Apostasy: An Atheist Perspective 

The topic of this lecture is apostasy and its definition by various religions. We shall scrutinize as well the religious reaction to being abandoned.  But I shall also a glance at the word’s secular meaning, and how it is used by contemporary sociologists. The talk will discuss the concept of apostasy in the present day and in contemporary and historical Christianity. I shall be reading from the Church Fathers’ works that discuss apostasy, including some that advocate death for the offense.

The lecture will also look at apostasy in contemporary Islam, how it is defined and how it is punished. All of the countries in the contemporary world which have the death penalty in place for apostasy are Muslim majority nations.  I shall be discussing passages from the Koran and other Islamic writings that impart injunctions to kill people who leave Islam, as well as opinions from the major Islamic Schools that justify the death penalty for apostates.

I would like to begin this talk with the religious definition of apostasy.  It is the formal disaffiliation from, or abandonment of, or denunciation of a religion by a member.  Such a former member is officially considered an apostate.  Sociologists use the term, apostate, in a non-critical, non-pejorative manner when they describe a person who renounces their former religion.

The word is also used to describe someone who leaves a secular group or cause, such as a political party.  The term most often employed in a secular sense, however, is defector.  I should add that the designation, apostate, is rarely used as a self-identifying term, because of its negative connotations.

As with heresy, the term, apostasy, in early Christian usage, had highly negative connotations. “In early Christian sources,” according to Stephen G. Wilson, apostasia, the Greek word, and apostate are applied with sufficient regularity to examples of defection that we might think of them as well on their way to becoming technical terms.” One may be labeled an apostate if he or she has had a prior affiliation with a religion or a group and abandons it.  But in the present day, the term generally encompasses more than criticism, dissent or disagreement with the former religion’s or group’s beliefs, practices or organization.  Rather, it is a serious act of rebellion and a leave-taking of the former group, including public criticism of it.

The word itself, apostasy, comes from the Greek term, apostasis, and was used to describe a rebellion against a ruler or former ally in a political or military conflict.  I have given lectures on both heresy and blasphemy previously in this series, and they may be found at AtheistScholar.org, both the written lectures and the links to the talks on YouTube. Although those condemned to death by the Christian religion were labeled as heretics and apostates in an interchangeable way, the two terms are very different, as we shall see.

I shall be using the term, apostate, in this lecture, to describe those people who consider themselves, or are considered by others, to have abandoned the main beliefs and practices of their religious communities, and in some cases, turned vehemently against that religion and its beliefs.  An argument can be made that apostates often leave their religion because of their desire to assimilate with the larger cultural community, as many of those who defect tend to assimilate with the larger culture.  However, this is not always the case.  J. G. Barclay argues that “there are no absolute meanings of apostasy to suit all situations and that it is not an objective state. Apostates are defined less by what they are and do and more by how they are perceived.  It is essentially a social process.”

Before I go into the Christian theological development of the concept of apostasy, I would like to glance at some descriptions by contemporary sociologists.  Some of the best and most thorough studies are those of David G. Bromley, a prominent sociologist, whose articles and 1988 volume, Falling From the Faith, are very illuminating.  There have been many more works concerned with affiliations with, and conversions to, religion, which make credible studies of apostasy and defection very scarce and all the more appreciated.  Bromley’s are at the top of this category of works that scrutinize disaffiliation.

In the lead essay to his book, which consists of a series of articles by leading sociologists, Bromley tries to clarify the labels and categories that are used to describe the phenomenon of apostasy in the modern world.  He describes three types of organizations, which we are to understand as ideal types.  The actual organizations he studies approximate, or attempt to approximate, the ideal types to varying degrees. I am gratefully dependent on Bromley for the following distinctions. Allegiant organizations are those that have a high degree of social legitimacy (e.g. mainstream churches and medical organizations,) and that have sufficient standing to be allowed to resolve disputes internally. Contestant organizations are those (such as profit-making economic organizations) which have a high degree of acceptance, but are also subject to challenge and restraint, especially from regulatory agencies. The last category is that of Subversive organizations, (e.g. alternative religious movements, radical political groups,) and those are least in tune with mainstream society, by which they are considered threatening or illegitimate.  They are afforded almost no organizational legitimacy and are subject to coercion and control by those who think they subvert the social order. These ideal types of organizations are defined primarily in terms of their degree of tension with society at large, according to Bromley.

Some good examples of allegiant organizations with a high degree of legitimacy would be the Catholic Church, at least until its recent scandals, and the American Medical Association. Economic organizations might be General Foods, Facebook or Google.  All such organizations are subject to challenge and constraint from regulatory agencies.  Subversive organizations considered threatening or illegitimate by the mainstream would be groups such as the American Nazi Party or the former Black Panthers.

