To Appear in Implicit Religion 2 (1) May 1999. Copyright ã 1999 by Kevin Sharpe.
IMPLICIT RELIGION AND INTER FAITH DIALOGUE:
A SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVE
Kevin Sharpe and
Many implicit religions in the modern west contain, we claim, these three concepts:
· The scientific or empirical method as a way to approach truth.
· God or spirituality as somehow central to life.
· Happiness as an important goal of life.
This paper explores the relationship between the first two (science and religion) through the third, happiness. We suggest this as a way to start exploring implicit religion.
The pursuit of happiness is an underlying goal in many different religious traditions and faiths. Science also concerns itself with the nature of happiness—much recent work in behavioral genetics and neuroscience points towards a substantial genetic underpinning of this concept.
A clash therefore looms between religious and scientific conceptions of the nature of happiness. We examine ways to resolve this clash within the bounds of implicit religion, proposing that science and religion should jointly adopt an empirical framework within which to evaluate both physical and spiritual claims about the nature of happiness. We thereby advocate a more holistic and integrated approach to the understanding of human happiness.
What form does religious experience typically take in
contemporary culture, asks
Bailey defines implicit
religion in three complementary ways. Implicit religion equates with commitment – it concentrates on human
attitude. Implict religion integrates different types of meaning – it overrides
the temptation to divide “the natural from the social environment; the
individual from society; the chosen from the cultural; the conscious from the
unconscious; the subjective from the objective; the rational from the emotional;
the ethical from the ontological; the transcendent from the immanent; the
divine from the human; the supernatural from the natural,” and emphasises that
“any body may have more than one focus of commitment” (Bailey,
The implicit religion of
contemporary society is a committment to the human, Bailey concludes. This
system of religion revolves around the notion of the sacredness of the Self and
incorporates the sacredness of the personal Self, the sacredness of other
Selves, and the sacredness of relationships with other Selves. We combine
religion and the secular in this way and so carve a middle path between the
sacred and the profane, which enables us to extend our understanding further. A
two-pronged approach proves necessary since “not only does the secular appear
to possess a secondary quality: religion itself appears incomplete, when it is
without relevance to that which is not religious” (Bailey,
We all desire to be happy and devote considerable time to pleasure seeking. How to secure a job that will satisfy and fulfil us? How to find a partner with whom we can happily share the rest of our lives? How to ensure that we spend our leisure time pleasurably and constructively? Human beings display a strong commitment to the pursuit of their own (and others’) happiness.
And most of us do feel happy and satisfied with
life. From surveys of
The pursuit of happiness is a religious activity.
In fact, many religions and their philosophies focus on happiness (see Darnton,
· 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 everyone's happiness. Happiness arises from God.
· Spiritual leader Robert Schuller writes about The Be Happy Attitudes: Eight Positive Attitudes that Can Transform
Your Life (Schuller,
· Happiness comes to the person who lives a life of intellectual
contemplation. So thought philosophers in ancient
· Augustine accepted the basic tenet of the ancients' ethical theory: we
should aim our behavior toward the achievement of well-being or happiness, the
only universal desire. Aquinas concurred with Aristotle and Augustine:
happiness is the basic human pursuit. He also agreed that happiness had to do
with intelligent reflection. The highest form of happiness derives from the
highest use of the intellect: thinking about spiritual matters and in
particular about God (McDannell and Lang,
· Theologians and artists of the Renaissance believed in happiness and
pleasure as the aims for life, particularly for the Christian life. Virtue
formed only one route to happiness. Happiness supersedes virtue (McDannell and
And religions succeed at making people happy.
Highly religious people declare themselves very happy at twice the rate of
those with the lowest spiritual commitment, according to a
Several spiritual traditions and churches also emphasise the promise of happiness to come in the afterlife:
· In Christian orthodoxy, happiness lies elsewhere, a place of original
bliss and innocence (the Garden of Eden) or of future joy (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). “Heaven is destination and
reward”, writes David van Biema, “succour and relief from earthly trials” (van
· Islam views the paradise of afterlife in heaven as a garden of pleasure where the righteous enjoy the highest of spiritual and sensual happiness. Happiness embraces divine pleasure and physical enjoyment.
· According to many modern philosophers, religious people prize another world and therefore despise this world and feel uncertain in their attitudes toward the world around them. Religion thus dries up and attacks any happiness this world can provide, while promising happiness in a life hereafter—which some humanists call “pie in the sky” or an “opiate of the people”.
