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Does Smarts seven-dimensional model of religion solve the problems that arise when attempting to define religion Essay

This paper will attempt to describe Smarts model and explain whether it solves the problems involved in defining religion. Since the model consists of several aspects, it will break down and explain each in a short summary, and analyse these aspects.

Smarts model contributes to an important question in religious studies: how to define religion in the first place. A working definition of religion is useful since it allows us to assess the legitimacy of any of the new religious movements; also, we need to define religion in order to study it, because we need an agreement on what actually constitutes a faith before we can study it. A good definition of religion needs to fulfil some basic criteria. It should be precise, clear and distinctive, so that we know exactly how to use the definition and apply it. Secondly, it should be flexible; it should not be so narrow as to be exclusive, and must be able to contain Buddhism as well as Christianity. Lastly, a good definition should aim to eliminate as much as possible the religious and cultural bias of its theorist.

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However, difficulty arises when attempting to create a definition of religion that covers every possible expression of spirituality, because there are so many different types. A definition that considered a belief in a God or Gods essential to a religion would exclude Buddhism; a definition that includes a need for a holy book would exclude any belief system without one.

This type of narrow and inflexible definition is known as a substantive definition, and focuses on defining religion by one distinguishing characteristic. Smarts’ model is of the formative type, and concentrates on what the beliefs and practices actually do for the individual, rather than saying what religion is or is not.

Smart attempts to outline that which all religions have in common; he argued that a religion typically has seven ‘aspects’, or dimensions. If a belief system has I will briefly outline these, and use an example for each from Hinduism to both illustrate them and see how well the model works when applied to a commonly-recognised religion.

Smarts’ first aspect is the practical and ritual, which may include such activities as prayer, meditation, rites of passage and other sacred ceremonies. This aspect exists in Hinduism in practices such as sacrificial rituals and yoga.

The experiential and emotional aspect relates to the personal religious experiences of a practitioner and the emotions these engender. This could include such feelings as sacred awe, or love for (a) God. This aspect is manifest in Hinduism in, for example, the vision given to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita (“The song of the Lord”).

The narrative or mythical element refers to the stories a religion develops about, for example, the activities and natures of the Gods, the founding of the religion, and so on. Hinduism is a very diverse faith, and has many stories relating to the various deities, as well as local myths and legends. A specific example might be the Puranas, or “Tales of the Olden Days”; accounts of the origins and doings of the Gods.

The doctrinal and philosophical aspect refers to the metaphysical teachings of the faith; about, for example, what happens after death. Hinduism has many such teachings, such as the continuous cycle of death and rebirth to which every creature is subject.

The ethical and legal dimension reflects the moral aspect of a faith and the rules the faithful are expected to live by. This could include laws such as the Christian Ten Commandments, or diets the faithful must follow, such as the Kosher food proscribed by Jewish law. An example within Hinduism might be the Sutras, which are short texts consisting of ethical and legal instructions.

The social and institutional dimension refers to the social institutions organised by believers, such as churches or mosques. This dimension is evidenced in Hinduism’s caste society, and deities reverenced by one caste may be unknown to another.

Lastly, the material dimension refers to the religious constructions such as buildings, landmarks, or works of art venerated by the followers of a religion. There are many examples of this relevant to Hinduism, such as the Dakshineswar temple in Calcutta, or the River Ganges.

I shall now turn to the question of the adequacy of the model. I have only very briefly profiled each of the seven dimensions above, and Hinduism contains many more examples of each of the aspects than there is space to list here. This would seem to validate Smarts model, as it is able to demonstrate Hinduism is indeed a religion.

This shows that the model is flexible enough to accommodate the various aspects of this faith. It also seems to be free from bias, as there is no weight given towards any particular aspect and does not attempt to define religion in terms of one characteristic belief or practice.

However, this leads us to the problem of precision. The seven dimensions do not seem very well defined, and could be perceived in several different ways. The model could be used to define secular ‘worldviews’, such as Marxism, as religion. After all, Marxism has its own doctrines, ethics, institutions, and so on. This leaves us wondering where ‘religion’ ends and a secular worldview begins. Smart states that, “Though…our seven dimensional model may apply to secular worldviews, it is not really appropriate to try to call them religions… they conceive of themselves, on the whole, as antireligious.” This suggests that a secular worldview could be perceived as a religion if it was ‘pro’ religion. An example might be forms of nationalism in countries where church and state are closely linked. Following the national religion might therefore be one of the marks of a good citizen.

Also, Smart acknowledges that there would be religions in which one or more of his aspects are weak or not present. New religions, for example, may not have much in the way of the materiel or narrative dimensions. All these cases might best be served if the model was backed up with a substantive ‘common-sense’ definition. A good example might be, “Religion then consists of beliefs, actions, and institutions which assume the existence of supernatural entities with powers of action, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose” (Bruce, 1995). This would allow non-religions such as Marxism to be excluded, while still including such faiths as Buddhism.

In conclusion, Smarts model does contribute to solving the questions posed when attempting to define religion, but needs to be backed up by a substantive definition to accurately classify religion.

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