 A good example of a religion moving from being viewed as possibly subversive to fairly mainstream status in American society would be the Church of Scientology.  It is still viewed with suspicion in various quarters here in the United States, and is very much disliked in Germany and some other countries.  Another good example of secular organizations moving into the mainstream, if slowly, might be the Center for Inquiry, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Atheists. All of these freethinking groups have arguably moved closer to mainstream acceptance and status, not being considered subversive by most educated people.

Bromley then uses the three ideal organization types just listed to locate three different categories of those members who abandon the organizations, whom he calls exiters or leave-takers.  Defectors, he maintains, are those who leave allegiant organizations whose authorities control the exit process and facilitate role transition.  He uses priests and nuns who leave their Catholic orders as an example.  Then there is the second category, the whistleblowers who appeal to external authorities in their attempt to challenge and expose the corruption of organizational practices, and who may not initially have any intention of leaving the organization itself.

The third category, apostate, is restricted to those who exit a movement in a highly polarized situation, declaring a total change of loyalty without the control or consent of the organization and typically allying itself with its opponents. Bromley uses the example of members who leave cults or new religious movements, called NRMs. He is quite specific concerning the third category of leave-taker, stating: “Apostate refers to not ordinary religious leave-takers (the general referent) but to that of its subset of leave-takers who are involved in contested exits and who affiliate with an oppositional coalition.” Note that Bromley is here making use of the sociological terminology for apostates rather than its theological use, which is most often used for those people who renounce their faith and leave their religion.

The category of whistleblower has little relevance to our study, even though it is an interesting one, because we are looking at religion in this lecture, which has little regulatory state control in the United States.  Additonally, ancient literature does not provide us with any true picture of a whistleblower.  But as Wilson states, it is easy to describe the difference between a defector and the stronger term, apostate.  A defector may be defined as someone who leaves his or her organization quietly, without much fuss.  Such people often begin attending less frequently, prevaricate even while becoming more disillusioned and may not want a public break because they have some affection for the old organization. They might also be people the organization is quietly pleased to see leave, sometimes because their lack of true allegiance is sensed or realized.  Sometimes they have been expressing, politely, doubts concerning the beliefs or practices of the organization to other members and so on, raising questions about their loyalty.

An apostate may be defined as a person whose leave-taking of his or her religion is a public event.  The desertion is often radical, and frequently involves public hostility on both sides.  The defector leaves with a whimper. An apostate leaves with a bang.  The apostate may even become more public with his or her disillusion or disgust with the original religion or organization. He or she may expose what they consider crimes, mistakes in practices or beliefs, and other wrongdoing they have observed or believe the religion or its practitioners have been guilty of. A good example might be some of the recent volumes written by apostates from the Church of Scientology.

Such apostates have very publicly, both in their writings and/or interviews, exposed what they believe are substantial offenses committed by the hierarchy of their former church.  The Church of Scientology has often publicly denied such accusations, sometimes explaining that the apostate has personal reasons for his or her hostility.  The Church maintains that all the allegations made against it by former members are completely untrue.  The vitriolic statements from Scientology’s hierarchy and from its apostates are excellent examples of a case of present day apostasy.

The Church of Scientology is well known for turning to the law for protection against reckless allegations, so the apostates generally attempt to frame their accusations in a way that does not open them to legal proceedings.  Deserting from the Church of Scientology is also a good example of the relative ease, despite the very profound psychological pain suffered by those who not only leave their faith, but expose its faults in a very public manner, with which most people in the present day exit their religion.

I would like to discuss the psychological pain experienced by apostates from a religion in the present day.  The suffering may be understood by hearing or reading the narratives of former Jehovah’s Witnesses. This religion discourages its followers from associating socially with those who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, even if they are family members.  Jehovah’s Witnesses that leave the religion, often because they disagree with its teachings and practices, are psychologically penalized.  This religion has a process called “disfellowshipping,” of former members, which is a practice of shunning the leave-taker.  The organization labels the deserter an apostate and he or she is shunned by those who continue in the Church.  Apostates are not supposed to be spoken with, associated with, or allowed into the homes of church members, even if they are part of the biological family of members. The Watchtower Society describes apostates as “mentally diseased.”

Stan Albrecht and his colleagues have conducted a most interesting study of contemporary Mormons who leave their faith, along with their reasons for doing so.  I think it is of interest to glance at the results of the study because it discovered that the faith issue was only one among many categories people chose to explain why they had disaffiliated with their former religion.  Some of them did not become apostates.  They merely ceased to attend. Some said when they grew up and began making their own decisions, they left the church.  Others gave reasons such as divorce, new interests, new life styles, a demanding work schedule, a move that took them too far from attending church services, marrying someone who was not a Mormon, and so on. Others explained they had difficulty with former members, or had problems with the doctrines and teachings of the church.

