Copyright © 2002 by Kevin Sharpe. All rights reserved.
In Quodlibet 4:1 (Winter 2002).

Camellias and Happiness: An Integration of Science and Religion


Kevin Sharpe and Rebecca Bryant

ABSTRACT. We propose the camellia model for the integration of science and religion, in which each accepts the knowledge of the other, and they together build a flourishing bush of energetic, inquiring, life-directing, and truthful knowledge. The nature of happiness provides an example of how this model integrates scientific and religious knowledge.

Integrating Science and Religion: General Principles

‘The first major challenge to religion in an age of science is the success of the methods of science.’[1] So writes Ian Barbour in his book, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues. The challenge becomes one of relating science and religion − two apparently diverse disciplines that sometimes speak very differently about the same phenomena. Barbour suggests four options for meeting this challenge: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration.

Because this paper examines a method of integrating science and religion, we can ignore Conflict − with its image of warfare − and Independence − with its image of avoidance and mutual disregard. What of the other two options? Dialogue, according to Barbour, ‘is a diverse group of views that go beyond the Independence model but portray relationships between science and religion that are not as close or as direct as those in the Integration model.’[2] The problem with Dialogue is that it does not go far enough. Scientists and religious thinkers acknowledge one another’s work, even admitting that points of contact exist, yet they do not accept that we might reconcile the content of science and religion to form a fully integrated, interacting, and developing whole.

What of Integration? ‘The final group...holds that some sort of integration is possible between the content of theology and the content of science,’ claims Barbour. In this model ‘the relationships between theological doctrines and particular scientific theories are more direct than in any forms of Dialogue,’ he continues.[3] Our approach to the reconciliation of science and religion − the camellia model − falls within Barbour’s Integration option. More specifically, the camellia model embraces what Barbour refers to as a ‘systematic synthesis’ of science and religion, in which both disciplines ‘contribute to a coherent world view elaborated in a comprehensive metaphysics.’[4]

The Camellia Model: Basic Assumptions

For a successful amalgamation of scientific and spiritual thought (or theology), we propose that any model must:

  • safeguard the essential differences between science and spiritual thought;
  • represent a relationship in the process of formation;
  • represent an obvious working toward mutual relevance with full interaction between the various strands;
  • comprise a flexible, organic image; and
  • provide a sufficiently rich form for the relationship.

These five facets incorporate the basic assumption that science and religion can and should work together to produce a richer understanding of our world. They ensure that we treat science and religion on an even playing field while respecting their differences. They allow science and religion the space to grow together, to adapt to one another. And they ensure that any model for the integration of science and religion must reflect reality, rather than theoretical allegiances.

Constructing the Camellia Model

A seminar student once offered a horticultural model for the integration of science and religion: the sunflower. The petals, he wrote, represent the various cultures, mythologies, sciences, spiritual approaches, and philosophies, all centered in the flower head. The flower grows on the ground of human experience. The petals represent the models and systems of thought which we build from our experience to understand that experience, while the central stamen head of the flower stands for the knowledge and assumptions that these thought systems share; in this case, what science and spiritual thought hold in common. The sunflower’s petals continuously change in interaction with the head that nourishes them. This sunflower model not only allows for many systems of thought, but also spawns a living and growing dynamic.

A petal connects to other petals through the central head of the flower. The head represents what all petals − the various sciences, spiritual traditions, mythologies, cultures, philosophies − possess in common. But it doesn’t represent all possible connections between them. Different belief systems understand the same event in different ways. Consider the emergence of the universe, for example. Some staunch Christians take God’s seven-day act of creation, as told in Genesis, quite literally. Others take it less literally − God brought the universe into being gradually, over time. Still others take it as a metaphor − they do not accept that the universe emerged through an act of creation at all, rather it evolved over eons to reach its current state and is evolving still. These radically different world views all acknowledge that the universe exists. Yet they share much more that this. Some share a belief in the creation of the universe; others share a belief in spontaneous emergence. Some take the Genesis story as temporally true, others do not. Some share a belief in the order of creation cited in Genesis, others do not. The sunflower model thus oversimplifies the myriad of links and movements between science and spiritual thought.

