Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Rethinking Classic Texts/Theorists: Ninian Smart

In this new series, Practicum asks scholars to consider how classic texts or theorists can be critically re-thought for use in religious studies classrooms.

Revisiting Ninian Smart’s Call for Worldview Studies

Ann Taves, University of California, Santa Barbara

Which classic text/theorist are you using and in which course?

I am going to return to Ninian Smart in a doctoral seminar on “Rethinking the World Religions Course” that I will be offering this winter.

What is the basic argument of the text/theorist you are using and how has it traditionally been employed in religious studies classrooms?

At this point, I think Smart is probably best known for his textbook, The World's Religions, which exemplifies his dimensional approach to the study of religion. The second edition, published in 1998, is still in print and still used in introductory courses. He taught for many years at Lancaster University and, later, also at UC Santa Barbara, and played a leading role in the development of the secular study of religion in the UK, the US, and beyond. He published a prodigious amount, including many books that were oriented toward the classroom, and a few more theoretical works, such as The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge.[1]

Smart’s dimensional approach to the study of religion emerged from his family resemblance view of religion. As he stressed, viewing religion in terms of family resemblance placed it a continuum with other phenomena. Here is a typical quote:

The study of religion is without clear cut boundaries, for it is not possible or realistic to generate a clear-cut definition of religion, or, more precisely, any definition will involve family resemblance, as indicated by Wittgenstein. Such a definition would involve listing some typical elements of religion, not all of which are to be found in every religion. It is a natural consequence of this that there will be some phenomenon which bear a greater or lesser resemblance to religion.[2]

In reviewing Aspects of Religion, a festschrift honoring Smart, Russell McCutcheon compared him with Eliade, suggesting that they represented “two different and possibly competing approaches.”[3] In criticizing those who denied there was a continuum between religion and other things as seeking “to partition off religion … so it can have its own norms and be sui generis,”[4] Smart certainly sounds like he was contrasting his approach with that of Eliade. Indeed, in contrast to Eliade, who emphasized the sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane, Smart sought to apply his dimensional analysis to systems that, as he said, are “commonly called secular: ideologies or worldviews such as scientific humanism, Marxism, Existentialism, [and] nationalism.”[5]

Yet it is probably his openness to continuity and his inability to establish a clear distinction between religious and secular worldviews that has generated the most concern. Thus, while acknowledging Smart’s many positive moves, Brian Rennie notes Smart’s reluctance to characterize secular worldviews as religions, his uneasiness when it came to specifying what made religions distinct, and at the same time Smart’s claim that “the washing away of a fundamental distinction between religion and secular worldviews enables us to ask more sensible questions about the functions of systems of belief.” “Try as he might,” Rennie concludes, “it seems he cannot effectively maintain a distinction between a religious and a non-religious worldview.”[6] Although it is easy enough to ask people whether they consider their worldview religious or not, establishing a theoretical distinction between secular and religious worldviews requires scholars to stipulate a definition of religion. Smart sometimes stipulated a distinctive feature (i.e., contact with an invisible world), but then undercut himself, creating contradictions that he never resolved.

Why is this text/theorist important or relevant for religious studies students?

There are, as most of us are aware, longstanding complaints regarding stipulative (2nd order) definitions of religion, chief among them that (1) they vary so much that we can’t compare what one scholar says about “religion” with what others say and (2) they tell us more about scholars’ views than about the views of people on the ground. The latter problem is most acute in relation to cultures that don’t have a term for religion and in relation to “religion-like” groups that claim to be “non-religious” or “secular.” Smart struggled with the problem in the latter context. Although I have been an “anti-definitionalist” for some time when it comes to defining religion, I didn’t see the importance of a identifying a broader term until I was invited to write a blog post on method for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network (NSRN). Thinking about methods for studying so-called nonreligion highlighted the craziness of studying nonreligion or secularity or atheism without specifying some sort of wider rubric, such as worldviews, for conceptualizing our overarching object of study.[7]

