Apostasy is the formal renunciation of one's religion. One who commits apostasy is called an apostate. Many religious faiths consider apostasy to be a serious sin. In some religions, an apostate will be excommunicated or shunned, while in certain Islamic countries today, apostasy is punishable by death. Historically, both Judaism and Christianity harshly punished apostasy as well, while the non-Abrahamic religions tend to deal with apostasy less strictly.
Apostasy is distinguished from heresy in that the latter refers to the corruption of specific religious doctrines but is not a complete abandonment of one's faith. However, heretics are often declared to be apostates by their original religion. In some cases, heresy has been considered a more serious sin or crime than apostasy, while in others the reverse is true.
When used by sociologists, apostasy often refers to both renunciation and public criticism of one's former religion. Sociologists sometimes make a distinction between apostasy and "defection," which does not involve public opposition to one's former religion.
Apostasy, as an act of religious conscience, has acquired a protected legal status in international law by the United Nations, which affirms the right to change one's religion or belief under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
That prophet or that dreamer (who leads you to worship of other gods) shall be put to death, because… he has preached apostasy from The Lord your God… If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or your intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods… do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him… You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the Lord, your God.
However, there are few instances when this harsh attitude seems to have been enforced. Indeed, the constant reminders of the prophets and biblical writers warning against idolatry demonstrate that Deuteronomy's standard was rarely enforced as the "law of the land." Indeed, modern scholars believe that the Book of Deuteronomy did not actually originate in the time of Moses, as is traditionally believed, but in the time of King Josiah of Judah in the late seventh century B.C.E.
There are several examples where strict punishment was indeed given to those who caused the Israelites to violate their faith in Yahweh alone. When the Hebrews were about to enter Canaan, Israelite men were reportedly led to worship the local deity Baal-Peor by Moabite and Midianite women. One of these men was slain together with his Midianite wife by the priest Phinehas (Numbers 25). The Midianite crime was considered so serious that Moses launched a war of extermination against them.
Perhaps the most remembered story of Israelite apostasy is that brought on by Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab. Jezebel herself was not an Israelite, but was originally a princess of the coastal Phoenician city of Tyre, in modern day Lebanon. When Jezebel married Ahab (who ruled c. 874–853 B.C.E.), she persuaded him to introduce Baal worship. The prophets Elijah and Elisha condemned this practice as a sign of being unfaithful to Yahweh.
Elijah ordered 450 prophets of Baal slain after they had lost a famous contest with him on Mount Carmel. Elijah's successor, Elisha, caused the military commander Jehu to be anointed as king of Israel while Ahab's son, Jehoram, was still on the throne. Jehu himself killed Jehoram and then went to Jezebel's palace and ordered her slain as well.
The Bible speaks of other notable defections from the Jewish faith: For example, Isaiah 1:2-4, or Jeremiah 2:19, and Ezekiel 16. Indeed, the Bible is replete with examples of Israelites worshiping other gods than Yahweh and being punished for this by God, though rarely by other Israelites. Israelite kings were often judged guilty of apostasy. Examples include Ahab (I Kings 16:30-33), Ahaziah (I Kings 22:51-53), Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:6,10), Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:1-4), Amon (2 Chronicles 33:21-23), and others. Even as great a king as Solomon is judged guilty of honoring other gods: "On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites" (1 Kings 11:7).
Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes of bread for the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to provoke me to anger (Jeremiah 7:17-18).
According to biblical tradition, the apostasy of the Israelites led to destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722-821 B.C.E., and the exile of the citizens of the southern Kingdom of Judah to Babylon, as well as the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. After the Babylonian Exile, the Deuteronomic code seems to have been taken more seriously, but examples of its enforcement are scanty at best. Periods of apostasy were evident, however. The most well known of these came during the administration of the Seleucid Greek ruler Aniochus IV Epiphanes in the second century C.E., who virtually banned Jewish worship and forced many Jews to worship at pagan altars until the Macabeean revolt established an independent Jewish dynasty.
At the beginning of the Common Era, Judaism faced a new threat of apostasy from the new religion of Christianity. At first, believers in Jesus were treated as a group within Judaism (see Acts 21), but were later considered heretical, and finally—as Christians began proclaiming the end of the Abrahamic covenant, the divinity of Christ, and the doctrine of the Trinity—those Jews who converted to belief in Jesus were treated as apostates.
