Apostasy (/əˈpɒstəsi/; Greek: ἀποστασία (apostasia), "a defection or revolt") is the formal disaffiliation from, or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person. It can also be defined within the broader context of embracing an opinion contrary to one's previous beliefs. One who "commits apostasy" (or who apostatizes) is known as an apostate. The term apostasy is used by sociologists to mean renunciation and criticism of, or opposition to, a person's former religion, in a technical sense and without pejorative connotation.
- Sociological definitions
- Human rights
- Contemporary criminalization of apostasy
- Jehovahs Witnesses
- Other religious movements
- Historical persons
- Recent times
The term is occasionally also used metaphorically to refer to renunciation of a non-religious belief or cause, such as a political party, brain trust, or a sports team.
Apostasy is generally not a self-definition: few former believers call themselves apostates because of the negative connotation of the term.
Many religious groups and some states punish apostates; this may be the official policy of the religious group or may simply be the voluntary action of its members. Such punishment may include shunning, excommunication, verbal abuse, physical violence, or even execution. Examples of punishment by death for apostates can be seen under the Sharia Law found in certain Islamic countries.
The American sociologist Lewis A. Coser (following the German philosopher and sociologist Max Scheler) defines an apostate as not just a person who experienced a dramatic change in conviction but "a man who, even in his new state of belief, is spiritually living not primarily in the content of that faith, in the pursuit of goals appropriate to it, but only in the struggle against the old faith and for the sake of its negation."
The American sociologist David G. Bromley defined the apostate role as follows and distinguished it from the defector and whistleblower roles.
Stuart A. Wright, an American sociologist and author, asserts that apostasy is a unique phenomenon and a distinct type of religious defection, in which the apostate is a defector "who is aligned with an oppositional coalition in an effort to broaden the dispute, and embraces public claims-making activities to attack his or her former group."
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, considers the recanting of a person's religion a human right legally protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:
The Committee observes that the freedom to 'have or to adopt' a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views ... Article 18.2 bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert.
As early as the 200s AD, apostasy against the Zoroastrian faith in the Sassanid Persian Empire was criminalized. The high priest Kidir instigated pogroms against Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and others in effort to solidify the hold of the state religion.
As the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion, apostasy became formally criminalized in the Theodosian Code, followed by the Corpus Juris Civilis (i.e. the Justinian Code). The Justinian Code went on to form the basis of law in most of Western Europe during the Middle Ages and, thus, apostasy was similarly persecuted to varying degrees in Europe throughout this period and into the early modern period. Eastern Europe (the Russian Empire, etc.) similarly inherited many of its legal traditions regarding apostasy from the Romans, though not through the Justinian Code.
With the rise of Islam came a relative religious tolerance in the Middle Eastern regions. Nevertheless, as the Middle Ages progressed the successive Islamic caliphates began to enforce their own laws against apostasy, often modeled on those of the Romans and the Europeans.
Contemporary criminalization of apostasy
Historically, apostasy was considered a criminal offense in many societies, commonly likened with the crimes of treason, desertion, or mutiny. For instance, European converts from Christianity to Islam who sought refuge in the Barbary States or in the Ottoman Empire were termed "renegades" in the history of that region.
As of 2016, sixteen Muslim countries criminalize public apostasy, and their apostasy laws only concern apostasy from Islam, citing Islamic law as justification. No country in the Americas or Europe had any law forbidding the renunciation of a religious belief or restricting the freedom to choose one's religion.
The following countries have criminal statutes that forbid apostasy :
(Note that apostasy from other religions to Islam is legal in all countries indicated below)
From 1985 to 2006, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom listed a total of four cases of execution for apostasy in the Muslim world: one in Sudan in 1985; two in Iran, in 1989 and 1998; and one in Saudi Arabia in 1992.
Both marginal and apostate Baha'is have existed in the Baha'i community who are known as nāqeżīn.
Muslims often regard adherents of the Bahá'í faith as apostates from Islam, and there have been cases in some Muslim countries where Baha'is have been harassed and persecuted.