It is in this context that I find Smart’s call for repositioning what we are doing as scholars of religion under the broader rubric of worldview studies highly relevant. His most visionary formulation of Worldview Studies (or Weltanschauungswissenschaft, as he sometimes called it) appeared not in his textbooks, but in an article titled: “The Philosophy of Worldviews, that is, the Philosophy of Religion Transformed.” There he argued not only that “the philosophy of religion should be extended to be the philosophy of worldviews,” but also “that [the philosophy of worldviews] should be the upper story of a building which has as its middle floor the comparative and historical analysis of religions and ideologies, and as a ground floor the phenomenology not just of religious experience and action but of the symbolic life of man as a whole.”[8] As Rennie’s critique indicates, however, his way of implementing worldview studies generated contradictions. In starting with an idea of religion, however vaguely defined, and using it to analyze worldviews that he wanted to characterize as either religious and secular while remaining reluctant to identify what distinguished them, he remained suspended between religious studies and a more fully realized worldview studies. The alternative is to take worldviews that people on the ground characterize as religious, secular, spiritual (or whatever) as our object of study. Doing so requires us to define “worldviews” but not “religion.” Although Smart used his dimensions to analyze worldviews, he never tried to define what he meant by a worldview.

How are you using the text/theorist to expand upon, subvert, or challenge traditional interpretations?

I am using Smart to get at our difficulties defining our object of study and to critique our desire to subsume the study of worldviews and ways of life that insiders do not consider religious under the heading of religious studies. Rather than characterize those worldviews and ways of life as religious, I think we should just call them worldviews and ways of life and, following Smart’s lead, shift our focus to a more broadly conceived object of study. If we shift our focus to Worldview Studies (or, as I’d prefer, the Study of Worldviews and Ways of Life), then worldview (and ways of life) are the key concepts we have to define, not religion. We need to so, however, in an even-handed way that does not privilege one type of worldview over another. Smart’s dimensions, since they are derived from the study of religions, may or may work equally well for both religious and secular worldviews. Even if they do, his dimensions, as just noted, don’t define a worldview any more than they do a religion.

I think, though, that defining what we mean by worldviews and ways of life is actually easier than defining religion and that there is existing work that we can draw on to do this. In preparing my blog post for NSRN, I discovered the research on worldviews coming out of the Netherlands, particularly the work of Andre Droogers, a cultural anthropologist at the Free University in Amsterdam, and the interdisciplinary Worldviews Research Group founded by Leo Apostel in Belgium.[9] I have argued elsewhere,[10] I think their definition of worldviews in terms of “big questions” provides a more neutral starting point for comparison across cultures and time periods that can be fleshed out in terms of many of Smart’s dimensions. Justifying such a claim takes us into the problems surrounding comparison, where like William Paden,[11] I think that an evolutionary perspective can help us to identify basic panhuman processes, such as “worldmaking,” that we can use to ground our comparisons. While Smart doesn’t provide a definition of worldviews or ways of life, his work (and the contradictions therein) help us to understand why we need to conceptualize and define a more expansive object of study.


[1] Ninian Smart, The World’s Religions, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); idem., The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973). For a full bibliography, see John J. Shepherd, “The Ninian Smart Archive and Bibliography,” Religion 35 (2005), 167-197.

[2] Smart, Science of Religion, 9, emphasis added.

[3] Russell T. McCutcheon, “Review of Aspects of Religion: Essays in Honor of Ninian Smart,” Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion 34, no. 3 (1995), 414-415.

[4] Ninian Smart, “The Philosophy of Worldviews, that is, the Philosophy of Religion Transformed,” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie, 23, no. 3 (1981), 217.
[5] Smart, The Science of Religion, 22.

[6] Bryan Rennie, “The View of the Invisible World: Ninian Smart’s Analysis of the Dimensions of Religion and of Religious Experience,” CSSR Bulletin 28, no. 3 (1999): 66, quoting Ninian Smart, “Theravada Buddhism and the Definition of Religion,” in The Notion of Religion in Comparative Research, ed. Ugo Bianchi (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschnider, 1994), 604.

[7] Ann Taves, “On the Virtues of a Meaning Systems Framework for Studying Nonreligious and Religious Worldviews in the Context of Everyday Life,” at

[8] Smart, “The Philosophy of Worldviews,” 217.

