Ninian Smart


Ninian Smart was born in Cambridge in 1927 into a family of Scottish academics (his two brothers also became professors).  He attended Oxford University and after graduating was appointed to a lecturership at the University of Wales.  He then taught at the University of London before becoming a professor at the University of Birmingham in 1961. Smart was a gifted linguist and spoke Chinese, Sanskrit and Pali which enabled him to study Confucian and Buddhists texts.  Despite his own firm Christian faith he was fascinated by non-Christian religions and objected to the Christocentric approach of the traditional Theology faculties in universities which tended to assume belief on the part of students and lecturers alike.  In 1967 he was appointed to Lancaster University to establish a Religious Studies (as opposed to ‘Theology’) faculty.  In 1976 he moved to the University of California.  Smart was a prolific author and published assorted works on the philosophy of religion, the methodology of religious studies and comparative religions.  He is perhaps best known for his phenomenological approach to the study of religion.

What is phenomenology?

The word 'phenomena' comes from the Greek term for 'as it appears'. Within philosophy, the term 'phenomenology' is applied to philosophers who examine the phenomena of experience. Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger are well-known philosophers associated with phenomenology. The phenomenological approach can be applied to many different academic areas. Obviously Ninian Smart applies it to religion.

According to Douglas Allen's article entitled 'Phenomenology of Religion' (see link below) the Phenomenological approach to religion involves 'descriptive, systematic, comparative study of religions in which scholars assemble groups of religious phenomena in order to disclose their major aspects and to formulate their typographies.' This focus on the descriptive means that 'their approach describes, but does not explain, the nature of religious phenomena.'

Allen lists the main features of phenomenology. These include:

  1. Primarily Descriptive: It seeks to avoid allowing preconceptions or theories colour the description of the phenomena. The phenomenologist aims to describe things as they appear. 
  2. Anti-reductionist: Phenomenologists stress the diversity of experience and seek to avoid over-simplifications.
  3. Intentionality: Intentionality is hard to explain succinctly! Phenomena are perceived by the conscious observer. The observer's consciousness contributes to how that phenomena is experienced (i.e. your experiences are not neutral but are governed by your own intentions). Thus to interpret phenomena fully the phenomena must be examined within the context of the intentional structures of the person experiencing them. I.e. examine what they mean to the recipient. From the perspective of religion, religious practices need to be examined from within the context of the beliefs that spawn them.
  4. Bracketing: This term means 'suspending judgement'. The phenomenologist 'brackets off' the question of truth.
  5. Eidetic vision: Grasping the essence of the religion.

When applied to religion, the phenomenological approach begins with empirical collection of data (e.g. holy books, verbal accounts, details of liturgies) and describing what this data reveals. However, there are debates as to exactly how 'scientific' phenomenology is (see evaluation section).  

There are many significant phenomenologists besides Smart who have written about the phenomenology of religion. Possibly the earliest academics who could be described as taking a phenomenological approach was Max Muller (1823-1900) who aimed to study the history of religion without any prior assumptions about the truth (or otherwise) of the beliefs. Another important phenomenologist was Rudolf Otto.  Otto wrote during the early part of the nineteenth century. In his book The Idea of the Holy (1923) Otto stressed the idea that religious phenomena cannot be adequately 'reduced' to anthropology or any other discipline. Religious beliefs and experiences cannot be explained without reference to the holy (or the numinous). A Norwegian phenomenologist W. Brede Kristensen likewise emphasised the importance of trying to see faith as believers themselves see it without letting your own preconceptions get in the way. He wanted to investigate the 'belief of the believers' and thought that to do that the phenomenologist must enter into the believers' religious reality. One must empathise with them and try to look at the phenomena through their eyes. Later phenomenologists like Gerardus van der Leeuw noted that to do this properly one needed a thorough understanding of the historical context in which the religion was embedded. 

Finally, this is what Allen has to say about Smart:

Smart emphasized many points that became easily recognisable and widely accepted in the phenomenology of religion and other approaches to religious phenomena during the last decades of the twentieth century. He emphasised suspension of one's own value judgements and the need for phenomenological empathy in understanding and describing the religious phenomena of others. He endorsed a liberal humanistic approach that upholds the value of pluralism and diversity. In Smart's phenomenological approach, one recognises that religion expresses many dimensions of human experience. Such an approach is "polymethodic," multiperspectival, comparative, and cross-cultural. The phenomenologist of religion needs to take seriously the contextual nature of diverse religious phenomena; to ask questions, engage in critical dialogue, and maintain an open-ended investigation of religion; and to recognise that religions express complex, multidimensional, interconnected world views. This focus on religions in terms of world view analysis lead to the contemporary interest in the globalisation of religion and global pluralism.'

