Are ‘Smart’ and ‘Spiritual’ Mutually Exclusive?

Sometimes it is believed that smart people aren’t spiritual and spiritual people aren’t smart because they are fooled into believing; there are four reasons why this is a problem. One- believing that smart people aren’t spiritual is a problem is because it isn’t possible that everyone that is spiritual isn’t smart, two- judging people in their spirituality isn’t really that smart either, three- putting spirituality with un-intelligence means that we also categorize non-spiritual with intelligent and that really isn’t the case either, and four- thinking that smart people don’t lead spiritual lives cuts us off from that possibility. You can start seeing the difference for between intelligence and spirituality by thinking of the three smartest people you know and considering what are their spiritual beliefs, who do you know that is really spiritual and do you consider them really smart, and take a moment to define what makes a person smart and what makes a person spiritual.

There sometimes seems to be a backlash in our culture against people who value their spiritual lives and try to improve their spiritual state. In effect, the idea seems to be that smart people aren’t spiritual; that people who are spiritual are somehow stupid enough to be “gulled” into believing something that obviously can’t be true.

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I really have a problem with this outlook for four reasons:

1. I have known a lot of really intelligent people who were also very involved in their churches or very active in spiritual endeavors. I still do know a lot of these people, and I think discounting their intelligence because of their beliefs does a great disservice to them, of course, but also to ourselves, because it robs us of the opportunity to learn from these people’s intelligence and achievements.

2. I don’t think judgments about another person’s spirituality really show us in our best light, either. I think it’s just another form of prejudice, and the only reason many people who advance this prejudice openly is because it has become acceptable to be prejudiced against people who are strong and outspoken in their faith. Like all prejudices, this one is insidious; we think we have a legitimate beef with these people, but what is our problem? How are they hurting us by having strong spiritual beliefs of their own?

3. I believe that when we lump “spiritual” with “unintelligent,” we also lump “non-spiritual” with “intelligent,” and that’s dangerous. We begin to think that someone who does not have an active, or outspoken, spiritual life must be smart because of that. It’s reverse prejudice, and it can lead us to believe and trust people who shouldn’t be trusted and who aren’t nearly as smart as we think they are.

4. I think by thinking that “smart” people don’t have spiritual lives, we cut ourselves off from that possibility, and I think that’s very sad. Yes, I realize some people don’t believe in a higher power or get involved in organized religion. I certainly respect your choice. But I believe it should be a choice made on examining yourself and learning what you really do believe, and not on automatically ruling out a spiritual aspect of your life because you think you have to choose between spiritual and smart.

I’m not by any means saying that I think you, personally, “have” to have a spiritual life in order to enjoy your life. That’s not true, and I wouldn’t try to push something like that on anyone.

What I am saying is that I hope you can start approaching spirituality – your own and other people’s – as something that is a deep and inherent part of that person, just like their intelligence is a deep and inherent, and completely separate, part of them. The two are not exclusive, or necessarily inclusive, either. They’re totally separate.

How can you start seeing the difference between intelligence and spirituality?

  • Think of the three smartest people you know. What are their spiritual beliefs?
  • Who do you know who is really spiritual? Do you consider him or her smart?
  • Take a moment to define what makes a person smart, and what makes a person spiritual.

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Thanks to The Next 45 Years for featuring this post in the Personal Development & Happiness Carnival, to Anja Merrett for including this in the Blog Carnival of Observations on Life, to Empowered Soul for inclusion in the Carnival of Truth, and to Pink Blocks for featuring this in the Blog Carnival on Personal Power.

17 Comments on “Are ‘Smart’ and ‘Spiritual’ Mutually Exclusive?”

  • I WILL say that intelligence/education and dogmatic thinking tend to go together. I consider myself spiritual, but not religious.

    And I do believe in the separation of church and state.

  • “tend NOT to go together”

    whoops.

  • Just a couple of ideas about where the stereotype may have arisen, and why I think strong beliefs (of any sort) have the potential to be harmful.

    * Firstly I would make a clear distinction between spirituality and most traditional orthodox religions, in that the former tends to foster thinking for yourself and the latter to suppress it. It is the latter that has contributed to the stereotype of unintelligence.