During the Spanish Inquisition, apostasy took on a new meaning. Forcing Jews to renounce their religion under threat of expulsion or even death complicated the issue of what qualified as "apostasy." Many rabbis considered the behavior of a Jew, rather than his professed public belief, to be the determining factor. Thus, large numbers of Jews became Marranos, publicly acting as Christians, but privately acting as Jews as best they could. On the other hand, some well-known Jews converted to Christianity with enthusiasm and even engaged in public debates encouraging their fellow Jews to apostasize.
A particularly well known case of apostasy was that of Shabbatai Zevi in 1566. Shabbatai was a famous mystic and kabbalist, who was accepted by a large portion of Jews as the Messiah, until he converted (under threat of execution) to Islam. Yet, Shabbatai Zevi retained a few die-hard Jewish followers who accepted his new career as a Muslim Sufi leader—sharing the experience of so many crypto-Jews of that age—and who claimed that he was uniting the mystical essence of Judaism and Islam in his person.
It should also be noted that from the time of early Talmudic sages in the second century C.E., the rabbis took the attitude that Jews could hold to a variety of theological attitudes and still be considered a Jew. (This contrasts with the Christian view that without adhering to the correct belief—called orthodoxy—one was not a true Christian.) In modern times, this attitude was exemplified by Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in the British Mandate for Palestine, who held that even Jewish atheists were not apostate. Kook taught that, in practice, atheists were actually helping true religion to burn away false images of God, thus in the end, serving the purpose of true monotheism.
Sanctions against apostasy in Judaism today include the Orthodox tradition of shunning a person who leaves the faith, in which the parents formally mourn their lost child and treat him or her as dead. Apostates in the State of Israel are forbidden to marry other Jews.
Apostasy in Christianity began early in its history. Saint Paul started out his career attempting to influence Christians to apostasize from the new faith (Acts 8) and revert to orthodox Judaism. Later, when Christianity separated itself from Judaism, Jewish Christians who kept the Mosaic Law were considered either heretics or apostates.
In Christian tradition, apostates were to be shunned by other members of the church. Titus 3:10 indicates that an apostate or heretic needs to be "rejected after the first and second admonition." Hebrews 6:4-6 affirms the impossibility of those who have fallen away "to be brought back to repentance."
Many of the early martyrs died for their faith rather than apostasizing, but others gave in to the persecutors and offered sacrifice to the Roman gods. It is difficult to know how many quietly returned to pagan beliefs or to Judaism during the first centuries of Christian history.
With the conversion of Emperor Constantine I and the later establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the situation changed dramatically. Rather than being punished by the state if one refused to apostasize, a person would be sanctioned for apostasy, which became a civil offense punishable by law. This changed briefly under the administration of Emperor Julianus II (331-363 C.E.)—known to history as Julian the Apostate for his policy of divorcing the Roman state from its recent union with the Christian Church.
For more than a millennium after Julian's death, Christian states used the power of the sword to protect the Church against apostasy and heresy. Apostates were deprived of their civil as well as their religious rights. Torture was freely employed to extract confessions and to encourage recantations. Apostates and schismatics were not only excommunicated from the Church but persecuted by the state.
Apostasy on a grand scale took place several times. The “Great Schism” between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism in the eighth century resulted in mutual excommunication. The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century further divided Christian against Christian. Sectarian groups often claimed to have recovered the authentic faith and practice of the New Testament Church, thereby relegating rival versions of Christianity to the status of apostasy.
After decades of warfare in Europe, Christian tradition gradually came to accept the principle of tolerance and religious freedom. Today, no major Christian denomination calls for legal sanctions against those who apostasize, although some denominations do excommunicate those who turn to other faiths, and some groups still practice shunning.
Islam imposes harsh legal penalties for apostasy to this day. The Qur'an itself has many passages that are critical of apostasy, but is silent on the proper punishment. In the Hadith, on the other hand, the death penalty is explicit.
Today, apostasy is punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Mauritania, and the Comoros. In Qatar, apostasy is a also capital offense, but no executions have been reported for it. Most other Muslim states punish apostasy by both whipping and imprisonment.
