Ninian Smart

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 14/12/2019

Last modified: 15/11/2020

Smart was a Scottish writer and educator who developed the field of academic religious studies, and helped to distance it from theology. He took the investigation away from which religion was 'true', and instead looked at the lived experiences of religious adherents.

Scholars

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Introduction

Smart was a Scottish writer and educator who developed the field of academic religious studies, and helped to distance it from theology. He took the investigation away from which religion was ‘true’, and instead looked at the lived experiences of religious adherents.

Smart identified seven categories that could be used to break up the study of religion into focused areas; he called these the seven dimensions of religion.

  • Doctrinal
  • Mythological
  • Ethical
  • Ritual
  • Experiential
  • Institutional
  • Material

You can remember them using this mnemonic device:

Remember every mother’s day, even if moody!

Smart’s approach sidestepped the issue of agreeing on what counted as ‘a religion’, and instead identified types of experience and expression that were demonstrably religious or spiritual in nature.

This modular approach to religious studies facilitated a much broader scope to consider and compare spiritual traditions and artefacts from around the world that may not have aligned with a Western conception of what a religion was.

The very idea of ‘a’ religion that could be isolated from the rest of human life is part of the Christian, post-Reformation heritage of Europe, and does not necessarily fit with religious and spiritual traditions across the world. You can read more about this in our article on the World Religions Paradigm.

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