It’s said that the first thing we do when we enter a strange social environment is to try to figure out where we fit in. We attempt to join with our fellows based on shared characteristics. We try to establish commonalities of status, class, backgrounds, experiences and goals. Starting from a feeling (really a conviction) of being an outsider, we want to bridge the distance that we experience between ourselves and others in any way we can. We desire to be included. We want to be accepted among those singing:
I’m in with the in crowd
I go where the in crowd goes
I’m in with the in crowd
And I know what the in crowd knows
Anytime of the year, don’t you hear?
Dressing fine, making time
Let’s think about that. What can we learn from our desire (need) to fit in? Where does that come from? Is it just that a human is a “social animal” as Aristotle wrote?1 As we encounter a new social environment, we understand what Aristotle meant by “society is something that precedes the individual.” It stands there, outside of ourselves, waiting for us, challenging us. We will experience one of two reactions as we jockey for position within the group: either we will find commonality or we will not. If we find commonality, it will be because our own desires somehow align with the desires we discover in the group.2
Our desires translate into shared values. These values, however, are only the beginning. We will also quickly find values within the group (or individuals within the group) that we do not share. What do we do then? If the non-shared values are sufficiently critical to us, we leave the group. Alternatively, we either relegate our disparate values to the background or, more likely, we question or challenge them within ourselves. The in-group dynamic encourages us to subjugate our own values to those of the group. It does this by identifying (really creating) an out-group.
The existence of an out-group in contrast with (our) in-group serves to reinforce and to more deeply inculcate shared values. The values of our group are determined to be “good” and “noble” and “just” and “right”, while the values of the “others” are characterized as “evil” or “base” or “unjust” or “wrong”. In order to maintain the in-group system, there needs to be one or more “enemies” against which to measure ourselves. The existence of “enemies” (“them“) serves to reinforce the shared values of our “friends” (“us“), often to the detriment of values held by the individuals within the group. The creation of the “other” makes possible the mob mentality in us.
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
let me not be put to shame;
let not my enemies exult over me.
Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame;
they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.3
In religious terms, we (the righteous) turn to the Lord to save us from our enemies (the impious). We assume that we (the orthodox) are God’s friends against the “others” (the heretics) who are God’s enemies. We need to be right, so we (consciously or unconsciously) require “others” to be wrong. And we need spiritual enemies to explain (among ourselves) why our group isn’t getting its needs and desires met. We turn to the god who shares our values and honors our needs for rescue from the “snare of the fowler”4 and who will crush our enemies (either now, or in the hereafter). If we transgress, we shall be treated like our enemies with punishment and death.
“Let all their wickedness come before you; deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my sins. My groans are many and my heart is faint.”5
And so, once again, we see the (satanized) god made in our own image. This god rewards the faithful and punishes the enemies. Fulfillment of our desires (and the desires of our group) becomes a sure sign of this god’s favor; trouble and distress and death becomes a sure sign of this god’s condemnation. In fact, our whole human experience as social beings is riddled with condemnation and death. The satanized god reigns supreme. Where can we go to escape?
Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
2In Buddhist thought, “Taṇhā (Pāli; Sanskrit: tṛṣṇā, also trishna) is a Buddhist term that literally means ‘thirst,’ and is commonly translated as craving or desire. Within Buddhism, taṇhā is defined as the craving to hold on to pleasurable experiences, to be separated from painful or unpleasant experiences, and for neutral experiences or feelings not to decline. The Buddhist tradition identifies taṇhā as a self-centered type of desire that is based in ignorance. This type of desire is contrasted to wholesome types of desire such as the desire to benefit others or to follow the Buddhist path. In the first teaching of the Buddha on the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha identified taṇhā as a principal cause in the arising of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction).” — (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta%E1%B9%87h%C4%81)