· Plato occupied a compromise position in the battle between happiness in
this life and the life to come. In Plato's Republic,
Socrates described the man [sic.] at peace with himself as being in perfect
balance between the three elements desire, passion, and reason – a condition
attainable in this life. However, the Phaedo
indicates that the true philosopher attains utmost joy only when he retracts
from the senses and carnal distractions. The philosopher genuinely experiences
his final goal, purity of wisdom, only upon fully quitting the body (Kaplan,
· Hinduism also advocates withdrawal from the world of pleasure. Hindu
scriptures suggest spiritually mature people abandon desires, lose their
appetite for joys, and withdraw from their senses (Wright,
· The Buddha preached life as suffering. If we accept the intrinsic sorrow of life and observe his teachings—for instance, if we practice the virtues of sympathy, compassion, joy, and equanimity—we will experience happiness.
We need to note two fundamental issues from the above examples. First, diverse spiritual traditions, both eastern and western, laud the pursuit of happiness: it is an inter-faith concept. It probably also constitutes a central feature of many implicit religions. It might even qualify as a form of implicit religion itself. Second, these religious definitions of happiness concentrate on intellectual or spiritual satisfaction, they usually ascribe happiness to divine action, and they often speak of happiness to come in the afterlife as well as happiness in the here and now.
Science also says something about happiness.
For each of us, our happiness fluctuates within a
small range called a “set-point” that our genes largely determine (Adler,
“So many people plan their lives for a distant
goal”, says David Lykken. “They believe that if they become C.E.O. or win a
gold medal, their lives will rise out of humdrum ordinariness. This isn't so.
There's a rush of glory and then it fades” (Gose,
Identical twins (those with the same genetic
makeup) attain the same level of happiness
Other studies show that a person's level of
happiness remains stable over many years (see also “Happiness may truly come
“How you feel right now is about equally genetic
and circumstantial”, concludes Hamer, “but how you will feel on average over
the next ten years is fully
Hamer continues by directing our attention to
two of the more than
Genes carry the instructions for the
construction of neurotransmitters, their receptor and reabsorption 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. Researchers have found, for instance, that people who
differ in the gene that produces part of the D
Some scientists think they have located the
part of the brain that registers happiness and where the set-point mechanism
Two issues emerge from the above story. First, the scientific definition of happiness centres on the notion of physical well being, or of “feeling good”. Second, science concerns itself with long and short term causes of happiness in this life; it makes no claims about happiness in an afterlife.
A clash looms between religious and scientific accounts of the nature of human happiness. A clash within the implicit religion of the pursuit of happiness. Scientists define happiness as physical well being, while theologians define it as spiritual or intellectual satisfaction. Religious thinkers seek to understand happiness in the future as well as the present, while scientists concentrate firmly on the here and now. Even more important, these two disciplines differ in their methodology: science is an empirical venture which constructs and tests hypotheses, while, traditionally, the only empirical aspect of theology has been its consistency with scriptures, tradition, and religious experience. With regard to the physical universe, the traditional approach to theology construes it as non-empirical.
Can genes and neurotransmitters shed any light on spiritual happiness or on happiness to come in life after death? Do the genes of the religious predispose them towards greater happiness?
Many spiritual believers—emphasising the sacred element of implicit religion—simply ignore or try to rebut claims for the genetic basis of happiness.
For example, journalist Sharon Begley
emphasises that several claims for the genetic roots of various behaviors run
into trouble because follow-up studies fail to replicate the original research
Begley also refers to an often-raised suspicion
of twin studies, which some of the happiness research draws on. 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 biologist Marcus Feldman from
Most of the other objections Begley reports are trivial. For instance:
· fraud in one instance (which does not mean they all are fraudulent);
· behavioral geneticists do their statistics incorrectly (they should do them correctly, of course, if their colleagues are to consider their work valid);
· the claim that one gene generates a trait (now researchers usually
attribute a trait to a configuration of genes) (see also
Grant Steen, a medical researcher at the Saint
Other critics say that behavioral geneticists
like Hamer try to reduce the holistic human experience of happiness to nothing
but the actions of genes, electrical activity, and chemicals. They thereby push
anti-reductionism and claim that geneticists and their popularizers ignore the
real subjective realm. Walter Freeman, for example, says, “Joy comes with
activities that we share with people we have learned to trust, and that enable
us to share meaning across the existential barrier that separates each of us
from all others. So happiness is not made by a chemical” (Freeman,
More and more work is emerging to support the genetic program—before too long, research may well unravel the complex of genes that produce happiness. Since few doubt that happiness at least builds upon a biochemical base, theology must include this fact in its world view. Religious thinkers must begin to take this evidence as seriously as do scientists; failure to do this oversimplifies reality in the way that theologians claim scientists do.
