Definition of Religion

Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion and Why is it Helpful


Ninian Smart (1927-2001) was a prominent theorist, scholar, and phenomenologist of religion notable for bringing into academic focus how religion is an interactive and dynamic process as opposed to a static object (1). Walter Capps (1934-1997) says that Smart provided the most “comprehensive and systematic” comparison of the religious traditions in the world via the criteria of phenomenology (2).

Smart acknowledged the diversity and plurality of religious traditions arguing that that one should apply the category of “dynamics” to the earlier phenomenology of Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950). Smart found van der Leeuw’s categories to be too static and permanent. Instead, theorists and scholars of religion have realized that religious realities are far from fixed but lively and contested. Referring to Christianity as an example, Smart writes that,

“Though we use the singular label “Christianity,” in fact there are a great many varieties of Christianity, and there are some movements about which we may have doubts as to whether they count as Christian. The same is true of all traditions: they manifest themselves as a loosely held-together family of subtraditions” (3).

Smart acknowledges that this dynamism is highlighted when one considers the manifestation of pluralism within religious traditions when different cultures and worldviews meet and produce new religious movements. An awareness of these dynamics is imperative for scholars of religion, and Smart’s phenomenology presented in his seven-dimensional scheme attempts to capture this plurality and diversity. These seven dimensions capture religion’s manifest features while never ignoring religion’s dynamic nature. “The point of the list”, says Smart, “is so that we can give a balanced description of the movements which have animated the human spirit and taken a place in the shaping of society, without neglecting either ideas or practices” (4).

The Seven Dimensions of Religion

1. The Practical and Ritual Dimension

All religious traditions have practices to which they adhere. These include regular worship, preaching, prayers, and more, as well as patterns of behaviour. These patterns of behaviour, while not strictly the same as rituals, fulfill a function in developing spiritual awareness or ethical insight. Smart writes,

“This practical and ritual dimension is especially important with faiths of a strongly sacramental kind, such as Eastern Orthodox Christianity with its long and elaborate service known as Liturgy. The ancient Jewish tradition of the Temple, before it was destroyed in 70 C.E., was preoccupied with the rituals of sacrifice, and thereafter with the study of such rites seen as equivalent to their performance, so that the study itself becomes almost a ritual activity. Again, sacrificial rituals are important among Brahmin forms of the Hindu tradition… practices such as yoga in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, methods of stilling the self in Eastern Orthodox mysticism, meditations which can help to increase compassion and love, and so on. Such practices can be combined with rituals of worship, where meditation is directed toward union with God” (5).

2. The Experiential and Emotional Dimension

Religious history evidences the significance of experience in the formation and development of religious traditions. One can refer to such things as the visions of the Prophet Muhammad, the conversion of the Apostle Paul, and the enlightenment of the Buddha, all of which constitute seminal events in human history (6). These events were also emotionally charged ones,

“And it is obvious that the emotions and experiences of men and women are the food on which the other dimensions of religion feed: ritual without feelings is cold, doctrines without awe or compassion are dry, and myths which do not move hearers are feeble. So it is important in understanding a tradition to try to enter into the feelings which it generates — to feel the sacred awe, the calm peace, the rousing inner dynamism, the perception of a brilliant emptiness within, the outpouring of love, the sensations of hope, the gratitude for favors which have been received. One of the main reasons why music is so potent in religion is that it has mysterious powers to express and engender emotions” (7).

Smart refers to prominent examples of religious experience. He notes Rudolf Otto’s idea of the “numinous” or the mysterium tremendum et fascinans denoting a mysterious force which draws and attracts human beings but also raises within them an awe-inspired fear. The ancient Romans had numinous experiences of spirits all around them, present in brooks, streams, mountains, and dwelling places. The numinous captures the prophetic experiences of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the theophany through which God appeared to Job, and the vision given to Arjuna in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. At a more gentle level it can also encapsulate the spirit of loving devotion which sees God as merciful and Other but also as something to be worshiped and adored. Other parts of the experiential dimension can include the dramas of conversion, such as being “born again”, as well as shamanic experiences where the individual enters an alternative state of mind, travels through other worlds or dimensions, has visions, and acquires powers of healing or knowledge of a divine origin.

3. The Mythic or Narrative Dimension

Here religious experience is expressed and channeled through sacred narrative or myth. This is “the story side of religion”; Smart expands,

“It is typical of all faiths to hand down vital stories: some historical; some about the mysterious primordial time when the world was in its timeless dawn; some about things to come at the end of time; some about great heroes and saints; some about great founders, such as Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad; some about assaults by the Evil One; some parables and edifying tales; some about the adventures of the gods; and so on” (8).

These stories are often referred to as myths, but this term can be somewhat misleading for contrary to the popular non-scholarly usage of the term, myth in the modern study of religion does not mean that something is false. As Smart notes, the seminal stories of religion may be rooted in history or they may not,

“Stories of creation are before history, as are myths which individuate how death and suffering came into the world. Others are about historical events — for instance the life of the Prophet Muhammad, or the execution of Jesus, and the enlightenment of the Buddha” (9).

Although scholars of religion may debate the historical details of these stories, such is often secondary to the meaning and function of the myth. To many religious believers, the myth is viewed as history. Often this involves sacred texts which have authority because they are believed to be God-inspired or to have been communicated or authored by a religion’s divinely inspired founder. Other texts, documents, and oral traditions might also be very important, such as the lives of saints, the stories of famous holy men of Eastern Europe in the Hasidic tradition, the traditions of the life of Muhammad in the hadith, and so on. Although such stories might have lesser authority to believers than their principal religious text(s), they are still inspiring to followers.

