In Group, Out Group

In many, many ways, growing up as an evangelical was great. I was surrounded by friends who shared my views, and we had good times together. Sermons were generally interesting, the worship music was uplifting, and we were firmly positioned within a dynamic evangelical culture. There was a real sense of community, purpose, and love.

What I didn’t realize while growing up was that this community had carefully policed boundaries. I was a bit naive, I think, when during my college years I started changing my views on issues like evolution or abortion. I didn’t fully understand that I was transgressing boundaries that are often left unsaid but are nevertheless firm and carefully guarded.

When the community in which I grew up turned on me, I was not prepared for it. It wasn’t that they officially disowned me or stopped talking to me altogether. It wasn’t a fundamentalist church, so I wasn’t condemned from the alter or officially shown the door. Instead, it was more of a change in tone. Suddenly, I was treated as an outsider.

What I experienced growing up and then coming of age was what I like to call the “in group, out group” phenomenon. When you’re in the in group, things are great. There is community and camaraderie. There is friendship and common purpose. It feels great. But the in group is created vis a vis an out group – we were who we were because we were not like them. The in group, then, has boundaries, boundaries that cannot be crossed without threatening your status in the group.

This “in group, out group” phenomenon is extremely common in religious circles, and it explains how belonging to a religious community can give one person wonderful experiences of common purpose and community while another, transgressing the boundaries of the group intentionally or accidentally, can face pain, distress, and ostracism. This phenomenon, then, creates both wonderful experiences and disastrous experiences, both of which exist in tandem with each other. Without an outside, after all, there can’t be the common bond of the in group.

It’s interesting to note that I didn’t initially fall into the out group of my evangelical community because I was an atheist, but simply because I was willing to challenge or rethink doctrines considered mandatory by those on the inside of the community I had so loved. Anyone willing to be a skeptic, to ask questions or think outside the box, faces the danger of transgressing the boundaries of their religious community, whether they question the existence of God or not.

Now of course, just as not every Christian believes in hell, while every religious community does have to face the “in group, out group” phenomenon in some form they don’t all experience it to the same extent. Some are more okay with questions and differences in views and have boundaries that are more porous and easily traversed while others have numerous doctrinal and social litmus tests.

Furthermore, while religious communities can back up the boundaries of their in group with “God says so,” the “in group, out group” phenomenon is in no ways limited to religion. Rather, any time you get a group of people together you’re going to see it occur. Setting boundaries around your group and policing them diligently is a very human thing. We are intrinsically tribalistic.

The difficulty the “in group, out group” phenomenon presents lies both in how very human it is (and therefore hard to stop) and in the fact that it does have positive effects on those who belong to the in group, positive effects I experienced growing up. Think of a tribal society, for instance. Sure, those who are kicked out of their tribe suffer, but this policing of the boundaries gives those in the tribe a sense of group cohesion and common purpose. It holds them together and brings the benefits of community. Evangelicalism did this for me as a child, and continues to do this for my parents and many of my relatives.

Skepticism, diversity of opinion, and free thinking are the natural victims of the “in group, out group” phenomenon. Because of my experiences I place utmost value on being able to ask questions and form my own beliefs, and I therefore naturally consider the ostracism of those with simple differences of opinion and the careful policing of boundaries and silencing of dissent too high a price to pay for the sense of community the “in group, out group” phenomenon has to offer.

In my own life, I try to watch carefully to make sure that I don’t personally end up recreating the very same system I myself was so hurt by. I want to find ways to foster a sense of community, and a sense of common purpose and belonging, without creating the carefully policed boundaries I have seen cause so much pain. Perhaps I’m asking for the moon, but hey, I’m an idealist.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Beth

    I hope you are successful too!

  • kevinalexander

    I think that the greatest barrier to dealing with human nature is to admit that there is such a thing as human nature. We insist that it’s cultural and miss that culture is just the outward manifestation of it.
    The in group out group thing you’re experiencing is way older than humanity. It’s a feature of most social animals.
    If there were any love thy neighbour types a million years ago they weren’t our ancestors, our ancestors killed them.

  • Ron403


    As I read your post, I started to wonder if this same in/out group phenomena applies to our atheist community and, if so, to what extent?

    Regardless, I think you make a very good point when you say, “watch carefully to make sure that” (we) “don’t personally end up recreating the very same system … to find ways to foster a sense of community, and a sense of common purpose and belonging, without creating the carefully policed boundaries I have seen cause so much pain.”

    • Contrarian

      Well, of course. Look at how even atheists draw lines. There are the “accommodationists” and the “militants,” there are the sexist ones and the feminists, to name two. Look at how Rebecca Watson was treated when she crossed a line. Look at how some folks complained about Libby’s comment policy when she posted it, even though (as she clarified) she wasn’t insisting that it was a universal principle.

      Drawing contours and placing people at various distances is human. We all do it. We’re probably biologically incapable of not doing it. (But insisting we don’t do it while we’re doing it is also very human, too.)

      • Merbie

        I agree. Reminds me of the book title, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)”. I haven’t actually read the book yet, but I find the title applicable in life quite often…

      • Ron403

        That’s pretty much what I was thinking. As a progressive I’m only to aware of how we eat our own over issues (eg. Anthony Weiner) that conservatives hardly bat an eye at when it’s one of theirs.

        Hey, at least we’re transparent.

    • Ron403

      Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) takes a look at this issue in his most recent post “Those Atheists You Hate Aren’t Really All That Bad” (Feb 29, 2012.

      Of course, he’s talking about Atheists who hate Atheists.