 Some complained the church demanded too much of their time and money, that specific  leaders of their wards or branches were giving them problems, or that the lessons and talks presented by the church were too simplistic and unchallenging. There were also former members who felt the church was no longer helping them find meaning in life.  One discovers from such studies that leaving one’s religion, while emotionally painful for many, does not, in most of the modern world, carry an inordinate degree of penalty.  We shall see, however, that in Muslim majority countries, leaving Islam can result in fines, whipping, imprisonment and even death.

In most contemporary nations, leaving the fold no longer carries the threat of torture, jail or death. Nevertheless, atheists have frequently reported the psychological pain suffered when they have left their former religions. Losing friends and family members have been some of the most consequential burdens of disaffiliation. This portion of my lecture is focusing on religious communities and the people who abandon them because studies concerning atheists who depart their churches are scarce.  But there is essentially a quite similar process of leave-taking undergone by those people who convert from one religion to another, exit their former church, and atheists who abandon religion altogether.  The atheist community lacks well conducted studies in many areas, which is slowly being remedied. For a list of such topics, please see Atheist Sociologies at AtheistScholar.org.

I would like to discuss some more examples of contemporary religious apostates. Helen Erbaugh has conducted an interesting study of former nuns who left their orders.  I am citing this study because, as I have said, I think the reasons given by these former nuns for disaffiliation and the steps leading to it are very similar to the processes lay apostates undergo when leaving their religions, either for different ones or because they have become atheists. However, I do need to say at the outset that the nuns in this survey did not leave their religion or lose their faith.

But it is fascinating to read about the psychological processes they went through prior to their exit.  The nuns first reported doubts, and initial questioning. In many cases, the nuns had gone away to school and had begun to come in contact with alternative faiths and ways of life.  At that stage they sought out colleagues with whom to discuss their difficulties. The initial process involved reality testing by sounding out significant others and being helped by them to weigh the rewards of staying.

The nuns began seeking out and evaluating alternative roles during the second part of the leave-taking process. This process involved many steps, but rewards and penalties were reviewed once again. Once the nuns began either imagining alternative lifestyles or undertaking real alternatives, their wish to exit became accelerated.

Then came the turning point- the point in the exiting process when the person made a firm and definitive decision to exit. The person also engaged in what the study calls “some type of external expression or indication that a decision had been made, such as a public announcement.”  An announcement had the function of making the decision final and irrevocable. Those turning points, both the public announcement and the mobilization of resources and energies needed to exit, helped reduce the exiting nuns’ cognitive dissonance.

Although I am citing a study of nuns’ leave-taking of their orders, it is well known that many of the same processes are gone through by lay apostates. Many atheists will remember their own exits from their former religions and recall undergoing similar difficulties and resolutions. An excellent book by the sociology professor, Phil Zuckerman, called Faith No More, 2012, is about atheists leaving their various churches. Chapter 10 is titled “Why People Reject Religion.” The previously discussed Bromley volume, Falling From the Faith, is also a must for atheists who are interested in the reasons for and processes of present day apostasy in the West.

Before I turn to apostasy in historical Christianity, I would like to cite a definitive source for four distinct images in Scripture concerning the concept.  I am quoting from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, which is a standard reference work. All four images have a connotation of defecting from the faith.  The four images are Rebellion, Turning Away, Falling Away, and Adultery. Here is the Dictionary on Rebellion. “Apostasy is also pictured as the heart turning away from god (Jeremiah 17: 5-6) and righteousness (Ezekiel 3:20). The Septuagint always uses it to portray a rebellion against god.” (Joshua 22:22, 2 Chronicles 29:19.) Here is Turning Away. “The image of turning away from the Lord, who is the rightful leader, and instead following behind false gods is the dominant image for apostasy in the Old Testament.”Falling Away. “The image of falling, with the sense of going to eternal destruction, is particularly evident in the New Testament, …in Christ’s parable of the wise and foolish builders, in which the house built on sand falls with a crash in the midst of a storm (Matthew 7:24-27), he painted a highly memorable image of the dangers of falling spiritually. Adultery. This is one of the most common images for apostasy in the Old Testament. It is generally used as turning away from the true god, Yahweh, to “lust after their idols.” (Ezekiel 6:19.)

Another authoritative source is Michael Fink’s “Apostasy” in the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, on page 87. Here is Fink’s theological opinion: “Apostasy is certainly a biblical concept, but the implications of the teachings have been hotly debated. Based on the concept of god’s sovereign grace, some hold that, although true believers may stray, they will 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.” One can see the seriousness of the issue of apostasy in the eyes of the Christian faith, even in the present day, in the secular Western world. Christians may not put apostates to death any longer, but they once did, as we shall see.

