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Reviewed by:
  • Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs
  • Robert Cummings Neville
Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs. By Ninian Smart. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pp. 359. $17.95.

After decades of nervous retreat from the projects of understanding religions in comparative perspective and religion itself as a complex artifact of human culture, these projects are showing new signs of life, of which "the late" Ninian Smart's Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs is one of the most important so far. Good reasons have justified the retreat, however, at least a little. One was embarrassment at the quickness with which Christianity was taken to be the paradigm of religion according to which the others were analyzed, an embarrassment that applies to eighteenth-century studies and some twentieth-century philosophy of religion more than to recent studies and is hence sometimes over-estimated. Another embarrassment was the kind of analysis associated with Hegel, in which important differences among religions were noted but Christianity very quickly turns out to be the best; this continues to be an issue of concern whenever the analysis takes place from the standpoint of a religious culture. A subtler embarrassment comes from a political analysis that points out that the colonial dominance of Western culture marginalizes religions that should be given greater importance, or marginalizes certain aspects of religion such as its popular expressions. [End Page 420]

Another caution, if not embarrassment, comes from those who insist that religions are so singular that any attempt to compare them or lift up certain categories that might fit into an explanatory theory necessarily biases their representation; not that the categories compared are not present, but that these categories are not the important ones for the religion at hand. Moreover, hosts of new critical disciplines have arisen that look for precisely the things that biases exclude from view, starting with women and moving through marginalized persons and religious expressions; these disciplines say that the traditions of comparison and explanation have done a bad job. A final caution that has urged retreat is that most comparative and explanatory projects are reductive in the sense of taking one discipline, say theology, anthropology, myth studies, or whatever, to be the focus of comparison.

There are ways now of controlling for all of these destructive biases in the comparative and explanatory enterprises, and Ninian Smart's book is an admirable introduction to them all.

Of course the greatest strength of Smart's book is Smart himself. He has lived through all of the criticisms of these projects and has amassed such enormous erudition that his arguments carry powerful inertia against all these objections. He says, rightly, that both comparison and explanation still have far to go and that he is presenting hypotheses here that move these projects forward. He also would admit that his treatment of any religious idea, figure, or movement can always be criticized by specialists as not sufficiently detailed or nuanced. That goes with the territory of any comparison or explanation. Nevertheless, he can argue, and this reviewer agrees, that his characterizations of religions and comparisons generally articulate what is important, and that exceptions can be registered within his approach; he can also say that his explanations are hypotheses that might be improved upon but that cannot be rejected as having no explanatory force.

As readers of Smart's earlier work might suspect, the explanatory analysis here is based on his idea of the dimensions of religion, explained in The Religious Experience (1969) and The World's Religions (1989). These dimensions, each of which commands a chapter of this book, are: the ritual or practical, the doctrinal or philosophical, the mythic or narrative, the experiential or emotional, the ethical or legal, the organizational or social, and the material or artistic; the book adds a chapter on the political dimension. Each dimension is characterized by two terms that between them brace a spectrum of elements. Among themselves the dimensions are sufficiently different in clear ways as to push attention to aspects of religion likely to be obscured from within any dimension, yet within themselves they are...