The sunflower model:

  • safeguards the essential differences between science and spiritual thought;
  • represents a relationship in the process of formation;
  • represents an obvious working toward mutual relevance with full interaction between the various strands; and
  • comprises a flexible, organic image.

We still seek a sufficiently rich form for the relationship. The problem for the sunflower model is its single flower. It has too few petals and only a single connection between them. It lacks the bounty necessary to stand for the many facets of our knowledge and the numerous connections running between them.

A camellia tree with an abundance of flowers and leaves grew in the front lawn of my (Kevin Sharpe’s) childhood home, and suggests another image, the camellia model. The leaves and petals of each flower represent aspects of science or spiritual thought. Some connect through the center of the flower to which they belong, while others connect through the twigs and branches between them. Each relates to, feeds, and depends on the others. Though each petal and each leaf and each stalk is separate from the others, they form an intricate whole which eclipses the parts.

My father and I once dug closely around the camellia and rolled it about twenty feet to another spot. It settled in quickly, not a blush on its pink blossoms. The tree embodies energy and life. Cutting the camellia back soon results in new growth and fresh flowers (whereas pruning disables a sunflower). If aspects of the system of scientific-spiritual thought wither, cut them back; with the camellia as a prototype, life soon reappears.

The camellia model bars the creationist submersion of the scientific to the spiritual. It also blocks the submission of the spiritual to the scientific, where religion becomes consonant with all that science says. Rather, the camellia approach supports the interaction between the strengths of each. The prophetic voice of a spiritual tradition stands and faces science. The camellia model also emphasizes growth in the relationship between scientific and spiritual thought, not only over particular topics, but also in the number of points of contact. New branches sprout and old ones change their size.

The camellia model:

  • safeguards the essential differences between science and spiritual thought;
  • represents a relationship in the process of formation;
  • represents an obvious working toward mutual relevance with full interaction between the various strands;
  • comprises a flexible, organic image; and
  • ensures a rich form for the relationship.

A strong, large, lush, and vigorously integrated system of knowledge develops with the camellia model. Both spiritual thought and science grow organically with input from the other. Each part of the two endeavors relates in content and method to every other part. The camellia relationship promotes and achieves the mutual relevance of scientific and spiritual thought. But we still seek to put the model into effect, to give existence to the camellia vision. And this is where the nature of human happiness comes in.

Happiness in Spiritual Thought

Happiness, and how we might attain it, has traditionally fallen within the remit of spiritual or philosophical thought. Many religions and their philosophies focus on happiness and advise us to seek out spiritual happiness in everyday life:

  • Reformation Protestants focused 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. Along with charismatic and Pentecostal tendencies in the spiritual traditions of the contemporary west, such books and movements assume that religion intends for happiness. Happiness is nearness to God.
  • Happiness comes to the person who lives a life of intellectual contemplation. So thought philosophers in ancient Greece. Epicurian and Stoic philosophers similarly proposed ‘happy wisdom.’ Aristotle thought of happiness as the highest good. Happiness equates with virtue, he believed. ‘There’s no fool who is happy, and no wise man who is not,’ the Roman philosopher Cicero reiterated.[5]
  • 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.
  • 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.

Several spiritual traditions and churches also emphasize 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, ‘succor and relief from earthly trials.’[6] Adds Jeffrey Russell from the University of California at Santa Barbara, ‘[Heaven] is an endless dynamic of joy.’[7]
  • 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.[8]
  • 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. The Bhagavad Gita depicts the ideal person as one of discipline, one who acts without worrying about the results of the action, unaffected by praise or rebuke. Actions in prior lives influence the situation of the next life and decide the degree of happiness or unhappiness between lives in the hereafter.
  • 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.

