What is Apostasy?

Mary McMahon

The act of abandoning one's religious faith is known as apostasy. The term is also used more generally to talk about leaving a cause or political party. As a general rule, someone does not self-identify as an apostate, as the term is considered to be rather pejorative.

The act of abandoning one's faith is referred to as apostasy.
The act of abandoning one's faith is referred to as apostasy.

The word is derived from a Greek term which means “to abandon one's post.” Many religions include a prohibition against apostasy, which is considered to be a serious sin. Someone who abandons God altogether may be termed an atheist as well as an apostate, but someone who converts to another religion is also considered an apostate. In either case, some religious faiths believe that apostates are doomed to eternal torment for abandoning the true faith.

Extreme challenges in a person's life might result in apostasy.
Extreme challenges in a person's life might result in apostasy.

In addition to the presumable punishments of hell suffered by apostates, apostasy has some very real earthly consequences as well. On the more mild end of the scale, children of an apostate may face rejection and difficulty if they attempt to carry on their faith or to marry into their church. On the more severe end of the spectrum, apostasy is considered a capital crime in some countries, especially fundamentalist Islamic nations.

In order to commit apostasy, someone must publicly and formally reject his or her faith. If someone chooses to stop attending religious services, praying, or observing religious practices, he or she may be considered lost, but not necessarily an apostate. An apostate makes a formal renunciation which signals a permanent break with the faith, and this breach cannot be repaired.

In many cases, the term is used pejoratively by people who remain within the faith. People may suggest that someone left the faith because they are weak, or for petty reasons. In most cases, an attempt to make an examples of the apostate's life and choices will be made, so that other members of the faith do not follow suit. This is especially true with cults and extremist sects, which do not want to encourage defection on the part of their members.

Choosing to commit apostasy can be very difficult, even when one is not threatened with death. The choice to publicly separate and potentially later criticize a religion is not taken lightly. Generally, someone must be very faithful to commit apostasy in the first place, since only a profound crisis of faith can lead to such an action. It can also be difficult for someone considering apostasy to find a good spiritual adviser, which can be very alienating.

Apostasy can result from a crisis of faith.
Apostasy can result from a crisis of faith.

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Discussion Comments


I've read parts of the holy books of all three Abrahamic religions. When I think about the stories I read about in these books of people who first believed in God and then rebelled against him, I reach the conclusion that every religion and all groups of people have committed apostasy at one point.

I think that most civilizations have experienced periods of devotion and rebellion to God. Prophets have become the catalysts of change and belief in religion. In my view, apostasy is not particular to a specific religion or group of people. Depending on which way you look at it, it could happen to anyone at any time.

What do you think?


I have also heard apostasy being used to talk about the Catholic Church and Christian doctrine. There is a claim that throughout history some Church leaders intentionally changed the gospel of Jesus to misdirect people. That can be argued, but the act of changing religious doctrine or teaching things that are not mentioned in the Bible is also considered apostasy.

Just as with individual apostasy, that kind of systematic or institutional apostasy, so to speak, would have to be proven as well.


I agree that no one would want to commit apostasy for small petty reasons. I think that often times, members of the religious group might engage in activities that pushes some members away from that religion.

I have read many news articles with this example. In countries where an extremist religious group is dominant, some people might experience a lot of grievances. Instead of blaming and seeing fault in those people, some people feel that there is something inherently wrong with the religion. They might leave religion altogether or might decide to become part of a different religious belief that is more suited to their worldview.

I also think that this happens a lot when religion becomes politicized. I have family members who blame religion when a religious party they dislike wins elections or does something wrong. I tell them to differentiate between members of a religion and the religion itself, but I guess it is hard to do that sometimes and it could lead to apostasy.

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