Stephen G. Wilson confirms Fink’s understanding of apostasy, and states that it dates as far back as early Christianity.  In the New Testament, the evidence for the concept of apostasy or defection is slight.  It is much more prevalent in the Old Testament, and as a result, there have been some recent studies that discuss the issue of defectors from Judaism with quite a bit of sophistication.  But as can be seen from Michael Fink’s opinion, the interest in early Christian apostasy was a theological issue, especially with regard to the destiny of the apostate’s soul. The same is true in the present day, with theologians debating whether apostates have earned eternal damnation in what they believe will be the next world.  We shall see a difference when we discuss how apostasy was treated in the medieval Church, which often punished apostates with torture and death. Apostasy and its punishment was not a theoretical issue, but a heinous reality during the Inquisition.

According to some historians, there is so little discussion about apostasy in the New Testament because many of those documents were taken up with the organization of the nascent Christian community, which differed from congregation to congregation and from city to city. There was, contrary to what the later Church would have liked people to believe, very little collective sense of what defined the Christian religion universally during the Church’s earliest period. Such looseness of agreed upon doctrines and precepts made defection from them difficult to specify.  Much of the invective of each furious writer against apostasy was aimed at attacking members with different views.  Naturally those differing members saw their views as perfectly legitimate and replied with equal vitriol and accusation.

Christianity’s true founder, Paul, began formulating the first concepts and accusations of apostasy, just as he initiated so many doctrines for the nascent Church. He admonished the Galatians (Gal. 4: 8-10) that after having known god, they were turning back to the weak, beggarly elemental spirits.  Whether the Galatians had returned to Judaic practices they had earlier rejected or to pagan gods, is not known for sure.  Paul’s admonishments can be somewhat hysterical, but his intellect was superb, as well as his sense of organization.  If you will remember from earlier lectures, it was he who put the early Church on the path to survival.

 However, early Christians did not receive much specific guidance from scripture about behavior that qualified as falling away from the Church. Here is an important quote from John 15.6: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered, and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” This particular verse was too often used as a justification for putting apostates, heretics and blasphemers to death in the medieval Church.  John’s is one of the strongest verses against apostasy, although the New Testament is filled with warnings against falling from the true faith.  But most of them are vague concerning the concept of desertion and do not suggest what sort of punishments apostates might deserve.

2 Peter is similar to Paul’s warning to the Galatians, but Peter, too, is somewhat vague.  The passage states: “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and become overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first state.” Christians were also exhorted by some of the Church Fathers to avoid following or association with a schismatic person.  The 1st Century Bishop, Ignatius of Antioch, warned believers about such people: “Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father.”

B.J. Oropeza places most of the warning passages concerning apostasy in the New Testament into three distinct categories.  Those three dangers could lead a Christian to the danger or sin of apostasy.  They were Temptations, Deceptions and Persecutions. Temptations were the urges Christians had to reengage in various vices they had indulged in prior to converting to Christianity, such as idolatry, sexual immorality, covetousness and so on.

  Deceptions were situations in which Christians encountered various heresies and false teachings that were being spread by so-called false teachers and prophets. Those deceptions threatened to seduce the faithful away from their devotion to Christ. The last category was Persecution.  Christians were sometimes persecuted for their belief in Christ and membership in Christianity.  Some faced certain death if they did not recant.  If they persisted in their faith, they could face death from wild and hungry animals in the Roman arena, be sent to the mines to work, be tortured or sent into exile.

However, Candida Moss’s 2013 book, which I shall be discussing in a future lecture, titled The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, debunks the romantic version of the persecution of Christians.  Edward Gibbon, in The History of Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, published from 1776-1789, made the same claim that the persecutions had been exaggerated, as had other scholars.  It is quite obvious that most of tales of persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire were embellished, made up, altered, rewritten, and sometimes stolen from other popular tales of the time.

What is true, if exaggerated, was that in 250 CE, The Roman Emperor, Decius, issued an edict ordering everyone in the Empire to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and to ensure the wellbeing of the emperor. This act, which included burning incense before the statue of the Emperor, had to be done in front of a magistrate and one had to receive a written ticket testifying to the fact.  Jews were exempt as they were perceived to be an old, established religion.  Christians were not specifically targeted, however, despite their allegations.  But they were considered suspect, as the Romans saw Christianity as a new, superstitious religion.

Pliny, the Younger, a Roman magistrate, executed some Christians as early as 116 CE, and in his letter to the emperor Trajan, called Christianity a superstition, a term which the Romans used to describe all alien beliefs. Rather than be executed, some of the Christians claimed they were not members of the Church. Please see Christianity’s War on Reason at AtheistScholar.org, for more on the situation Pliny described to Trajan, as well as more discussion on the fiction of Christian persecution.

I have gone into both issues, the Pliny episode and the persecution initiated by the emperor Decius in 250 CE, because of the effect the events, particularly the Decian persecution, had on the Christian community.  Large numbers of Christians had gone into hiding, but people who tried to evade the law by hiding often risked having their property confiscated. Many others had fled rather than face torture and death. A significant number of members remained and openly abandoned the Church. The Christians who had recanted and performed the pagan sacrifice were viewed with hostility by other faithful Church members.  The recanters were seen as apostates.