    * Belief often means a personal conviction that something is true, despite lack of evidence. Strong beliefs preclude consideration of evidence, theories or opinions that contradict the belief. This can be dangerous when people with strong beliefs make irrational decisions based on their beliefs,rather than the weight of empirical evidence. Unpredictability and irrationality fosters the impression of unintelligence.

    * People may not hurt others by having strong beliefs, UNTIL their conviction that only their beliefs are correct leads them to try to impose those beliefs upon others. When this impacts government funding, law making and religious discrimination in the community, then yes, people get hurt.

    * I agree that intelligence does not negatively correlate with spirituality, and indeed is more likely to lead to exploration and personal growth. However fundamentalist religions have long provided a refuge for the unwilling-to-think (intelligent or otherwise), and that has resulted in a lot of collateral damage over the centuries.

    * Good on you for making us think, and question our assumptions and prejudices! Stereotypes and unthinking prejudices blind us to a lot of the beauty and worth in the world.

  • Allanah,

    Great discussion. Thanks for sharing. I agree with much of what you’ve said.

    I am spiritual, but not religious. I try to have faith – that knowledge that I have enough today – and to be grateful. I receive counsel, teaching, direction, and inspiration from many sources. The key for me is to have spiritual self-esteem: the ability to recognize when I’m receiving guidance and to act upon it without having to be public about it. So far it works well for a myriad of reasons.

  • To say that organized religion houses the sub-intelligent while ‘spirituality’ is the domain of the enlightened is like saying all Republicans are idiots and all Democrats have their doctorates. Belief is NOT a sign of unintelligence, only faith. I can have faith that my wife is faithful to me, without that knowledge. The knowledge would come in hiring a private eye to follow her day in and day out, and while that may give me ‘intelligence’ it takes away from the ‘faith’.

    Tarring all with the same brush is dangerous. Organized religion, in many of its guises, HAS been responsible for many of the world’s evils, but also for many of its good. Just because organized religion is not the thing for you, does not mean that its discipline, teachings, fellowship-even seemingly stupid things like picnics-have merit.

    I have faith, I also have religion. I agree that the politics of religion often gets in the way of the faith part, but in the Book of James he makes a good point. In hospitals we have sick people, in courts we have criminals, why then wouldn’t we expect to have sinners in church? That’s where they go to take care of that illness-sometimes they hide it there as well, but we also hide from illness in hospitals.

    I may disagree with what you say, but I defend your right to the death to say it.

    Take care, and a Merry Christmas to all!!

    William Wallace

  • Sorry, should have re-read before sending-I mean ‘LACK merit’ at the end of the second paragraph…

  • William,

    Thank you for weighing in.

    I do not believe that organized religion is misguided. I have many wonderful friends and colleagues who are devoutly religious, and I’ve learned much from them and care for them deeply.

    I simply haven’t found a religion that works for me.

    A very Merry Christmas to you and yours as well.

    David

  • David,

    Neither had I. I had found myself ‘spiritual’, but wasn’t keen on organized religion-it didn’t seem practical enough… The church I am going to now is different, though. We started going there after congregation members came to our house on three different occasions-giving carnations on Mother’s Day, delivering leaf collection bags in the fall, and a box of stuffing for Thanksgiving… We wondered, ‘what kind of church would do that’? so we went to a service, and haven’t looked back. We are in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and every month that has 5 Sundays in it they have what is called a ‘Love K-W Sunday’ (KW stands for Kitchener/Waterloo, which is a story on its own). Love KW is simply the congregation, rather than doing ‘church’ goes out in the community and serves. It could be raking leaves for shut ins, giving food to the homeless, bagging groceries at a discount food store, giving donuts to cop shops or firehouses, etc, etc, etc… For the last three I’ve lead a group picking up trash along the road our church is located-we meet in a high school gym. I agree, many churches are heavy with politics and not much on spirituality. But they aren’t all like that, and should be given a chance… Please feel free to contact me at any time to discuss this.

    I enjoy your blog, and getting your email newsletter. Take care, talk soon, and once again, Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year!!

    Sandy Wallace

  • Hi David,

    Interesting discussion here. Myself being hindu by birth was dragged around temples, but not told why.

