Visit our archives to explore the insider/outsider problem in the study of religion. We explore questions such as "What is an 'insider' or 'outsider'?" and "How do scholars of religion study and engage 'insiders'?" to begin unpacking what all is at stake in this process of group formation.

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In this edition of RSP Remix, we go deep into our archives to explore the insider/outsider problem in the study of religion. We explore questions such as “What is an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’?” and “How do scholars of religion study and engage ‘insiders’?” to begin unpacking what all is at stake in this process of group formation.

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The Insider/Outsider Problem: An RSP Remix [transcript]

The Insider/Outsider Problem: An RSP Remix

Podcast with George Chryssides, Bruce Lincoln, Craig Martin, Russell T. McCutcheon, Steven Ramey, K. Merinda Simmons, Teemu Taira, and Linda Woodhead (21 February 2022).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander and Allison B. Isidore

Transcribed by Vishal Sangu

Audio and transcript available at:


Authenticity, Critical Study of Religion, Discourse, Insider/Outsider, Power, Religious Studies, Social Construction, Us/Them

Allison B. Isidore (AI) 0:38

So, what exactly is an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’?

George Chryssides (GC)  0:39 

Well, there’s been a lot of debate about exactly what an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ is. But basically, in theory, the insider is the person that follows the religion. The outsider is that person like me, most of the time, and can’t belong to all the religions I study. So, I’m looking at it as a non-believer, as a non-practitioner. I’m trying to make sense of it.

Andie Alexander (AA)  1:04 

As a non-practitioner, how do you study other religious groups? Are there scholars who study their own traditions?

GC 1:11 

Well, I think it’s clear most of the time that I’m the outsider, because most of the time, I’m trying to understand what the religion believes, and why they do it, and what is based on, and what all the various activities are that they follow, and what the reasons are for them. It is sometimes said that the outsider tries to make the strange familiar. So it is strange for me, but my job is to make it familiar, first of all, to myself, but secondly, to the people I’m writing for, or lecturing to, or whatever.

GC  1:49

The other side to that is sometimes said that if you’re an insider studying your own religion, you’re trying to make the familiar, strange. In other words, the religion that you follow seems very familiar to you, but yet, you don’t see what’s problematic about it. Yeah, I sometimes have said to students, and sometimes they’ve been surprised, I said, “There’s actually a sense in which we’re not interested in truth. My key question is not, might they be teaching the truth? What my job is, is to understand them, and to get them right and to make sure that I’m not misrepresenting them and to raise key questions about them.”

GC  2:47

So, we’ve got a different agenda here with this methodological agnosticism. I’m not supposed to be asking the question, “might they be right?” But from their point of view, they’re saying, well, “There’s no question about it. We are right; we’ve got the truth and wish you would accept it.” I think, really, you’ve got to say, well, there are outsiders that bring to bear certain things that the insider can’t and vice-versa. The insider might be overly enthusiastic about their own religion; they may privilege their own particular tradition. But at least the insider will know what religion means, and that can be a problem if you’re the outsider. There are probably some outsiders that aren’t really very sure of why people follow a religion or what it means to them and so on. On the other hand, they’ve got, one hopes, some kind of objectivity.

AI 3:36 

Can scholars be objective and removed from the discourse on religion?

Teemu Taira (TT) 3:42 

Scholars who also produce discourse on religion, and scholars are not, and they cannot be called outsiders in these debates. Sometimes scholars are directly involved by giving expert statements or commenting in the media or something. But even in cases where scholars are not directly involved, they are sometimes referred to. So, in that sense, you cannot be an outsider. And this is something that should be reflected on in the analysis, that analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice. Although it’s [a] different kind of discursive practice, but nonetheless, it’s part of the field.

AA  4:24 

How do some scholars study and represent insiders?

Linda Woodhead (LW) 4:29 

I do think it’s incumbent on people who study religion—not from theology, but from a sociology of religion point of view—to try and be as truthful as possible in their representation of what they’re studying. I do hold on very much to that. I think there is still something in that almost Enlightenment ideal, although I would qualify it by saying that I think the truth is relative to particular contexts. And so, in some situations when you’re representing religion truthfully, you may have to become its advocate if the audience is particularly hostile—irrationally hostile to religion—you may have to try and represent, this isn’t criminal, this isn’t unimportant, and go in that direction and be a caretaker in that sense, I suppose.

LW  5:08

But then on the other hand, if you’re trying to represent religion to a group that that’s very deeply committed to something itself, you may have to be very critical. You may have to point out things they don’t want to see about it like the way it ties in with particular group interests, or marks particular gender roles, or things that aren’t necessarily particularly palatable to say. So, I think you’re in this position, always, of having to monitor who you’re representing the truth to, and in what ways. And as a scholar, you’re constantly moving between two communities. You try and absolutely enter into the worlds of the religions that you’re representing and be as empathetic as you can be, but then you’re cycling out back into the world of a scholar asking different questions. And yet, you have a very strong commitment to the criteria of your protocols are your own discipline. So, you are living between these two worlds the whole time.