[9] Andre F. Droogers, Methods for the Study of Religious Change: From Religious Studies to Worldview Studies (London: Equinox, 2014); C. Vidal, Wat is een wereldbeeld? (What is a worldview?), Nieuwheid denken: De wetenschappen en het creatieve aspect van de werkelijkheid, ed. H. Van Belle and J. Van der Veken (Leuven: Acco, 2008).

[10] See Taves, “On the Virtues”; Ann Taves and Egil Asprem, “Scientific Worldview Studies: A Programmatic Proposal,” in A New Synthesis: Cognition, Evolution, and History in the Study of Religion, ed. A. K. Petersen, I.S. Gilhus, L. H. Martin, J.S. Jensen, & J. Sørensen (Leiden: Brill, 2018); Ann Taves, Egil Asprem, and Elliott Ihm, “Psychology, Meaning Making and the Study of Worldviews: Beyond Religion and Non-religion (Invited submission under review for a special issue of Psychology of Religion and Spirituality).

[11] William Paden, New Patterns for Comparative Religion: Passages to an Evolutionary Perspective (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016); idem. “Theaters of Worldmaking Behaviors: Panhuman Contexts for Comparative Religion,” in Comparing Religions: Possibilities and Paths? ed. T. A. Idinopulos, B. C. Wilson, and J. C. Hanges (Leiden: Brill, 2006). 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Explaining a Religious Studies Degree Part Two: Elevator Talks

We recently asked educators to weigh in on a problem some students face while completing their religious studies degree: figuring out how to explain to parents and friends that their degree does not mean they are entering the ministry. 

Q: Students sometimes ask how they can explain to family members or friends that their decision to complete a degree in religious studies does not mean they are pursing a career in ministry. Have you responded to these concerns before? If so, how did you frame your answer?

Russell T. McCutcheon

Elevator Talks

A few years ago, members our undergrad student association had the idea to host a bit of a competition making elevator talks—you know, that few minute spiel about something, or yourself, such as describing what it is that the study of religion is or what a scholar of religion does.

For I think it safe to say that many of us—depending what sort of scholar of religion we are, that is—have had the experience of someone not quite understanding that we’re not here to become a priest. (Perhaps you’ve seen the ongoing series over at the Bulletin blog on this very topic?) Sure, some (many?) scholars of religion do things that the general public might easily understand, such as those academics who try to figure out which form of this religion is more authentic and which type of that religion is more dangerous; if you look around the field you’ll quickly realize that such normative scholarship is hardly reserved for theology. But if you make the critical shift to study the way normative claims function, the way identities are negotiated, or the way that discourses on authenticity can be far more curious than simply assuming something can be purer than something else—and then adding religion to the mix—well, it might be a little tougher than you realize to describe one’s work to others.

Especially if you’re an undergrad, surrounded by friends and family who today often seem to assume a direct link between university and a life-long profession. For one studies accounting in order to become an accountant, no? And why studying engineering if you’re not going to become an engineer? So why study religion if you don’t want to be ordained? What do you even do when you study religion at a public university?

Looking back on these elevator talks, it’s clear that these questions still occupy our students—and for good reason. For although some may wish to further their studies after their undergrad degree, and become scholars of religion themselves, many more will go into who knows what all different fields, such as all the teachers and business people who are out there working right now, not to mention the doctors and lawyers, who all once sat in our classrooms, took our seminars, and majored in our Departments. That means that after they left our classes they’ve each probably sat in front of an interviewer, let alone a whole committee or even multiple committees, and fielded the inevitable question, “What has the study of religion got to do with X?”—where X means whatever carrer the student hopes to go into.

And, in our experience, answering that question is a real challenge if you define the field by its objects of study—such as seeing its relevance as directly linked to studying, say, the Bhagavad Gita or the Gospel of Mark; for it might be a bit of a stretch to connect either of them to fields outside Gita or New Testament studies. Thus the field, when defined in this way, can appear as arcane and out of touch.

But if you understand the study of religion as a place where one acquires skills, that just happen to have been used reading certain sorts of texts, or studying certain sorts of people and institutions—skills like definition, description, comparison, interpretation, and explanation—well, at least here at the University of Alabama we tend to think that those students will be in a rather strong position to someday convey to others what it is that they do and why it might matter to a profession, far afield from our content, but where those tools can come in handy.

