Seven Dimensions of Religion

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 15/11/2020

Last modified: 15/11/2020

The seven dimensions of religion are a framework for exploring and understanding religion, developed by the Scottish scholar of religion, Ninian Smart.

Perspectives

Table of Contents

Introduction

The seven dimensions of religion are a framework for exploring and understanding religion, developed by the Scottish scholar of religion, Ninian Smart.

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.

Ritual Dimension

The ritual and practical dimension of religion covers all aspects of performed religion, this includes formal ritual (activities with rules surrounding the performance and motivation) as well as more informal, everyday practices (activities with a religious motivation or character).

Some examples of ritual are Christian baptism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism), Hindu yajna (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yajna), and Zoroastrian navjote ceremonies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navjote). This dimension also encompasses other activities that may not be strictly regulated, but which nonetheless form a consistent practice - for instance yoga, prayer, and meditation.

Experiential Dimension

The experiential (or emotional) dimension relates to personal experiences felt by the individual, for example joy, bliss, mystery, anger, despair, and so on, where these experiences are in relation to a religious experience.

It can also encompass more than just emotion, but the quality of experience of entering a mosque, embarking on a pilgrimage, or taking amrit (the Sikh initiation ceremony we encountered earlier).

Equally, we can find examples throughout the history of religion of encounters with deities, spirits, demons, and other experiences which indicate some sort of contact with an unseen world, sources of inspiration, and moments of revelation.

Mythological Dimension

The mythological (or narrative) dimension describes the storytelling aspect of religion, whether the stories are believed to be true, fictitious, historical or mythological.

Religions are often sustained through the practice of repeating narratives that help to explain why the world exists, and what our place is in it. Myths can also store information in symbols, without stating the underlying meaning outright; they can help to communicate across generations important ideas about what it means to be human.

The preservation of these myths and narratives can be oral, written, or pictorial.

Doctrinal Dimension

The doctrinal (or philosophical) dimension refers to the way that religions tend to formalise ideas about the world, and create logical systems of meaning. There are vast and complex philosophical traditions associated with religions from around the world – in the West this might be found in the Catechisms of the Catholic Church, or the philosophical writings of Ibn Sina. In order for religious systems to make sense of the world, they have to make sense, and this naturally leads to a process of structure and logic.

Religious philosophy and doctrine can become highly complex; the philosophical schools of Hinduism range over a wide area, and often provide contrasting viewpoints on the nature of the soul (or atman), its relationship to god, and whether god is one or many, personal or impersonal. Hinduism is a very diverse tradition, but even seemingly unified religions can be filled with internal disputes and disagreements when it comes to these issues.

Ethical Dimension

The ethical (or legal) dimension describes the way that religion tends to provide guidance on how to live one’s life, generally in order to achieve happiness in this life or the next. The promotion of a happy and harmonious life can be found across the globe, and religions weave this into a larger context, placing human action within a universal system of right and wrong, good and evil.

Institutional Dimension

The institutional (or social) dimension represents the way that religious adherents, as they group together, will tend to form organised bodies that behave collectively. They might develop a hierarchy of powerful persons, and they might provide some social structure for the wider society. Decisions about what the religion is, and where it’s going, might be made in a top-down fashion, but equally (as in the case of the Quakers) might be made in a distributed, democratic way.

Material Dimension

The material dimension describes how religions lead to the creation of material artefacts – from sculptures and artwork to buildings and cities. The material dimension of religion provide evidence for historians and archaeologists, but also enriches the lives of contemporary religious adherents as their beliefs and traditions find life in the world through physical media.

Interdimensional travel

Although there’s no hierarchy among the dimensions, and they can be studied in isolation, there’s an interesting dichotomy between two of them. The experiential and institutional dimensions each occur at opposite ends of the spectrum of individuality, and help to demonstrate religion at the intensely personal, and collective levels.

The experiential dimension describes the quality and content of human experience as it relates to the divine, otherworldy, or invisible. It could be argued (and Smart makes this point), that these experiences form the basis of all religious activity; they are ‘…the food on which the other dimensions of religion feed…’ (Smart, 1998, p14).

Memorable examples are usually recorded of religious founders and innovators, for instance the intense confrontation between Gabriel and Muhammad which formed the foundation of Islam demonstrates contact with a non-human entity, and a sudden inspiration to speak words that the speaker couldn’t attribute to himself. After Jesus was baptised by John, he had a visual, auditory, and emotional experience of the divine descending from above, and was led into the desert by that same presence so that he could practice and exercise his newly baptised faith in God. Siddhartha, the Buddha, half-starved from spiritual techniques that relied on physical austerity spent a night confronted by visions of demons and memories of previous lives, before experiencing a transformative insight into the nature of himself and the world. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, disappeared while bathing in a river, only to find himself in an otherworldly place he called God’s court, and there received a cup of nectar to drink, and was inspired to change his attitude to religion, encouraging others to do the same.