It was generally a policy of most of the Christian churches of that era to allow lapsed Christians back into the fold, particularly those who were forced apostates.  The controversy over this policy was bitter and traumatic, because there were many members who did not want leniency extended to apostates.  The North Africa Church fought Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo and one of the Church’s most important theologians, over this issue after the Diocletian persecution of Christians in 303-305 CE.  The North African members were called Donatists and were Berber Christians.  Eventually the mainstream position prevailed, but the Donatists remained until the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th Centuries.

I have discussed the issue of early Christian apostasy, even though it was often forced apostasy, to highlight the leniency the early Church extended to backsliders.  Even voluntary, as well as forced apostates, were generally allowed to return. The early Church placed emphasis on the suffering and damnation an apostate would bring on himself or herself by the abandonment of Christ. It was the medieval Church that began to burn people for apostasy and heresy during its Inquisition. The term heresy was not interchangeable with apostasy, even though the later Church frequently grouped them together.  Heretics might reject a belief or set of beliefs proclaimed doctrine by Church theologians and councils, but still regard themselves Christians. Apostates parted from the Christian church absolutely.

As I have said, the contemporary Church continues to cling to the theological notion that apostates bring damnation on themselves. Here is the well-regarded Mc Knight on the issue. His contemporary opinion is very similar to the opinions of theologians from the earliest centuries of the Church. He argues: “…apostasy ought not to be used as a continual threat, so much as an occasional warning of the disasters Christian may bring on themselves, if they do not examine themselves. As a warning, apostasy may function as a moral injunction.”

B.J. Oropeza, a well-regarded biblical scholar, concurs that apostates in the early church were thought of as bringing damnation on themselves in the next world. He has studied the significance of an influential work of the time. The Shepherd of Hermas is a Christian work of the 1st or 2nd Century, which is valuable for the study of early Christianity.  It was important to the theologians in the 3rd and 4th Centuries and was once included in an early New Testament.  It consists of five verses, 12 mandates and 10 parables. As with so many works of the time, it was allegorical in nature.  We do not have the Greek original, only a Roman translation.

 Here is Oropeza on the book: “If the warning against vices and the call to repentance marks a facet of apostasy in patristic writings of the late 1st and early 2nd Centuries, the Shepherd of Hermas epitomizes this aspect. In that book, those who have sinned previously and committed apostasy are beckoned to return… Contrary to the Book of Hebrews, which seems to teach that baptized Christians are not given a second chance after they fall away, (Heb. 6: 4-6; 10 26-31) the Shepherd of Hermas affirms that apostates may be forgiven while a gap of time remains before the final judgment. A refusal to respond to this offer will result in a final condemnation.”

But he thinks that Hermas contains a hint of punishment for apostasy in the physical world, depending on how a phrase about burning is interpreted. One cannot be sure if its threat is literal or metaphorical.  Hermas describes a metaphysical tower under construction which is the Church, where numerous stones (believers) are gathered for the building.  Among the rejected are those who are not genuine Christians; they received their faith in hypocrisy.  Others do not remain in the truth, and others who go astray are finally “burned in life.” The allegory of the tower seems to contain a foreshadowing of the medieval Church’s justification of its savage persecution, torture and burnings of apostates and heretics.

Early Church notions about the eternal damnation of the souls of apostates reached their culmination in the 13th Century. Thomas Aquinas, (1225-1274) the great Church theologian, held that “one who has been justified by Grace, stands continually in need of the grace of god, since the justified can turn away and be finally lost.” Aquinas maintained that heretics should be given the death penalty if they could not be redeemed by the Church.  He went on to state: “About heretics, there are two things to say: their sins deserve banishment not only from the Church by excommunication, but also from the world with death.” It is important to keep in mind that the medieval Church often used the terms, heresy and apostasy, interchangeably when it condemned people to death. Aquinas provided a major justification for the practice.

Please see my previous lectures on Blasphemy, Heresy, and The Inquisition because each of them adequately and graphically demonstrates the illogic, the nonsense, the savagery, and wickedness of the Christian Church during the Inquisition, which lasted over 700 years and after. The Church killed, persecuted, burned and destroyed, not merely individuals, of whom there were an unconscionable number, but also pillaged entire areas believed to harbor heretics, apostates and blasphemers.  Since, for a while, the Church Triumphant was the historical victor, it was able to rewrite history, making itself the persecuted victim, rather than the villain it was in reality.  I have detailed its crimes in the three lectures mentioned.