Happiness in Scientific Thought

Yet, much more recently, the sciences of behavioral genetics and neurochemistry have painted quite a different picture of the nature of human happiness.

For each of us, our happiness fluctuates within a small range called a ‘set-point’ that our genes largely determine. So concludes molecular biologist Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute in his review of studies on the role of genes in happiness or misery.

‘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.’[9] The sting of tragedy disperses equally as fast. Christopher Reeve, Lykken adds, probably now feels just as happy as he did before his mishap. Job loss or lottery winning influence happiness only over the short term. People may feel an initial euphoria when good fortune visits them, or a sadness when tragedy strikes unexpectedly, but in time they usually revert to how they felt and saw life before fate popped in. ‘The “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” clearly influence mood,’ says Greg Carey, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Colorado, ‘but long-term equilibration to life’s ups and downs is partly a function of the slings and arrows of genetic fortune.’[10]

Identical twins (those with the same genetic makeup) attain the same level of happiness 44 percent of the time, according to research by Lykken and Auke Tellegen of the University of Minnesota. Fraternal twins, in comparison, those who share genes as do ordinary siblings, reach the same level only 8 percent of the time. Hamer leads us through several calculations and says: ‘These data show that the broad heritability of well-being is 40 to 50.’[11] The studies Hamer reviews assess the happiness of twins over five to ten years, and show the slight impact (2%) of sex, age, race, and marital status.

Other studies show that a person’s level of happiness remains stable over many years. Inherited genes account for the majority of this level, though diseases like depression can override the set-point for well-being over the long term.

‘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 80% because of your genes.’[12]

Hamer continues by directing our attention to two of the more than 300 known neurotransmitters, dopamine − the brain’s chemical for pleasure − and serotonin, the neurochemical with whose reduced activity misery appears. Neurotransmitters pass information from the synapse or junction between a nerve cell and another nerve cell or a muscle. The nerve cell’s 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 cell’s 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, according to biology, help create our happy or miserable states of being.

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 D4 dopamine receptor − the part that controls the amount of dopamine binding there − differ in a parallel way in their moods. Psychologist Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin comments: this is ‘the first time there’s been a specific connection between a molecular genetic finding and people’s levels of happiness.’[13]

Other developments in neuroscience may shed further light on the biology of happiness. For instance, some scientists think they have located the part of the brain that registers happiness and where the set-point mechanism works.

Clashes over the Nature of Happiness

A clash looms between spiritual and scientific accounts of the nature of human 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.

Journalist Sharon Begley emphasizes that several claims for the genetic roots of various behaviors run into trouble because follow-up studies fail to replicate the original research. She points out that one recent claim − the connection between a condition of the gene D4DR and an adventurous, excitable personality − fails to find support. But she does not mention other claims. Researchers have linked a specific gene to an aspect of thought, for instance: the deletion of the chromosome 7 gene, called LIM-Kinase 1, which disrupts a person’s ability to visualize and mentally manipulate parts of objects. On the other hand, the failure of researchers to replicate a study does sound against it. And we should approach with caution those studies for which follow-ups have yet to appear. But it is incorrect that genetic-basis research carries a poor track record and merits skepticism. 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 Stanford University, which in turn means their happiness levels would show a greater similarity. This criticism of the genetic explanation overlooks a technique employed in twin studies, however, 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. The results of such investigations, at least in those concerning well-being, reinforce those conducted with non-split identical twins. Both study designs suggest the influence of genes.

Most of the other objections Begley reports are either incorrect, or trivial. For instance:

  • the claim that one gene generates a trait (researchers now stress that traits arise from configurations of many genes);
  • fraud in one instance (which does not mean they all are fraudulent); and
  • behavioral geneticists do their statistics incorrectly (they should do them correctly, of course, if their colleagues are to consider their work valid).

