The denizens of broken systems tend to take very poorly to critics outside the group–and even more poorly to dissenters within it. Often they reserve their most vicious retaliation for those dissenters. But of late, it’s gotten safer for Christians to dissent. In a very real sense, their tribe’s herd immunity may be fading away. I’ll show you why today–and why there’s never been an easier time to walk away from that most broken of systems.
In and Out.
In sociological terms, an in-group is a group that a particular person feels like they belong to. An out-group, by contrast, is a group that that person doesn’t feel like they belong to. Many atheists feel that their in-group is the broad collection of atheists around the world. People often consider their home country or their family to be an in-group, too.
When it comes to Christianity, often Christians are members of several in-groups related to the religion itself: the general group of Christians universally, but also their home denomination–and their home church within that denomination (and maybe–in very large churches–their small group1 within that church), all in addition to the normal in-groups they’d feel they belong to like their families, school student bodies, social media groups, and hobby clubs. Some of our in-groups are more important to us than others are; in the example of Christians, they may prioritize their small group over most of their hobby clubs–but maybe there’s one hobby club they’d prioritize over the small group.
In a lot of ways, our sense of in-groups and out-groups may inform at least part of our identity as people (see: social identity theory). The groups we’re part of–and the groups we specifically don’t think we’re part of–often define our leisure time, our vocations, where we live, who we befriend and fall in love with, our parenting choices, and much more.
If that sense of identity is taken too far, an in-group can easily slide into the way more harmful tribalism–and that’s where fairly innocuous problems with transparency and misplaced priorities and the like can escalate into a broken system.
The Funny Thing About Out-Groups.
Out-groups, interestingly enough, don’t tend to be the groups that are the most different from the in-group. Instead, they tend to be the group that’s almost exactly the same, just with one little detail a few degrees off-kilter.. (Slate Star Codex goes into a lot more detail about this topic if you’re interested–and I love his examples so much I’ll draw on one of them here, with gratitude.) So to Northern Irish Catholics, their out-group isn’t going to be English Anglicans; instead it might be Northern Irish Protestants.
By the same token, for United Pentecostals, like I was way back when, my out-group wasn’t Catholics. They were far too unlike my tribe. In fact, I had an ex-Christian friend over the other day and showed her my mother’s little Confirmation devotional book. My friend had grown up in fundagelicalism, and I might as well have been showing her a clay tablet of Babylonian cuneiform. It was simply a whole other world, one she’d never imagined existed.
Instead of Catholics, then, my in-group’s designated out-group was probably Southern Baptists, who were Trinitarians and thought speaking in tongues was Satanic.
The funny thing about out-groups is that you can tell when you’ve probably identified the right one because that’ll be the group that most offends you with its tiny off-kilter point of difference from your own group.
For example, Pentecostals back then didn’t tend to get super-wrought-up on a personal level about how wildly different Catholics were from us. Sure, we had diagrams and books comparing the Catholic Church to some character in the Book of Revelation and all that, and Jack Chick got a lot of mileage out of conspiracy theories about Catholicism. But I don’t remember ever seeing any of my tribemates spending hours and hours and hours with any actual Catholics trying to persuade them that intercessory prayers and infant baptism were wrong, though we certainly did think they were.
However, I do remember many hours of time getting spent trying to convince Assembly of God kids that the Trinity was a pagan delusion that’d send an unwary Christian straight to Hell, or trying to sell holiness standards to a fellow fundagelical who thought that wearing makeup was okay.
So we could kinda say that your primary in-group is the group you most want to be accepted by–and who you’d be the most devastated by if you found out they didn’t like you as much as you thought they did.
And your primary out-group could be described as the group you’re most aggravated by. It’s who you’re most willing to argue with, and who gets you the most frustrated when you fail to persuade them.
A Toxic Tribe.
Christianity, especially the hard-right flavors of it like fundagelicalism, takes these concepts and dials ’em up to 11. When someone joins the religion, they gain not only a powerful identification as part of a rigidly-defined in-group, but also–and maybe more importantly–an equally powerfully-identified and rigidly-defined set of enemies. They are taught that their out-group is childishly defiant and petulantly defying what they know to be true. They are taught to see their out-group as less than human and undeserving of full human rights.
The more polarized Christianity gets, the worse Christians’ image of their out-groups is going to get.
