The Insider-Outsider Question - An Essay

When it comes to the academic study of religion, does the student who is religious have an advantage over the student who is not religious?

As religious scholars, our role is to investigate and consider the province of religion and the part it plays in people's lives. However, in order to provide an objective account of religion we are required to put aside any personal beliefs, or non-belief, and study the subject from the adherent's point of view. How then does the student's own religious experience affect their ability to impartially perceive the object of study? Is the insider, with some knowledge of what religion is, better able to get a sense of other rites and rituals? Or do they lose objectivity because they are indoctrinated into the systems of a particular faith? And how capable is the insider of putting a scholarly lens on their own beliefs and traditions? Perhaps the outsider holds the advantage. Approaching religious studies with no ingrained ideas might provide space for a more objective viewpoint. Does the outsider therefore have a better chance at maintaining an open mind in exploration of religion? It's assumed the outsider has no previous conditioning around what is or isn't true. What is clear is that when it comes to studying religion, both the insider and the outsider are faced with challenges. The aim of this essay is to explore both sides with a view to gaining a deeper understanding and deciding which is in a better position as a scholar.

This essay will take the viewpoint that the insider has a slight advantage due to their inner experience of religion. In an interview on the subject of the religious insider-outsider, Chryssides (2012) notes "There are probably some outsiders that aren’t really very sure of why people follow a religion or what it means to them." He goes on to say (2014, p. 29) the sacred "could not be grasped by those who had failed to experience it." This view appears to gives the insider an advantage. However, it assumes that religious experience pertains to a belief of the supernatural. But do all insiders share this and have they all experienced it? McCutcheon (2007, p. 51) says, "It seems likely that insiders do not actually have a viewpoint, as much as they simply go about their business, fully immersed in their particular meaning/behaviour world." Is it possible that being a religious participant could just as easily be down to cultural or family tradition?

Rodrigues and Harding (2008, p. 59) say, "Outsiders … tend to see religion as a delusion and theorise that it arises from psychological, sociological, biological, or some such primary factors, while the theories of insiders tend to regard religion as a way of conceptualising reality and living meaningfully within it." So, we need to ask: what exactly is an insider?

It's worth noting that insiders of the same religion will have differing opinions about what it is to be religious. In the case of a religious member who was brought up to be a believer and may never have questioned it, can we be sure that their understanding of religion includes the same components that all religious adherents 'know'? According to Chryssides (2014, p. 30) religions contain various levels or 'memberships'. His studies (2014, p. 31) reveal that within Christianity, a person can hold their own beliefs as the only, or most valid, part of Christianity. An example of which is that Anglicans follow The New Testament whereas Catholics adhere to The Old. Which begs the question: is anyone really an insider to anything other than their own experience?

As insiders and scholars, we're invited to park our own beliefs, but one of the obvious limitations for any true adherent is thinking we're being objective when maybe we are not. Livingston (2009, p17) says, "What is crucial is that [the insider] be willing to apply to their own tradition the same critical tools and forms of analysis that they would apply to other, possibly quite alien, traditions." So what of this? Livingston (2009, p26) queries how much objectivity can a "devout believer" or "uncommitted observer" bring to the study of religion? Does a follower of Buddhism – which appears to allow greater freedoms in that one can adhere to any religion and still follow Buddhism – have a better chance of objectivity than, say, a Hasidic Jew? (As an aside, might the latter be more likely to study Jewish theology and thereby openly use and benefit from their insider status?)

Coming back to the insider advantage or disadvantage, the answer seems to steer towards the individual's ability to be objective. Irrespective of whichever religion the insider belongs, what is key is their ability to utilise a combination of psychological, anthropological, sociological and phenomenological methodologies. In which case, both the insider and outsider have a big job on their hands.

It seems likely that the greatest difference for insiders-outsiders will become apparent when studying religion in the context of faith and belief. Rituals can be perceived from an anthropological viewpoint, ancient scriptures from one that's historical or linguistic. But it is once we enter the phenomenological study of religion that the 'outsider' will meet their edge. The outsider might argue that religion seeks meaning where there is none. Rodrigues and Harding (2008, p. 60) offer that religion steps in to fill the gap "when people reach the limits of their rational, analytic capabilities (e.g. uncanny events), their physical and emotional endurance (e.g. the existence of human suffering), or their moral insight (e.g. the persistence of evil)." It is my view that 'meaning' is what ties many people to their religion and gives the insider an advantage. Meaning is the one thing that cannot be fully understood by the outsider. Phenomenology appreciates this.

"Phenomenologists are often sympathetic to the religions they study in terms of trying to understand the ideas, language, myth, rituals, beliefs, and practices of insiders, but they are not compelled to affirm, reject, or limit themselves to the insiders’ interpretations." (Rodrigues and Harding 2008, p76). This seems to be the scholarly ideal an insider should aim for.

It seems fair to say that both the insider and outsider will encounter biases that prohibit their capacity to bracket their own ideals. For example, Livingston (2009, p. 17) reminds us that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, and original versions included only a partial version of what is now referred to as the Old Testament. His view is that reviewing the text's origins isn't about questioning its validity (2009, p. 19), it's more about recovering correct data and checking its accuracy. However, surprises that contradict an individual's beliefs can shake the insider out of old structures or lead them to inadvertently, and unconsciously, skim over them. An underlying risk, then, is that upon examination, the insider might unwittingly misinterpret the research due to unconscious biases that disable one's ability to discount inherent religious ideals.

