[1] and Steven Engler ‘Semantic holism and the insider-outsider

1 Ben Casnocha. (2015). The Pros and Cons of Being an Insider vs. Outsider. online Available at: http://casnocha.com/2015/09/being-insider-outsider.html

2 Christopher H, Partridge, ‘The Academic Study of Religions: Contemporary Issues and Approaches’

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pg 45

3 Otto, Rudolf ‘The Idea of the Holy’ pg 7

4 Max Weber as quoted by William H. Swatos, Jr. and Peter Kivisto, ‘Max Weber as a Christian Sociologist’ pg 347

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Terence H. McLaughlin ‘Wittgenstein, Education and Religion’ pg 172-173

8 Otto, Rudolf ‘The Idea of the Holy’ pg 8

9 Christopher H, Partridge, ‘The Academic Study of Religions: Contemporary Issues and Approaches’

pg 45

10 Schleiermacher, Friedrich as quoted in McCutcheon, Russel ‘The insider/outsider problem in the study of religion’ pg 68 -69

11 Ibid. pg79

12 Mark Q. Gardiner and Steven Engler ‘Semantic holism and the insider-outsider problem’ pg 240-241

13 McCutcheon, Russel ‘The insider/outsider problem in the study of religion’ pg 97

14 Bruce Lincoln as quoted in McCutcheon, Russel ‘The insider/outsider problem in the study of religion’ pg398

15 Robert A. Segal as quoted in Robert A. Orsi ‘The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies’ pg405

16 Hitchens, Christopher ‘Transgressing the Boundaries’ NY Times article May 22, 2005

17 McCutcheon, Russel ‘The insider/outsider problem in the study of religion’ pg289

18 Ibid. pg 9

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid. pg236-239

21 Ibid. pg298

22 Ibid. pg295

23 News, W. and Staff, W. (2016). 51% of Americans Do Not Want an Atheist President – World Religion News. online World Religion News. Available at: http://www.worldreligionnews.com/religion-news/christianity/51-of-americans-do-not-want-an-atheist-president


24 Malcolm, Norman as quoted by McCutcheon, Russel ‘The insider/outsider problem in the study of religion’ pg302


However, the struggles for methodological ascendancy amongst the religious insider, the agnostically inclined outsider and those who argue for a ‘neutral position’ are merely unavailing attempts by one side to assert a kind of perverse, ultimately illusory objective superiority over another. Whilst the findings of reflexivity can be defeatist, they can also be triumphal. Uncertainty and debate are inevitable in the field of religious studies, so much so that we have need of reflexivity as a fail-safe against the natural propensity for tacit interests to prey on this leftover ambiguity; that is to say, reflexivity allows us to unmask the proclivities at the heart of the human conscious, to appreciate hidden biases. Ultimately, the more perspectives we acknowledge and the more we spur on a proliferation of outlooks, the more we have reason to be optimistic about our conclusions. Thus in final reckoning, when Elizabeth Warren asked Larry Summers about the benefits of being an insider, there are no privileged positions when it comes to study of religion. We are all equally encumbered by our quests for understanding.

In our Western academic philosophy, religious belief is commonly regarded as unreasonable and is viewed with condescension or even contempt. It is said that religion is a refuge for those who, because of weakness of intellect or character, are unable to confront the stern realities of the world. The objective, mature, strong attitude is to hold beliefs solely on the basis of evidence, which as it were holds that no supernatural thing can be said to exist.24

Indeed, prior to the Enlightenment, religion was the prepotent political influence across large parts of the globe, and, owning to this influence religion was used by many to license their authority. In ancient history, Caesar was elected ‘Pontifex Maximus’ (the high priest) before becoming consul of Rome. Various Kings of Judah professed to govern with a ‘mandate from heaven’. Even today, theocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iraq acknowledge the rule of Islamic Jurists, whilst even in ‘liberal free democracies’ such as America, almost every president ever has professed some kind of affiliation with Christianity with over 51% of Americans still deeming it an important consideration in their selection process.23 Nevertheless, despite the continuing sway religion continues to have all over the world, still regnant in the sphere of recent academic scholarship is the belief that proper investigation must come from a place of ‘disbelief’ or rationalism, many seeing it as a basic prerequisite for any kind of scholastic analysis. As exemplified by Norman Malcolm;

