history of the party, its stated ideals, and the attitudes of everyone in it. It transcends Bush. Similarly, Godís Ďhappinessí includes but goes beyond our experience of happiness. It relates to ours but exceeds ours in a holistic way that embraces and transcends what we experience as any whole transcends its parts.

The task then becomes one of describing transcended happiness. To do this, look at the wholes we experience. In particular, look at the way the properties of the parts of a whole become, when it transcends them, properties of it. Do this for various wholes. Then extend this knowledge to create models for the way the universe-as-a-whole, God, relates to its parts. Lastly, evaluate the various models for the God-universe relationship that the different types of whole-parts associations produce.

This will help us rebuild theology to make more sense of happiness and other human characteristics as attributes of God. It will also help us reconceive afterlife since it too involves the wholeness inherent in the universe-as-a-whole.


The genes-happiness-God debate provokes more than the nature-of-God question and solution. Suppose we believe in the example and teachings of Jesus Christ and the witness of the Hebraic tradition. Then we think God produced the universe and us (the method for which we describe with science, including that of behavioral genetics) and that God wants us to strive to maximize the happiness of other people. This will mean trying to remove the barriers to justice and equality that some people experience. Such conditions depress a personís level of happiness. It may even mean trying to change the behaviors of people whose source of happiness (excessive TV or rich food, for instance) leads to less happiness and can destroy their lives and those of many around them. We could turn our attention to the greater destroyers such as addiction to tobacco, hard drugs, or alcohol.

We need to take seriously and decline to shelve or rebuff such claims as the genetic basis of subjective traits like happiness. While the details of the science may change, the challenge to theology and ethics will remain. The demand digs deeply into theological thought. We may need to reconstruct our understanding of God and Godís relationship with the universe.


Begley, S. 1996. Born Happy. Newsweek 128 (16) 14 October: 78-80.

Burne, J. 1997. To the Power of Two. The Guardian9 November, p. 13.

Hamer, D. H. 1996. The Heritability of Happiness. Nature Genetics 14 (6): 125-126.

Lane, R. D., E. M. Reiman, G. L. Ahern, G. E. Schwartz, andR. J. Davidson. 1997. Neuroanatomical Correlates of Happiness, Sadness, and Disgust. American Journal of Psychiatry 154 (7): 926-933.

Lewis, C. A., S. Joseph, and K. E. Noble. 1996. Is Religiosity Associated with Life Satisfaction? Psychological Reports 79 (2): 429-430.

Lewis, C. A., C. Lanigan, S. Joseph, and J. de Fockert. 1997. Religiosity and Happiness: No Evidence for an Association among Undergraduates. Personality and Individual Differences 22 (1): 119-121.

Lewis, C. A., and S. Joseph. 1997. The Depression-Happiness Scale: A Measure of a State or a Trait? Psychological Reports 81 (3): 1313-1314.

Myers, D. G., and E. Diener. 1996. The Pursuit of Happiness. Scientific American 274 (5): 54-56.

Wright, L. 1997. Twins: Genes, Environment, and the Mystery of Human Identity. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.