The Christian understanding of apostasy is "a willful falling away from, or rebellion against, Christian truth. Apostasy is the rejection of Christ by one who has been a Christian ...", though many believe that biblically this is impossible ('once saved, forever saved'). "Apostasy is the antonym of conversion; it is deconversion." The Greek noun apostasia (rebellion, abandonment, state of apostasy, defection) is found only twice in the New Testament (Acts 21:21; 2 Thessalonians 2:3). However, "the concept of apostasy is found throughout Scripture." The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery states that "There are at least four distinct images in Scripture of the concept of apostasy. All connote an intentional defection from the faith." These images are: Rebellion; Turning Away; Falling Away; Adultery.
Speaking with specific regard to apostasy in Christianity, Michael Fink writes:
Apostasy is certainly a biblical concept, but the implications of the teaching have been hotly debated. The debate has centered on the issue of apostasy and salvation. Based on the concept of God's sovereign grace, some hold that, though true believers may stray, they never totally fall away. Others affirm that any who fall away were never really saved. Though they may have "believed" for a while, they never experienced regeneration. Still others argue that the biblical warnings against apostasy are real and that believers maintain the freedom, at least potentially, to reject God's salvation.
Jehovah's Witness publications define apostasy as the abandonment of the worship and service of God, constituting rebellion against God. They apply the term to a range of conduct, including open dissent with the religion's doctrines, celebration of "false religious holidays" (including Christmas and Easter), and participation in activities and worship of other religions. Members of the religion who are accused of apostasy are typically required to appear before a congregational judicial committee, by which they may be "disfellowshipped"—the most severe of the religion's disciplinary procedures that involves expulsion from the religion and shunning by all congregants, including immediate family members not living in the same home. Baptized individuals who leave the organization because they disagree with the religion's teachings are also regarded as apostates and are shunned.
Watch Tower Society literature describes apostates as "mentally diseased" individuals who can "infect others with their disloyal teachings". Former members who are defined as apostates are said to have become part of the antichrist and are regarded as more reprehensible than non-Witnesses.
There is no concept of heresy or apostasy in Hinduism. Hinduism grants absolute freedom for an individual to leave or choose his or her faith on the Path to God. Hindus believe all sincere faiths ultimately lead to the same God.
In Islamic literature, apostasy is called irtidād or ridda; an apostate is called murtadd, which literally means 'one who turns back' from Islam. Someone born to a Muslim parent, or who has previously converted to Islam, becomes a murtadd if he or she verbally denies any principle of belief prescribed by Qur'an or a Hadith, deviates from approved Islamic belief (ilhad), or if he or she commits an action such as treating a copy of the Qurʾan with disrespect. A person born to a Muslim parent who later rejects Islam is called a murtad fitri, and a person who converted to Islam and later rejects the religion is called a murtad milli.
There are multiple verses in Qur'an that condemn apostasy, but none which prescribe any punishments for apostasy and multiple Hadiths include statements that support the death penalty for apostasy. The majority of modern Ulama have come to the conclusion that despite the Qur'an suggesting that an apostate cannot be punished for apostasy, that the select Hadith which do support the death for apostasy override the Qur'anic verses which suggest otherwise.
The concept and punishment of Apostasy has been extensively covered in Islamic literature since the 7th century. A person is considered apostate if he or she converts from Islam to another religion. A person is an apostate even if he or she believes in most of Islam, but verbally or in writing denies of one or more principles or precepts of Islam. For example, if a Muslim declares that the universe has always existed, he or she is an apostate; similarly, a Muslim who doubts the existence of Allah, enters a church or temple, makes offerings to and worships an idol or stupa or any image of God, celebrates festivals of non-Muslim religion, helps build a church or temple, confesses a belief in rebirth or incarnation of God, disrespects Qur'an or Islam's Prophet are all individually sufficient evidence of apostasy.
Many Muslims consider the Islamic law on apostasy and the punishment one of the immutable laws under Islam. It is a hudud crime, which means it is a crime against God, and the punishment has been fixed by God. The punishment for apostasy includes state enforced annulment of his or her marriage, seizure of the person's children and property with automatic assignment to guardians and heirs, and death for the apostate.
According to some scholars, if a Muslim consciously and without coercion declares their rejection of Islam and does not change their mind after the time allocated by a judge for research, then the penalty for male apostates is death, and for females life imprisonment.
According to the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect, there is no punishment for apostasy, neither in the Qur'an nor as taught by the founder of Islam, Muhammad. This position of the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect is not widely accepted by clerics in other sects of Islam, and the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam acknowledges that major sects have a different interpretation and definition of apostasy in Islam. Ulama of major sects of Islam consider the Ahmadi Muslim sect as kafirs (infidels) and apostates.