A final point worth noting is that stories are often firmly integrated with the ritual dimension,

“The Christian Mass or communion service, for instance, commemorates and presents the story of the Last Supper, when Jesus celebrated with his disciples his forthcoming fate, by which (according to Christians) he saved humankind and brought back into harmony with the Divine Being. The Jewish Passover ceremonies commemorate and make real to us the events of the Exodus from Egypt, the sufferings of the people, and their relationship to the Lord who led them out of servitude in ancient Egypt. As Jews share the meal, so they retrace the story. Ritual and story are bound together” (10).

4. The Doctrinal and Philosophical Dimension

The doctrinal dimension underpins the narrative dimension,

“Thus, in the Christian tradition, the story of Jesus’ life and the ritual of the communion service led to attempts to provide an analysis of the nature of the Divine Being which would preserve both the idea of Incarnation (Jesus as God) and the belief in one God. The result was the doctrine of the Trinity, which sees God as three persons in one substance. Similarly, with the meeting between early Christianity and the great Graeco-Roman philosophical and intellectual heritage, it became necessary to face questions about the ultimate meaning of creation, the inner nature of God, the notion of grace, the analysis of how Christ could be both God and human being, and so on. These concerns led to the elaboration of Christian doctrine” (11).

Doctrines form a significant part of all major religions, particularly as they evolve to adapt to social realities and seek some intellectual statement as the basis of the faith. Moreover, doctrinal issues and disputes have also been the stuff of schisms within traditions resulting in splits in religious communities.

5. The Ethical and Legal Dimension

The narrative and doctrinal dimensions often address the question of ultimate liberation and salvation. Smart writes that “The law which a tradition or subtraction incorporates into its fabric can be called the ethical dimension of religion” (12). An example would be Buddhism where there are virtues and regulations such as the five precepts to control the lives of monks, nuns, and monastic communities. In Judaism, there are the Ten Commandments as well as a list of more than 600 rules imposed upon the community by God and that constitute the framework for the Orthodox Jew. The life of the Muslim is often governed by the Law (sharia) that shapes a society on a moral, religious, and political level. The Five Pillars of Islam require that Muslims pray daily, give alms to the poor, and so on.

6. The Social and Institutional Dimension

The social dimension, like the material dimension (see below), has to do with the “incarnation” of religion, whereas the previous five dimensions can be considered in abstract terms without embodying any external forms. Smart explains that,

“Every religious movement is embodied in a group of people, and that is very often rather formally organized — as Church, or Sangha, or umma… To understand faith we need to see how it works among people” (13).

This is why the sociology of religion is also important for scholars of religion because of the variety of relations between organized religions and society at large. For instance, a faith might be the official religion of the state, or one of many denominations, or entirely isolated from social life. These religious organizations can hold to one of many models ranging from democratic governance to governance that is hierarchical or monarchical, and so on.

7. The Material Dimension

This is the second “incarnation” of religion in that a tradition becomes incarnate in material form. These can include buildings, works of art, figurines, artifacts, and many other creations. However, it may also be the case that some religions abstain from external symbols as being potentially idolatrous. Smart:

“The material expressions of religion are more often elaborate, moving, and highly important for believers in their approach to the divine. How indeed could we understand Eastern Orthodox Christianity without seeing what ikons are like and knowing that they are regarded as windows onto heaven? How could we get inside the feel of Hinduism without attending to the varied states of God and the gods?” (14)

Smart adds that the material dimension further encompasses natural features of the world that traditions single out as being sacred and meaningful. The river Ganges, the sacred mountains of China, the Jordan, Mount Fuji in Japan, Ayers Rock in Australia, and so on.

The Significance

Smart is confident that if his seven dimensions are adequate descriptions then it means that one “need not worry greatly about further definition of religion.”

It is generally agreed within Religion Studies that a consensus definition of religion has not been attained. As such, numerous definitions have been proposed, and many scholars are willing to work with some very broad ones. A particularly popular broad definition of religion proposes religion to be that which offers answers to questions of “ultimate concern” (as proposed by the theologian Paul Tillich). Tillich’s is a helpful definition because it can include many traditions from the likes of atheistic religions, such as Raelianism and Satanism, to pagan religions and religions clearly predicated on the transcendent, or on socio-political movements, such as Rastafarianism. Many scholars are dissatisfied with this definition because it can also include phenomena not normally viewed as a religion, such as sports, politics, and even familial relations (i.e. the “ultimate concern” for a mother could conceivably be her child, but we would not view this as a religion). Other scholars have attempted to be far more discriminatory in what qualifies as religious lest any and all things be deemed religious under a broad definition. Without going further into this discussion, the debate over definition evidences the value of Smart’s seven-dimensional scheme. It is helpful in that it avoids scholars having to debate definitions before they focus on the manifest features of religion and attempt to explain, classify, and/or categorize them. Indeed Smart lived up to this because his rather extensive book The World’s Religions skirts the debate over definition but then engages in an exemplary categorical analysis of the world’s religious traditions, big and small.


1. Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 90.

2. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 307-308.

3. Smart, Ninian. 1992. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 12.

4. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 21.

5. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 13-14.

6. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 14.

7. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 14.

8. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 15.

9. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 16.

10. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 17.

11. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 17.

12. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 18.

13. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 19-20.

14. Smart, Ninian. 1992. Ibid. p. 21.

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