In choosing the insider as being best equipped to study religion, I must admit my own bias. Chryssides notes (2014, p. 31) that one can be an ex-member of a religion. Membership can be used as another term for insider. My bias comes from the fact I'm a 'lapsed member' of the Catholic church. But I am also an 'associate member' of Buddhism – meaning I adhere to many Buddhist philosophies but don't identify as Buddhist. Despite having renounced Catholicism, albeit not rejected its moral values, I can vouch for the fact that 'inside' is not the same for all. For example, as someone who now visits a temple and meditates rather than prays, I might also visit a church because it 'feels good' to be there. In cases like this, can one simultaneously be an insider and an outsider? Much like non-believers might visit a church at Christmastime, do they become insiders, albeit for that brief hour?

An academic insider brings their own understanding and their own preferences. Just as one scholar might value congregation, another might have greater respect for sacred texts. Based on my own experience I believe faith is at the heart of religion. And that's why I believe the insider has the slight advantage over the outsider.

I also agree that as when taking a phenomenological approach, the academic must be mindful not to reduce religion to such a degree that it loses its "essential religious aspect" (Rodrigues and Harding, 2008, p. 77). This backs up the argument for the insider. Only a person who believes in religion or one who has experienced a transcendental moment first-hand is able to wholly recognise the intangibility of religion and what it means to the participant, regardless of any rites, rituals or scriptures. It is the 'religiousness' of religion that makes it difficult to be understood without some inside understanding or faith.

Whatever religion one is born into or decides to join, an advantage of being an insider is that sacred structures and systems are likely to show up in similar yet different ways in most other doctrines. The fact that each religious adherent has their own interpretation dependant on their unique combination of character, culture and upbringing cannot reduce the advantage of an ingrained experience of religion. However, as Livingston (2009, p. 27) says, "We must be alert to the possibility that the insider's understanding may itself be partial, or distorted, or simply wrong." The issue for both sides appears to be the ability to remain curious and use a variety of methods to establish unbiased insight.

Remembering that the study of religion is not about proving anything to be right or wrong is a healthy stance to take and can be useful for both the insider and outsider. An outsider may not be religious but equally, what if he/she is an atheist. Wouldn't it be natural that the lack of belief would make it difficult to take some rituals seriously, thereby inhibiting objectivity? And does being an insider looking in with a scholarly lens really give us a broader perspective? When emic (McCutcheon, p. 51) relates to experience-near and etic to experience-distant, McCutcheon (2007, p. 52) says, "It is crucial not to confuse the emic perspective with the so-called insider's own actual viewpoint." Looking at it this way, the insider may have an advantage after all.

Taking a multi-disciplinary approach is vital for both sides. Applying anthropological methodologies as well as applying psychological or sociological views seems a good way to divert our biases. By keeping our thought processes open-ended, might both the insider and outsider have a good chance of staying with a line of questioning that is exempt from bias?

Frequently asking ourselves: am I bringing anything of my own beliefs or non-belief to this subject and is there a way I can bracket or park my ideas in order to see this as it is for the adherent will help both sides.

Who has the advantage when we come to subjects such as good and evil? McCutcheon (2007, p. 54) uses evil as an example of limitation in the insider/outsider debate. If we are to attain knowledge and understanding of religions that believe in an all-good God, what is the advantage to the insider when studying evil? Referencing Emile Durkheim, McCutcheon (2007, p. 55) suggests that what insiders of a religion might call 'God' and 'God's purpose' are to the sociologist, 'society' and 'society's way'. The relevancy of this to the insider/outsider question is whether the religious scholar, upon utilising sociological methods, should remain accountable to the adherent's version of religion. Especially when even the adherent might initially consider something to be 'evil' and later, shift their view and give it a more profound and righteous meaning. "Making them an outsider to their own, earlier status as an insider to the experience." (McCutcheon, p. 56). To say the insider-outsider debate is complex is an understatement.

It seems that no matter where we look, the discussion circles around. The insider-outsider question relies on the individual's ability to maintain an open mind but also the question of who and when is one an insider. A conclusion therefore, could be that both the insider and outsider have no more or less advantage than each other dependent upon their religious or non-religious beliefs. What is more pertinent is that they are able to wholly and objectively sit in another's shoes and remain open to whatever they find while allowing for the adherent's views and beliefs to travel along a spectrum of etic and emic.


To conclude, the insider-outsider issue is but one of the problems the religious studies scholar faces. As with any academic principle, there are methodologies and structures to follow, each of which offers advantages and disadvantages. The challenge for the religious scholar is not just what they bring in terms of belief or non-belief but to first of all answer the question: What is religion?

Without being able to define religion we're limited in producing credible or helpful information. Is religion a set of rituals? Is it rooted in ancient text? Is it about congregation and belonging? Is it an extension of family values and habits that needn't be questioned by its adherents? Without a foundation of what religion is, both the insider and outsider are limited in how to approach the subject at all.

Managing to put our own experiences aside is somewhat equal for both camps. However, without having what Freud called "an oceanic experience" (Rodrigues and Harding, p. 79) – which might be at the heart of what and why religion has been such an ingrained part of ancient and modern society, I wonder how deeply an outsider to all and any religion could truly come to understanding religion itself.


'The Insider/Outsider Problem', 2012, audio podcast. “The Insider/Outsider Problem”, The Religious Studies Project interview with George Chryssides and Christopher Cotter. February 20.

Chryssides, G. D. (2014). Chapter 2: The insider/outsider problem in the study of NRMs. In G. D. Chryssides and B. E. Zeller (Eds.), The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements (pp. 29–32). Bloomsbury, London, England.

Livingston, J. C. (2009). Chapter 2: Ways of studying religion. In Anatomy of The Sacred: An Introduction to Religion (pp. 15–34). Pearson.

McCutcheon, R. T. (2007). Chapter 6: Religion and the insider/outsider problem. In Studying Religion: An Introduction (pp. 49–57). Equinox, London, England.

Rodrigues, Hillary P., & Harding, John S. (2008) Introduction to the Study of Religion (pp. 59–79). Routledge.

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