In this essay, I will be discussing the differences and parallels which define an individual into an ‘insider’ of a religion, or an ‘outsider’, through looking at the phenomenological stance on the study of religion. The phenomenological approach, was originated by Edmund Husserl, a viewpoint disregarding the notion of the inconceivable, focusing solely on understanding a religion through its practices and manifestations, and of course through a believer themselves, an ‘insider’. It is defined as “The focus of phenomenologic inquiry is what people experience in regard to some phenomenon or other and how they interpret those experiences”.

  The phenomenological approach provides a beneficial look at world religions, as by the emersion of the ‘outsider’ into the experiences of the ‘insider’ can gain access to the beliefs and understanding of religion, information which may not be found elsewhere. This quotation by Tarjei Vesaas found at…. “His face was neither handsome nor anything else. It just was.” ? Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds, describes the phenomenological approach well. The phenomenology of religion therefore addresses the debate as to whether an insider or an outsider understands a religion better in a clear cut fashion, as it incorporates being within and without a religion- it is both inside and outside.

However we must now therefore look at how both insiders and outsiders understand religion, and the problems that can arise from both. An ‘insider’ can be said to understand a religion through a close connection between a higher being and their own personal belief system, their ‘faith’. Those that are part of a specific religion, for example, Christianity, may experience and understand the religion on a closer level, than someone that is not, as being on the inside of a religion involves embracing the community that comes with it. Looking at Christianity as an example, we can see that being an insider involves sharing the faith with others in the community, “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses.

“(Dietrich Bonhoeffer), Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. This quotation expresses the importance of a communal experience of religion, perhaps strengthening ones understanding of a religion. An outsider of a religion however may not be able to experience this to the same extent.

Those in a certain religious community, may share the same values and beliefs, finding a certain connection with one another through this. The insider may have a quicker way to understanding a religion as they are therefore surrounded by others who have the same systems of worship and commitment to the faith, they themselves following this. Those in a community like this may share a similar language, an ’emic’ vocabulary. This term, ’emic’, is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “of or relating to the role specific elements play in a significant system (such as linguistics)”. Does this mean that an insider community can best understand a religion through their own personal language of their faith? The argument of an emic approach to understanding a faith, can vocalise the feelings and experience an insider has, such as their own experiential content. The argument is, that those on the inside have a particular connection with the transcendent, allowing them to unlock an almost ‘spiritual gateway’.

Eric Sharpe (1992), a religious scholar, describes the insider perspective as,  “The first is the claim that because of his commitment, the believer has a vast advantage when it comes to an instinctive understanding of . religion” Gardiner and Engler’s (2012) article exploring the insider-outsider problem, suggests that there is a certain degree of insiderism, and could be strong or weak. Strong insiders may even reject the phenomenological and outsider point of view, stating that those on the inside are the only individuals who can truly understand a religion. Merton (1972), states ‘particular groups … have monopolistic access’, meaning that insiders have a special and incomparable understanding.

However there may be an aspect of weak insiderism as well, an approach that may not completely dismiss the study of religion, and the phenomenological stance. Gardiner and Engler (2012) suggest there many be in fact a scale of insiderism, ranging from marginal insiders, to complete outsiders. Although an outsider to a religion can try to understand a religion, they may not experience it the same way someone on the inside can, and access to this knowledge may be impossible in some cases to get, Chrysiddes and Geaves (2014)explore the certain barriers that can arise to inclusion, therefore limiting the outsiders understanding. Personal barriers such as race, culture, age, gender for example, may greatly impact the access they can receive to understanding a religion. An example of this, may be a woman trying to gain access into a male Muslim community. There are some cases that there is in fact a ban on access to non-members.

Many religious sects do not allow or enjoy the religious and phenomenological research that they may be introduced to. An example of this was Susan Palmer (2004) recording research on Raelian culture and belief, being suspended as the leader did not like the research. There are many other aspects that may hinder an outsider understanding a religion, such as legal barriers, financial barriers, and rules of the community. It is not uncommon for strong insiders to dismiss an outsider trying to understand their religion, they may stress the necessity of being on the inside in order to understand the religion. This may be taken to the extreme in this case of cults and sects. Many ex-members who leave a cult, stress how strong the influence of insider privilege was, it distanced them from the outside world.

