In studying Anthropology, two terms are often used (curiously similar in spelling yet vastly different in meaning): emic and etic. What the terms refer to are two different points of views that can be adopted when analyzing social and cultural data, emic alluding to an insider’s point of view of the culture or behavior analysed, and etic referring to an outsider’s point of view. In combining both etic analyes and emic analyses, it is thought that one should be able to reach the “richest” and “fairest” conclusion possible.
When analyzing religion, a part of human cultures (and a rather sensitive one, at that), it is important to use both forms of analytic technique, that goes without saying. Unfortunately, however, a rising contemporary issue that ranges from uneducated 13-year old rants to high-league thinkers, is the overuse of an etical perspective when analyzing religions.
It is an increasingly popular thing to do (maybe it’s a cool thing to do?) to criticize religion based upon our preconceptions and modern biases. Although adopting an etical perspective on religions is important to any formal study, when dealing with religion (which is, like mentioned before, a very sensitive and vulnerable aspect of human cultures) it is even more important to adopt an emic point of view, in order to properly convey the realities of religious peoples and deliver the respect they deserve. In a way, it is better to study religion non-etically than non-emically, although, again, studying it in both ways is the obvious preference.
Tragically, although a doctorate in religion may still view an emic point of view as important, emical studies are falling quickly out of popular flavor in our increasingly-secular (and sometimes, rather ironically, religiously-intolerant) world. This is a shame. Religions are wells, rich in knowledge, wisdom and spiritual insight that one will never have access to due to his own intolerance.
Such is our world today. Dostoevsky would have a field day.