Are We Spiritual, Not Religious?

Ken Wilber’s new book Finding Radical Wholeness has been published, and I have carefully read the first few chapters. My high expectations for the book have not been disappointed, and I look forward to participating in a book study with two close friends. However, I feel compelled to comment on a particular phrase in the book that is starting to look like a cornerstone idea, namely “spiritual not religious.” Ken makes much of the phrase, even making it the title of an entire section in Chapter 4. This is unfortunate.

As I have argued elsewhere (see my essay “What Is Religion?” here), an integralist should never use the phrase ’spiritual not religious.’ First, it sets up an invidious hierarchy of spiritual higher, religious lower. Ken works hard to mitigate this implication, but the impression is hard to avoid that IT holds that spirituality is better than religion. Not a good look.

Secondly, the phrase seems to imply that people who practice a traditional religion (magic or mythic) do not have a spiritual life. IT insists, of course, that folks whose center of gravity in their spiritual intelligence line is at amber or lower can have a Waking Up experience of Oneness with all things, Nirvana, Emptiness, the Supreme Identity, or satori. But that will be scant comfort to traditional Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc., who believe that their commitment to mythic beliefs, rituals, and community are spiritual in their own right, that is, deeply held and emotionally felt aspects of their ultimate concerns. The notion that their Growing Up is not spiritual will be upsetting.

So how should we think about the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’? Both have to do with a person’s ultimate concerns. In most contexts, therefore, they should be regarded as synonyms, as Ken himself does in some of his works (see Integral Spirituality, p. 102) For example, he often refers to James Fowler’s “Faith Development” as religious development or spiritual development. I see no harm in doing so and a positive benefit in avoiding the invidious hierarchy. Everyone goes through 6 or 8 stages of religious/spiritual/faith development. As Wilber explains in The Religion of Tomorrow and elsewhere, there is magic religion, mythic religion, rational religion, pluralist religion, integral religion, and transpersonal religion. Substitute the word ‘spirituality,’ and you get the same result: an unfolding through several stages of an individual’s understanding of their ultimate concerns.

Here’s another point. You can’t have spiritual intelligence without spirituality. If we are going to say that everyone has a spiritual line of development or spiritual intelligence consisting of 6 or 8 stages, we are already conceding that there is spirituality at each of those stages, including the magic and mythic. If you insist on ’spiritual, not religious,’ then your spectrum should read something like “magic religion, mythic religion, rational religion, postmodern spirituality, integral spirituality, transpersonal spirituality." But that makes a mess of the whole scheme, and it is entirely unnecessary. Get rid of ‘spiritual not religious’ and these problems disappear.

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I think there is a spectrum of religious participation and the degree to which religion is spiritual from 0% to maybe 100% for a wholely rational person.
I think you have a good point that religion does equal spirituality for many.
I also have experienced religion as completely non-spititual or as a schitzophrenic back and forth.
Its entirely possible the Chapter may be a bit reactionary. After all, lets in the case of Ken Wilbur at least separate Spirituality from Religion and not ordain all he says as ultimate universal truths. He is a human and at times fallible. He is not Omnicient and has not experienced the totality of human experience.
It may be that in his experience there has been 0% overlap or perhaps that was just his perspectival bias. Or a half dozen other possibilities.
Good catch, though.


Thanks for your response, Ray. I’m sure Ken has no problem with followers pointing out possible mistakes or weaknesses in any of his writings.

I’m not sure you get my argument that religion and spiritual in the Integral framework should be considered identical. Or perhaps you think it’s wrong.



Hi Charles , to start off I should say I am not an integralist nor do I have much knowledge of the integral frame work nor have I read the book in question. But I am waking up and that’s involved integration and I continue to integrate and clean up and grow up as part of the general direction of unfolding of the universe rather than an integral framework which I also have to say i recognise the value of in that process.Maybe this sort of gives me an ability to give an outside view of the "integral"world. The idea that you need to behave in a certain way to be an intergalist seems quite religious in it’s self . And there is definitely a hierarchy, as you wake up you transcend religion, when I let go of the rigid framework of the rational scientific model of the world which was my religion it gave me the space to really begin to Inquire into the nature of my existence. I think that’s evidentially backed up with most people as they wake up. I feel lots of the people clearly not all that I have encountered here seem really rather stiff and restricted to an academic very rational framework of being integral and living in general.I also have to say they are probably all much more developed as people and achieved more than myself in terms of academia and careers and family life but there does seem in many a lack of fluidity to move through life without a rigid quasi religious integral framework that seems to me to be like most frameworks something that needs to be transcended to wake up . Most of the most integral people I have encountered haven’t been aware of integral theory.what are your thoughts on this ?