So, like I said, a few years ago, some of our students had a little fun with all this (but there’s a serious topic just beneath the surface, of course)—we all got together one night, ordered some pizza, premiered the videos that they had made, and enjoyed how they met the challenge of giving a brief talk on what it is that a scholar of religion does.

Thanks to former majors Emily, Catie, Anna, and Jared
for producing these timeless classics.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Explaining A Religious Studies Degree

We recently asked educators to weigh in on a problem some students face while completing their religious studies degree: figuring out how to explain to parents and friends that their degree does not mean they are entering the ministry. 

Q: Students sometimes ask how they can explain to family members or friends that their decision to complete a degree in religious studies does not mean they are pursing a career in ministry. Have you responded to these concerns before? If so, how did you frame your answer?

Brad Stoddard, McDaniel College

As an historian (of American religious history), I suggest that my students stress the historical aspects of their work (when describing it to parents, family members, or even their peers). They can choose a historical event like World War I and use it as an example. One can study the causes, the results, and the motives of people who participated in World War I without having participated in it themselves or even without taking sides in the war. 

Now apply that logic to a religious event, group, or person, and perhaps the parent can understand the academic study of religion as we teach it at McDaniel. This is short and pithy response, but students have found it useful when they describe their studies to mom and dad.

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson, Queen's University

I sometimes take a similar approach to the one Brad uses and explain to students that one needn't be a communist to study communism (or a manatee to study marine biology, for that matter) and so one need not be religious to be interested in studying religion. 

I also sometimes position myself as an atheist (which I am, though I often resist inhabiting this label) and use myself as an example of someone who is very interested in 'religion' while having no religious commitments of my own. 

But the structure of the full-year intro course I've taught at Queen's for the last few years is such that by January most of my students realize that we're not actually studying religion but rather the processes according to which some institutions, practices etc., are labeled religious and others are not. This means that (for me at least) the academic study of religion is less about understanding religion that it is understanding how and why we split up the world into 'religion' and 'not religion' and the consequences of this splitting. 

I don't know if any of this helps students explain that they don't want to become ministers to anyone else, but I hope it helps them frame religious studies in their own minds as a field that is (at least sometimes) interested the practical consequences of categorization rather than the mystery of god or how various religions are similar to or different from one another. 

Richard Newton, Elizabethtown College

I work solely with undergraduates, so you might say that my job depends on my ability to provide a response to this question. And it is a case that must be pressed in other parts of my institutional ecosystem. College applicants, their caretakers, enrolled students seeking general education requirements, and the bureaucratic entities that approve my department are asking this too. To date, my answer to the question comes in three parts.

Part I: Establish what we do.

The first has to do with establishing that we study "religion" as a human activity. Given that the particular name has a history and is used to cover a wide range of expressions and effects, our enterprise is to make sense of what is going on in and around this activity. Given all that our disciplinarians have gleaned, we can also examine instances of human activity that appear comparable to what we have studied--even when the term "religion" is not being used to describe it by us or our objects of study. Though titles like “the history of religion” or “the science of religion” are less fashionable than they once were, I find that it actually helps create points of reference for those inquiring. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, declared “the world [his] parish.” I need people to understand that in religious studies, the news is our Petri dish.

Part 2: Tell them what is it good for?

We have to recognize that people want to know their kids are getting "the goods. " A pre-med program is not intrinsically better at professional outcomes because of the subject. It just looks that way because of program development and the premium our society places on institutional medicine. There's no religious studies industry to subsidize our work. But I think we can equip students with skills and content knowledge such that they become attractive to a number of industries. I've tried to advise undergrads to start working now--in internships, web-publishing, professional research, journalism, etc. I want them leaving with portfolios that constitute the first step to where they want to go. This is part of the impetus of my student-scholar collaborative website, Sowing the Seed. When I can tell prospective families that my students have had these enviable experiences and that my program is dedicated to helping students chart a path, the "what are you going to do with that degree" changes to "I want that, and I want it for my kid." It's a long game to be sure, but I think there's a bright future for religious studies programs that commit to getting students into the creation of knowledge in communicable ways.

Part 3: Help make their dreams come true.

