The Nature Of Religious Belief And Dialogue About Religion

By Shane McGee

Religion and spirituality have existed almost as long as mankind has, and yet the debate still rages as to whether it is a force for good or bad in the world. Some of the world’s most inspiring actions have been performed in the name of religion, as have some of its worst atrocities, not to mention the tension between people who do and do not profess a belief, and also of course between people of different beliefs.

The common response to such tension is to suggest dialog, but dialog on religion carries enormous difficulties on its own, as evidenced by these remarks by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Suppose someone were a believer and said: ‘I believe in a Last Judgment’, and I said; ‘Well, I am not so sure. Possibly’, you would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said ”here is a German aeroplane overhead’, and I said ‘Possibly, I am not so sure’, you’d say we were fairly near.

It isn’t a question of my being near him, but on an entirely different plane, which you can express by saying: ‘You mean something altogether different, Wittgenstein’. The difference might not show up at all in any explanation of meaning. [1]

Here Wittgenstein makes an important point, that a believer and non-believer might simply be on different planes of experience. However, one problem is that there is no easy definition of what a believer is or what religious belief is. Wittgenstein describes it in these lectures as one having unshakable faith that is not based on or shaken by evidence. However this definition certainly doesn’t cover the totality of people who express religious belief; there are many people whose faith occupies a peripheral part of their lives, and for whom scientific arguments do form part of a basis for belief . We are left with a problem that Wittgenstein treated in his later philosophy; that things like belief cannot be defined as such, but rather there is a ‘family resemblance’ between different kinds of belief that allow us to use that word. The problem gets worse when one tries to weed out ‘positive’ forms of belief, which have inspired people to help others, and ‘negative’ forms, which have sown hatred and division; these are of course very subjective terms and depend on who is using them.

The seed of a possible might lie in Wittgenstein’s suggestion that people can be speaking about the same subject and yet not really connect because they are on two different planes of experience. This suggestion has a common resonance in Eastern philosophy; Indian philosopher Sri Chinmoy describes these planes as having their genesis in different organs of experience – the mind, the heart and the emotional being [2]. Instead of trying to characterize religious or spiritual belief in one fell swoop, it might be better to describe the nature of experiences on these different planes, experiences which appear to be common to people regardless of religious belief or lack of it, and then see how the multitudinous forms of belief and non-belief arise from them.

By the heart, we mean that core of our being which seeks direct experience of inner truth. The joy, peace and sense of self-expansion obtained from such an experience translates in a feeling of good-will towards others, and a yearning towards human togetherness and oneness rather than conflict. Swami Vivekananda, who was instrumental in bringing Eastern philosophy to a Western audience, spoke thus:

‘All who have actually attained any real religious experience (ie in the heart) never wrangle over the form in which the different religions are expressed. They know that the soul of all religions is the same and so they have no quarrel with anybody just because he or she does not speak in the same tongue.’ [3]

Those who habitually have experiences in this plane of the heart feel that they embody a reality which is apart from and deeper than and facts or conclusion reached by the mind. However, except for those who practice a regular spiritual discipline, experiences in this plane come rather rarely and so this plane has not become established as a common experience in human discourse. However this should in no way imply that this plane is closed to one who does not have a religious belief – numerous examples abound to the contrary.

The plane of the mind, as used in traditional Western philosophical treatments of religion, seeks to test claims for experimental soundness and logical consistency. However in addition ,the mind is also where the ego operates, the ego being that part of our being which aims to create a self-definition which sets us apart from the rest of the world. Beliefs, religious and otherwise, can become part of this self definition, and can separate us from others who hold beliefs different to our own.

The emotional plane of experience is sometimes called the vital in Indian philosophy and is associated with our enthusiasm and drive for life. It can also be associated with our possessive and aggressive tendencies, instant gratification and emotions like fear and anger; history is replete with examples of religion being suborned to and used to to further these emotions.

A description of these three planes goes some way towards explaining the difficulty of dialogue concerning religion. For example, one who has had experiences in the heart generally has difficulty explaining these to someone in the mind-plane, and will often try instead to try and make the person think of an experience they themselves had in the heart. Similarly someone in the mind plane might be mystified as to why people in the unillumined vital plane do not listen to rational argument.

However, it is certainly not the case that humankind can be rigidly assigned to one of these three planes or another. In fact all three planes operate inside us to a greater or lesser extent, and within one’s own being they can interact and influence one another i.e the heart can influence the emotional being to become enthusiastic rather than aggressive. Of course, social factors can also cause one to turn more towards a particular plane of experience. It is these interactions, inner and outer, that bring us the complexity of what we call religious belief, and therefore a look at the different kinds of belief and dialog on religion should first look at how this belief is found inwardly on each plane by different people.


[1] Wittgenstein Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief: a collection of notes from Wittgenstein’s 1938 lectures and conversations in Cambridge.

[2] See, for example, The Heart, the Mind, the Vital and the Body, a 1978 lecture by Sri Chinmoy at the University of San Diego; available at

[3] Swami Vivekananda quotes available at

The author, Shane Magee, has a Ph.D in particle physics. He has had a lifelong interest in philosophy, and teaches free courses on meditation and Eastern philosophy in Dublin, Ireland. He is especially interested in the dialogue between the scientific and spiritual perspectives on life.

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