Hi, Jim – You may not think of yourself as an integralist, but you clearly have an understanding of many of the main ideas, and you appear to have oriented your life to an evolutionary process of growth. Yes, as elsewhere, you will encounter stiff, overly rational people in the integral ranks. Lots of compassionate people, too, capable of nuanced thinking and listening carefully to other perspectives. I hope you meet more of those. Not sure what you mean by “a quasi religious framework,” but, properly understood, the integral model is a map of possibilities for self-exploration, not a set of dogmas to be followed to the letter.

You say that when you let go of your rational scientific religion, it was a kind of waking up into a new, larger space for self-exploration. That’s exactly right. With your new freedom, you can go in any number of different directions. You could decide to join a traditional religion (Christianity, Islam), but I suspect that’s not a live option for you. You could embrace some form of New Age spirituality or make environmentalism or social justice your new ultimate concern. All of them offer some value. One thing is for sure, you will be spiritual or religious, because all of us have a spiritual/religious line of development. Integral invites you to give it a serious look, because it claims to give you the most comprehensive (non-rigid) framework for exploring every aspect of your life, including your spirituality. And, make no mistake, as I explain elsewhere on this site, Integral is a religion, especially when a person incorporates an Integral Life Practice into their journey.

If you wish I would be happy to direct you to some sources for inquiring further into these ideas. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

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Thanks Charles for the reply I enjoyed reading it and it was useful. Maybe I should define what I define religion as because I am pretty sure my definition isn’t the dictionary definition . I see religion as a lower egoic interpretation of a spiritual system the spiritual practice takes the practicer beyond the ego to transcend it and include it. A religion is something an ego does to live forever. a religion is always at some point used as a power leverage by a dominating hierarchy to make egos do something that the religion makes them believe will curry favour with a god that the religion is a third party avenue of connection to . Clearly there are many useful healthy aspects of religion that I value and seeing their value in a four quadrant map is useful ,for one a narrative accessible to people at different stages of development is very important and life enhancing and unifying , i believe this could be one of the reasons Buddhism was largely abandoned in india.
However if a religion is heavy and dogmatic and restricts access to spirit it becomes a framework that imprisons our energy. This is very true of the rational scientific materialist way of seeing things . It wasn’t that I abandoned one way of seeing things and then was a able to choose another way another religion . What happened was I came to the understanding that I didn’t understand anything and couldn’t understand the un-understandable…this gave space for consciousness to expand into its self and was and is felt on an energetic level , on a level of shakti if i may use a tantric narrative rather than scientific narrative of energy . With this expansion of Shakti comes a shift in consciousness that sees life as a practice through play , these are things i realised first hand without prompting from outside sources and I also became aware that one of the major components if not its imperative component of a religious system is the survival and proliferation of the system often at the expense of it’s alignment with truth or betterment of society or universal evolution of consciousness . When a certain point in awakening occurs the expansion of shakti and growth of consciousness becomes your new direction and you don’t rely religions to tell you the way because you feel it because you are it , although religion can play a part in it for instance today I went to a sihk temple , I wouldn’t call my self a sihk but I enjoyed the group experience on many levels. I would wholeheartedly agree that there is something in the blue print of being human that needs something like religion but it’s my hope and belief that as humanity evolved religion will be transcended and something new and beautiful will take it’s place that has included all of its positive attributes and discarded the negative attributes and this will allow for new unknown never before seen attributes to come into existence. Iyou may ask why am I on the integral website , well I see the benefits in utilising some of the practices and teachings to further that expansion but I really wouldn’t want to call myself an integralist or see the integral theory as a religious framework because that would be very limiting I believe.

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You may not think of yourself as an integralist, Jim, but you clearly are leaning that way. If you would like to continue this conversation, I suggest we do it one to one. You can reach me at I have two degrees in philosophy and taught the subject professionally for many years. I have been a keen student of Ken Wilber’s work since the 1990s. Since retiring I have continued my philosophical activities in a number of different contexts, including as a facilitator of several online Integral groups. Currently I am assisting a group of integral students work their way through Robb Smith’s introductory course, Building Your Integral Life, which I highly recommend.

