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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.
Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Look, they even have the G.R.O.S.S. beanies.

We hold the wisdom of the ages. We are the keepers of morality. We know how to best live. Outsiders can join if they’re sincere enough, but we don’t accept just anybody. We have secret rituals that all of us know and love, special outfits we wear to signify our specialness, and a leader whose behavior and motivations are unquestioned. We’re mean to outsiders and better than non-members. Our group confers big benefits upon those who make the cut, so if you don’t want to get left out, you’d better do whatever it takes to get in!

Quick: was the above attitude one you’d expect to see from ancient Mithraic cultists, the Republican Party, the Freemasons, the fandom of “Arrested Development,” Calvin’s Get Rid of Slimy Girls Club, or Christians?

If you said “Well, all of ’em, really,” you’re right.

And there is a good reason why humans fall into this kind of thinking so often.

Come take a ride with me through one of the major reasons I fell into Christianity. Come with me as I explore why I needed a tribe, why I identified with this tribe over any other one, how I realized how hollow my membership in this tribe was, and why my tribal affiliation made it so hard to leave.

Tribalism is a mode of thinking and behaving whereby some people exalt one particular group they’re in over every other group they’re in and do whatever they can to advance that one group’s goals and suppress other groups’ encroachment on their chosen group’s power. Sometimes you see a tribe that convinces many of its members that affiliation with it trumps every other affiliation put together. Sometimes a tribe will react with extreme force and hostility to any threats against its goals. This is why you see parents disowning atheist or gay kids–their tribe, Christianity, is more important to them than their own children, and that tribe’s persuaded them that they can’t be committed, loving family members to anybody who goes too far outside the tribe’s carefully-constructed boundaries. This is why when a fat-acceptance advocate loses weight for her health, like I mentioned some posts ago, she gets treated like a traitor by her tribe–her tribe values conformity over even good health. This is why, when a conspiracy nut finally wakes up and realizes that 9/11 was not actually a government-run fiasco, he gets death threats from his former tribe.

It’s pretty obvious why humans evolved a need for tribes. We don’t do too well by ourselves. We need people around us, especially when it comes to raising and protecting children from outside threats. When we’re alone, we have to do 100% of our resource gathering and development by ourselves. The more people we add to our group, though, the more individual members can specialize in resource production. One sees this in the modern conception of stay-at-home partners–though obviously the couple would probably make more money if both worked, many couples see a number of benefits to someone staying home to keep house and to tend the working partner and the rest of the family. I’ve also seen families that saw an increase in contentment after adding other members to the family to do other tasks, such as a grandparent. I’ve known a fair number of pagan polyamorous groups, too, that raved about how great it was to have someone on deck who specialized in cooking or childcare to relieve that burden from the others in the group. As long as everybody’s on board with what everybody’s responsibilities are, these sorts of arrangements can be very pleasing. Granted, these are anecdotal accounts, but they seem pretty consistent with what I see in the media about stay-at-home partners and from academia about specialization.

I had to learn about this specialization stuff when I began building towns and countries for various games I ran for players–how big does a town have to be before it gets a blacksmith? Or a hotel? How big does a town need to be to support a thriving mining community nearby? How many soldiers would a normal baron have? A count? A king? I really suspect that the idea of every tiny town having an inn with a formal taproom is a fairly modern one mostly brought about by highway systems (I’m looking at you, tiny town in Kansas). Most places just can’t specialize that much. Read about the Inquisition records about the medieval French village of Montaillou, and you quickly see that even a village of its size didn’t have either one, much less the armor and weapon shops every roleplaying games’ towns seem to have. You also quickly notice how tight-knit those small towns are and how very closely everybody lived and worked with their neighbors.