A few examples of passages in the Qur'an relevant to apostasy:
The Hadith, the body of traditions related to the life of the prophet Muhammad, mandates the death penalty for apostasy:
Some Muslim scholars argue that such traditions are not binding and can be updated to be brought into line with modern human rights standards. However, the majority still hold that if a Muslim consciously and without coercion declares his rejection of Islam, and does not change his mind, then the penalty for male apostates is death and for women is life imprisonment.
Oriental religions normally do not sanction apostasy to the degree that Judaism and Christianity did in the past and Islam still does today. However, people do apostasize from Eastern faiths. Evangelical Christian converts from Hinduism, for example, often testify to the depravity of the former lives as devotees of idolatry and polytheism. Converts from Buddhism likewise speak of the benefits of being liberated from the worship of "idols." Sikh communities have reported a rising problem of apostasy among their young people in recent years.
Apostates from traditional faiths sometimes face serious sanctions if they marry members of an opposing faith. Hindu women in India who marry Muslim men, for example, sometimes face ostracism or worse from their clans. Sikhs who convert to Hinduism do so at the risk of not being welcome in their communities of origin. In authoritarian Buddhist countries, such as today's Burma, conversion to a religion other than Buddhism likewise has serious social consequences.
As with Christianity and Islam in their early days, New Religious Movements (NRMs) have faced the problem of apostasy among their converts due to pressure from family, society, and members simply turning against their newfound faith.
In the 1980s, numbers of members of NRM members apostasized under the pressure of deprogramming, in which they were kidnapped by agents of their family and forcibly confined in order to influence them to leave the group. (Deprogramming was criminalized in the United States and is no longer common. The practice reportedly continues in Japan.) Part of the "rehabilitation" process in deprogramming involved requiring a person to publicly criticize his or her former religion—a true act of apostasy. Subjects of deprogramming sometimes faked apostasy in order to escape from forcible confinement and return to their groups. In other cases, the apostasy was genuine, spurred by pressure from the member's family.
The decline of deprogramming coincided with sociological data that many members of NRMs defect on their own, belying the deprogrammers' contention that members were psychologically trapped and that leaving was nearly impossible without the intense effort that their services provided. Most of these defectors do not become apostates in the public sense. They may exhibit a range of attitudes towards their former involvement, including: Appreciation—but it was time to move on; a sense of failure that they could not live up to the group's standards; resentment against the leadership for hypocrisy and abuse of their authority; or a choice to engage in worldly activity that violated the group's membership code.
Apostates of NRMs make a number of allegations against their former group and its leaders. This list includes: Unkept promises, sexual abuse by the leader, irrational and contradictory teachings, deception, financial exploitation, demonizing of the outside world, abuse of power, hypocrisy of the leadership, unnecessary secrecy, discouragement of critical thinking, brainwashing, mind control, pedophilia, and a leadership that does not admit any mistakes. While some of these allegations are based in fact, others are exaggerations and outright falsehoods. Similar allegations have been made made by apostates of traditional religions.
The roles that apostates play in opposition to NRMs is a subject of considerable study among sociologists of religion. Some see the NRMs as modern laboratories replicating the conditions of early Christianity, or any of the major religions in their formative years. One noted study proposes that stories of apostates are likely to paint a caricature of the group, shaped by the apostate's current role rather than his objective experience in the group. Sociologist Lewis A. Coser holds an apostate to be not just a person who experienced a dramatic change in conviction but one who, "is spiritually living… in the struggle against the old faith and for the sake of its negation." David Bromley defined the apostate role and distinguished it from the defector and whistleblower roles. Stuart A. Wright 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."
Although the term "apostate" carries negative connotations, in today's age of religious freedom, the right to change one's religious conviction and leave the faith one was born into or chose is considered fundamental. The United Nations, in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, strongly affirmed the right of a person to change his religion:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, alone or in community with others, and, in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
The UN Commission on Human Rights clarified that the recanting of a person's religion is 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.
Apostasy has, thus, come full circle. Once considered a crime against God worthy of the death penalty, in today's world, to renounce one's religion is a basic human right. In some nations, such as the United States, this right is affirmed to be endowed to each of person by none other than God Himself.
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