Religion is a particular interest of mine. How best to define the term is of critical importance for acquiring an integral understanding of religious phenomena (or any other understanding really). I recommend you take a look at my essay titled “What Is Religion? An Integral Approach” which is posted on this website but might be a little hard to find. If you wish, I can email it to you as a pdf attachment.

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I remember as a teen in seminary many years ago trying to find the Bible’s many meanings of “Christs Church”.
In a similar way I see religion.
In one way I agree with you. As soon as one person transmits spiritual knowledge or practice to another, you have a religion. In the USA the IRS considers three people meeting together to worship to be a “Church”.
This begs a question: in what ways are “church” and “religion” the same and in what ways different? Even synonyms have some differences in meaning and usage. Words like flat / apartmen lorry / truck convey differences when used if nothing else the National identity of the speaker.

I do see the point that “Religion” is necessary to transmit the spiritual under most conventional circumstances. It all depends on which of the many definitions of religion we are using.

But then, I also see Kens point that while religion is a vehicle for spirituality, it is not spirituality. The container is not the thing inside the container. The vehicle is not the cargo, in my vehicle analogy. In Biblical terms, “The Church of Christ” is not God, nor Christ, nor the Holy Spirit. Well - unless you are a Papist (joke). But its a valid point that the wars in Europe over 500 + years were fought over this basic quesestion: “Is the Church and Spirituality inseperable or seperable?” The Catholic and various Orthodox Christian Churches believed Spirituality could only be through them and if not authorized by them to speak you were burned at the stake as a heretic like Matin Luther. The various Protestant churches that formed were based on tbe belief that spirituality can be recieved outside of “The Church”(es).

Then there is the issue that spirituality can be experienced outside of any religion. Near Death experiences, psychedelics or even just hitting rock bottom and having a revelation are a few ways in which people have profound spiritual experiences completely outside of religion. The individual then forms their interpretation of that experience based on their cultural background. Joseph Smith had an existential crisis and formed a religion with a new book. If he were in Africa or India or Asia he would have come to different conclusions and done something different.

Great questions and insights, Ray. As always, I will respond from an AQAL perspective.

Integral Theory gives us a great framework for answering this question: the 4 quadrants.
Discussions of the Church invariably focus on the LL and LR quadrants. No one would seriously maintain that the religious consciousness of an individual believer (UL) constitutes a church. Nor would the behavior of said believer (UR) qualify. So we can usefully talk about the Church only through a collective lens. We can study a religious culture (LL), a We-space or collective network of people who share roughly the same beliefs about ultimate reality, God’s plan, Christian morals, how to attain salvation, etc. It is also appropriate to study the Church as an institution consisting of various systems of law, leadership, administration, education, etc, that are involved in the governance of the Church, as well as sacred places and objects that are also important means toward achieving salvation (the Christian version of an ultimate transformation).

These perspectives are not reducible to one another. However, I have argued that prominence in discussions of religion should be given to the individual religious person. In the Upper Left, the domain of a person’s interior religious/spiritual life, is where spirituality lives, not primarily in the culture or the institutional system. A person can be religious without either or those (think solitary hermit), but the Church cannot exist without individual believers.

I see it, too, but the question is whether we should agree with him. I have argued that, from an Integral perspective, it is not appropriate and actually harmful to distinguish religion and spirituality in this way. I may be wrong about that, but anyone who disagrees with me has the responsibility to actually deal with my arguments, to try to refute them. You have not done that yet.

That’s true. An atheist can have any of those profound experiences and will interpret them from a rational level of ‘Growing Up’ containing no reference to any transcendent realities. But whether that occurs “outside of any religion” depends once again on how you define ‘religion.’ If you define religion in terms of the lowest levels of spiritual intelligence (magic, mythic), then you make a wreckage of the spiritual line of development and create other problems, as I have argued. My view, shared by Ken Wilber and others, by the way, is that religion does indeed exist at the orange-rational level of spiritual development (and above–there is green religion, teal religion, and turquoise religion). Since any spiritual ‘Waking Up’ that a rationalist might experience will be interpreted through that person’s rational stage of ‘Growing Up,’ it is impossible to see how that can be described as happening outside of any religion.

All of these problems can be avoided if we give up narrow definitions of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality.’ I have argued that the best definition is religion/spirituality is a means toward ultimate transformation
(See my essay “What Is Religion? An Integral Approach.”) That approach is, I believe, uniquely consistent with the Integral values of multiple perspectivism, inclusivity, and compassion.