Grant Steen, a medical researcher at the Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, reports several skeptical reactions to split-twin studies. They too are trivial. For instance, Steen feels suspicious of statistics derived from one sample of the population, say from white male twins, being applied to another, say female non-twins or black males. Again, a comparison of results from different population groupings deflates this objection.

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. 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.’[14] Writes Mark Epstein, ‘True happiness is the ability to receive pleasure without grasping and displeasure without condemning, confident in the knowledge that pain and disappointment can be tolerated.’[15] ‘It’s worse to wake up in the morning without having a larger purpose in life,’ says developmental psychologist Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin, ‘than to wake up unhappy. Just feeling good is a poor measure of the quality of a person’s life.’[16]

The Camellia Model: Integrating Scientific and Spiritual Approaches to Happiness

By taking the camellia as our model, we can avoid this clash over the nature of human happiness. Philosophy, theology, behavioral genetics, and neurochemistry represent numerous leaves and petals on the camellia tree. Human happiness represents one of their many points of contact. The experience of happiness, the human quest for joy, and our search for an explanation of our happiness form the common ground on which both science and spiritual thought operate in this instance.

The requisite parts exist, and, with the camellia model, so does the fundamental integration between them. Remember that Hamer’s work suggests genes provide only a percentage of input into behavior. If 80 percent of happiness is, in the long term, due to genes, what about the other 20 percent? And we still can move up and down the 80 percent range of our personal set points. ‘Though genes may determine our average set point for happiness, they don’t specify where we are within our individual range at any particular point in time.’[17] Behavioral genetics and neurochemistry tell us much about happiness, but they don’t tell us the whole story. Room still exists for a spiritual story, with our minds, our moods, and our environments all playing their roles. Accepting the genetic basis of happiness does not mean drawing a deterministic conclusion from the research.

In his new book, Living with our Genes, Hamer distinguishes between temperament and character, explaining that, ‘Temperament is what you are born with. Character is what you’ve learned.’[18] We arrive in this world with our genetic set-points for happiness intact. But, as we flourish and grow, we develop our own characters which influence every aspect of our lives, including our happiness levels. Our characters mold our experience and, through that action, we add meaning to our lives. Perhaps our characters lead us toward the pursuit of knowledge, or a belief in the spiritual, which enhances our happiness. Or, in some cases, our characters may lead us toward more destructive paths (hard drugs, for example) which, in the long run, destroy happiness. Temperament always works in concert with character; the scientific always works in concert with the spiritual. We are not materialistic puppets, worked by the strings of our genes alone. Choices remain open to us, and, through those choices, we exercise control over our future and our happiness.

In the instance of happiness, we see how the camellia model supports the integration of science and spiritual thought, emphasizing the strengths of each. Such integration results in a richer, more coherent, and ever expanding bush of knowledge and inquiry. Knowledge of the nature of human happiness comprises a recent point of contact between scientific and spiritual thought. Let’s hope this bud flourishes further and that many new ones sprout.


[1] Barbour 1998, p. 77.

[2] Barbour 1998, p. 90.

[3] Barbour 1998, p. 98.

[4] Barbour 1998, p. 103.

[5] Myers and Diener 1995, p. 10.

[6] van Biema 1997, p. 72.

[7] van Biema 1997, p. 77.

[8] Kaplan 1951, pp. 80-83, 301.

[9] Gose 1996, p. A9.

[10] Holden 1996, pp. 1593-1594.

[11] Hamer 1996, p. 125.

[12] Hamer 1996, p. 125.

[13] Goleman 1996, p. B9.

[14] Freeman 1997, p. 70.

[15] Epstein 1995, p. 42.

[16] Goleman 1996, p. B9.

[17] Hamer 1996, p. 126.

[18] ‘Nature vs. Nurture,’ 1998, p. 10.


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Copyright © 2002 by Kevin Sharpe. All rights reserved. Published in Quodlibet 4 (1) Winter 2002.