Apostasy is generally not a self-definition: very few former believers call themselves apostates and they generally consider this term to be a pejorative. Many religious movements consider it a vice (sin), a corruption of the virtue of piety in the sense that when piety fails, apostasy is the result.
Many religious groups and even some states punish apostates. Apostates may be shunned by the members of their former religious group or worse. This may be the official policy of the religious group or may happen spontaneously, due in some sense to psycho-social factors as well. The Catholic Church may in certain circumstances respond to apostasy by excommunicating the apostate, while the traditional holy writings of both Judaism (Deuteronomy 13:6-10) and Islam (al-Bukhari, Diyat, bab 6) demand the death penalty for apostates.
Unlike apostasy, heresy is the rejection or corruption of certain doctrines, not the complete abandonment of ones religion. Heretics claim to still be following a religion (or to be the "true followers"), whereas apostates reject it entirely.
The term is also used to refer to renunciation of belief in a cause other than religion to which one has voluntarily professed any form of allegiance, particularly in politics and fans of sports teams. Conversely, some atheists and agnostics use the term "deconversion" to describe loss of faith in a religion.
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 claimsmaking activities to attack his or her former group.
The New Testament does not mention any punishment for apostasy, however there are references in the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. Some of them are:
These laws are not binding to Christians though, due to early Church interpretations of Old Testament Law and Grace.
Catharism was a name given to a radical Christian religious sect with dualistic and gnostic elements that appeared in the Languedoc region of France in the 11th century and flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Catholic Church regarded the sect as dangerously heretical and in 1208 AD, the Pope unleashed a crusade known as the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. In the ensuing 20-year military campaign, thousands of apostates were executed including 7000 residents of a town called Beziers, who were locked and burnt in a church. According to historians, a horrified onlooker rushed to the papal gates and reminded the crusaders that the some Christians were still trapped in the church together with the Cathars. The officer overseeing the massacre then made a remark that has resounded through the centuries: “Kill them all. God will know his own”
According to most scholars, if a Muslim consciously and without coercion declares their rejection of Islam and does not change their mind after the time given to him/her by a judge for research, then the penalty for male apostates is death, and for women, life imprisonment. However, this view has been rejected by a small minority of modern Muslim scholars (eg Hasan al-Turabi), who argues that the hadith in question should be taken to apply only to political betrayal of the Muslim community, rather than to apostasy in general. These scholars regard apostasy as a serious crime, but argue for the freedom to convert to and from Islam without legal penalty, and consider the aforementioned Hadith quote as insufficient justification for capital punishment. Today apostasy is punishable by death in the countries of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Mauritania and the Comoros. In Qatar apostasy is a capital offense, but no executions have been reported for it.
The hadith, has been used both by supporters of the death penalty as well as critics of Islam. Some Islamic scholars point out it is important to understand the hadith in proper historical context. The order was at a time when the nascent Muslim community in Medina was fighting for its very life, and there were many schemes, by which the enemies of Islam would try to entice rebellion and discord within the community. Clearly any defection would have serious consequences for the Muslims, and the hadith may well be about treason, rather than just apostasy. It must also be pointed out that under the terms of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, any Muslim who returned to Mecca was not to be returned, terms which the Prophet accepted. Despite this historical point, Islamic law as currently practiced does not allow the freedom for the individual to choose ones religion.
The Qur'an says:
Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, a Pakistani Islamic scholar, writes that punishment for apostasy was part of Divine punishment for only those who denied the truth even after clarification in its ultimate form by Muhammad (he uses term Itmam al-hujjah), hence, he considers this command for a particular time and no longer punishable.
In 2006, Abdul Rahman, the Afghan convert from Islam to Christianity has attracted worldwide attention about where Islam stood on religious freedom. Prosecutors asked for the death penalty for him. However, under heavy pressure from foreign governments, the Afghan government claimed he was mentally unfit to stand trial and released him.
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:
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)
Paul of Tarsus was accused of apostasy by the council of James and the elders, for teaching apostasy from the law given by Moses (Acts 21:17-26). Scholars consider this the reason by which some early Christians, such as the Ebionites, repudiated Paul for being an apostate.
