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Critiquing "Spiritual Intelligence"

Criticisms of the concept of spiritual intelligence are discussed.

This post is in response to
What is "Spiritual Intelligence" Anyway?

In the first two parts of this series, I introduced the concept of “spiritual intelligence” as described Robert Emmons, a hypothetical ability to use spiritual information to solve problems—particularly those related to meaning in life—to bring about personality integration. I suggested that, although it is unlikely that this corresponds to a completely separate intelligence, it might represent a genuine area of human functioning that could be worth exploring further. Then, I discussed some of the psychological features that might underlie whatever “spiritual intelligence” is.

Free image from Pixabay
Source: Free image from Pixabay

Having considered what spiritual intelligence might substantively involve, potential criticisms of the concept need to be addressed. Although Emmons (2000a) claimed that “spiritual intelligence” is distinct from the broader concept of spirituality, the two concepts are difficult to differentiate in practice (Mayer, 2000), as both involve experiencing altered states of consciousness. A related concern is that “spiritual intelligence” may be difficult to disentangle from metaphysical beliefs that tend to be packaged with the concept of spirituality. Spiritual intelligence, as Emmons describes it, seems to strongly imply that certain spiritual beliefs or paths are correct. However, as Mayer (2000) noted, intelligence is plastic and allows one to consider many different avenues of thought. The way Emmons frames the concept of spiritual intelligence seems to imply that a spiritually intelligent person would reach certain preconceived conclusions. For example, one of the components of spiritual intelligence Emmons (2000a) proposed is the “capacity to transcend the physical and material.” Taken literally, this presupposes that a transcendent spiritual realm objectively exists, unknown to science.

On the other hand, perhaps this could be interpreted more metaphorically, e.g. “transcending the physical” might refer to taking a certain point of view about life, rather than believing in a non-physical realm. However, Emmons writings on the subject do not really address this latter view. In contrast, Sam Harris, for example, has proposed that people can explore states of consciousness that are traditionally considered “spiritual” without accepting any metaphysical doctrines. That is, “spiritual” states of consciousness are a valid part of the range of human experience but do not necessarily provide evidence about the true state of the world. This is contrary to the traditional mystical view that spiritual experiences provide deep insight into the nature of reality. Perhaps, the concept of spiritual intelligence could be reframed as thinking about “spiritual” experiences wisely without necessarily drawing predetermined conclusions. Emmons (2000b) refers to spiritual intelligence as “an antidote to antireligious intellectualism,” i.e. a perspective that sees religious and spiritual worldviews as “irrational, illogical, and superstitious.” He claims that spiritual intelligence involves a view in which spiritual processes enhance cognitive functioning rather than detract from it. That is, spiritual processes could allow one to think more clearly rather than producing irrationality.

However, the issue of irrationality needs to be addressed. Frequently, experiences of a ‘spiritual’ nature are accompanied by feelings of conviction that one has gained profound insights into the nature of reality, yet these “insights” can involve bizarre ideas that are accepted without question. (For example, many early explorers of psychedelic drugs accepted some very odd ideas, as this blog post illustrates.) Furthermore, Emmons claims that spiritual intelligence allows one to perceive meaningful connections between everyday life and one's spiritual concerns. However, some people are prone to seeing connections between events where none exists. For example, people who endorse paranormal beliefs are more likely to perceive meaningful patterns in random visual stimuli (van Elk, 2013). Hence, drawing connections between everyday life and spiritual concerns might be a sign of illusory thinking rather than deep insight into reality. Perhaps one could argue that the “intelligence” component involves being able to question the validity of one’s insights, but this seems to run the risk of becoming a circular definition, e.g. one is only spiritually intelligent if one achieves desirable outcomes, with “desirable” being defined in whatever way is convenient.

Free image from Pixabay
Source: Free image from Pixabay

Another issue is the difficulty of assessing whether someone’s behaviour is spiritually “intelligent.” With traditional IQ tests, there are well-defined problems with objectively correct answers that can be used to assess a person’s level of ability. Researchers who have developed tests of “ability” emotional intelligence have attempted to construct test questions that assess how well one understands and manages emotions. Some of these have been straightforward, such as tests of recognition of facial expressions, which have genuinely clear answers. Others have been more controversial, such as situational judgment tasks that involve reading a scenario and selecting the best way to behave. (These have also been used to assess Sternberg’s concept of “practical intelligence,” yet another attempt at creating an alternative to IQ, with questionable results.) The problem with these tasks is that the best answer usually depends on consensus opinion rather than objective criteria. Thus, these tests are biased to assessing compliance with socially accepted norms, rather than profound emotional insights. (I discuss this in more detail in a previous post.) How would one come up with test items for spiritual intelligence without being completely subjective? Perhaps one could poll a group of people who are considered very smart spiritually and ask them for their insights into scenarios involving “spiritual” problems, and construct answers based on their consensus. However, this method would have the same problem associated with tests of emotional and practical intelligence, in that they would be assessing conformity to majority opinion and leave little room for original insights.

As mentioned earlier emotional intelligence has also been assessed with “trait” approaches in which a person self-assesses their ability to understand and manage emotions. Although self-assessments are necessarily subjective, scores on trait emotional intelligence have been correlated with important outcomes. A similar approach could be applied to spiritual intelligence. Currently, several self-report measures of some form of “spiritual intelligence” exist, although research on the topic remains scant. Despite problems with the concept, I think the concept of spiritual intelligence could potentially be used to explore genuine areas of human functioning. Hopefully, this could be done from within a scientific framework that does not require accepting metaphysical beliefs that lack evidence of validity.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.

Related posts

The Spirituality of Psychedelic Drug Users

Troubled Souls: Spirituality as a Mental Health Hazard

The Illusory Theory of Multiple Intelligences


Emmons, R. A. (2000a). Is Spirituality an Intelligence? Motivation, Cognition, and the Psychology of Ultimate Concern. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 10(1), 3-26. doi:10.1207/s15327582ijpr1001_2

Emmons, R. A. (2000b). Spirituality and Intelligence: Problems and Prospects. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 10(1), 57-64. doi:10.1207/s15327582ijpr1001_6

van Elk, M. (2013). Paranormal believers are more prone to illusory agency detection than skeptics. Consciousness and Cognition, 22(3), 1041-1046. doi: