Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

5.4 A dimensional model of religion

Given the problems of devising a succinct definition of religion, some contemporary scholars have produced broader profiles of religion without claiming to identify one distinguishing characteristic. One example of this kind of approach is the seven-dimensional model of religion proposed by Ninian Smart, a specialist in the study of world religions. Smart argues that, if his model is adequate, ‘then we do not need to worry greatly about further definition of religion’ (Smart, 1989, p. 21). This sounds promising. Let's see whether Smart's model can help us with the problem of answering the question ‘what is religion?’.

Exercise 10

Please read ‘The nature of a religion’ by Ninian Smart attached below. Make sure that you gain a clear understanding of Smart's model of religion by listing its seven dimensions and by reading carefully his description of each one. When you have done that, you should read the next section of Smart's argument, ‘The nature of secular worldviews’. Then you will be able to work through the following questions.

  1. What do you think are the strengths of Smart's approach? When making your assessment remember our checklist: a definition should be specific, flexible, and free from prejudice.

  2. Does Smart help us to distinguish between something that passes the seven-dimensional test and something that just looks a bit like a religion?

A5: Smart, N. (1989) The World’s Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations, pp.10–25, Cambridge University Press.Reading A5: Ninian Smart, ‘The nature of a religion and the nature of secular worldviews’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


  1. Smart is sensitive to diversity (his model is flexible) and does not attempt to define ‘religion’ in terms of one characteristic belief and/or practice. His model is designed to be specific, to tell us where religion stops and something other than religion begins.

  2. Smart does acknowledge that there would be religions in which one or some of his dimensions are either ‘weak’ or ‘virtually non-existent’. (This is an example of a problem that Eileen Barker mentioned: namely, that some scholars who list the characteristics of religion concede that not all have to be visible in every form of religion. It is consistent with such a conclusion that he views both religions and secular ideologies as ‘worldviews’, and he urges that they can and should be studied in similar ways because they ‘play in the same league’. However, once we get into the realm of ‘it looks like but finally isn't’, it becomes difficult to see how to apply the seven-dimensional model in the confidence that others using this model would come to the same conclusion. Perhaps one way to resolve this would be to insist upon the primacy of one ‘dimension’ or characteristic, but this would take us back into the problem touched on when examining substantive definitions of religion.

For all its positive advantages, Smart's model leaves us with the problem of where to draw our line around religion. He teases us with the question of the relationship between religions and secular ideologies in the same way as I trailed the question earlier about the relationship between attendance at a place of worship and at a football match. Smart speaks of the ‘likeness’ between religions and secular ideologies, of the ‘religious-type function’ of secular ideologies – which may be helpful ideas, but we are left with the problem of deciding what weight to give to these factors.

We are now in a position, however, to refine our response to the problem posed by the seeming similarities between devotees at a place of worship and passionate fans at a football match. In terms of function, we might wish to argue that a fan's passionate attendance at a football match may be like that of a religious devotee at a religious event and that it may fulfil the same social and psychological functions (bonding, identity, comfort, security, etc.). We still have to determine whether this makes it a religious activity.


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