Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Defection is the process of abandoning, deserting, or becoming disentangled from a valued relationship. Apostasy usually refers to defection from both (1) belief and (2) group identification and participation, although it is possible cognitively to doubt a group's beliefs without abandoning participation, and also to drop group participation while still holding to the group's beliefs. In a pure sense, apostasy and defection imply leaving groups that are normative or imply ties of loyalty, even indelibility—such as religious, patriotic-military, or ideological. Modern American society, however, has so reduced the social stigma applied to noninvolvement in organized religion that it is mainly family-parent example that is left to promote religiosity in children.

Hirschman holds that, ideally, the hallmark of ideological groups is that those who leave tend to be stigmatized, branded, or labeled as defectors upon leaving (e.g., this was the case at one time for those leaving the ordained ministry, priesthood, or convent). Some who disagree with group policy will stifle themselves and remain; others who disagree will openly "voice" their opposition; still others, when voicing fails, will "exit" the group. It should be noted that "switching" denominational church membership in pluralistic societies today is quite common and accepted, but changing group affiliation (e.g., at marriage to the faith with stronger restrictions) does not necessarily connote change in belief. Research has shown that church attenders and nonattenders do not differ that much in belief.

In the modern world, the most important force for doubt is participation in broadened higher education and the personal mobility that results. The rise of modern philosophy and science (including behavioral science) has put dogmatic faiths on the defensive and raised the level of doubt. It is quite common for young people reared in ultraconservative religious traditions to undergo doubt from approximately ages 18 to 30. Rebellion against and taking a "leave of absence" from formal religion during this period is quite common, and there are few "costs" and stigmas for doing so—unless the attack on religion is public and overt (which it seldom is). The nonpractice of youth is frequently followed by a "return to faith" during the years of parenthood. Evidence shows that church nonattenders can include both the socially successful as well as the sidetracked. Even "irreligious traditionalists" generally are older, not countercultural, generally conservative in outlook, and seldom overtly vent antagonism to persons of faith.

Few (7%) in the United States admit to having "no religion." True apostates are rare, but their number may be increasing. True "converts" are also rare, and they should not be confused with those who switch. Research shows that Roman Catholics find it more difficult to switch groups than do Protestants. True apostates and switchers express more doubts than those who "stay," but those who have doubted and switched tend to become stronger believers in their newly adopted denominations. Those who have undergone some doubt but later find cognitive peace tend to be happier, more satisfied, and more confident in the long run versus true apostates, who are the opposite. The strongest force for ensuring conventional belief is the example of parents and the absence of parent-child conflict. Because of the decline of stigma, many so-called religious nones can become religious "returnees."

Ross P. Scherer


M. B. Brinkerhoff and M. M. Mackie, "Casting Off the Bonds of Organized Religion," Review of Religious Research 34(1993):235-257

H. R. F. Ebaugh, Becoming an Ex (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)

C. K. Hadaway, "Identifying American Apostates," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(1989):201-215

A. O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, Loyalty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970)

J. B. Tamney et al., "Innovation Theory and Religious Nones," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(1989):216-229.

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