Now admittedly, a theory which so celebrates the relativity of all things, scathing in its reproof of those who attempt to transcend perspective, to accomplish what Thomas Nagel describes in the title of his book as ‘the view from nowhere,’ can quickly become meaningless, a cynical debunking of all knowledge to the point of crippling obscurantism. Alternatively though, it can help broaden our understanding of knowledge and how one can come to ‘know’ or understand something. Ultimately, both the insider’s and outsider’s claims to superiority comes from a place of subjectivity. That is to say that perspectives form an irrevocable part of knowing and that all observations arise from somewhere. Frequent associations of the subjective with the ‘irrational’ or the ‘unscientific’ stem largely from an outdated and false sense of objectivity which seek to deny the autobiographical or as Hufford puts it, ‘egocentric predicament’22 of human interpretation.

Granted, the ‘reflexive position’ is not the only one which strives for a kind of compromise between outsiders and insiders. Where the reductionist maintains the superiority of the unbelieving outsider, and the insider proclaims a unique position enabling them to impart their lines of profound truths, there are those who have opted for a mediating position, one of neutrality. Indeed, terms such as ‘non-partisan’ and ‘impartial’ have become almost synonymous with ‘Religious Studies’ when one speaks of it as an academic discipline. However, despite much ingenuity on behalf of some scholars to explain how one might shake the trappings of personal bias, Peter Donovan for instance drawing distinctions between observer neutrality, participant neutrality and role neutrality as specifically appropriate to their respective situations, these attempts are ultimately futile.20 David J. Hufford does well to highlight the nature of religious belief as part of what he brands ‘our ultimate concerns’, lying at the heart of various central questions that face humanity; what is morality? What happens after death? It is in this light that Hufford quite rightly expresses doubt over the existence a truly objective stance, instead underling what he sees as a systematic bias in the field. Hence, he bewails, ‘the requirement of ‘disinterest’ as a qualification for the study of matters in which all persons have an interest is quite simply paradoxical.’21

Thus it seems to me, that in order to fully confront the question at hand and honour it with the most prudent and well thought-out response, we must first reconsider the very opposition between outsiders and insiders that has hitherto been assumed by scholars on both sides when addressing this question. Recently many have begun re-emphasising doubts over where the line between the detached observer actually begins and observed subject really ends; whether or not the dichotomy between the two is as seeming as many have presumed or merely an illusion, constructed and conserved in an attempt to generate authority by way of supposed objectivity. Indeed, if it is not the former but the latter, we must then face the possibility that the insider/outsider problem is not something that needs to be solved inasmuch as it needs to be deconstructed.

Nevertheless, this excuse for the ‘arbitrary’ and ‘dishonest’ formed the basis for what McCutcheon once labelled as the ‘reflexive’ 17 response in relation to the problem that we face. More importantly, it also forms the basis for an alternative, more comprehensive understanding of ‘meaning’, one which appreciates its often autobiographical nature, one which challenges and recognises the difficulty in attempting to understand religious traditions via exegesis or scholarly interpretation given the inescapability of our own experiences. Thus, perhaps Jacques Derrida’s famous declaration that ‘there is no outside the text’18 provides the best answer to this question. Perhaps we are all trapped invariably within a vacuum of ‘meaning making’ and neither outsiders nor insiders are blessed with a benefited postion of privileged all-knowing. Perhaps, as stated by McCutcheon, ‘all observations are inextricably entwined with the self-referential statement of the observer’.19

 ‘The French, as it happens, once evolved an expression for this sort of prose: la langue de bois, the wooden tongue, in which nothing useful or enlightening can be said, but in which various excuses for the arbitrary and the dishonest can be offered.16

Ultimately however, despite the varying attitudes and approaches in response to what we have come to know as the ‘insider/outsider problem’, the real solution, is perhaps a solution that in our vanity, we as a society find difficult to accept. The onset of postmodernism in the mid-20th century was quickly censured, many labelling it meaningless, a destroyer of facts and objective truths. Christopher Hitchens once wrote on postmodernism;

The most apt metaphor for the modern study of religion is that of diagnosis. It is not that religion is an illness but that the scholar is like the doctor and the religious adherent like the patient. Just as the patient has the disease but defers to the doctor’s diagnosis, so the adherent has religion but defers, or should defer, to the scholar’s analysis. The scholar, not the believer, is the expert. The scholar’s medicine kit contains what the believer lacks: theories. In religious studies, as in medicine, the doctor knows best.15