Lastly, students need to commit to thinking for themselves about what their program has equipped them to do, what they wan to do, and what they have yet to do to manifest those dreams. This is the heart of my junior/senior capstone. Instead of insisting on a traditional thesis, I have them create something that will signal to potential employers/benefactors that they are already doing the job. It could be a literature review or a research proposal for the graduate school-bound, but it could be a pilot for a political satire that knows there are deeper critiques to be made about religion in public life. Maybe it will be volunteering at a community organization or NGO. I want my undergrad students to have the confidence of an MBA, the fortitude of an MD, but the hustle of a graduate from the school of hard knocks.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Interview with the Editor: Religion in Five Minutes

Religion in Five Minutes (Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishers, 2017)
Interview with Aaron W. Hughes

Tell us about the book?

First off, it is a pleasure to be asked to join the conversation at Practicum. I am a big fan of the site as it provides an important forum for encouraging us to think about the pedagogical value of our work, no matter how technical.

Religion in Five Minutes, co-edited with my colleague Russell T. McCutcheon, is a volume that seeks to provide answers to some of the most basic questions that people—be it undergraduates or interested lay audiences—have when it comes to religion. The questions can be as basic as “How Many Religions Are There?” and “Do Jews Believe in the Afterlife?” to more technical ones, such as “Can One Study One’s Own Religion Objectively?” and “Why is it Important That We Study Religion?”

The answers to these questions, though diverse, nevertheless share a similar vision, to wit, to bring the critical edge that the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) is known for in our collective field. This means that we are less interested in ecumenical answers to these questions that imagine us all standing under a big tent in the manner that, say, the AAR does. Indeed, the NAASR logo appears on the back cover, providing an imprimatur that we hope situates the book for the reader.

Many of the answers, for example, reflect as much on how problematic the question might be as they simultaneously provide answers to the actual question. So, for example, “Do Jews Believe in the Afterlife?” answers, yes, of course they do, but then turns the question back on itself by asking, why might people ask such a question in the first place (short answer: Christian supersessionism).

What motivated the work?

Russell and I thought that no book like this existed, at least not from the perspective of the critical study of religion. Certainly there are many books that seek to introduce religions to the beginning reader, but very few do so with any degree of theoretical sophistication that we seek to engage in here. With the generous encouragement and support of our editor, Janet Joyce, at Equinox, we assembled a team of experts—both junior and senior scholars—to undertake the project. The result is a volume that we are proud of and that we maintain could, and ought, to function as primer for all students entering the academic study of religion. Other constituencies include all those interested in religion and, especially, the academic study of religion.

What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

This is a tough question to answer. Indeed, I might spin this question a little and say that many of the contributors to the volume are some of the leading theoreticians of our day. It is an international volume with colleagues from the United States, Canada, and Europe. Since it is an edited volume, there are many different types of theoretical takes on the data, but, again, the feature that runs through the volume is that the questions had to be answered critically and self-reflexively.

How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

It is important to note that this volume is conceived as a textbook meant for use in classes, both in specific religions (many of the questions are, for example, religion-specific) and more generalist classes, such as “Introduction to the Study of Religion.” It is not a technical work, but a general work written for the introductory reader. Within this context, I imagine that the entries –and there are over 60 in total—would be most successful as initial segues into larger class discussions in the academic study of religion.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part, “Religion,” focuses on the category in general. It provides answers to questions such as “Do all Religions have Miracles?” or “Why is Religion so often involved in Politics?” The second section focuses more on specific religions, and provides answers to questions such as “Who Wrote the Bible?” and “What is the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam?” The third, and final, part examines the study of religion, with answers to questions such as “Who Was the First Scholar of Religion?” and “What is the Cognitive Science of Religion?”

It would, thus, be a perfect textbook to jumpstart class discussions on many of the foundational questions and issues that surround the academic study of religion.

In addition, the answer to each question provides suggestions for further readings that will ideally enable the interested reader to read more on the subject in question. Moreover, the questions and answers cross-reference with related questions in the volume.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

As mentioned above, students (and other interested readers) would be best served by reading the entries, reading them with the other entries with which they are cross-referenced, and, finally, reading the “suggestions for further reading” sections at the end of each question. Add classroom discussion into the mix and I suspect that this book has the potential to be a foundational introductory text.