This monstrous institution is now like a large machine, a threshing machine, whose parts are rusty and whose blades are skimpy.  It has been irrevocably damaged by secularism, modernity, democratic government and economic success, especially in the West. The machine can no longer sweep people up and murder them for dissent or leave-taking.  It can barely excommunicate any more. But make no mistake. It waits for the moment, as one historian has noted, when the occasion for extraordinary mischief arises.  If we allow that time to come, the Church machine will renew itself and begin its killing spree once again.

We have been discussing Christianity and its response to apostasy in the early, medieval and present-day church.  I am now going to turn to a tragic contemporary practice in many nations- the death penalty for apostasy. When Muhammad (570-632 CE) founded the Muslim religion, he apparently integrated into it an earlier custom of the nomadic tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia. I am going to glance at the concept of apostasy in Islam and the death penalty prescribed for the offense by all the major Islamic schools.  This ancient practice continues in the present day.

I am gratefully dependent on Ibn Warraq’s 2003 volume, Leaving Islam, which contains narratives from contemporary apostates about their desertion of Islam. Warraq has written a long chapter at the beginning of the book which is devoted to the concept of apostasy in the major schools of Islam, as well as the penalties for leaving the Muslim religion. Those penalties are frequently fines, imprisonment or death in many Muslim majority nations.  Ibn Warraq is the nom de plume of the author, taken from the name of the great 9th Century skeptic who was a critic of Islam. Ibn Warraq is an atheist and a strong critic of Islam. 

I would like to say, at the outset of this section of the lecture, that there is a minority group of Islamic theologians who dispute the idea that the Koran prescribes the death penalty for apostasy.  Their work and thought are readily available on the Web.  However, the majority opinion of most Muslim scholars is that the death penalty for apostates from Islam is advocated by the Koran and/or the Hadiths. 

Hadiths are the religious traditions that report the deeds and sayings of Mohammed.  They are not considered as the primary source of religious authority as they were compiled from hearsay long after the death of Mohammed. They are a source for Islamic history and have a large influence on the commentaries on the Koran. They have been the basis for much of Islamic law, even though they contain many contradictions which theologians strive to interpret and reconcile.

So with these caveats and disclosures, I shall begin the lecture’s glance at apostasy and Islam.  Please keep in mind that each religion I am discussing, Christianity and Islam, claims to be the exclusive bearer and custodian of god’s complete and final revelation to mankind and that each of them denies there can be any salvation outside its monolithic system of beliefs.  Judaism also believed that apostasy from its precepts doomed the deserter eternally and some scriptural passages advocated stoning for the apostate. But there is no penalty in the present day for those members who wish to leave the Jewish religion.  Neither Buddhism nor Hinduism believes in the concept of exclusive control of the truth; therefore neither religion entertains a concept of apostasy.

According to my sources, the Arabic word for apostate is ‘murtadd,’ “the one who turns back from Islam,” and the act of apostasy is denoted by the words ‘irtidad’ and ‘ridda’. Apparently ridda is used for becoming an unbeliever in Islam and irtidad for leaving Islam to join another religion. A child born of Muslim parents who leaves Islam is considered a natural apostate, or innate, inborn apostate.  A person who has converted to Islam and subsequently deserts it, is described as a religious community apostate.  Both are negative designations. A born Muslim who deserts is seen as unnatural, someone who is attempting to subvert the natural order. He or she is believed to have committed a wicked, obstinate act of treason against god, the only true religion and the community. A Muslim convert who abandons Islam is seen as a traitor to the religious community and just as disruptive as the natural apostate.

Let us keep in mind, as I go over some of the acts considered apostasy in Islam, that not all Muslim theologians agree on all aspects of the law. But I am reporting on a fairly general consensus by a majority of Muslim theologians.  Here is Ibn Warraq’s enumeration of some of the acts that are generally conceived as apostasy.  Any verbal denial of any principle of Muslim beliefs is usually considered apostasy.  For example, stating that the universe has always existed or that god is material is considered apostasy.  Apostasy is also charged if one denies the unity of god or claims a belief in reincarnation. It is also possible to commit apostasy by acts, such as treating a copy of the Koran disrespectfully, burning it or soiling it.  A Muslim is considered an apostate if he or she defames the Prophet Mohammed’s morals, character or virtue, expresses denial of Mohammed’s prophethood or that he was the seal of the prophets. Some theologians of Islamic law also claim apostasy entails practicing magic, entering a church or worshipping an idol.

As I have mentioned, it is very clear that the punishment for apostasy in Islam is death. Among classical and modern scholars of Islam, the majority do not dispute this doctrine.  But there is disagreement on whether the Koran itself is prescriptive of punishment in this world, rather than the next.  Some modern scholars point to some suras which might indicate that the punishment for apostasy will take place in what they believe is the next world. Suras are the 114 chapters of the Koran that are divided into verses.

