No exit? Opting out of religious and ethnic group identities in Northern Ireland

ABSTRACT: This paper explores the experiences of people from evangelical Protestant backgrounds in Northern Ireland who have opted out of their religious identity. We are interested in how far it has been possible for people to leave their evangelical faith, and how this extends to a crossing of ethno-national, communal and political boundaries in Northern Ireland. Drawing on in-depth interviews conducted during 2007, the paper analyses how former evangelicals negotiate the formidable barriers to exit constructed by friends, family and wider society. Our aim is to understand more about how structure and agency operate in divided societies, including how individuals negotiate and ultimately establish alternative religious, ethnic and political identities in this context. We argue that most people remain constrained by the culture and social structure of division, and that alternative beliefs and identities remain unrepresented in a society still divided along ethno-religious lines. At the same time, we show how individuals creatively edit and reshape their identities within these boundaries.