Apostasy is the act of leaving a religion. It is deconversion. Normally it involves taking up another religion and sometimes it involves the taking up of a stance skeptical of all religions. If deconversion is the result of no longer believing that gods exist, then, the result is atheism. "Heresy" is the holding of beliefs that central religious authorities (or mobs) deem to be unacceptable. Religions often engage in a lot of internal suppression in these matters, subjecting their own followers to careful scrutiny to make sure that they are not merely believers, but, that they believe precisely the correct things. Dominant monotheistic religions often consider heresy to be the same as apostasy because they reject the concept of diversity or freedom of thought. Neil Kressel in his book on religious extremism lists "the willingness to implement violent sanctions against those who leave the fold"" as one of religion's most dangerous attributes (out of three)1. They have often made deconversion and heresy punishable by death, especially in historical Judaism and Christianity, and it still continues in present-day Islam.
Freedom of religion and belief is a basic human right. It features in the "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (1948) as Article 18 and in the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights, Article 10. It is essential that in order to govern well, you cannot discriminate against non-sanctioned religions, even if the majority of the population don't like the beliefs of the minority religions. Anything else is undemocratic. It is only religion and totalitarian states that even have the concept of heresy; in all other disciplines, a variance of belief is seen as good and healthy because it fosters debate, truth-seeking and diversity. The concept of thought crime can have no basis in moral law, so, traditional religions are often in conflict with modernity, human rights, moral goodness, democracy and liberty.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief.”
"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights" (1948) Article 18 and
"Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU", Article 10
The very idea of punishing "heresy" - those who don't believe the right things - used to remind people of the Dark Ages, with the Inquisition torturing and burning heretics and blasphemers, and "Russian tsars would burn alive whole communities of ultra-traditionalist Old Believers"2. Nowadays, it stinks of the repression and oppression of totalitarian regimes where you can be imprisoned for questioning the Party. People may disagree about religion in the West, but rarely does it result in violence, murder or imprisonment. This is because in the West, thought crime does not exist. It was abolished when we realised that our beliefs are coincidental; it is not our own fault what evidence we see in our lives, nor is it really our choice as to which arguments sway us and therefore. Which religion we pick is mostly down to chance.
In order to overcome sectarianism, social conflict, segregation and tribal violence, in the West we have accepted freedom of belief as a basic human right that you cannot deprive someone of. Because religious beliefs are important, it simply cannot be right to deprive someone of the right to choose which religion to declare as their own. To deprive people of this right is the most horrendous type of immoral oppression.
“The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, considers the recanting of a person's religion a human right legally protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: "The Committee observes that the freedom to 'have or to adopt' a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views [...] Article 18.2. bars coercion that would impair the right to have or adopt a religion or belief, including the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers to adhere to their religious beliefs and congregations, to recant their religion or belief or to convert."”
“In the West it is generally taken for granted that people have a perfect, indeed sacred, right to follow their own religious path, and indeed to invite - though never compel - other people to join them. The liberal understanding of religion lays great emphasis on the right to change belief. Earlier this year, a poll found that one in four Americans moves on from the faith of their upbringing.”
What we see in general is that as religions grow in power in an area, and religious conflict arises, the religious clerics see it as increasingly important to defend specific beliefs against questioning. Their careers and status depends upon loyalty to them, so, variant beliefs, deconversion and competing religions must all be resisted to almost any extent. The more that a religion is tied with the state, the worse the level of oppression that can result. So, where a state-sanctioned religion draws tax from adherents as in the case of the Ottomans mentioned above, the social taboo of conversion can be intolerably great. It is clearly for the best if religion and power - religion and politics - are kept completely separate. Such an approach is called secular governance, and is an ideal of democracy.
In the West, it was once the case that Christian authorities could (and often did) punish cruelly those who transgressed from Christian beliefs. The Inquisitions left a long shadow of oppression and intolerance, but, nonetheless, such barbarianism was relegated to history in the developed Christian world. Elsewhere, however, basic human rights are still readily overridden when they come into conflict with religious institutions. It is unfortunate to have to write this, but today, in the 21st century, there are over a dozen countries where it is not safe to change your religion. You can find yourself punished not only with social alienation but sometimes with torture and the death penalty.