That closeness hasn’t vanished, either. When I lived in that tiny town in Kansas I just mentioned, one day I was walking down the street with my parents, who’d blown in from another state to visit me and drop off some stuff of mine. The next day my best friend in that town got mad at me for not telling her they had visited. I asked how she had even known they were in town, and she told me her parents had told her they’d seen me walking down the main drag with them. Now, mind you, I’d never even met her parents; they lived about 20 miles away, and this was long long before cell phones that she might have used to send pictures of me to anybody. So I to this day have no freaking idea how they even knew who I was, much less how they knew that the two people I was walking with were my folks. That’s how it was to live somewhere that small. Everybody knows everybody whether you realize it or not and whether you like it or not. If it weren’t for there being no jobs there whatsoever, I might have stayed just because I kind of liked that idea after having lived in mega-big-cities almost all my life. It was cool that everybody knew who I was. I’ll talk about small towns later, but for now, just know I have a great affection for them despite all their foibles and shortcomings.

All in all, it seems very clear to me that people want company and take pride in having a group that’s very close and free of conflict. And we also want to be a member of the best tribe. Seahawks fans aside, most people want to be on the winning side. They want to be on the right side and not the wrong or the evil side. They want to be on the side that will give them the most benefits. They may delight in being persecuted in some weird way, but ultimately they expect to win.

Well, if you want a winning tribe to join, you can’t do much better than Christianity, can you, if their literature and mythology is anything to go by?

Best of all, once you join, you get this automatic cachet and privilege that nobody else gets. You’re the emissary of the Prince of Peace. You’re the ambassador of the God of Love. You get to threaten, bully, bludgeon, and bluster everybody around you and then claim you’re just trying to help them. You get to feel superior to every outsider and look down on every competing tribe. You’re better than them. You have knowledge they just don’t have. Every single members-only club ever works the same way. Make people believe that joining confers enormous personal benefits and rank, and people will want even more to join.

You also automatically get a huge tribe of friends to help you out of every bind. The closeness of the Christian tribe was one of its biggest selling points for me as a young person who felt very alone. I was love-bombed and hugged and kissed every time I visited my church for the longest time, especially as a pre-convert and new convert. I had social groups within church that accepted and seemed to love me. Many people have told me since I left that they, too, got this idea that they would have friends and love aplenty upon joining. This Christian tribe says they accept absolutely everybody, but very quickly, I–like these others–discovered that no, there was definitely a Cool Kids’ Club in this new tribe, an inner circle, and that I was not part of it. I tried not to worry about it–eternity’s forever, as they say–and tried to focus on being a good Christian.

Cracks in the facade began to show soon enough. When Biff and I got back from Japan, we were temporarily homeless and desperately broke. I quickly found a job that was waiting for me to get to our new hometown, but it was a bit of a mystery as to how we’d eat and where we’d live till I began pulling in paychecks (it was part of my god’s special burden on me that my husband was so constitutionally incapable of finding and keeping a real job). Our pastor directed us to the Pentecostal church in the city we planned to move to, and with a warmly-written letter of introduction in hand, we contacted that church’s pastor asking for help. We had like $200 in our pocket–not enough to get an apartment and certainly not enough to live on till my next job began paying. I was already 90% out of the religion, but Biff at least I was sure had enough cachet in the denomination to get us at least a garage to safely crash in for a week.

Nope. The pastor turned us down flat. He didn’t know anybody who had crash space and we couldn’t use his church’s visiting-minister facility.

preferring your own, even when it costs
preferring your own, even when it costs (Photo credit: Will Lion)

Now, to his credit, this guy didn’t know us from Adam so I’m not mad now, but at the time I was hurt and infuriated. We had this guy’s denomination’s biggest-name pastor vouching for us and we’d been faithful members of this denomination for years. Biff had been volunteering and preaching for about five years and I’d also volunteered in various capacities. We tithed. At the very least I’d always thought that my church had my back. At the very least I’d thought that they were my family. And I learned on that snowy day in Montana as I set the phone down that no, my tribe was all in my head. It was made up of just people like anybody else, and there was nothing saying they had to do anything for us. After some frantic searching, I found a very kind apartment manager who let us stay in an apartment with payment arrangements till my paychecks began coming in, and we were all right in the end. But it sure wasn’t the tribe that had taken care of us in our greatest need. I attended that church a few times, by the way, before my revelation about just not attending anymore hit me; it was always super-awkward to be around that pastor, and though he apologized later for not offering us any help, there was always weirdness between us because we both knew that the tribe had let one of its own members down.

