The first thing that is needed to do when looking at this question is to define exactly what is meant when we say ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’.
An insider in religion can be described as somebody who is a full participant in his or her religion and is devoted to the faith and teachings of his religion. Conversely, an outsider is somebody who has an objective view on religion, does not participate and merely views himself as an impartial observer.
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In addition to defining insider and outsider in the context of this question, we also must differentiate between what it is to understand and explain religion. To understand religion is to know and comprehend the aspects of it. However, to explain it requires a person to interpret his own understanding of religion and to be able to make clear the details of it.
Over the course of this essay, we will take the views of both insiders and outsiders, as being better equipped in regards to understanding and explaining religion. We will look at the advantages and disadvantages of both these positions. Of course, it will not be possible to cover all aspects of this broad topic in this essay, however, we will cover the main features which validate the argument. As Kim Knott puts it,
“We find ourselves considering the nature and limits of objectivity and subjectivity, ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ positions, ‘experience-near’ and ‘experience distant concepts, empathy and critical analysis, the effect of personal standpoint and the process of reflexivity”(John Hinnells, 2005: 259).
The notion that the religious insider is better equipped to understand and explain religion is fairly widespread. The thought behind this can be summarised as, because they have been devout to their religion, in most cases for all their lives, they have a familiarity and a certain feel for the religion that an outsider could never attain. Wilfred Cantwell Smith said on the matter,
“no statement about a religion is valid unless it can be acknowledged by that religion’s believers” (Ross Reat, Sept 1983: 460).
The above statement contends that the outsider cannot comprehend what it truly is to understand a certain religion because he simply cannot know what it means to have that belief. The fact that the outsider has no belief in the religion would imply that he is also a skeptic of it. In other words, if he believed, he would have joined.
Also, the point can be made here that as outsiders of the religion, when they try to speak and gather information from insiders, they can often be met with the sense of being a threat. Insiders can conceivably withhold information and purposely not lead these outsiders towards the truth behind their religion because of this trepidation. Obviously, this is a huge disadvantage for outsiders in trying to understand religion. In a study done in 1956 Festinger, Riecken and Schachter recognized this problem and decided the best way to contend with it was too,
“gain covert admittance to a group, and then observe the behaviour of its members from the inside” (Hinnells, 2005: 265).
This worked to some extent, but had a fatal flaw. As a result of immersing themselves in the group they found themselves,
“influencing those people they were supposed to be observing” (Hinnells, 2005: 265).
Also, the reason why the insider has the advantage in understanding, is that he knows the language of the religion. There are vast amounts of terminology that are exclusive to each and every different religion. Obviously, it is a huge advantage for the insider to be aware of the meaning and the proper use of these terms. However, whilst it is an advantage for insiders in understanding religion, consequently, it can also be stated that this is a disadvantage when trying to explain religion. What is meant by this is, if an insider is using these insider words, expressions and terminologies in trying to explain their religion to an outsider, obviously a lot of it will simply not be understood.
In saying this we must look back to the outsider once again. An outsider is in a position where he is a lot more capable of explaining religion because he is not accustomed to the use of these insider words and terminologies. Thusly, he can speak in clear, straightforward terms when explaining it to fellow outsiders. However, just because he is more capable of explaining, does not necessarily mean he has sufficient understanding to do so.
Taken above is the view that insiders are better able to understand and explain religion. However, now, for the sake of argument, we will explore reasons why outsiders have the advantage.
The first point to make in this would be that the outsider has a broader view than the insider. The insider has this narrower view for a few reasons. Because the religion, in which he is involved, has many different stances within it, the insider will naturally have taken personal points of view in the church. As a consequence of this they are not able to give a broad overall view of the religion, but rather a one-sided view of their own personal choices within the church. The outsider however can look at the religion in much broader terms and probably with a much more balanced stance. This was a point made in Russell T. McCutcheon’s book,
“That the theories these scholars develop often disagree with the explanations insiders themselves supply for why they have done or said something, is to be expected, because this group of scholars would argue that insiders do not necessarily have access to the same information as does the observer”(McCutcheon, 2005: 4).
What this point is alluding to is that because the insider has a certain obligation to follow the practices and moral values of their religion they can find it difficult to stand back and question certain aspects of their religion. Also, they can easily misinterpret outsiders’ opinions or criticisms, as merely an attack on their church. Outsiders, on the other hand, can stand back from the religion and do not have any agenda within the religion. Simply put, they do not share the wishes of the church and therefore are better able to explain it.
An additional point can be made on the insider’s potential lack of understanding of other religions. Because of the insider’s own beliefs and faith, it is fair to say they are not in an advantageous position to understand another religion. It would mean that in order to get a deeper understanding of these other religions, the insider would have to accept truths that could be in complete contrast to those held in his own religion. The outsider does not have this problem because he can go into it with no such beliefs or principles.
Overall, when taking into account both sides of this argument it is difficult to state that either the insider or the outsider is better placed to understand and explain religion. They both have certain advantages. It could be said however, that in order for an outsider to attain any meaningful comprehension and understanding of the religion they are totally reliant on the insider to guide them towards it. Therefore it could be said that the insider will naturally have a greater understanding of their religion. They have taught the outsider everything that he knows, but have they taught him everything they know themselves?
However, there can also be a case made to say that the outsider is better placed to explain religion. If the outsider has built up a great understanding of a religion, then, outsider audiences will be a lot more likely to place their trust in his word, than in the word of an insider. This is because the insider has a vested interest in the subject matter and could be looked upon as having an agenda. As Ross Reat puts it in his essay,
“the present model suggests that the burden of the explanation lies upon those in religious studies who claim not to be religious” (Ross Reat, Sept 1983: 466).
In actuality a correlation between insider and outsider would seem to be the most productive way to gain a greater understanding of religion and give a more accurate explanation.
“By investigating, appreciating and finally criticizing each, one realizes that only a consciousness incorporating all modalities of insider/outsider linkage, i.e., a completely actualized human consciousness, can fathom religion in its total embrace of human existence” (Charles E. Vernoff, Sept. 1983, 483).
Hinnells, John, The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, London; New York, Routledge, 2005.
McCutcheon, Russell T., The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion: A Reader, London, Continuum, 2005.
Reat, Ross, ‘Insiders and Outsiders in the Study of Religious Traditions’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 51, No. 3, Sept. 1983, pp. 459-476.
Vernoff, Charles E., ‘[Insiders and Outsiders in the Study of Religious Traditions]: Responses’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 51, no. 3, Sept. 1983, pp 477-491.
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