|Country||Illegality of Apostasy||Country's Religion|
|Afghanistan||Death penalty3||84% Sunni Islam|
15% Shia Islam5
|Egypt||22 Christians were arrested and tortured for secretly converting from Islam to Christianity in 20036||94% Sunni Islam|
|India||Illegal in provinces such as Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and others, despite Constitution3||80.5% Hindu|
|Iran||Death penalty3||95% Shia Islam|
4% Sunni Islam5
|Kuwait||Although not illegal, a prosecutor in 2003 still tried Hussein Qambar Ali for apostasy5||85% Islam5|
|Malaysia||Illegal in five states (fine, imprisonment, and flogging) according to Wikipedia (2010)3. In 2002, it may have been illegal anywhere: "It is very much against the law for any person to even attempt to convert a Moslem to another faith" according to Métraux (2002)8.||53% Islam|
|Mauritania||Death penalty3, 9||100% Sunni Islam5|
|Nigeria||Death penalty in 12 states3||50% Islam|
|Qatar||Death penalty3||95% Sunni Islam5|
|Saudi Arabia||Death penalty3, 9||85% Sunni Islam|
15% Shia Muslim5
|Somalia||Death penalty3||98% Sunni Islam5|
|Sudan||Death penalty3, 9||70% Sunni Islam5|
|Yemen||Death penalty3||55% Sunni Islam|
42% Shia Muslim5
Islam is the dominant religion in all countries where apostasy is illegal, except one.
“Conversion will never be seen as a purely individual matter when one religiously defined community is at war or armed standoff with another. During Northern Ireland's Troubles a move across the Catholic-Protestant divide could be life-threatening, at least in working-class Belfast.' [...] When a village in, say, Crete or Bosnia converted en masse from Christianity to Islam, this was seen as betrayal by those who stayed Christian, in part because it reduced the population from which the Ottomans expected a given amount of tax.”
Judaism today takes no action in response to apostasy. But its historical starting-point was equal in barbarity to the worst elements of Christianity and Islam. Deuteronomy 13:6-11 is harrowing and worrying in its commands for Jews to put to death those who try to deconvert others:
“[If even your relatives try to convince you to leave Judaism then you must] show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.”
In modern times, Jewish lore on apostasy is codified in the Schulchan Aruch, which is the most widely consulted compilation of Jewish moral law. It is the product of Yosef Karo in 1563 CE11. Although harsh and immoral in its social effects, it at least isn't as murderously bold as the original holy scripture on this topic:
“The Schulchan Aruch, however, dealt harshly with those who left the faith. [...] In effect, if you quit the club, the club throws you out - unceremoniously. You are ostracized when alive and not mourned upon death. But beyond that, there were seldom any violent punishments that ensued. To the extent that the above rules and views are invoked nowadays, it is almost always by the Orthodox.”
The harsh doctrine of the Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures is confirmed by the Christian New Testament in Hebrews 6:4-6. These versus say it is impossible to return to the faith if someone falls away. 2 Peter 2:20-22 says the same thing and notes that because of this, the fate of the apostate is worse than that of the unconverted. The death penalty for losing faith is proscribed in Deuteronomy 13:6-10. But James 5:19-20 contradicts this and says Christians can save people who have been converted away from Christianity.
“The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I instituted the punishment of death for apostasy in the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), directed towards Jews, Samaritans, Manichæans, and other heretics (10 c., "De pag.", I, 11). This legal statute formed the basis of Western European law for several centuries.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostasy_in_Christianity (2010 Jun 26)
The number of Christian groups, including all forms of early Christianity, that were eradicated by other Christians is long. It includes the Gnostic Christians, Ebionites, Arians, Marcionites, Cathars, Albigenses and Waldenses. They are unheard of today, because modern Pauline Christians succeeded in wiping them out. They were often accused of apostasy - the logic of the violent fledgling Church being that if you didn't agree with all the particulars that they believed, then, you were as good as a non-Christian. This confusion between heresy and apostasy (and the complete rejection of diversity) is one of the greatest triggers for intolerance, violence and strife.
Despite this level of intolerance, there are also places in the New Testament that indicate that this approach to apostasy and heresy is wrong - for example, universalists hold that God saves everyone no matter what their beliefs were in life. In general, the Bible affirms tolerance and peace in some of its moral laws, but affirms intolerance, strictness and violence in those verses concerned with theology and the technicalities of belief. It is indeed a conflicted book, which is why it has both been used at length to defend the Inquisition, and also at length to defend pacifist acquiescence.
“The study of other religions is discouraged by the Qur'an in verses (16:106, 88.23f) prescribing punishment for Muslims who give up Islam for another religion [...] This is despite the Qur'anic statement that there is no compulsion in religion (2.256)”
"Islamic Fundamentalism and Modernity" by Montgomery Watt (1989)13
In the context of a discussion of Islam, an 'apostate' is someone who has left Islam for whatever reason. Muslims sometimes converted to Zoroastrianism, Bahá'í, Christianity and Hinduism. However, the punishment for apostasy in Islam is death in the Hadiths (al-Bukhari, Diyat, bab 6), as Muhammad said: "Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him"14. Sahih al-Bukhari 9:83:17 and 9:84:57 both state that apostates can be murdered. Qur'an 3:72 says that for those who reject faith after accepting, their repentance will never be accepted. In other words, apostates (and probably heretics too) can never be saved. Qur'an 4:137 says a similar thing, and finally Qur'an 2:211 says that God itself will severely punish apostates because of their rejection of "God's favour".
