Smart is widely known for his seven-part definition of religion, or rather scheme of study; as this approach avoids the problem of defining altogether. Whatever else religion may or may not be – whether theistic or non-theistic, religions possess certain recognizable elements, which can be studied. These dimensions vary in importance but are almost always present. Smart divided these into "historical" and "para-historical," meaning by the latter those dimensions that take the investigation into the experience, or inner lives, or religious people. The "historical" can be studied empirically, the para-historical takes the student into the realm of belief and concepts and requires dialogue and participation; "since the study of man is in an important sense participatory – for one has to enter into men’s intentions, beliefs, myths, desires, in order to understand why they act as they do – it is fatal if cultures including our own are described merely externally, without entering into dialogue with them."
Smart’s sevenfold scheme of study:
- Material (added in his 1998 text)