  • Neal

    Strangely enough, I became a member of the “out group” more from becoming a preterist than eventually becoming an atheist. For the most part.

    I had one friend, whom I considered a close friend, but is a conservative who was running for public office, and I noticed one day he had unfriended me on Facebook. He had also unfriended another friend of ours who was gay. For the most part, while I’ve lost the “in group” status as a nonbeliever, I haven’t lost any of the true FRIENDS I had, even though they still hold to the beliefs. The people I lost were strangers even when we were all in the group.

  • Andrew G.

    As usual, The Authoritarians is essential reading on this point.

    • Ron403

      What a great idea.

      The work of Bob Altemeyer converges quite nicely with that of Libby Anne, Paul Krugman(eg. This Tribal Nation, Conscience of a Liberal, Feb. 27/12) and others, to shine a light onto the mindset of those (Santorum, et al) who would force their world view onto others and for whom compromise does not apply.

      • Joy

        Altemeyer has also done work on religions conversions/deconversions, and atheism. I just read “Amazing Converts” and find it interesting and applicable to this discussion.

  • Quietmarc

    One solution might come from the fact that the dividing line between “in” and “out” is so malleable, in that any group that has it will have slightly different “rules” for what gets in and gets out, which says (to me) that while -having- an “in” and and “out” is human, exactly what traits we choose to decide between isn’t set in stone or hardwired into our biology.

    A concept I love is the idea of “widening the circle”, the idea being that we can acknowledge the existence of a boundary, and we can all play inside that boundary, BUT when you encounter someone who falls outside, you need to realize that it isn’t the outsider who’s at fault, but that the circle needs to be widened.

    I like to think that the best thing that could happen for world peace would be for us to meet extraterrestrial aliens. We’ll probably hate the aliens, but at least it will remind us that we’re not all that different from each other, after all.

    • Ed Suominen

      Edwin Markham’s poem “Outwitted” has a beautiful expression of what you’re talking about:

      He drew a circle that shut me out —
      Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
      But love and I had the wit to win:
      We drew a circle that took him in.

  • Merbie

    Do you find that the people in the “in group” don’t realize how they ostracize people? I have tried to explain to my fundamentalist Christian family members how “outside” their treatment of me makes me feel now that I have declared my atheism. They insist they aren’t doing this, that I am the one who has changed how I interact with them. Yes, I may be a little gun shy in my relationships with them because I know they disapprove of my beliefs, but I don’t think that’s the bulk of the problem.

  • Kevin Alexander

    It’s interesting that after the parable of the Good Samaritan and the admonition to love your enemy it’s those who most identify as christian who Just. Don’t. Get it.

  • MadGastronomer

    While it’s definitely good to widen the circles of most communities, there are absolutely boundaries that ought to be rigorously policed. Like not harming other members of the community. It’s completely valid to ostracize someone for being abusive, for child molestation, for stealing, for rape, for killing. (And no, not all communities DO ostracize those who commit such acts. Indeed, some of them ostracize victims of such acts instead.)

    There are also communities that, to serve their purpose for their members, must be narrow by definition: communities of women, or of queer people, or of Black people, or people of a specific tribe.

    In group/out group behavior has its purpose, both psychologically and sociologically, and its place. Those places are limited, and we should be careful of them, but that doesn’t mean we should attempt to get rid of them altogether.

  • MadGastronomer

    Also relevant: Five Geek Social Fallacies, the first of which deals with ostracization, and more than one of which are traceable back to the idea that all in group/out group behaviors are bad (even while geek social circles have some pretty serious in group/out group behaviors).

    Being excluded from a community you’ve spent a large proportion of your life in sucks, I know — I’m queer, and the ostracization I experienced in high school was extreme (although not enforced by everyone) and other enforcements of my out-group status extended to abuse and death threats — but it does not follow that abolishing all such divides and behaviors is a good thing.

  • Ed Suominen

    The “them vs. us” thinking seems to be an essential part of any high-demand group. The higher the price one must pay to be part of it, the bigger the distinction must be that separates members from those unfortunates who aren’t lucky enough to be part of The Truth.

    I’ve come out of a very conservative Protestant sect, the Laestadian Lutheran Church, where this “them vs. us” mindset is very much in play. In fact, it is really a core part of the religious doctrine, which maintains that all other religions including other Christians–Catholic, Lutheran, Mormon, whatever–are all headed for hell. To maintain your sanity while professing such a belief, you must build a pretty high wall of separation with all those unsaved outsiders.

    Part of a 530-page book I’ve recently written about Conservative Laestadianism and fundamentalist Christianity in general is a discussion of “Inside vs. Outside” that talks about the factors in play here. It’s available for free here.

  • Brett Blatchley

    Libby, I can relate to so much that you’ve shared!

    I have been excommunicated from my church family. When I wouldn’t heal with respect to my being transsexual in the way they expected me to be healed, the leadership declared me “in sin” and moved to “protect” the rest of the flock from me. Suddenly all the good they saw in me, the Christlikeness, my peace and love…all these things were suddenly counterfeit and not real. I was not legitimate as a person. Yet, throughout my gender journey, I’ve been drawing closer to God, and I’m thoroughly convinced that God is in the process of healing me by helping me become who I truly am.

    I *was* an “Evangelical” Christian (capital letter E). I don’t pass the purity test anymore (and not just on LGBTQ issues, but also on women roles and our origins). Then, I’ve moved through the “evangelical” stage (little letter e) to where I simply follow Jesus, and this is *so freeing* because I can simply live life without being “in” or “out”…it’s actually easier to love others without being concerned about the boundaries. It’s easier to be loved too…