And I think a lot of people in fundagelical Christian groups really need that quick, easy, us-or-them, black-or-white coded way of looking at the world. They need the easy certainty of always having very firm answers instead of grey areas and uncertainty. They need to feel safe, and fundagelical groups are very famous for offering potential new recruits safety both from earthly fears and supernatural ones. They need to feel taken care of. They need to feel like life works out fairly in the end.
More sinisterly, it’s very clear that many of them also need to feel superior to other people–and maybe they even need a group they can instantly, easily hate without having to explain why or figure out if they’re right or wrong to hate.
But there’s one thing that’ll totally screw up these quick, easy tribal formations:
Familiarity with the enemy.
In terms of vaccines, it’s of vital importance that the herd — which is people generally in an area, like Americans or Californians or whatever — maintain a certain percentage of members who are vaccinated against communicable diseases. Some people simply can’t be vaccinated. Maybe they’re too old, or too young, or have some other medical reason why they can’t handle vaccination. But if enough people around those un-vaccinated people are vaccinated themselves, then any sicknesses that spring into the population will hopefully peter out before they reach those vulnerable members. We even know exactly how high that vaccination rate needs to be (it varies by the disease and population) to ensure that everyone is protected. Because the herd itself is protected at a very high rate, the few people who can’t be vaccinated will skate on past the diseases in safety.
But what we’re seeing in a lot of folks who damned well ought to know better is an uptick in unvaccinated people who really need to be vaccinated. So there are still vulnerable folks in the population, but now they lack herd immunity to keep them safe. And diseases we thought we’d destroyed generations ago are now roaring back to life. People who simply never knew the horrors of diseases like polio are putting their own children at risk of getting it out of bizarrely misplaced and poorly-informed fears of autism and the like. We’re losing herd immunity because of these terrified and misinformed parents on both the liberal and conservative ends of the wingnut spectrum.
I used this phrase last time we met up to describe something I see going on in Christianity right now: the unraveling of their tribal affiliations and the debunking of their tribal animosities and myths.
In a very real sense, Christians create a kind of herd immunity through these tight networks, a dynamic that makes it very difficult for people living in communities tightly controlled by Christians to get free of their overreach and cruelty. Through their use of strong in-groups and out-groups, leaders use these bubbles like ever-tightening nets–and they do the job their creators need done. The results of their herd immunity are bad, not good for humanity, but that’s essentially what they’re doing. They had the power for centuries–millennia, even–to craft these bubbles and enforce their boundaries. They were able to coerce people to at least shut up and play along with the Christian happy pretendy fun time games–and could viciously punish and retaliate against anyone who didn’t. Their reaction to these far-milder dissenters made others who might have dissented more vehemently (or even left the group) second-guess any fanciful urges they might have been feeling.
They only recently lost that power, allowing people in many areas to break free of their control. It’s still very spotty; there are still a lot of areas very dominated by Christian groups and leaders who still have a lot of coercive power and by communities that immerse people in so much Christian mumbo-jumbo that they don’t have time to think, much less do anything that’s unapproved.
But wherever one or two leave, it becomes that much easier for the next few to leave. The lower the percentage of people in a community who buy into the erroneous beliefs, the easier it is to push back against those beliefs. That’s why we often see deconversions start as trickles and turn into huge tides.
Once the Bull is defeated, you can’t really stop them.
The Unbearable Lightness of Bubbles.
We’ve talked about the Christian bubble many times here. It’s that insular worldview and community that Christians often build for themselves that allows them to go through their days from their first moment awake to the last flutter of their eyelids as they hit the sack again without ever encountering a single person, thought, or object that isn’t infused with religiosity somehow and that doesn’t totally agree with them and their worldview.
There’s just onnnnnnnnnnnne teensy li’l problem with these particular bubbles.
They’re not as strong as they look.
Christians’ bubbles may look very strong–maybe even impermeable. But they aren’t. They depend 100% upon the existence of a firm network of Christians and swag. And extremist Christians very naturally align themselves into exactly the configuration needed–like they’re crystals of control-lust and fear.
Bonus: I am 99% sure that this professor, Jeffrey K. Wagner, is the same guy who was a regular contributor to various Star Trek zines in the 90s. If so, he’s a good science communicator and a Trekkie!
