Apostates and New Religious Movements

Apostates and New Religious Movements
by Professor Bryan R. Wilson

Professor Bryan Ronald Wilson is the reader Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Oxford. For more than 40 years, Professor Wilson has conducted studies of Scientology, Christianity and many other beliefs. He is one of the most well-known British scholars of religion and provides here a thought provoking study on the subject of apostates and apostasy.


Every religion which makes claim to a definitive body of doctrine and practice which it regards as exclusively its own, is likely to be faced with the fact that from time to time some erstwhile members will relinquish their allegiance and cease to subscribe to the formalities of the faith, in at least some, perhaps all, of its teachings, practices, organization, and discipline. Apostasy has been a common phenomenon in the history of the various denominations of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim tradition.

Each new schism from an already established organization of faith has been likely to be seen, by those from whom the schismatics have separated, as a case of apostasy. There have been dramatic instances on a large scale, as in the so-called “great schism” of the eastern (Orthodox) and western (Catholic) churches, and in the emergence of Protestantism at the Reformation. (It needs to be added, if only for the record, that the dissentient and departing parties have generally no less often accused those remaining in the earlier established body of apostasy from some earlier putative standard of faith and practice.)

Given the number of religious bodies in Christiandom which originated in schism, it must be clear that apostasy has been of widespread and common occurrence.