These personal moments are not only contained within the people who experience them, they are shared, talked about, built upon, and can become the foundations of religious movements that span millennia. The four individuals above founded some of the most well-known and easily recognised faiths alive in the world today. These religious experiences, though fleeting, are often recorded either during the life of individual (in the case of the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon), or after their death (in the case of the Pali Canon, or the New Testament).

It’s worth noting that tremendous variety is contained within this dimension; it includes visions, dreams, creative inspiration, contact with other beings, revelation of meaning, truth, or significance, emotional connections, and intangible encounters that escape language. The experiences we classify as religious might be visual, auditory, tactile, dissociative, all of these, or something else.

The task of communicating these experiences to another person is often difficult or even impossible, even within a community of adherents - moreso when the scholars are outsiders who don’t share the same frame of reference. This highlights the need for informed understanding and empathy in the study of religious experience; not only are the objects of study ephemeral and intangible, they are of immense importance to the people who report them.

At the other end of this spectrum of individuality, we find the social or institutional dimension of religion. This describes the behaviour of people moving in concert to achieve religious or secular aims, unified by their shared worldview. These social collectives often establish formal institutions with their own iconography, narratives, codes of conduct, and the physical presence of monuments and buildings.

While the natural impulse is to view the institutional aspects of religion as belying unity and cohesion, it is often these very forces of unified movement that generate tension and conflict within and between religious groups. Examples of this internal friction can be found throughout the world’s religious history - Martin Luther is an obvious example, but one could equally point to Jesus himself as a religious agitator in his confrontation with the Pharisees. Likewise there is often politically driven tension between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, but within Islam there is often deep division between Shia and Sunni groups who disagreed initially over the appropriate successor to Muhammad.

Examples of religious institutions from the UK include denominations of the Christian church such as the Church of England, Christadelphians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Where the experiential dimension highlights the intensely personal, the institutional dimension focuses attention on human interaction, shared values, and the aggregate of personal behaviour. The stories recorded in the Christian Gospels demonstrate how a religious institution (the Church) began to grow out of the experience of Jesus and his disciples, and illustrate the relationship between these two dimensions. People can begin to find common ground due to their religious outlook and affiliation.

These social institutions are usually the most obvious and recognisable aspects of religion; this is partially because when large numbers of people move together they are more conspicuous than a single person. With large numbers also comes conviction, a sense that if many people are following a mode of behaviour, then it is likely worthwhile.

These two dimensions of religion, the experiential and the institutional, while not sufficient in themselves to cover all aspects of religious experience, thinking, and behaviour, are nonetheless crucial to the lifecycle of religions, and suffuse all other dimensions.

Though it could be argued that all religion ultimately emerges out of human experience (whether of the divine or the psychological), we would be mistaken in thinking that all religion can ultimately be reduced to personal episodes of enlightenment and clarity that burst through from outside of space and time. The religious background and culture in which individuals find themselves contextualises and conditions how their religious experiences are interpreted, and provides a framework for understanding them.

Viewed from this perspective, religious institutions provide a stabilising, supportive network for religious individuals to draw upon, and the patterns of mythology, doctrine, and practice that are preserved by social institutions are often conserved for good reason, as they serve a particular function in the society they live within.

The way different aspects of religious life (according to the seven dimensions) interact and drive each other helps to illustrate the nature of the dimensions as a study tool; not as a way to classify things ‘as they really are’.

In summary, Smart’s categorisation of religion helps to highlight the difference between how religion affects individuals, and how individuals affect religion. Notwithstanding the importance of the other dimensions, this reciprocal relationship encapsulates much of the dynamism found throughout the history of human religious life, and can be considered the seed and stem of the religious organism.

The model is designed to facilitate the study of religion in its quantifiable aspects (for example its history, scripture, or architecture), while not discounting the internal, personal experiences of religious adherents, and without requiring all dimensions to be present. Smart attempted to reconcile the difficulties of insider and outsider approaches to the study of religion by using different methods for different dimensions. Personal experiences and mythologies could best be understood through informed empathy, while history and scripture could be subjected to textual analysis.

We can now start to appreciate why scholars have struggled to define religion, and why it influences people in such complicated ways. Rather than being one, simple unit, religion is actually a complex series of interactions between human emotions, practices, ideologies, and stories; it’s very difficult to say exactly where it begins and ends.

As a general guide, we can say that religion relates to something beyond the world as ordinarily experienced, for instance gods, spirits, predetermination, non-bodied intelligence, or a greater meaning / truth. Often this non-ordinary side of the world is considered open to a relationship with humans, and can be encountered through rituals or a particular lifestyle.

The specifics of a religion will vary with time and place; these circumstances will influence what adherents consider to be sacred, and how they relate to that understanding. Where people come together in shared beliefs, values, experiences, and practices, we see the basis of organised religion.

References

  • Smart, N. (1998) The World’s Religions, Cambridge University Press.

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