But here is Sura II. 217.  One of the founders of the four orthodox Sunni Schools of law believed that this sura prescribed the death penalty for apostates.  Sura II, 217 reads: “… But whoever of you recants and becomes an unbeliever, his words shall come to nothing in this world and the next, and they are companions of the fire forever.” Other experts concur.  Apostates should be killed. From medieval times, several Sunni schools maintained that apostasy should earn the death penalty.

Most ancient and modern experts also interpret Sura IV, 89, as evidence that the death penalty is necessary for apostasy.  Sura IV reads: “They would have you disbelieve as they themselves have disbelieved so that you may be all be all alike.  Do not befriend them until they have fled their homes for the cause of god. If they desert, you should seize them and put them to death wherever you find them…” This sura is interpreted by a major scholar as “Whosoever turns back from his belief, openly or secretly, take him and kill him wheresoever you find him, like any other infidel. Do not accept intercession in his regard.” Other prominent scholars elaborate and concur on such an interpretation of Sura IV.

Let us now look into the Hadiths, because it is in them that we find many traditions which demand the death penalty for apostasy.  According to one expert, the Prophet said: “Kill him who changes his religion,” or the Prophet said: Behead him.”  According to Ibn Warraq, the only real disputes concerning putting apostates to death have been as to the nature of the death penalty and whether apostates can be forgiven.  Apparently it is more than likely incorrect to burn apostates because burning is the privilege of Allah in the next world.  So many Muslim scholars believe that apostates are best killed by the sword. As to the second point of dispute, whether apostates can be forgiven, various traditions report forgiveness. But other traditions reject this interpretation, saying god does not accept repentance for apostates.

The following section is from Ibn Warraq’s inventory of present day Islamic laws against apostasy. He states: “Under Muslim law, the male apostate must be put to death, as long as he is an adult and in full possession of his faculties. If an underage boy apostasizes, he is imprisoned until he comes of age; if he persists in rejecting Islam, he must be put to death.  Drunkards and the mentally disturbed are not held responsible for their apostasy.  If a person has acted under compulsion, he is not considered apostate; his wife is not divorced and his lands are not forfeited.  According to some Muslim schools, the penalty for a female apostate is somewhat different.  The woman is imprisoned until she repents and adopts Islam once more. But according to other influential schools, she, too, is put to death.  As we have mentioned, execution for apostasy should be by the sword. However there are examples of apostates being tortured to death, strangled, burned, drawn, impaled or flayed. In the 7th Century, the Caliph Umar had apostates tied to posts and lances thrust into their hearts, and the later Sultan Baybars (1308-1309) made torture legal.

The question of conversion is also an area of dispute, particularly whether an attempt should be made to convert an apostate.  Some jurists maintain the natural born Muslim apostate should be immediately put to death.  But others believe there should be three attempts at conversion.  The apostate is to be placed in a room or a prison for three days, with three attempts at conversion.  Still others think that one should go 5 cycles of prayer, and ask the apostate to perform the prayers at each cycle. If he refuses to perform prayers at every cycle, then these jurists say he should be sentenced to death. They believe that if he repents and turns again to Islam, he should be released.

All four major schools of Islamic Jurisprudence are in agreement with the ruling that grants the apostate a stipulated period (usually a couple of days) to recant and revert to Islam or face the death penalty. As I have mentioned, there are variations among the schools, such as if a female should be executed or how long the waiting period should be, but there is general agreement on the death penalty.  For many centuries, the punishment for apostasy from Islam has been death. A few recent apologists among the about 3% of the world’s Muslims living in more developed regions have challenged this idea.

However, a Pew Study released in 2010 found that in the present day, and I quote: “The majority of Muslims would favor changing current laws in their countries “to allow stoning as the punishment for adultery, hand amputation for theft, and death for those who convert from Islam as their religion.” In Pakistan, for example, that same poll found that 70% of all Pakistanis agree apostates are to be killed. Only 13% of Muslims opposed killing apostates in that same poll. A Policy Exchange survey in 2003 suggests that over a third of young British Muslim youth favored the death penalty for apostates.

Now how are we to understand statements from some quarters that Muslims who embrace such views are extremists who have misunderstood the teachings of Islam? How can it be argued that Muslims who believe in stoning for adultery and the death penalty for apostates are in the minority?  Some Western scholars maintain that Muslims who desire violence are in fringe groups.  No, they are not, not necessarily. Many of them are mainstream Muslims.  The ruling to put apostates to death is accepted by the Shiite Sect, and the four Sunni schools. These two groups compose almost all the world’s Muslim population.

Ibn Warraq’s volume, Leaving Islam, quotes two modern opinions by official Muslim groups about the death penalty for apostates. The first, a Sunni opinion, is from the Deputy to the Mufti of the Republic of Lebanon, around 2000. A Lebanese family living in Germany wrote to the office of the Mufti requesting official information about the death penalty for apostates.  It was a long reply, but here is the official stance, in short quotations. “Should the apostate persist in his/her apostasy, he should be given the opportunity to repent prior to being put to death, out of respect for his Islam… if the man or woman has continued to persist in their apostasy, after three days, the law says they should be put to death. “An apostate may not be buried in the cemetery of Muslims, since by his apostasy, he has departed from them.” The reply cites another authority who believes a woman should not die, but “be imprisoned until she renounces her apostasy.”