Douglas Allen, Phenomenology of Religion.

What is religion (according to Smart)?

Smart's response to the question 'what is religion' is to say 'let's go and see!' He is not interested in developing a vague definition of religion, rather he wants to study religion by looking at actual individual religions and cataloging the things that they contain.  

Imagine that an alien asked you the question 'what is a human being?'.  You could try to devise a definition of a human, but you might think that a better way to answer the question was to take the alien to meet as many individual humans as possible.  That way they can gain an insight into the range and variety that exists within the human race.  

This is analogous to Smart's approach to religion. Religion cannot be understood though definitions, but by looking at specific examples.

Bracketing, epoche and the eidetic vision:

Central to Smart's approach to religion is the idea of 'methodological agnosticism'. The student is encouraged to put beliefs and preconceptions to one side (or 'bracket out' personal beliefs), to avoid questions of truth and focus on describing the phenomena that they experience. This bracketing out metaphysical questions (questions about what exists beyond what is seen) to focus on the phenomena that is observed is sometimes called 'phenomenological epoche'. To put it another way, epoche is the suspension of value judgements and a deliberate attempt to adopt a neutral position.

If the student fails to bracket out preconceptions then their assessments of the religions that they encounter will reveal more about themselves than about the religion.

Think about it this way;

  • Imagine a student confronted with a Shaman ceremony in Peru in which hallucinogenic concoctions made from the San Pedro cactus are consumed to induce spiritual experiences. If the student dismisses the ritual as a nonsense because the visions are caused by LSD-like compounds then this tells us something about the student but not about the Shaman. We learn that the student presumes that truly divine experiences would have non-natural causes. We have not learned what the experience means to the Shaman themselves. 

The idea that the observer grasp the meaning and significance of the elements of religion for the believer themselves is called the eidetic vision. This means grasping the essence of the religion or understanding what it is about and what it means for the believers. Achieving the eidetic vision requires the observer to overcome the tendency to see what they expect and to see what is actually there instead.

But why focus on phenomena only?

Smart wrote 'If I see a rope...and perceive it to be a snake...isn't it true to say I experienced a snake?' The metaphysical explanation 'behind' the experience does nothing to change the experience itself. 

An analogy:

  • Suppose a bank clerk is involved in a bank robbery.  The robber points a gun at them, finger on the trigger. The bank clerk - truly believing that they are about to die - has their life flash before their eyes. They realise that the life they have led is not the life they wanted to lead and they feel huge regret. At that moment the police storm in and apprehend the robber. Overcome with relief the bank clerk lives each day as though it is a gift and totally changes their priorities. Later it transpires that the gun was fake all along. Does this mean that they did not experience being about to die? Would we understand the experience better if we question whether they were actually about to die or would we understand it better by focusing on what it is like for them?

The seven dimensions of religion:

Smart set out the dimensions of religion first in the The Religious Experience of Mankind published in 1969.  Originally Smart set out six dimensions of religion but added a seventh - the material dimension - later.  

A digital copy of the seven dimensions can be found here and all quotations in this section are take from it.

The dimensions are intended to present the reader with a way of gathering and classifying information about religious practices.  He described this as a ‘scientific undertaking’ which aims to deal objectively with facts.  He clearly states it was not his intention to investigate the truth claims made by religious believers.  This approach is sometimes terms ‘methodological agnosticism’.  In The Phenomenon of Religion Smart said that 'the question of truth is a question not asked, not a question left unanswered'.

The dimensions of religion according to Smart are as follows:


  • The ritual dimension of religion refers to the ceremonies and outward behaviours which are attached to a specific intention relating to the spiritual realm.  All rituals have an ‘inner’ and an ‘outer’ element to them.  The ritual elements of religion may be simple or complex.  There are also secular rituals that people engage in.
  • Examples: baptism ceremony, closing eyes to pray.


  •  ‘The collection of myths, images and stories through which the invisible world is symbolised’.  To call them ‘myths’ does not mean they are untrue (no truth-judgement is made).  
  • Applies to stories which refer to theologically significant supposedly historical events (e.g. Exodus, life of Jesus) as well as overtly religious stories about God.


  • ‘Doctrines are an attempt to give system, clarity and intellectual power to what is revealed through the mythological and symbolic language of religious faith and ritual’.
  • Doctrines are the official teachings and systems of a religion.