Once that crystalline structure is achieved, isolation and isolationism both come easy.
Once their bubble starts to fray at the edges, Christians can finally encounter and experience the huge, wondrous world outside. Worse, they can get to know people outside that bubble–people their parents and pastors decidedly don’t approve of. Even the most gung-ho fundagelical leaders are well aware that their most viciously-pressed culture wars against human rights do not outlast a strong relationship with any of the people they want to strip rights from.
In one Pew survey on the topic, a third of fundagelicals surveyed said they’d changed their minds about same-sex marriage because they knew someone who was gay. This huge shift in personal connection can’t possibly be overstated in importance. When I was in high school my friends and I had some suspicions about a few guys in my school, but we didn’t know anybody for sure who was gay. In college I finally met a young man who was gay but fighting it, in the way of fundagelicals–and he didn’t call himself gay.
A lot has changed since those days!
These personal connections transcend the bubble; they transcend all the spluttering curses and invectives that fundagelicals can possibly fling. That’s why that same survey discovered that almost every single Christian surveyed who opposed same-sex marriage had always opposed it. People don’t tend to leave a worldview of love to adopt a worldview of hatred; usually it works the other way around.
But the herd immunity does something else, too: it allows fundagelicals to exert control over their peers and followers if a forbidden dissenting thought comes to light.
What Isolation Looks Like.
When I was first starting to deconvert, it happened despite my best efforts. It’s ridiculous to me now to think of how hard I fought to maintain my belief in something that really isn’t worthy of that kind of effort.
But I didn’t know any ex-Christians. I didn’t know of any books that criticized Christianity. I had never met anybody that I knew of who’d been Christian once but left the religion. I knew some atheists, but they’d always been atheists. I didn’t think anybody who’d known THE TRUTH™ could possibly ever reject it. So I always thought the problem was me, not the religion. I thought I was the only one like me!
I didn’t have any friends I could talk to about what was happening to me. I was embarrassed that I’d been wrong about something so important and that I’d pushed my religion onto people as hard as I had. I was scared to death that if I told anyone, they’d mock me.
I was sunk so deep into the bubble that I literally couldn’t perceive anything past it–until the day I stumbled clean through it. I knew that Christianity’s claims were false and that the religion was not good for me–but I had no idea what came after those realizations.
And gang, that’s the painful picture that is isolation.
Nothing I was going through was an accident, either. Broken systems work the way their masters want them to work. No exceptions.
My religious leaders had created that atmosphere of isolation on purpose. They’d engineered their community of believers to work exactly like this–a community of people so bound into their in-group as fundagelicals that they couldn’t think straight, much less get away if their thinking led them to some conclusions those leaders don’t like!
These leaders know that if they can clamp down on their followers’ lives hard enough, then their access to outside information and dangerous relationships will be seriously impacted. They’ll maintain a bit of herd immunity. There’ll be a few who slip outside the sheepfold, but they’ll be so constrained by their in-group relationships and their fear of the out-group that hopefully they won’t infect the others still in the bubble–and may end up scaring themselves back to obedience and compliance as well. If they don’t, then the rest of the herd will be so completely Christian that hopefully they can keep those few flyaways silent and cowed through the use of threats and other forms of psychological manipulation.
The problem for those leaders is that they’re finding it harder and harder to maintain the proper level of isolation that they need. We’re simply better-connected with each other nowadays than we ever have been in our entire history as a species–and able to share our ideas and our hearts quickly and easily if we so desire.
So what I’m basically saying here is that once again: LOVE WINS.
Join me on Thursday as we extend this conversation (and this metaphor) a little further–by looking at what happens when someone finds out that their in-group isn’t the refuge of love and acceptance that they thought it was, and that their out-group isn’t what they’d been taught to fear and hate either. Talk about a topsy-turvy world! See you next time.
1 A small group is like a Sunday school class. It’s usually made up of 6-20 adults who feel very close to each other and meet up often for Bible studies and prayer and the like. Small groups can be very informal, but are often formally organized under ministry leaders. Often there’s a formal or informal leader in the small group who has control over the other members–to rebuke, to coerce into action or inaction, and to teach and lead in prayer. Megachurches just about always have formal small groups nowadays as part of their membership. These did not exist when I was a Christian.
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