During the Spanish inquisition, a systematic conversion of Jews to Christianity took place, some of which under threats and force. 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 1300s include Juan de Valladolid and Astruc Remoch.
However, the issue of what qualifies as "apostasy" in Judaism can be complicated, since in many modern movements in Judaism, rabbis have generally considered the behavior of a Jew to be the determining factor in whether or not one is considered an adherent or an apostate of Judaism.
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.
However, recent legal changes in India (a predominantly Hindu country) limiting the ability of citizens in certain Indian States to convert religion from Hinduism based solely on personal belief also suggest that apostasy does enjoy widespread social disfavour. India's "dalits" in particular have often been found to convert from Hinduism to Buddhism or Christianity, and have faced social and at times legal repercussions.
Some scholars use the term post-cult trauma to describe the emotional and social problems that some members of cults and new religious movements experience after leaving the group, while other scholars assert that such traumas are either only applicable in rare cases or are more likely caused by deprogramming or pre-existing psychological problems, not by voluntary leavetaking.
Some notable apostates are part of the secular opposition to cults and new religious movements or the Christian countercult movement. Some apostates of new religious movements make public stands against their former religion to warn the public of what they see as its dangers and harm. Several of those apostates maintain websites on their former groups with unflattering perspectives, testimonials and information which, they say, is not disclosed by those groups to the public. Critics like Basava Premanand complain about ad hominem attacks on them by their former organizations or by apologists of their former faith, and claim that their goal is to provide information that enables current and prospective members to make an informed choice about joining or staying with a religious movement. Some of the groups being criticized, such as Adidam in turn, claim being the target of religious intolerance, hate and ill-will by these critics.
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 new found role as whistleblowers. Armand L. Mauss, define true apostates as those exiters that have access to oppositional organizations which sponsor their careers as such, and which 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.
Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, argues that academic supporters of New religious movements are engaged in a rhetoric of advocacy, apologetics, and propaganda, and writes that in the cases of cult catastrophes such as Peoples Temple, or Heaven's Gate, accounts by hostile outsiders and detractors have been closer to reality than other accounts, and that in that context statements by ex-members turned out to be more accurate than those of offered by apologists and NRM researchers.
Bromley and Shupe, while discussing the role of anecdotal atrocity stories by apostates, propose that these are likely to paint a caricature of the group, shaped by the apostate's current role rather than his experience in the group, and question their motives and rationale. Lewis Carter and David G. Bromley claim that the onus of pathology experienced by former members of new religions movements should be shifted from these groups to the coercive activities of the anti-cult movement.
Dr. Phillip Charles Lucas interviewed ex-members of the Holy order of MANS and compared them with stayers and outside observers, and came to the conclusion that their testimonies are as (un-)reliable as those of the stayers.
Jean Duhaime, a professor of religious studies and science of religion at the Université de Montréal writes, based upon his analysis of three memoirs by apostates of NRMs (by Dubreuil, Huguenin, Lavallée, see bibliography), that he is more balanced than some researchers, referring to Wilson, and that apostate testimonies cannot be dismissed, only because they are not objective, though he admits that they write atrocity stories in the definition by Bromley and Shupe. He asserts that the reasons why they tell their stories are, among others, to warn others to be careful in religious matters and to put order in their own lives.
Mark Dunlop, a former member of FWBO, argues that ex-members of cultic groups face great obstacles in exposing abuses committed by these groups, stating that ex-members "have great difficulty in disproving ad hominem arguments, such as that they have a personal axe to grind, that they are trying to find a scapegoat to excuse their own failure or deficiency [...] Cults have a vested interest in challenging the personal credibility of their critics, and may cultivate academic researchers who attack the credibility and motives of ex-members." Dunlop further expands on the specific difficulties faced by ex-members in proving harms done to them: "If an ex-member claims that they were subjected to brainwashing or mind-control techniques, not only is this again unprovable, but in the mind of the general public, it is tantamount to admitting that they are a gullible and easily led person whose opinions, consequently, can't be worth much. If an ex-member suffers from any mental disorientation or evident psychiatric symptoms, this is likely to further diminish their credibility as a reliable informant." He concludes with "In general, the public credibility of critical ex-cultists seems to be somewhere in between that of Estate Agents and flying saucer abductees." In the article's summary, Dunlop argues that given that the apostates' testimony is ineffective due to lack of public credibility, and that other forms of criticism are also ineffectual for various reasons, cults are virtually immune from outside criticism making it very difficult to expose cults.