    When I left my country to study, I am having a chance now to explore myself as I am. I am using a lot of information from sites like yours to help me control my anger,pre-inhibitions , addictions etc. Being aware of myself is what spiritual means to me.

    As my partner says, there is a God within everyone. I respect God, but would like not to believe that praying to him will make my life easier.

    As you can see, I am getting my life untangled here :)

    Thanks for your help

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  • David, you have an interesting discussion going on here. I agree with most of what was said. I wasn’t raised in a religious home. As a young adult, I didn’t attend church much either. My husband was raised in the Church of Christ. We were married in his home church. When my daughter, our second child was a baby, some ladies visited us from the nearest Church of Christ. I was baptised in that church. We attended the Church of Christ in whatever city we lived in for about 10 years. At the time, it suited my needs. I loved the people in each of the churches we attended. It was different from the Baptist church that one of my grandmothers would occasionally take me to as a child. It was very different from the Assembly of God church that my other grandmother would take me to occasionally when I was a child.

    I was born knowing that God was much, much more than any of the churches that I have attended made him out to be. I also knew that God was always inside of me. I have always had conversations with God in my mind, sometimes angry conversations, but conversations none the less. I attend a Unity church today and have for most of the past 10 years. Unity beliefs come closer to what I have always personally known about God than any other church I have ever visited. And still, my outlook on God is bigger and broader. I have been to India 3 times in the past 10 years and studied the Hindu and Buddhist religions a little bit.

    Each religion that I have come into contact with has been of benefit to me where I was at that time in my life and in my spiritual growth. I believe, for some, that spiritual growth can occur in a church setting. That is true for many people. I also believe that spiritual growth doesn’t have to have a religious setting to happen. Most of my spiritual growth has happened because of the trials and challenges in my life. Thanks for starting this conversation.

  • Patricia,

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey.

    I think you said it best when you wrote: “Most of my spiritual growth has happened because of the trials and challenges in my life.”

    Wherever we find growth, I believe spirituality embodies the willingness to change and looking for ways – people, places, things, and situations – to help us to do just that.

    Spirituality has many definitions, and they are as unique as those ascribing to them. I often find that spirituality involves a combination of the following:

    Meaning – investigating and understanding the significance of life. That further involves making sense of situations we encounter and deriving purpose in our lives.

    Values – the beliefs, ethics, values, and standards that we cherish.

    Transcendence – our experiences, awareness, and appreciation for life beyond ourselves.

    Connecting – an increased awareness of a living connection with self, others, nature, and a power greater than ourselves.

    Becoming – an unfolding of life that requires reflection and experiencing life. This includes a sense of who one is, where one has been, where one is going, and what one knows in his/her mind and soul.

  • Wisdom and spirituality are directly correlated.

  • Thank you, David. Excellent as always.
    I make a distinction between spirituality and religiosity. Although being a practitioner of a religion by no means excludes one from being spiritual, religions often include an element of exclusivity—theirs is the one path, the one God, the right way. If anyone buys into the idea that any single path (in such a subjective and personal experience) can be the only way, I am inclined to consider that manner of thinking to be less than the best exercise of emotional intelligence—as such conclusions seems to be more emotionally than rationally based.

    Many blessings to you and all you hold dear,
    CG

  • There is no such thing as smart person, just people who are good at listening to thier inner voices, thereby choosing the intelligent options there.

    So we cant take credit for what we think or say, cause we heard it in our mind too.

    However i do think that, the kind of thoughts we encourage in our minds affects the intellectual wealth of voices we here. So you want to hear more intellegent voices in your mind, encourage intelligent thoughts.

    I am saying a human being is not a source of any information, not even how to get spoon from plate to mouth, both we are choosers of what information to execute or entertain.

    In summary, intellegent people arent creators of new information, but people good at listening to ideas that reach thier mind. And sometimes those ideas are so far out that it takes a really good mind listener to decode the message and relate to the human vocabulary of undertsanding.

    So that practicing meditation is practicing mind control, is practicing listening to the mind, is also a way of so called getting smarter.

    So, maybe those who think they are smart, are really at the bottom of the pile.

    This is my opinion as of today, and i be the first to accept this opinion will mature or even change till my last day.

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