Today, apostasy is a crime in 16 out 49 Muslim majority countries; in other Muslim nations such as Morocco, apostasy is not legal but proselytizing towards Muslims is illegal. It is subject in some countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to the death penalty, although executions for apostasy are rare. Apostasy is legal in secular Muslim countries such as Turkey. In numerous Islamic majority countries, many individuals have been arrested and punished for the crime of apostasy without any associated capital crimes. In a 2013 report based on an international survey of religious attitudes, more than 50% of the Muslim population in 6 Islamic countries supported the death penalty for any Muslim who leaves Islam (apostasy). A similar survey of the Muslim population in the United Kingdom, in 2007, found nearly a third of 16 to 24-year-old faithfuls believed that Muslims who convert to another religion should be executed, while less than a fifth of those over 55 believed the same.
Muslim historians recognize 632 AD as the year when the first regional apostasy from Islam emerged, immediately after the death of Muhammed. The civil wars that followed are now called Riddah wars (Wars of Islamic Apostasy), with the massacre at Battle of Karbala holding a special place for Shia Muslims.
The term apostasy is also derived from Greek ἀποστάτης, meaning "political rebel," as applied to rebellion against God, its law and the faith of Israel (in Hebrew מרד) in the Hebrew Bible. Other expressions for apostate as used by rabbinical scholars are "mumar" (מומר, literally "the one that is changed") and "poshea yisrael" (פושע ישראל, literally, "transgressor of Israel"), or simply "kofer" (כופר, literally "denier" and heretic).
The Torah states:
If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which [is] as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; [Namely], of the gods of the people which [are] round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the [one] end of the earth even unto the [other] end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
The prophetic writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah provide many examples of defections of faith found among the Israelites (e.g., Isaiah 1:2–4 or Jeremiah 2:19), as do the writings of the prophet Ezekiel (e.g., Ezekiel 16 or 18). Israelite kings were often guilty of apostasy, examples including Ahab (I Kings 16:30–33), Ahaziah (I Kings 22:51–53), Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:6,10), Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:1–4), or Amon (2 Chronicles 33:21–23) among others. (Amon's father Manasseh was also apostate for many years of his long reign, although towards the end of his life he renounced his apostasy. Cf. 2 Chronicles 33:1–19)
In the Talmud, Elisha Ben Abuyah (known as Aḥer) is singled out as an apostate and epicurean by the Pharisees.
During the Spanish inquisition, a systematic conversion of Jews to Christianity took place, which occurred under duress and threats of torture and forced expulsion. These cases of apostasy provoked the indignation of the Jewish communities in Spain.
Several notorious Inquisitors, such as Tomás de Torquemada, and Don Francisco the archbishop of Coria, were descendants of apostate Jews. Other apostates who made their mark in history by attempting the conversion of other Jews in the 14th century include Juan de Valladolid and Astruc Remoch.
Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in then Palestine, held that atheists were not actually denying God: rather, they were denying one of man's many images of God. Since any man-made image of God can be considered an idol, Kook held that, in practice, one could consider atheists as helping true religion burn away false images of god, thus in the end serving the purpose of true monotheism.
In practice, Judaism does not follow the Torah's prescription on this point: there is no punishment today for leaving Judaism, other than being excluded from participating in the rituals of the Jewish community, including leading worship, being called to the Torah and being buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Sikhism teaches that all religions lead to God. Through Sikh history Sikhs had been offered the choice of embracing Islam or death, but there hadn't been an instance where a Sikh would give up his faith. Famous Sikh martyrs are Guru Arjan, Guru Tegh Bahadur, Zorawar Singh, Fateh Singh, Mani Singh. There is no punishment for leaving Sikhism and a somebody who does so, can again join back. There, however, have been reports of individuals and their families getting death-threats for leaving Sikhism. There also has been the establishment of organizations in India, such as the Sikh Youth of Punjab, which aims to counter growing apostasy amongst Sikh youths.
Other religious movements
Controversies over new religious movements (NRMs) have often involved apostates, some of whom join organizations or web sites opposed to their former religions. A number of scholars have debated the reliability of apostates and their stories, often called "apostate narratives".