Given these factors, we argue that scientific and religious claims regarding the nature of happiness can and should be compatible and that each discipline should inform the other. In order to do this, we propose the adoption of an overarching empirical framework that makes possible the evaluation of both scientific and religious hypotheses concerning the nature of happiness. Central to this approach is an understanding that experimental results begin their lives as scientific hypotheses and predictions, which are initially on the same conceptual footing as religious theoretical claims. We simply want to take the religious claims one step further by putting them to the empirical test.
Both sides must take on board the following points for this empirical framework to be successful:
· Any complete explanation of the nature of happiness is likely to involve spiritual as well as physical aspects because all human traits involve environment, circumstances and individual wilfulness, as well as genes.
· Theology is therefore initially justified in claiming that happiness must involve more than an account of the action genes, electrical activity and chemicals. However, it must couch such claims in a form that science may evaluate.
· Both scientists and theologians should adopt an open, interdisciplinary approach to concepts of mutual interest, such as happiness, and be prepared to accept that spiritual and physical explanations are not mutually exclusive.
To argue that science and religion should jointly adopt a mutual empirical framework is the easy part. The hard question is suggesting exactly how or by what means we might scientifically evaluate religious claims about the nature of happiness. We do not pretend to have anything close to a satisfactory answer. However, what follows are some pointers toward ways in which such claims might be evaluated.
The most recent research on the genetic and biochemical bases of human behavior moves further and further away from any kind of reductionist approach. While our genetic inheritance largely determines the ways in which we behave, serious attention now focuses on other factors which combine with the action of our genes to produce a complete explanation of the ways in which we approach and interact with the world. In particular, attention focuses on the roles played by environment and/or culture.
Several developments highlight the role of environment/culture:
· Interaction with other members of a social group affects how individuals
in the group behave. For instance, Greta Agren and other researchers at the
Karolinska Institute in
· Robert Plomin, a behavioral geneticist at the
· A number of evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and psychologists
believe that cultural practices as well as DNA may serve to determine which
genes pass on to future generations. This is known as gene-culture co-evolution
The recent interest in a combination of genetic and cultural/environmental approaches effects religious explanations of behavioral traits such as happiness.
Scholars have traditionally construed concepts such as environment and culture as non-scientific and fuzzy – the domain of sociology rather than of hard science. They have labelled these concepts as difficult to define and evaluate. Yet we now find that they are accepted by (at least some) scientists, who evaluate and use them in scientific explanations of behavior. If this is so for claims about cultural and environmental contributions, why not also for claims about religious contributions? Religion was construed in the past as fuzzy and outside the scientific realm, yet it is certainly part of our cultural and (social) environmental heritage. Science should also take religious concepts and explanations seriously.
The following questions become pertinent to ask (and to answer within the bounds of a general empirical framework, as we outlined in the previous section) regarding religious and genetic explanations of happiness:
· Does faith (and so, presumably, happiness) increase with involvement in a religious environment?
· Is our personal set point for happiness an indicator of how religious a person we are?
· Religious people declare themselves happy more often than non-religious people—do the set points of religious versus non-religious people reflect this?
· Do happy religious individuals tend to breed happy religious offspring?
· Can science make sense of religious claims about happiness to come in the afterlife?
· Might we equate our children’s happiness with our own happiness in the hereafter?
people trust the word of scientists
Antonio Preti and Paola Miotto state in a
recent paper on creativity and evolution: “The proper elaboration of the
primary creative effort requires the development and the testing of the new
idea against scientific and aesthetic standards, which are, of course, of a
social nature” (Preti and Miotto,
We ask that we all move beyond the hostility and ignorance which science and religion so often display toward one another. We ask that science and religion heed one another’s claims, and work within the framework of implicit religion, aiming to adopt a mutual system which views these claims as compatible and evaluable. We believe that it should then be possible to arrive at a richer, more holistic picture of the nature of human happiness in which physical and spiritual aspects fuse rather than oppose. This approach develops the humanist and multiple focus understandings within implicit religion.
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Kevin Sharpe, The College of Graduate Studies,
The Union Institute; The Ian Ramsey Centre, Faculty of Theology, Oxford
University; Science & Spirit Resources, Inc. Mailing address: