Disengagement from religion

Religious disaffiliation (see also apostasy) means leaving a faith, or a religious group or community. It is in many respects the reverse of religious conversion. Several other terms are used for this process, though each of these terms may have slightly different meanings and connotations.

Bromley (1998) describes a problem with the terminology used to describe the process of religious disaffiliation. He asserts that affiliation with a religious group is referred to as conversion, and describes the continuing debate over the referent for this term, as he sees no parallel term for dissafiliation. Researchers have employed a variety of terms to describe it, including:[1]

This is in contrast to excommunication, which is disaffiliation from a religious organization imposed punitively on a member, rather than willfully undertaken by the member.


Peter Berger (1998) describes that there are conflicting views about secularism. One, that secularism means disengagement from religion as such, and the other which regards secularism as the equal tolerance and/or encouragement of all religions.[4]

Coerced and voluntary disaffiliation

In most cases, disaffilation is voluntary, but in some cases it is coerced.[5] One form of coerced disaffiliation is expulsion (including excommunication) by the religious group. Deprogramming may involve kidnapping,[5] though deprogramming sometimes fails (i.e., the deprogrammed member may go back to the religious group).

Stages of religious disaffiliation

Brinkerhoff and Burke (1980) argue that "religious disaffiliation is a gradual, cumulative social process in which negative labeling may act as a 'catalyst' accelerating the journey of apostasy while giving it form and direction."[6] They also argue that the process of religious disaffiliation includes the member stopping believing but continuing to participate in rituals, and that the element of doubt underlies many of the theoretical assumptions dealing with apostasy.[7]

In her article about ex-nuns, Ebaugh (1988) describes four stages characteristic of role exit:[8][9]

  1. first doubts
  2. seeking and weighing role alternatives
  3. a turning point
  4. establishing an ex-role identity.

In the two samples studied by Ebaugh the vast majority of the ex-nuns remained Catholics.[10]

The Episcopal Church is forcing disaffiliation on some congregations in recient property settlements.

Factors affecting psychological and social aspects

According to Meredith McGuire (2002), in a book about the social context in religion, if the religious affiliation was a big part of a leaver's social life and identity, then leaving can be a wrenching experience, and the way in which one leaves a religious group is another factor that may aggravate problems. McGuire writes that if the response of the group is hostile, or follows an attempt by that person to change the group from "the inside" before leaving, then the process of leaving will be fraught with considerable emotional and social tensions.[5]

Marc Galanter, in a study of 237 members of the Unification Church, found that they had had a significantly higher degree of neurotic distress before conversion when compared to a control group, disproving that symptoms of psychopathology have been caused by cult involvement, 30% of these had sought professional help for emotional problems before conversion. Galanter further notes that the process of joining, being a member, and leaving a new religious group is best described not as a matter of personal pathology but of social adaptation. For example, experiences that in a secular setting might be considered pathological may be considered normal within some religious settings. While psychological categories were created to discuss dysfunctional behavior by an individual, the behavior of group members must be seen in light of group norms, meaning that what may be considered disturbed behavior in a secular setting may be perfectly functional and normal within a group context. Galanter's analysis had the effect of reducing the significance of the abnormal behavior reported among ex-members. He also suggested an alternative means of understanding otherwise inexplicable behavior in members and ex-members without considering them as suffering from psychopathology.[11]

The Handbook of Religion and Health describes a survey by Feigelman (1992), who examined happiness in Americans who have given up religion, in which it was found that there was little relationship between religious disaffiliation and unhappiness.[12] A survey by Kosmin & Lachman (1993), also cited in this handbook, indicates that people with no religious affiliation appear to be at greater risk for depressive symptoms than those affiliated with a religion.[13]

Although some of the above studies indicate a positive correlation between religious belief and happiness, in any event it is a separate task to distinguish between alternative causal explanations including the following:

  • that religious belief itself in fact promotes satisfaction and that non-belief does not promote satisfaction and/or promotes dissatisfaction;
  • that satisfaction and dissatisfaction contribute to religious belief and disbelief, respectively, i.e., that satisfied persons are more inclined to endorse the existence of a traditionally defined deity (whose attributes include omnibenevolence) than are dissatisfied persons, who may perceive their unhappiness as evidence that no deity exists (as in atheism) or that whatever deity exists is less than omnibenevolent (as in deism or maltheism);
  • that although religious belief does not itself promote satisfaction, satisfaction is influenced by a third factor that correlates significantly with religious belief, e.g., a) divine providence as bestowed by a deity who shows favor to believers and/or disfavor to nonbelievers or b) sociopolitical ostracism of self-declared nonbelievers and/or fear of such ostracism by "closeted" nonbelievers; and
  • that the process of religious disaffiliation involves traumatic stress whose effects limit, to either a subclinical or a clinical extent, a person's later ability to be happy even in the absence of actual or feared ostracism.

See also


Further reading

  • Oakes, Len Dr. Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, 1997, Syracuse University press ISBN 0-8156-0398-3
  • Wright, Stuart A. Leaving Cults: The Dynamics of Defection, published by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: Monograph Series nr. 7 1987 ISBN 0-932566-06-5

External links

  • entry by Ross P. Scherer in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society edited by William H. Swatos, Jr.
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