Likewise, Bruce Lincoln, holding that the human cognisance could at times be fundamentally misled or misguided, recommends that scholars of religion make every effort to partake in utterly disengaged critical inquiry. In Lincoln’s words, failure to do so leaves ‘a variety of roles, some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend, advocate) and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None however, should be confused with scholarship.’14 As encapsulated by Segal;

Indeed, the belief pushed by Shaw and Firth that religious narratives can be readily questioned and that like all human constructs are vulnerable to questioning, implicitly supports the idea that one might be capable of developing an intelligible and coherent approach to the study of religion; one that does not so eagerly presume, as did Eliade and Otto, an ‘arbitrary’ distinction between the temporal and the divine. As it happens, this more intense view has come to be known as the ‘naturalistic’ or ‘reductionist’ approach, an Epiphenomenon of Enlightenment which seeks to debunk the notion that religion is sui generis in any way. Rather, it holds that when ‘insiders’ claim to have experienced or felt the ‘wholly otherwise’ seemingly in contrary to rational explanation they are mistaken. As such, most reductionist or naturalistic approaches tend to favour the outsider, none more so in modern times than the approach proposed by Segal. No doubt, (despite our profound ignorance of how the brain works), certain scholars have suggested that religious belief can be understand largely as an aspect of brain function some going even further in light of advances in Freud’s psychology, likening religious beliefs to illusions and at times even mental illness. Thus, defending the value of objectivity and impartiality, Segal argues that the religious insider is often conditioned by and pressurised into accepting a specific and by and large circumscribed interpretation of their faith, the outsider not blighted by such forces or conditions.

And yet for others, the view that outsiders, simply because they are outsiders, can never fully grasp the ‘experience’ of insiders has been met with strong rebuke. Scholars such as Rosalind Shaw and Raymond firth, whilst they concede that there are groups with their own distinct terminologies which by nature are relatively inaccessible to outsiders; (in the realm of quantum physics say, an outsider would most likely be at loss with concepts such as cryptography) crucially, Shaw argues that this barrier is not insuperable in any fundamental sense. That is to say that in religion just as in quantum physics, albeit the relative disadvantage of the outsider, there is nothing stopping him from doing the research or delving further into the subject of any given religious tradition. Thus, they heavily criticised what they saw as the too often presumed belief, expounded by the likes Otto and others that religion is sui generis, utterly unique and self-caused to be understood as stated by Mircea Eliade ‘on its own plain of reference’.13 No doubt, as anthropologists both Shaw and Firth view religious traditions in some measure as human constructs and as such comparable, and more importantly reducible to political, social, economic and psychological factors. Thus the claim both that religion is sui generis and that there exists some profound religious intuition or sense of the ‘numinous’ enjoyed only by ‘insiders’, is a claim for Shaw designed to protect it; both from scholarly endeavors which sought to point out its interrelatedness with factors such as politics and gender, whilst also shielding it from ‘outsider’ scrutiny.

It is in this light that some scholars have argued that only ‘insiders’ are blessed with the requisite tools and qualities necessary for proper interpretation. The Hanbaliya School of Islamic thought for instance maintains that in order to achieve the quality of iman (acceptance or recognition of the metaphysical features of Islam through reason, distinct from belief) one must be a Muslim. By the same token, the Islamic concept of fiqh al-batin or ‘inner discernment’ in many ways formed the basis of Muhammad Abduh’s invective against taqlid, (unreasoned deference to authoritative consensus) fashioning much of his work as mufti (a professional jurist empowered to interpret Muslim law).12 Nevertheless, it was only Muslims, and crucially Muslims with a specific interiorised attitude to reading the Qur’an and the hadiths, who for Abduh, could arrive at what he saw as the accurate position on these issues.

Whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no farther; for it is not easy to discuss questions of religious psychology with one who can recollect the emotions of his adolescence, the discomforts of indigestion, or, say, social feelings, but cannot recall any intrinsically religious feelings.11

Indeed, this primacy placed on the concept of personal religious experience echoes in various other religious traditions. By definition for Joachim Wach, religious studies consists of a dialogue limited only to groups of ‘insiders’ who share a kind of fellow-feeling, allowing them to ‘feel their way into…. each other’s worlds’.9 Still, despite the insider’s ability to think in this way, discerning true meaning for Wach remains a tough feat. Suppose a protestant attends a catholic service. Most likely he would encounter much strangeness and unfamiliarity. Then suppose he attend a service according to Armenian or Coptic rite, followed by a religious tradition no longer Christian but Buddhist or Jewish. How different the orgiastic sects of particular Indian Shiva factions or the elaborate mythology of Japanese Shinto. It is in this light that Wach launches a scathing attack on what he sees as the utter futility of attempting to approach religious phenomena through scientific or empirical means, something Schleiermacher earlier insisted ‘touched only the externals of religion,’ true discovery ‘ultimately dead without the… immediate experience of religious feelings’.10 Understanding then for Wach, was to share in and experience the religious outlooks of others, what he termed ’empathy’ (an impossible feat he thought for the agnostically inclined religious scholar). As such Otto recommends;

But the artist, who for his part has an intimate personal knowledge of the distinctive element in the aesthetic experience, will decline the theories of others with thanks, and the religious man will reject them even more uncompromisingly.8

Hence, for Weber and others, the relative inability of the outsider to grasp this unique essence leaves him blinkered, unable to truly understand the nature of any given religious tradition. Thus, as Otto tells us;

Religion cannot be understood simply from the outside. It is like stained-glass windows in the cathedrals. You see them from the outside, and they are nothing, grey and colourless. You see them from the inside, and they are wonderful, full of life and colour. Unless they are understood as seen from the inside religious dogmas and rituals seem grey and sapless, if not absurd.7

Still, whilst only Weber could possibly speculate as to what precisely he meant, most likely he was not attempting to disgorge any ‘irreligious’ cynicisms. Indeed, his wife Marianne Weber tells us that Max ‘always preserved a profound reverence for the Gospel and genuine Christian religiosity’.6 Rather then, Weber was likely speaking to what he saw as a unique perspective or ‘essence’ enjoyed by the insider, his ‘unmusicality’ hindering him from fully understanding the nature of religion in the same way that somebody who is tone death might struggle to fully appreciate Bach’s ‘Magnificat’ or Stravinsky’s ‘Jeu de cartes’. A passage from the 1976 UK Schools Council report on religious education seems to support this view also;

No doubt, this is a sentiment echoed by Otto’s contemporary Max Weber in a letter to Ferdinand Toennies dated 9 February 1909 wherein Weber describes himself as ‘religiously unmusical’, declaring, ‘…it is true that I am absolutely unmusical religiously and have no need or ability to erect any psychic edifices of a religious character within me’.4 Certainly, although perhaps somewhat impetuously, some have viewed Weber’s remarks as distinctly ‘antireligious’. Robert Wuthnow for instance, in an address made to various evangelical constituencies, argued that Weber’s outlook on religion was ‘historically one of the most antireligious… of all time’.5

This insurmountable state is sometimes attributed to the reputed irreducibility of religious experience. Driven in part by movements such as phenomenology, scholars such as Rudolf Otto held that crucial to ones understanding of a religious tradition lies a deep sense of the numinous, a state of mind that is sui generis and inconceivable to those who don’t undergo the prescribed path and discipline necessary to be considered an insider. As stated by Otto, ‘religious understanding cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind…’3

Naturally then, in the realm of religion just as in politics, there are useful distinctions to be made between ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’. Joachim Wach spoke of what he saw as a general empathy and compassion shared by insiders, an ‘ultimate concern’ set against a ‘dry, academic objectivity’.2 More specifically, one might consider A an outsider on the subject of Christianity but an insider with regard to Buddhism, whilst B might also be a Buddhist and yet still consider A an outsider, given that B is a Theravadin and A observes the Vajrayana tradition. However, the belief that one must be a member of a religious tradition in order to understand and value its truth claims is a conviction which in many ways transcends these skin-deep empirical differences; rather, it arises from an often more profound epistemological point of departure, holding that there are fundamental barriers which inexorably hinder the ‘insider’s’ quest to fully come to grips with religious meaning.

So wrote Elizabeth Warren in her memoirs recalling a conversion at a dinner party with economist Larry Summers. Granted, although Mr Summers is discussing politics here and not religion, the bond they share is in many ways inseparable; that is to say that both these two great endeavour’s seek to address our ultimate concerns, are the source of our deepest held convictions, and form the basis upon which our quests for identity find new voices.

After dinner, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice…I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want… Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say.1


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