Compare and contrast with that episode of “Married with Children” when Al is at the movies with his family. Remember this one? His daughter sees her boyfriend a few rows back sitting with another girl, and when she mentions this fact, though Al’s spent the entire series denigrating his daughter and the entire episode being a dick to her, he immediately says in effect, “You sit tight, Princess,” gets up and smashes the cheating boyfriend’s lights out without a word of explanation to the shocked kid before sitting back down again and telling his daughter that no matter what else happens, no matter how much they argue or how much they seem to hate each other, Bundys always stick together. I know it was a comedy, but the room suddenly had gotten smoky. That’s a tribe I’d want to be in. Much, much later I’d watch “Arrested Development” and see its main character, Michael, say over and over again that family mattered most (even though he failed to live up to his own beliefs so often and so dramatically) and I’d find much to admire in someone who could clearly articulate what was most important and stick to it, albeit erratically.

We all want that fantasy, I bet, even those of us who are kind of loners. We want to belong to a group that will take care of us and that we can in turn take care of. We want a tribe that will defend us no matter what, that will always have our backs, that always acts in our best interests. Add to those qualities a tribe that bills itself as being the best one, the one that wins in the end, the one that’s always right, and it’s hard to imagine a tribe that’d look more appealing than the one Christianity has become in popular imagination.

So I present to you the Christian tribe. This is the group so many Christians value even above their own flesh and blood. Don’t ask them to help you move or give you a place to stay if you’re temporarily homeless. Or help you feed your kids if you’re out of food that week. But they’ll definitely pray for you at least. Or not. (I don’t seriously think most of the “I’ll pray for yous” I heard really resulted in actual prayers.) And you can rest assured that they’ll definitely argue on your behalf should people on Facebook or other forums badmouth your shared religion. Oh, they’ll upvote you like crazy. And that’s what matters. Right?

It took me a long time to break myself of thinking of Christians as my tribe, but once I did, I realized how hollow that relationship had been and how unworthy of my allegiance that tribe had been. I’d abandoned my friends, my educational goals, even to some extent my own family for this religion, and I was deeply ashamed of myself. I’d wanted a tribe, and I had picked the wrong one.

I was redeemed when my parents visited me in Kansas. My dad (who I’d made peace with by then) told me he had felt abandoned by me when I got into religion, and now he was glad to have his daughter back. And in that moment I realized who my tribe really was. No matter how much we’d argued, no matter what wrongs had been done, no matter how much time and distance separated us, when I needed a bed, my parents got in their truck and drove for 14 hours and they brought me the one I’d had as a teenager in their house so I’d have something upon which to lay my head at night. This was my tribe. This was what tribe members did for each other.

Later I would add my dearest friends to that mix–friends who let me crash at their place when I needed a safe place to sleep, who fed me when I was hungry, who hung out with me when I was lonely, and who played games with me when I needed diversion. And almost none of these guys were Christians, yet they did more for me as a group member than Christians ever had. And I realized that a tribe isn’t just a group that takes care of me, but a group I in turn help take care of as well. When I was a Christian, I didn’t understand that. I don’t think most modern people really do–we’ve lost the knack of being good friends. Nobody really emphasized that the tribe went both ways. Now that I’m out of Christianity and have seen the bad side of tribalism, I understand that concept much better now, and I try–though it isn’t easy–to remember that tribalism can have good and bad aspects.

Nobody’s got any special wisdom about how to live, and about all we’ve got is how we treat each other. That’s all we know for sure matters. I fail, I fall down, I apologize and get back up again, and I keep trying because that’s what Bundys do: they stick together and they grow together.

Part of growing is having new experiences. We’ll be talking soon about how incredibly hard it was for me to learn to be open to new ideas and do new things–and I invite you to join me as I retrace those steps.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...