Serious Muslims are strongly inclined to spread fear of deconversion to any country and location in which they have the power to do so. Where legal avenues are closed, intense social pressure can be brought on to families and individuals, and aside from threats of ostracisation, escalating risks of violence are experienced by many who admit to doubting that Islam is actually the true religion. "Apostasy" as a concept is often used to mean "not sticking closely enough to the Qur'an". I.e., liberals and moderates are often called apostates, because they are abandoning parts of the Qur'an and/or parts of Islamic fundamentalist culture. Those making such claims are, of course, the fundamentalists themselves. Unfortunately, such people are somewhat dominant in many Muslim places. We hear that the liberal Egyptian writer Faraj Foda was murdered in 1992, in Egypt, being accused of apostasy and blasphemy, for publicly questioning the values of fundamentalist Islam14. One of his murderers says that in cases where the state fails to execute apostates and infidels, then, "any of the citizens is entitled to carry out Allah's punishment"15. Authorities in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia have arrested and tortured people for deconverting, or for teaching non-Islamic religion to others, for example in 2003 October when 22 Christians were tortured for secretly converting from Islam2. In Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and most other Islamic countries, the authorities actively suppress non-Muslims and violence against them is shockingly frequent and nasty. This isn't limited to the Arab states of the Middle East: In Mauritania anyone found converting away from Islam are given 3-days to repent, else they face the death punishment. In Sudan the punishment is imprisonment or death as is the case in some states in Malaysia.9
Fear and terror spreads throughout the world, especially amongst Muslim communities, and does indeed act as an effective curb on deconversions, theological questioning and liberalisation. Even in the USA in 2004, for example, "converts from Islam to Christianity spoke publicly only under assumed names, for fear of becoming the newest victims of the global jihad"16.
This intense fear of deconversion came about like this: Muslims must wage war on non-Muslims but those non-Muslims can convert in order to avoid slaughter. In history, hundreds of thousands have converted to Islam, normally en masse, in the face of Muslim armies. No other religion has spread so much by the threat of armed force. Now, Muslims know that many convert but don't really mean it. The crime of apostasy covers this: If you de-convert, then, you can be killed. Also, jihad can be waged against those who do not completely uphold Islamic ideals. These assure that any suppressed communities living in Muslim lands convert along with their children, and cannot de-convert. It was written in the Qur'an during a time when there were many pretend conversions as a measure against the pretence, but now in the modern world, such verses look like they condone any violence, against any apostate.
It is not the case that in all Islamic communities punishment for apostasy by death is accepted. Some believe death is a suitable punishment only for some apostates, and a few do not believe that us Human Beings should do the punishing at all - it should be left for God in the afterlife. Nonetheless Islam has a serious problem with the acceptance of basic human rights when it comes to freedom of belief.
Most religions started as heresies which eventually split (or were ousted) from their parent religion. Some hold that Christianity started as a Jewish sect (hence the prominence of messiah theology) while other hold it split from pagan mystery religions (hence the Mithraistic and gnostic elements). Bahá'í emerged from Islam, Buddhism from Hinduism; it is hard to name religions that did not emerge from other religions. It is ironic that by suppressing variant beliefs, religions act to deny humanity the very thing that allowed those religions to arise in the first place.
The problem that some traditional religions have had with deconversion and the abuses against basic human rights that result from it, comprises some of the reasons why the developed world in general is becoming increasingly fed-up with religion. For a summary of other areas where religion is clearly the bad-guy, see "Time to Move On: Religion Has Cost Too Much" by Vexen Crabtree (2010). Its menu is:
The Koran. Translation by N. J. Dawood. Penguin Classics edition published by Penguin Group Ltd, London, UK. First published 1956, quotes taken from 1999 edition.
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. [Book Review]
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source.
(1948) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations website has a full copy of this document here: www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml (accessed 2014 May 14).
IHEU. International Humanist and Ethical Union.
(2012) Freedom of Thought. A copy can be found on iheu.org/...Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf, accessed 2013 Oct 28.
(2003) Islam: A brief history. Revised edition. First published in UK 2002 by Dorling Kindersley Publishers Ltd, London, UK.
Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1946) History of Western Philosophy. Quotes from 2000 edition published by Routledge, London, UK.
(2005) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam. Published in the United States by Regnery Publishing, Inc, Washington, DC.
(1989) Islamic Fundamentalism and Modernity. Published by Routledge.
(2002, Ed.) Global Religious Movements in Regional Context. Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd in association with the Open University. This was a religious studies textbook in the AD317 OU course.