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I suppose I basically agree with you. In order to communicate spiritual practices and ideas, a vehicle is necessary 99% of the time. Semantics can be argued but essentially this vehicle is “Religion”. Without it, spirituality will grind to a standstill.

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Not sure about the vehicle concept, but I’m pleased we are in agreement on a number of key points. I hope you plan to read KW’s new book. In it he explains spirituality in terms of ‘Waking Up’ and ‘Growing Up,’ which provides a lot of clarity to the issue, I think.

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How should we think about the terms “spiritual” and “religious?” Here’s the way I generally use these two words. To me, this usage clarities some of the discussion that followed your post:

“Spirituality” to me means primarily a personal experience. In Wilber-speak, these are states. How each of us interprets and understands our state experiences is going to be hugely influenced by our structure stage of development. Yes, as I see it, there is a definite and distinct mode of “spirituality” i.e. state experience that is typical for each stage.

Stages and structures together would locate primarily in Wilber’s Upper Left Quadrant, i.e. interior first person (though of course tetra-arising in the other 3 quadrants).

I use the term “religion” to refer to the human-made institutions that deal with making meaning of & organizing group activities around issues of Ultimate Meaning. So, primarily Lower Right Quadrant. Of course the structure-stage of the religion of our community will heavily influence how we interpret our own state experiences.

On a different but related front: In your post, Charles, you cite Wilber’s most common formulation of these stages:
Magic, Mythic, Rational, Pluralist, Integral, and Transpersonal.

IMO this list omits a critical stage: Traditional (or dogmatic), which falls in between Mythic and Rational. This is the Amber / Blue stage – the great monotheisms and monisms! Which, by Wilber’s own report, accounts for 70% of the world’s population!

Wilber’s stages list that you just cited conflates the Traditional, dogmatic religions such as Christianity with either the previous stage (Red / polytheism) or the subsequent stage (Orange / reason). As if the Axial Age, the world’s great wisdom traditions, had never happened. A major distortion indeed. (I trace this gap in Wilber’s list to Gebser, btw).

But it’s more than just a missing piece. Having just finished reading Wilber’s “The Religion of Tomorrow” with Nomali Perera’s reading group, I think there’s a serious a serious distortion in how Wilber treats this stage, especially regarding traditional Christianity. Wilber sometimes uses scathing terms that don’t at all match my historian’s understanding of Christianity. I wonder how many believing Christians have already been permanently offended, and turned away from Integral, by Wilber’s acid comments.

There are other places where I would like to see some fine-tuning of Wilber’s overall superlative AQAL synthesis. Most are minor niggles but IMO this issue is not minor. It is hamstringing our Integral community in dealing wisely with the current culture wars.

Not what this thread was about, but I appreciate the chance to vent here.

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Hi, Karen – You and I are on the same page re spirituality until this:

The LR quadrant does indeed map the institutions of any major religion, but the institutions don’t make meaning, which is an interior individual and collective process; thus the UL and LL. For example, in the LR, we might notice the Catholic Church convening a great council to elect a new Pope, but observing that event --a 3rd person affair–will not reveal the meaning of the convocation. For that you have to ask a bishop or theologian or other knowledgeable person.


I’m wondering why you would define ‘religion’ in a way that hardly any religious person would use to answer the question “What is your religion?” For example, suppose you asked the question of an observant Catholic, and that person said, "I attend St. Agnes Church every week; I was baptized and married there. I was educated in Catholic schools and graduated from St. Louis university. I’m also a member of Opus Dei and another lay organization in my parish. Etc. Would you think that a good answer to your question? They are all LR responses. They contain no information about the person’s beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, feelings, ultimate concerns or anything else in the person’s interior life. But surely that’s where the essence of the person’s faith is located.

Of course you can define ‘religion’ any way you want, but if your aim is to understand religious phenomena on their own terms, as I do, then you need a definition that takes account of all 4 quadrants, the 6 or 8 levels of spiritual/religious intelligence, and four or more states of spiritual consciousness. In my essay “What Is Religion? An Integral Approach,” I recommend this definition, “Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation” and show how it applies to the AQAL model. If you haven’t read it, I’d be happy to send you a pdf copy.

