Apostates and New Religious Movements

Apostates and New Religious Movements
By Professor Bryan R. Wilson

Not every incident of apostasy results in the formulation of a deviant and separate religious party or sect, however. Apostasy may be considered no less to occur when a single erstwhile believer renounces his vows and his former religious allegiance. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at a time of crisis in Christian belief, there were some celebrated cases of apostasy from the Roman Catholic Church.

They were represented as occurring in that church because of the rigour of its requirements of belief and practice; because of its resistance to modernism; and in particular because it encouraged the most devoted of its votaries to join monastic orders or congregations.

Some of the lurid stories of monastic life, purportedly related by apostated monks and nuns — the celebrated case of Maria Monk was widely publicised — turned out to be largely fictional, but were much used by the anti-Catholic propagandist media of the day. In the present age of religious pluralism, in which a spirit of ecumenism prevails among many of the major Christian denominations, and in which the so-called “switching” of allegiance from one of these movements to another is not uncommon, the charge of apostasy is less frequently heard.

But since c. 1960, with the appearance in western society of various new minority movements which have distinctive religious teachings and which require a strong sense of specific commitment, a member who departs is likely to be regarded as apostatizing, and all the more so, of course, if that member then proceeds to ridicule or excoriate his former beliefs and to vilify those who were previously his close associates.