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.