Bruce Lincoln (BL)  5:58 

I think that the testimony of believers is evidence with which scholars pursue their work. I grant no particular privilege to the testimony of those who are committed to a given faith of one sort or another. I think we owe them the respect one owes to every human being, and that is a serious conversation. But we can’t just mediate and re-present, “this is what these people believe.” They don’t need us to do that. But I think much of the work that takes place in religious studies is of the form of, “this is Buddhist doctrine,” “this is Catholic doctrine,” “these are the things people of whatever faiths say and believe.” And the intervention of the scholar is mostly to just make it accessible to a different kind of audience and to treat it very respectfully. And if he or she adds something, it’s simply to say, “Gee, it’s really deep, profound, and beautiful. You may not want to buy into it, but you have to love it, because it’s got all these truths embedded in it.”

AI  7:01 

Then how do we use these terms and talk about these groups in a way that is both respectful, and academically productive?

Steven Ramey (SR)  7:10 

We can’t get away from the terms, whether it’s ‘religion’ or ‘Hindu’ or ‘Buddhist’ or whatever—we can’t get away from them because people are using them as self-identifiers, using them to identify other people. But too often, we use them as if there’s some real essence out there that we assume we can get to, whether we use the term or not, without seeing the term as a political choice that people are making when they self-identify or identify others.

K. Merinda Simmons (MS) 7:36 

Well, and by extension, Steven, I think then that we privilege and authenticate and legitimise an insider or participant viewpoint as some kind of authentic definition or thing. So, if you call yourself ‘this’, then that ‘this’ becomes real for me because I. the scholar, am going to respect the way that you talk about this thing that you’re doing because you’re the one who’s really doing it, you’re the one who really has some kind of expertise or authority to talk about ‘it’.

SR  8:09 

And it’s often a very particular form of the discourse of what Hinduism is that we authorise as the ‘real Hinduism’. I’ve had people talking about some of my work on Sindhi Hindus saying, “Well, they may say they’re Hindu, but”—and this is a scholarly peer review—“but they may be wrong about what they are.” Because there’s a particular definition of Hinduism, and separation between Hinduism and Sikhism, that has become the dominant discourse and that just gets naturalised.

AA  8:36 

So, what is the benefit then of studying these discourses?

Russell T. McCutcheon (RM) 8:40 

It’s not difficult find the media and scholarship filled with debates currently on what type of Islam is the ‘proper type’. Those debates are themselves the object of study for a critic—a culture critic—by which I meant and by which I continue to mean, someone who’s interested in studying the mechanisms whereby systems of dominance, marginalization—systems by which power is articulated, negotiated—to understand how those systems work, how they function, how they last over time, how what might be understood as happenstance gets portrayed as necessity, inevitability. So thus, when we end up talking about things like naturalization. That’s the work as a cultural critic, to understand how these mechanisms work, to provide examples of how they work. As such, for such a scholar, we’re not studying religion, right? That should be obvious. We’re using those institutions called religion as—and here I’m just borrowing on Jonathan Z. Smith’s widely well received work—we’re just using them as e.g.s, as examples of instances of wider sets of processes that we’re interested in, things we’ve seen elsewhere before in other cultural practices.

AI 9:49 

If we aren’t studying religion, what can we learn from studying insider/outsider discourses about religion?

BL  9:58 

I think society’s a project rather than an entity that exists by nature. I think humans come to associate with one another, and learn how to deal with one another, and develop identities that bind them to some people and distance them from others through really complicated processes. And a big part of that takes place at the level of the discourses they’re exposed to. I’m interested in the formation of society: the moments society falls apart has to be restored, society’s capacity for reproducing itself over time.

BL  10:37

And I’m particularly interested in the way the stories people tell themselves about themselves. The stories they tell about their neighbours, close and further afield. The stories they tell themselves about their past and their foundation, the hopes they come to cultivate the ideal image they develop of themselves and what they aspire toward. The practices at the level of etiquette, and ritual and ceremony and memorial that they come to repeat and to treasure and to cultivate—how those sorts of instruments let them constantly recreate the social. And I’m particularly interested in the moments of conflict. When the fissures and cleavages and the contradictions, that are always there in any social group, prove unmanageable, and the whole project threatens to break down or explode.

Craig Martin (CM) 11:42 

[When] you put humans in groups, and they will immediately develop in group bias and out group bias. How are those in group biases and outgroup biases produced? There are bodies in the world that have dispositions towards viewing other groups negatively. How are those produced? Well, in part they’re produced through the propaganda that they consume.

CM  12:03

You can’t have groups without discourses that bring those groups into existence. And once they exist, those bodies in those groups have positive and negative intuitions about others in the world. So, if we want to understand why do people have positive gut reactions or negative gut reactions in their bodies with their emotions, we can’t account for that without in part taking account of the discourses that build the communities or social groups that they reside in.

Citation Info:

Chryssides, George, Bruce Lincoln, Craig Martin, Russell T. McCutcheon, Steven Ramey, K. Merinda Simmons, Teemu Taira, Linda Woodhead, Andie Alexander, and Allison B. Isidore. 2022. “The Insider/Outsider Problem: An RSP Remix”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 21 February 2022. Transcribed by Vishal Sangu. Version 1.0, 21 February 2022. Available at:

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