Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

7.3 ‘Insiders’ and ‘outsiders’

The claim that it is possible to study religion adequately from a disinterested position has been hotly debated. Can the understanding of the observer achieve the same level of insight and authority as the participant in a religion? No serious student of religion can avoid confronting this question.

The ‘outsider’ cannot escape depending to an extent upon insights from ‘insiders’ when studying a particular religion. An ‘outsider’ who has never been through a particular ritual, for example, can only give an account based upon observation and third-party testimony. Observers may be more inclined to rely upon abstractions and generalisations, possibly from sacred books, in the absence of direct experience of the religion as practised. Such questions as ‘What does it feel like?’ or ‘Why did you?’ can only be answered by ‘insiders’ because they call for answers based on personal experience or ask for details that may have to do with a local or even family custom. Yet, ‘insiders’ are fallible and may have their own reasons for describing their experience in a particular way. ‘Insiders’ will not necessarily agree with each other.

There is also the further issue of whether the experience of one religion contributes to understanding other forms of religion. For example, does personal experience of the practice of prayer in one religion make a student more sensitive when studying prayer or a practice like meditation in a different religion? Is a Muslim who prays better qualified to understand a Buddhist who meditates and vice versa, than, say, a humanist who does neither? Or should students who are not members of the religion being considered simply be regarded as ‘outsiders’, whether they are agnostics or members of a different religious faith? Would someone standing outside all religions, but interested in their study, bring an openness and sympathy that a person with a particular religious commitment would find hard to match? If you decide that we should not generalise and that it will depend upon the skill and sensitivity of each student, then you are tacitly accepting that being religious in itself is not a necessary qualification for a student of religion.

In fact, as we have seen, that is one of the principles involved in the approach of Religious Studies. Fervent followers of religion and militant atheists both have the capacity to become insightful students of religion – as long as they are willing to exercise the self-discipline necessary to ensure that their own beliefs do not distort their treatment of the beliefs of others. If I did not accept this possibility, introducing you to Religious Studies would be tantamount to assuming either that you are religious or that you will need to ‘get religious quick’ to complete this course! Yet, the argument that it is possible to study religion effectively without drawing upon personal religious experience has been challenged.

The counter-argument is that ‘religion’ refers to a totally distinct and unique category of human experience which is beyond the comprehension of those who have not shared this experience. A technical way of referring to this is to speak of religion as being autonomous (subject to its own laws) or as being sui generis (Latin for ‘of its own kind’ or unique and pronounced as ‘soo-ee g[hard ‘g’ as in gun]en-er-is’). The implications of this view for the student have been spelled out in no uncertain terms:

The reader is invited to direct his mind to a moment of deeply-felt religious experience, as little as possible qualified by other forms of consciousness. Whoever cannot do this, whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no further; for it is not easy to discuss questions of religious pyschology 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.

(Otto, 1970, p. 8)

According to this view there are severe limits to the extent to which religion can be understood by the ‘outsider’ who has not known ‘intrinsically religious feelings’. This would seem to rule out, for example, Ninian Smart's argument that both religions and secular ideologies should be studied as ‘worldviews’. For if religion is different in kind from a secular ideology, then it cannot be understood on the same terms as other ‘worldviews’, but only on its own terms by those who have known some sort of religious experience of their own.

Is acceptance of the claim that religion is autonomous or sui generis consistent with the broad principles of Religious Studies?

We might wish to investigate the claim that religion is autonomous or sui generis as part of our study of religion. To base our method of study on the acceptance of such a claim without first testing the arguments that support it, however, would be to begin from an assumption that is very different from the characteristic but more modest starting point of Religious Studies: namely, the observable importance of religion in peoples' lives. Yet, we should be aware of the implications of rejecting the sui generis argument. In so doing we have made a statement about the nature of religion: that, for the purposes of study, we are assuming that it is possible to study religion in much the same way as we study other aspects of human experience. On the other hand, those who view religion as sui generis face the problems of identifying what makes it so (which, given the varied forms of religion, is not easy), and also of convincing us that a person who has experienced one form of religion may apply this experience in the analysis of another.

The difference of opinion between those who hold to the sui generis view of religion and those who share the position adopted by Ninian Smart is profound. The fact that the debate continues leads us into another problem in the study of religion in response to which Religious Studies has adopted a characteristic position in terms of method. This is the problem of determining the truth of religion.


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