  • Moral principles, codes of behaviour, specific commands.
  • The ideal of ethical behaviour taught by a religion may not be lived up to by individual believers!
  • Religion generally relates to society and influences it.  The ethical codes taught by a religion are often translated into laws and prevailing attitudes in society.


  • Religions have a communal social aspect, they are not just about individual beliefs or values.
  • Society (by which Smart means the specific conditions in which a religion develops and exists) influences religion.  Smart uses the example of the way ethical principles may be adapted in order to deal with specific situations. 'The Christian’s dedication to brotherly love or one’s attitude to war may be determined more by patriotism and a national crisis than by the Gospel.'


  • The origins of a religion often include very powerful experiential elements.  'The Buddha achieved Enlightenment as he sat in meditation beneath the Bo-Tree. As a consequence of his shattering mystical experience, he believed that he had the secret of the cure for the suffering and dis- satisfactions of life in this world. We have records of the inaugural visions of some prophets...The words of Jesus Christ reveal his sense of intimate closeness to the Father; there is little doubt that this rested on highly significant personal experiences.'
  • Religions also have a powerful experiential element in the lives of believers. Christians believe that God answers prayers, Buddhist seek out deep meaningful experiences through meditation.
  • Belief is not just about facts talked about.  It is a way of life lived.
  • 'For this reason, it is unrealistic to treat Marxism as a religion: though it possesses doctrines, symbols, a moral code, and even sometimes rituals, it denies the possibility of an experience of the invisible world. Neither relationship to a personal God nor the hope of an experience of salvation or nirvana can be significant for the Marxist. Likewise Humanism, because it fixes its sights on this-worldly aims, is essentially nonreligious.'
  • One problem with the experiential dimension is that experiences tend to be explained and understood in the light of the accepted doctrines of the time. This means that it is difficult to understand what is actually involved in a religious experience.


Smart added the material dimension of religion later.

  • The material dimension of religion refers to the artifacts, aids to worship and places.

The Invisible World:

In Smart's original work he referred frequently to the 'invisible world' (i.e. the numinous sphere central to Rudolf Otto's work) as a key part of religion.  He comes close to labeling it as the essence of religion or the defining feature.  He says that Marxism is unlikely to be counted as a religion because it lacks this belief in an invisible world.

'[Marxism's] lack of concern with the invisible world, its repudiation of revelation and mystical experience...[means] we shall be inclined to say it is not a religion.'

However, he adds that whether or not we consider Marxism to be a religion will depend on what elements we consider most essential to religion.

In his later work Smart made no reference to the invisible world and focused entirely on the phenomena which can be described.

Evaluating the phenomenological approach to religion:

Douglas Allen sets out some of the potential problems with the phenomenological approach.

'Phenomenology oftens claims that it aims at understanding, which involves describing meanings, and avoids explanation, which involves uncovering historical, psychological, and other causal relationships. Phenomenologists describe what appears and how it appears, and they interpret the meaning of such phenomena, but they do not provide causal explanations of the phenomena.'

  1. As soon as phenomenologist try to explain the meaning of the phenomena they have gone beyond the purely descriptive. The approach is no longer objective and 'scientific' by speculative and subjective.
  2. The focus on UNDERSTANDING rather than EXPLAINING (see quotation to the right) could be seen as unscientific and unscholarly. This is particularly true if phenomenology is used to 'understand' (but not to critique/explain) religious world views that have been convincingly challenged by developments in science (e.g. creation narratives). A phenomenologist would give a descriptive account of a religious experience and explain its function and meaning within the religion but would not be interested in the possible scientific causes of a religious experience.
  3. Phenomenology is opposed to 'reductionist' interpretations of religious phenomena (i.e. accounts which explain things like religious experiences in terms of chemical activity within the brain). However, one could argue that this approach shields religion from the potentially harmful challenges from science. Furthermore, phenomenologists have no way of saying that these so called 'reductionist' accounts are false.
  4. Robert Segal (and others) have argued the phenomenology is unscientific, unscholarly and subjective. It is hard to see how phenomenologists would be able to verify their claims especially since phenomenology generally rejects the question of truth. 
  5. Others have criticise phenomenology from a postmodern perspective. Gavin Flood argued that the phenomenological approach owes too much to a modernism. Phenomenology often looks for universal trends within religion whereas postmodernism rejects the idea that universal anything exists. 