A cult is an extreme form of insiderism, and it can sometimes be tough for an outsider to understand how in fact cult members believe what they do. An example of this is the extremely controversial, ‘Children of God’ cult, and when one becomes an outsider to the group, do they realise the dark and sadistic practices, resulting in child sexual abuse. Ex-member testimonies describe how when on the inside, they felt special, experiencing the transcendent in a way that an outsider could not. Michael Young, a member of the ‘Children of God’, or ‘The Family’, states in ‘The Guardian'(2017)  when he was inside the religion, he was “spiritual in a way that was kind of very obsessive and very determined,”.

However when he left the group, switching to the role of an outsider to the religious group, he states “What I worried about the most when I left was, will I ever find friends, a girlfriend, fit in, a place where I belong, I found people I connected with once I found people who shared my values and goals, rather than trying to fit in.” In this case, it can be very difficult for an outsider to fully comprehend the understanding of a religion an insider possesses.Insiders may have an unprecedented knowledge of their religion, but there are many kinds of knowledge that go with that, that is, there may be numerous different kinds of knowledge insiders can have. However, some of these kinds may be able to be shared with outsiders, or a researcher using the phenomenological approach. The ancient philosopher Plato, described three types of knowledge, claiming ‘that’ you know something, ‘how’ to do something, and direct knowledge ‘of’ something. Put into a religious context, we can see one might have knowledge of religious wisdoms ‘that’, allow them to understand the transcendent, knowledge of ‘how’ to practice a religion, and religious experiences through the experience ‘of’… These three things may come together to explain the knowledge an insider may have.

However, an outsider may have the same understanding of ‘how’ and the religious wisdoms that come hand in hand with a religion. Using the phenomenological approach, through emersion and empathy of a religious group, the outsider may be able to relate with the insider. However, the problem arises when the outsider tries to understand the religious experiences an insider has. McCutcheon (1999) states “the problem is whether, and to what extent, someone can study, understand, or explain the beliefs, words or actions of another.” It can be hard for the outsider to understand a personal experience with a divine power, as it can frequently be hard to explain. These experiences may therefore be inaccessible. The argument of incommensurability, states that there can be no common ground between insiders and outsiders, they are too different.

(Alastair MacIntyre, 1964). One of the main problems that arises when an outsider tries to understand an insiders perspective is the cultural barrier between the two, in particular a lingual barrier. However, there are some who argue we should in fact credit an outsiders point of view. An outsider can view a religion free from bias, looking purely at the religion as just another part of the natural world. The study of the natural world can be referred to as ‘naturswissenschaften’, the study of the natural world and the causes for its processes. They can then therefore look at religion as just an explanation for the behaviours of others.

This can have some merit, especially in a scientific area. McCutcheon (1999) states “scholars would argue that insiders do not necessarily have access to the same information as does the observer”. This basically means that the outsider can look at the world, through an empirical lens. We may not have any of the same knowledge of the universe if there were no outsiders to a religion. The first outsider were those who looked for an alternative meaning and explanation for the events around them, rather than a divine being. This has been very important in history for providing alternative and scientific answers to existential questions.

 Insiders and outsiders may have different interpretations and understandings of a religion, however they should both be credited, as they both have contributions to make to the knowledge and understanding of religion. Insiders can come in many forms, ranging from partial insiders to strong insiders, who neglect the notion of an outsider sharing the same knowledge as them. Outsiders may use the phenomenological approach, which allows them to experience the religion through the same practices as an insider. Yet, it may still be difficult, if not impossible, for an outsider to fully experience what those in the inside of a religion experience, as it may be unattainable, through language, culture, or just a difficulty of understanding. However, to create a link between insiders and outsiders, the phenomenological approach to understanding a religion is a good way for outsiders to experience this. It is possible however, the gap may be too wide between the thought processes between insiders and outsiders is too large to even compare who understands a religion better.

It is with further research and study of religion we may find an answer to this question. 


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