The following Shiite opinion on apostasy was printed in an ultra-conservative Tehran newspaper in 1986. “In Islam, apostasy is a flagrant sin and guilt for which certain punishments have been specified in Islamic Law.” The piece is very long and mentions death for male apostates several times; it also cites an authority which states that if a voluntary (convert to Islam) apostate repents, he will be relieved of the death penalty.  So will an innate, or born Muslim, be saved from the death penalty if he will repent from his apostasy. Women are not to be executed for apostasy but imprisoned.  The article goes on to affirm that the Koran states there is no compulsion in religion (II.256.)

I would like to cite some statistics taken from the Pew Forum and other reliable sources.  As of 2011, 20 countries around the world carried the death penalty for the crime of apostasy, leaving one’s faith to convert to another religion or becoming an atheist. All 20 of the nations were Islamic majority countries and 11 of them were in the Middle East. There is no country in the Americas or in Europe forbidding apostasy and not allowing the right to convert.  People are free to change religions in these areas or to become atheists. All over the world, no countries with majorities of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, agnostic or atheist populations have any criminal or civil laws forbidding or encouraging apostasy or abrogating an individual’s rights to convert from one religion to another or to renounce religion altogether.

Here are some countries where apostasy is punishable with death by law: Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Qatar, Yemen and Mauritania.  Additionally, apostasy is illegal in many other Muslim majority nations, earning the apostate various punishments, such as imprisonment, flogging, torture, and/or fines. Some of those nations are Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Morocco.  Many countries have not had executions for apostasy in recent years, however, as they increasingly feel the pressure and censure from the rest of the world.

We have glanced at the concept of apostasy in early, medieval and recent Christianity and in related religions, such as the Mormon Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as present day Islam. It has become obvious as we have progressed that it is religions that believe that they have the monopoly on the true interpretations of god’s intentions, nature and will that have elaborate concepts of apostasy.  Such religions also have the notion that they are the exclusive arbiters of morals. It is belief systems that embrace monolithic views of truth that do not tolerate defection, either by members converting to another religion or becoming atheists.

Before my closing remarks, I would like to quote some international statements on human rights.  “The United Nations Commission on Human Rights considers the recanting of a person’s religion a human right protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” Article 18.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“The Committee observes that the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or a 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 or physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to religious beliefs or congregations, to recant their religion or belief, or to convert.”  CC 21/Rev. 1/Add 4, General Comment No. 22, 1993.

Let us keep in mind that religions that do not have beliefs about their exclusivity with regard to truth, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, do not entertain the concept of apostasy. The secular community has no wish to violate religious freedom.  But it is vital that we freethinkers protest the various attempts of monolithic religions to stop people from leaving religion or changing religions.  Atheists and other deserters from Christian congregations and related religions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, have often suffered great psychological pressure and pain when they decide to leave their faith. Family and friends sometimes disown them, shun them and tell them they are committing great sin and wickedness. Unless such leave-takers have been gradually joining the greater cultural society and slowly assimilating to it, they undergo significant social isolation.

In the Mideast, the peril of leaving Islam is very great. Death or its threat, flogging, fines, imprisonment, and confiscation of property are very real hazards associated with apostasy.  The punishments are part of the religious jurisprudence system and have a chilling effect on the freedom to choose.

Many of us in the secular community in the United States have often been outraged and disgusted by the religious sector’s claims that it is embattled, that freethinkers are trying to restrict their religious freedom and are conducting a war on religion.  Please see Atheism and the Law at AtheistScholar.org. for a review of the long and conflicted history of religion’s attempt to trample on freethinkers’ legal rights in the United States. They range from not accepting death bed statements from atheists, to not allowing them to serve in state governments. We freethinkers have been forced to go to court countless times to receive rights guaranteed to us by our Constitution.  We shall be going to law many times more, trying to make future generations of freethinkers secure from coercion in our country.

The number of people who state that they are not affiliated with any religion has risen to about 20% of the United States population. There is strength in numbers.  We should make every effort to unite and present a strong, well-funded and aggressive voting block to our nation’s politicians.  When we can accomplish this goal, and we must accomplish it, we shall be in a position to make our demands for equal representation heard and heeded.

Video of Lecture: Apostasy: An Atheist Perspective

Lecture: Apostasy: An Atheist Perspective

Video of Discussion: Apostasy: An Atheist Perspective

Discussion: Apostasy: An Atheist Perspective


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__________. C PRC 21/Rev. 1/Add 4, General Comment 22, 1993.

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