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.
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:
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'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.
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;
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.
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.
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:
Smart added the material dimension of religion later.
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.
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.
Douglas Allen sets out some of the potential problems with the phenomenological approach.
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.
It is important not to over-simplify Smart’s approach to religion. In The Religious Experience he began by stating categorically that
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.
That said, we can question whether or not:
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.
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
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
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
The best way to do this, rather than denying that we hold personal judgements, is to
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:
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
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
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.
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.