However, Allen notes that the phenomenological approach has been responsible for an 'impressive systematisation of so much religious data and the raising of fundamental questions of meaning often ignored by other approaches.' He goes on to observe that many academics who do not regard themselves as phenomenologists use the phenomenological approach as a stage within their own work.

Evaluating Smart:

It is important not to over-simplify Smart’s approach to religion.  In The Religious Experience  he began by stating categorically that 

'Religion is not something that one can see.'

There are physical aspects to religious belief and practice which can be described but to understand these fully one needs to understand their symbolism and their relationship between other aspects of the faith.  Therefore, Smart is not saying that religion is no more than a collection of unconnected elements.

Furthermore, Smart did not believe that the phenomenological approach was the only way to study religion.  He believed it had to also be studied historically, anthropologically and sociologically, philosophically and psychologically.  However, he believed that a phenomenological approach to religions could provide a very useful starting point in that it could be used to create an objective overview of the facts.

‘…just as it would be unwise to make claims about the nature and scope of science without understanding something of the present state of the sciences together with their methodology and history, so it would not be helpful to speculate about religious truth without a proper knowledge of the facts and feelings of religion.  The aim then is to try to convey these facts in relation to the experiences that religion attempts to express.  The intention is to describe rather than pass judgement on the phenomena of religion.  The intention is not to speak on behalf of one faith or to argue for the truth of one or all religions or of none.  Our first need is to understand.  The result,  I hope, will be that the reader will be in a better position to judge wisely about religious truth.’

That said, we can question whether or not:

  1. Smart provides an accurate account of religion
  2. Smart provides a useful answer to the question ‘what is religion?’


It certainly does seem true that most religions do seem to have things that could be fitted into each category and a strength of Smart’s approach is that he accounts for more than just the obvious aspects of a religion.  For example, he makes it clear that the community aspect of a religion is just as much a feature of religious life as ritual is.  

Click here to see a side by side comparison of a huge array of religions

However, it is not so clear that practices from different religions placed in each category would be sufficiently similar for such a comparison to be useful.  For example, all religions may have a mythical narrative element, but the contents of these myths may be extremely different.  Likewise, all religions may have ethical rules and principles but those moral principles might be totally at odds with each other.  Consequently, the categories might be technically accurate but misleading.

Furthermore, we can question to what extent the different religions contain any general trends at all. As Douglas Allen reported:

 'One of the most frequent attacks on the phenomenology of religion is that it is not empirically based and that it is therefore arbitrary, subjective, and unscientific. Critics charge that the universal structures and meanings are not found in the empirical data and that the phenomenological discoveries are not subject to empirical tests of verification.' (Douglas Allen, Phenomenology of Religion).

Do phenomenologists like Smart read into the data general themes that are not there?

A different criticism was noted by Smart himself. This is the problem that many things that we might not necessarily regard as religions might also have all the dimensions listed.  For example, Marxism has many of Smart’s dimensions of a religion.  Equally, although most religions do seem to have things that fit into most categories we might be able to think of some religions that do not have one of the dimensions which appears to make Smart’s description inaccurate.  

Is religion more than the sum of its parts?  Religions might contain the elements stated here, but is there more to it than this?  Is there something that Smart has missed?  Many religious people would say that Smart has been too reductionist in his approach to the question ‘what is religion?’.  They would argue that religion is not necessarily something that can be defined.  It could be compared to describing a human being in terms of their chemical and biological composition. The description would be theoretically correct but it would not necessarily do justice to what it is like to be human.

Smart approaches the question of religion phenomenologically by looking at what it is.  However, perhaps a better approach is to look at it from a functional view point and ask 'what does it do?’ and ‘what is it actually like to be part of a religion?’.


As we have seen, Smart believes that his dimensions provide a useful starting point for the study of religion.  They are intended to help the student categorise the vast array of religious traditions in a systematic and comprehensible way. Smart makes it clear that the dimensions link together and that a person must understand the relationship between the ritual and the narrative (for example) to understand the religion.  However, it is not clear whether Smart’s dimensions actually help the student to do that or whether by categorising different elements of religion actually makes it harder to understand the religion as a whole. 

David Carr said that the way that the phenomenological approach to religion is used in schools often results in  

'scraps and fragments of different religious traditions to which young people are exposed to … [are] at best meaningless and at worst actually distortive of any real understanding of this or that religion or mode of spirituality.'

