Belonging is important for our species. As much as some of us may be introverts, we still need other people. Given the wide divisions of human interests and activities, one way people have traditionally come to know one another is through religious organizations. Let’s face it, getting to know your neighbors can be dicey. People from work may not be those you want to spend off-hours with. Joining an organization is a great way to get to know people and, if you’re seeking like-minded friends a religion has been a time-honored way to find them. Of course, many religions are now becoming as polarized as our society, but even despite that one religious practice seems especially insidious—shunning.
Shunning has been used in Christianity from the beginning. One of the real issues, verging on torture, is when someone is raised in a tradition and has made all their friends in it. Many sects encourage this, some overtly, other less so. Those within the fold will not, it is emphasized, lead you astray. If you are shunned, then, you lose not only your welcome at social gatherings or worship, you also lose your friends. For separatist sects—consider the Amish, for one example—integrating into another society is extremely difficult. You were raised to live one way and how would the shunned even begin to know how to live like other people? This applies not only to small sects; being part of the group is a major draw for everyone from Catholics to members of an evangelical mega-church. It’s a means of having a community.
Moving accounts exist of Mormons or other believers being excommunicated or disfellowshiped. The world they knew is gone. Religions create community and the lost of that community is a cruel punishment to invoke. Particularly since the offenses that lead to such exclusion are often doctrinal—matters of personal belief. People are naturally curious, and the desire to learn more frequently leads into uncharted territory. Some traditions will then invoke sacred texts—more specifically a certain interpretation of sacred texts—to justify the exclusion of the curious. Those texts, however, are interpreted by other fallible human beings. Still, the fact that religions continue to use shunning (call it excommunication or any other name) is an indication of the inherent cruelty that religions can express. What could be more hurtful, especially among those who separate themselves from the world, than to throw them out of the only enclave that they know?