The role of former members, or "apostates", has been widely studied by social scientists. At times, these individuals become outspoken public critics of the groups they leave. Their motivations, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, the validity of their testimony, and the kinds of narratives they construct, are controversial. Some scholars like David G. Bromley, Anson Shupe, and Brian R. Wilson have challenged the validity of the testimonies presented by critical former members. Wilson discusses the use of the atrocity story that is rehearsed by the apostate to explain how, by manipulation, coercion, or deceit, he was recruited to a group that he now condemns.
Sociologist Stuart A. Wright explores the distinction between the apostate narrative and the role of the apostate, asserting that the former follows a predictable pattern, in which the apostate uses a "captivity narrative" that emphasizes manipulation, entrapment and being victims of "sinister cult practices". These narratives provide a rationale for a "hostage-rescue" motif, in which cults are likened to POW camps and deprogramming as heroic hostage rescue efforts. He also makes a distinction between "leavetakers" and "apostates", asserting that despite the popular literature and lurid media accounts of stories of "rescued or recovering 'ex-cultists'", empirical studies of defectors from NRMs "generally indicate favorable, sympathetic or at the very least mixed responses toward their former group".
One camp that broadly speaking questions apostate narratives includes David G. Bromley, Daniel Carson Johnson, Dr. Lonnie D. Kliever (1932–2004), Gordon Melton, and Bryan R. Wilson. An opposing camp less critical of apostate narratives as a group includes Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Dr. Phillip Charles Lucas, Jean Duhaime, Mark Dunlop, Michael Langone, and Benjamin Zablocki.
Some scholars have attempted to classify apostates of NRMs. James T. Richardson proposes a theory related to a logical relationship between apostates and whistleblowers, using Bromley's definitions, in which the former predates the latter. A person becomes an apostate and then seeks the role of whistleblower, which is then rewarded for playing that role by groups that are in conflict with the original group of membership such as anti-cult organizations. These organizations further cultivate the apostate, seeking to turn him or her into a whistleblower. He also describes how in this context, apostates' accusations of "brainwashing" are designed to attract perceptions of threats against the well being of young adults on the part of their families to further establish their newfound role as whistleblowers. Armand L. Mauss, defines true apostates as those exiters that have access to oppositional organizations that sponsor their careers as such, and validate the retrospective accounts of their past and their outrageous experiences in new religions—making a distinction between these and whistleblowers or defectors in this context. Donald Richter, a current member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) writes that this can explain the writings of Carolyn Jessop and Flora Jessop, former members of the FLDS church who consistently sided with authorities when children of the YFZ ranch were removed over charges of child abuse.
Massimo Introvigne in his Defectors, Ordinary Leavetakers and Apostates defines three types of narratives constructed by apostates of new religious movements:
Introvigne argues that apostates professing Type II narratives prevail among exiting members of controversial groups or organizations, while apostates that profess Type III narratives are a vociferous minority.
Ronald Burks, a psychology assistant at the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, in a study comparing Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA) and Neurological Impairment Scale (NIS) scores in 132 former members of cults and cultic relationships, found a positive correlation between intensity of reform environment as measured by the GPA and cognitive impairment as measured by the NIS. Additional findings were a reduced earning potential in view of the education level that corroborates earlier studies of cult critics (Martin 1993; Singer & Ofshe, 1990; West & Martin, 1994) and significant levels of depression and dissociation agreeing with Conway & Siegelman, (1982), Lewis & Bromley, (1987) and Martin, et al. (1992).
Sociologists Bromley and Hadden note a lack of empirical support for claimed consequences of having been a member of a "cult" or "sect", and substantial empirical evidence against it. These include the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs leave, most short of two years; the overwhelming proportion of people who leave do so of their own volition; and that two-thirds (67%) felt "wiser for the experience".
According to F. Derks and psychologist of religion Jan van der Lans, there is no uniform post-cult trauma. While psychological and social problems upon resignation are not uncommon, their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the ex-member, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.
The report of the "Swedish Government's Commission on New Religious Movements" (1998) states that the great majority of members of new religious movements derive positive experiences from their subscription to ideas or doctrines that correspond to their personal needs—and that withdrawal from these movements is usually quite undramatic, as these people leave feeling enriched by a predominantly positive experience. Although the report describes that there are a small number of withdrawals that require support (100 out of 50,000+ people), the report did not recommend that any special resources be established for their rehabilitation, as these cases are very rare.