And finally:

Yes, Ken typically uses Gebser’s stages where all the mythic religions ( the famous 70%) are mapped at the amber/blue level. He also includes polytheisms there. If you think a new stage, ‘Traditional,’ needs to be inserted between mythic and rational, what now are the characteristics of the mythic stage?

I have read The Religion of Tomorrow but somehow missed Ken’s scathing remarks about Christianity. Could you send me the name of the chapter where that occurs?
I agree with you that Ken’s model needs fine-tuning in some places. That’s the aim of this thread, in fact. I’m pleased we share the same attitude about this.

It’s great being in contact with you again and discussing deep ideas – something I have always enjoyed doing with you.

Very best wishes.

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Charles, yes, it’s great being in contact with you again too. I’ve always enjoyed chewing over these yummy, crunchy topics with you.

I don’t see you and me as being in huge disagreement over the usage of the terms “spiritual” and “religious.” Seems to me that our differences are in nuances.

Yes, of course, as putative Integralists, we will try to be mindful of all 4 quadrants, always. How we formulate this specifically will probably depend on who we’re talking with and how they themselves understand the terms – which may be different from how we understand them.

In general conversations we can appropriately be as flexible as necessary.

So, yes, if I were to ask someone what religion they are and they replied “Catholic” or “Taoist” or “Bahai” or whatever, I would take that as a “good” answer. It does the job, i.e. it orients me as to their specific track. What stage they may occupy, or what state experiences they may have had, remains to be discovered in further conversation, if any.

My take-away from this portion of our exchange here is that, for discussions of this depth, we are wise to define our terms precisely at the beginning of discussion, aware that we will each have our own unique take. I assume that that’s what you intended when you posted this text, yes?

In this case, my usage of these two terms does differ in nuance from yours. As I use these terms, I would not endorse your statement that “an Integralist should never use the phrase 'spiritual not religious.” I use that phrase myself occasionally, when I’m trying to communicate clearly & briefly in general conversation that I practice a meditation technique for spiritual purposes, but that I do not identify as a member of any traditional religious community. This has worked well for me on the few occasions I’ve used the phrase.

On this forum, however, by all means let us chew over the nuances.

On our second topic, the passage I was referring to in “Finding Radical Wholeness” is right at the beginning, page 3 of the Introduction, where Wilber writes:
“I will not be asking you to believe any of the magical, mythic, or miracle stories of any traditional religion. I definitely will not try to convince you of anything such as Jesus Christ really being born of a biological virgin. (The fact that Mary pulled that one off is astonishing. She’s pregnant, and if her husband is not the father, then she’s clearly been fooling around, and so she has to invent some sort of story as her excuse. And Joseph, her husband, is apparently so dense, he actually buys Mary’s story… Those are the types of “unbelievable” stories that have modern men and women scratching their heads and getting embarrassed if caught believing.”

Ouch! I had to put the book down for a few days to work through my reaction before I could pick it up again and keep reading. I have done, and will continue doing, my own inner work to understand why this passage about Mary triggered me so painfully. I could brush this off by saying “Oh, that’s just Ken Wilber being snarky again, he does that sometimes.” But still, ouch.

Two things that I am aware from my self-exploration so far:

First, I am not a “Christian” – I do not identify as “belonging” to any religious tradition. But I do have a deep emotional resonance with many of the uplifting aspects of traditional Christianity. For example, I have had some devotional experiences in which the Blessed Mother of God merges with Kwan Yin, the Boddhisattva of Infinite Compassion. Devotion to the Blessed Mother fulfills a similar function for believing Catholics as devotion to Kwan Yin fulfills for many traditional (Amber) stage Buddhists. Would Ken Wilber throw snark like this at Kwan Yin?

Okay, I’m sure I will be able to work through my personal pain on that one and let it go without too much trouble.

Second, more practically, I’m in the process of trying to get a Ken Wilber reading group up and running for my Unitarian-Universalist church congregation. (Which is not, btw, a “religion” by my definition, although it is a LR quadrant institution). One of my tasks in the next month or so is to identify a text that would be good to start off a reading group with. This quote from Page 3 of the Introduction just knocked “Finding Radical Wholeness” off my list.

None of the above subtracts from my respect for the enlightened genius of Ken Wilber’s work over all. He is, and remains, up there with Plato and Kant, IMO.

But when something hurts, we get to say “ouch.” Reading that paragraph hurt so much it hurled me out of the book for days. This entry is my “ouch.” I’ll get over it.

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