People voluntarily leave religious groups or movements that they formerly supported, agreed with, and promoted. This is nothing new. However, a fairly new phenomenon is when defectors publicly denounce the very group or movement with which they were formerly, and voluntarily, affiliated. These public announcements and denouncements take place through books, blogs, documentaries, facebook pages, and various other media venues. This behavior is so prevalent that it merits its own designation as the “apostasy literature” genre. The platforms used for such purposes are as varied as the religious groups or movements being left and then lambasted.
According to sociologist Bryan R. Wilson (1926-2004) such defectors are “apostates” because they, in part or in whole, relinquish allegiance and cease to subscribe to the teachings, practices, doctrines, organization, and discipline of a particular faith or religion and then ridicule or excoriate their former beliefs and vilify those with whom they were once closely associated (“Apostates and New Religious Movements,” 1994). Dr. Bryan Wilson studied religions, sects, and denominations around the world throughout his career with a particular interest in what he termed New Religious Movements. He detailed how various minority religious groups developed, examined their interplay with society, and tracked either their growth or demise. In so doing, he identified what he saw as universal characteristics of apostates. Although the religious movements from which people separated were dissimilar in doctrine and practice, the manner of departure and subsequent public renunciation demonstrated by these apostates had consistent similarities.
Bryan Wilson noticed that apostasy was a “widespread and common occurrence” as evidenced by the proliferation of religious bodies in Christendom that originated from schism. He observed that those remaining within an organization would view each new schism from their established organization of faith as apostasy. However, he noted that apostasy did not always have to result in the formation of a separate religious group or sect; it could simply be one “erstwhile believer” renouncing his or her “former religious allegiance” (“Apostates and New Religious Movements”).
According to Bryan Wilson’s research, these apostates usually told their stories as though they were victims who were vulnerable to “the manipulation, deception, or coercion exercised by the leaders and members of the movement” with which they were once associated and supportive (“Apostates and New Religious Movements”). Those who left these movements then offered to reveal certain aspects, or maybe secrets, of the movement to which they once belonged. Such revelations resulted in the apostates receiving attention which Wilson believed was unwarranted due to their personal motives, disaffected attitude, and desire for self-justification. In his book The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism, Wilson wrote that the apostate “seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates. Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an ‘atrocity story’ to explain” how and why he joined and remained “within an organization that he now forswears and condemns” (19).
These apostates attempted to establish credibility both for formerly associating with the religious group and later renouncing that same group. Doing so relieved apostates of bearing the responsibility for initially joining the group and presented the departure as a coming-to-their-senses decision. According to Wilson’s findings, apostates are basically saying that “given the situation, it could have happened to anyone” and attempt to portray the group–not themselves–as the one who acts with malice. One of the reasons why apostates shift the blame onto the formerly-affiliated group is to help themselves, as victims, reintegrate with those whom they want to influence against the group (“Apostates and New Religious Movements”).
Bryan Wilson thought that apostates could not be regarded “as a credible or reliable source of evidence” because their personal history predisposed them to bias with respect to previous religious commitments and affiliations. Suspicions arose when apostates acted “from a personal motivation to vindicate” themselves and to regain self-esteem, by portraying themselves as first a victim, and later a “redeemed crusader” (“Apostates and New Religious Movements”). Wilson asserted that the likelihood of enlarging or embellishing grievances against the group, in order to present a sensational story that satisfied others, did not lead to objective statements of truth. The proposed unreliability of these modern-day apostates is similar to the attitude toward apostates in ancient times.
In his book Leaving the Fold, Stephen Wilson (no relation to Bryan Wilson) provides the results of his research into apostasy in ancient times. Stephen Wilson defined an apostate as one who leaves and then turns aggressively against the organization from which he or she departed (3) and he discovered that in ancient times the label “apostate” was assigned to people by the group from which they left (117). The person leaving did not claim the apostate label nor was it a badge to be worn with honor. Calling a person an apostate was a serious charge, was usually made on the basis of actions rather than beliefs, and rendered that person as one who lacked credibility. This is different than what is regularly observed in modern times. Stephen Wilson notes that, unlike ancient times, in modern times “there are examples of individuals who openly claim to be defectors or apostates; indeed, in some cases . . . they make a career out of it” (121). It is this is the type of modern-day apostate that Bryan Wilson referred to as unreliable or without credibility.
Bryan Wilson’s conclusion regarding the unreliability and lack of credibility of apostates in modern times is not that far removed from the way they were perceived in ancient times. Apostates were not to be given a hearing, followed, or endowed with credibility when they turned against their former affiliation and attempted to vindicate themselves while at the same time vilifying the religious group that they left.
Wilson conceded that, as of the 20th century, “the charge of apostasy is less frequently heard” than in previous centuries. He attributed this to the religious pluralism and prevalent spirit of ecumenism among “many of the major Christian denominations” resulting in the common practice of people switching their allegiance from one movement to another.” But, even though the charge of apostasy has formally fallen into disuse, a person who departs from a movement known for its “distinctive religious teachings” and “strong sense of specific commitment” will “likely be regarded as apostatizing” especially if that person “then proceeds to ridicule or excoriate his former beliefs and to vilify those who were previously his close associates” (“Apostates and New Religious Movements”).
Apostasy has not changed with the times. It is the same today as it was in ancient times. However, what has changed is the attitude toward apostates granting them a wide and welcoming audience.