David Carr

‘Rival Conceptions of Spiritual Education,’ Journal of Philosophy of Education 1996

Carr was criticising the use of the phenomenological approach at a school-based rather than university-based level so it is important to consider whether this is a problem with the way the phenomenological approach can be used or a problem with the phenomenological approach itself.

Another potential problem with Smart’s approach is the concept of methodological agnositicism.  First of all, is it possible?  Can we really approach things from a position of neutrality?  Secondly, even if we can, is it desirable?  

Michael Bourdillon  (anthropologist at the University of Zimbabwe) says 

‘[O]ur personal judgements are relevant to academic debate, and academic debate can affect our personal judgements’

He argues that if we should not pretend that we can be objective.  If we honestly admit our own judgement then we are more likely to actually learn from others 

‘If we are aware of our limitations, we can enter into academic debate in an undogmatic way, ready to listen and to learn’. 

The best way to do this, rather than denying that we hold personal judgements, is to 

‘make explicit the value judgements behind our academic work’

Michael Bourdillion

'Anthropological approaches to the study of African religion’

in J. Platvoet, J. Cox, J. Olupona

The study of religion in Africa, Cambridge 1996 p151

He was critiquing methodological agnosticism in general rather than Smart in particular, however the point could still apply.

Timothy Fitzgerald (University of Stirling) argued in The Ideology of Religious Studies  that Smart’s methodology is incoherent as he believed that Smart contradicts himself.  Fitzgerald says that Smart wanted to maintain two conflicting things:  

1) the study of religion is something distinctive and not just another word for anthropology

2) religion is not to be studied from a faith-based perspective.  

Fitzgerald argues that if we are really going to look at religion ‘scientifically’ we need to abandon all reference to things which we cannot observe.   Fitzgerald argued that if religious studies takes account of the sacred then it becomes theology.  If it ignores the sacred it becomes sociology and anthropology.  In other words, there is no such thing as methodologically agnostic religious studies.

When evaluating Smart it is important not to create a 'straw man' argument by oversimplifying his approach.  He presents the dimensions a tool to begin religious study and he cautions the prospective student that

'This general account of religion which we have given depends on comparing religions as we find them in the world. Comparisons, though, need to be handled carefully. For we are not confronted in fact by some monolithic object. namely religion. We are confronted by religions. And each religion has its own style, its own inner dynamic, its own special meanings, its uniqueness. Each religion is an organism, and has to be understood in terms of the interrelation of its different parts. Thus, though there are resemblances between religions or between parts of religions, these must not be seen too crudely.' 

Modernist or Postmodern?

It could be said that Smart is responding to the challenge of modernity head on by applying the scientific method to the study of religion.  He describes his approach as a ‘scientific undertaking’ and the parallels between his methods and the collection of scientific data are clear.  Smart was partly responsible for the move away from traditional theology which had its origins in the faith based assumptions of the medieval world towards a more objective study of the phenomena of religion.  To this extent he demonstrated that the challenge of modernity could actually provide methods which could lead to a more thorough understanding of religion.  

More traditional Christians might see this as a threat because it undermined the centrality of Christianity and removed its authority.  However, liberal Christians might welcome the chance to engage creatively with members of non-Christian faiths.  The phenomenological approach to religion has been described as a method by which 

'the bewilderingly diverse data of religion can be philosophically linked together without doing damage to the several strands'

Charles Courtney

'Phenomenology and Ninian Smart's Philosophy of Religion'

In other words, it provides a way of comparing the religions without misrepresenting them by interpreting them through the lens of another religion.  Pluralists like John Hick (who followed Smart as professor at Birmingham) also aimed to move always from a Christo-centric view towards a more neutral standpoint.

However, Smart’s refusal to deal with questions of truth and his interest in the plurality of religious experience seem to have more in common with postmodernism than with modernity.  Smart was concerned with describing rather than explaining the diversity of religious experience and although he suggests that the reader use this information to make their own judgements he provides no criteria upon which these judgements can be made.  Furthermore, his separation of religion into dimensions to better understand them could be interpreted as a form of deconstruction.  

Consequently, Smart shows that tools from both modernity and postmodernism can prove fruitful in the quest to understand religion.

Further Reading:

Read an interview with Ninian Smart here.

Watch Ninian Smart explaining what he believes religious studies to be about here.

See the seven dimensions on powerpoint in slideshare here.

Article on Smart here.

Read Douglas Allen's article here. Allen work in the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Maine.

Chris Partridge's article on contemporary approaches to the study of religions contains a lot on the phenomenological approach here.

Go back to summary page for 'What is Religion?'