Daniel Carson Johnson, in his Apostates Who Never Were: The Social Construction of Absque Facto Apostate Narratives, refers to the stories told by apostates, to be stories of captive involvement in the past with the targeted religious group, and stories of rescue and redemption in the present. He asserts that these narratives is what confirms the apostate role, and that the stories are not recitations of real-world experiences and happenings but are social constructed and shaped along the lines dictated by an established literary form called "apostate narrative". He advises social scientists studying the subject to consider the possibility that substantial portions, and perhaps entire accounts have nothing to do with real world happenings or experiences.
Dr. Lonnie D. Kliever (1932 - 2004), Professor of Religious Studies of the Southern Methodist University, in his paper The Reliability of Apostate Testimony about New Religious Movements that he wrote upon request for Scientology, claims that the overwhelming majority of people who disengage from non-conforming religions harbor no lasting ill-will toward their past religious associations and activities, but that there is a much smaller number of apostates who are deeply invested and engaged in discrediting, and performing actions designed to destroy the religious communities that once claimed their loyalties. He asserts that these dedicated opponents present a distorted view of the new religions and cannot be regarded as reliable informants by responsible journalists, scholars, or jurists. He claims that the lack of reliability of apostates is due to the traumatic nature of religious disaffiliation, that he compares to a divorce, but also due to the influence of the anti-cult movement, even on those apostates who were not deprogrammed or did not receive exit counseling.
Michael Langone argues that some will accept uncritically the positive reports of current members without calling such reports, for example, "benevolence tales" or "personal growth tales". He asserts that only the critical reports of ex-members are called "tales", which he considers to be a term that clearly implies falsehood or fiction. He states that it wasn't until 1996 that a researcher conducted a study (Zablocki, 1996) to assess the extent to which so called "atrocity tales" might be based on fact.
Gordon Melton, while testifying as an expert witness in a lawsuit, said that when investigating groups one should not rely solely upon the unverified testimony of ex-members, and that hostile ex-members would invariably shade the truth and blow out of proportion minor incidents, turning them into major incidents. Melton also follows the argumentation of Lewis Carter and David Bromley (above) and claims that as a result of this study, the [psychological] treatment (coerced or voluntary) of former members largely ceased, and that a (perceived) lack of widespread need for psychological help by former members of new religions would in itself be the strongest evidence refuting early sweeping condemnations of new religions as causes of psychological trauma.
Bryan R. Wilson, who was a professor of Sociology at Oxford University, writes that apostates of new religious movements are generally in need of self-justification, and seek to reconstruct their past and to excuse their former affiliations, while blaming those who were formerly their closest associates. Wilson utilizes the term atrocity story, [a story] that is in his view rehearsed by the apostate to explain how, by manipulation, coercion or deceit, he was recruited to a group that he now condemns. Wilson also challenges the reliability of the apostate's testimony by saying that "the apostate [is] always seen as one whose personal history predisposes him to bias with respect to his previous religious commitment and affiliations, [so] the suspicion must arise that he acts from a personal motivation, to vindicate himself and to regain his self-esteem, by showing himself to have been first a victim, but subsequently a redeemed crusader."
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 utilizes a "captivity narrative" that emphasizes manipulation, entrapment and becoming a victim of "sinister cult practices". These narratives provide a rationale for a "hostage-rescue" motif in which cults are likened to POW camps, and deprogramming is seen as a heroic hostage rescue effort. 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.
Benjamin Zablocki, when analyzing leaver responses, found the testimonies of former members as least as reliable as statements from the groups themselves.
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.
The term "apostasy" is also used by several death and black metal bands to assert the fact that they are removed from, and against, religion.