Conversation Guide #4: Apostasy, A Social Identity Perspective – by Jack Barentsen

Apostasy is a counter-cultural concept for many western Christians. Freedom of speech and thorough-going individualism underpin a climate of pluralism and multiculturalism. Tolerance of nearly any moral or religious position has become politically correct, rendering the very concept of apostasy suspect. On the other hand, apostasy is an important concept in Islam, along with the death penalty, religious liberty, and political power.

Apostasy may be described theologically as a state of having lost one’s faith or one’s identification with a particular religious tradition. Though meaningful within some religious communities, this description presents difficulties for a public, multi-religious debate. Apostasy may also be described through social scientific analysis which facilitates interreligious conversation about identity, boundaries, deviance and transgression. This chapter offers a perspective from social identity theory, which describes the complexity of social identity, intergroup relationships, boundary negotiation, and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. Social scientific language complements theological language in the study of apostasy.

What is a Social Identity?

A social identity is a ‘sense of us,’ which is informed by the perception of similarities and differences with other group members as compared with outsiders. This is not an objective assessment, but a matter of perception, perspective and, thus, rhetoric. Social identities have three main dimensions: cognitive (knowledge and content that defines group identity), affective (emotions attached to group identity), and evaluative (the social value of group membership for the individual). Social identities are motivated by a sense of self-esteem, security, efficacy, or distinctiveness.

Group identity develops around a sense of how some members represent and embody the group more than others (‘prototypicality’). Stereotypes portray outgroups as significantly different, marginalization refers to the perception that some ingroup members do not fit very well, while deviance is the perception that some differ so much from the group prototype that they are experienced as endangering group identity. Hence, social identities are always comparative.

Individuals maintain a number of different social identities simultaneously, for instance, cultural, ethnic and religious identities, but also work, family or neighborhood identities. Social identification involves ongoing group and personal identity negotiations to prioritize some social identities depending on the time and context. How individuals handle their multiple social identities is strongly influenced by people’s experiences in a pluralistic, highly diverse social society, and by the level of identity or distinctiveness threat they experience.

Apostasy as transgression of identity boundaries

Although religious identity is often secondary, influencing various religious groups and organizations, faith communities are primarily religious in function and identity, while their social, psychological and economic dimensions are secondary. Hence, religious identity is often the primary religious identity in churches or mosques.

Apostasy involves losing or being denied one’s religious identity, usually losing a particular Muslim or Christian community, or the associated network (e.g., Roman Catholicism or Shiite Islam). Even though contemporary trends of cultural tolerance and interreligious dialogue suggest that concerns about apostasy are less prevalent today, many Christian and Muslim communities continue to hold exclusive beliefs, assuming or requiring identification with specific beliefs and practices at the risk of being considered apostate. Apostasy then implies disidentification with a particular faith community and its faith tradition.

Apostasy is thus not only a theological qualification of an individual leaving the faith, but also a social qualification of an individual crossing or transgressing the identity boundary of a religious community. Social identity theory explains the complexity: it is not just disagreeing with some religious beliefs (the cognitive dimension of socio-religious identity). Some individuals manage to stay within their faith community even when they differ in some core beliefs, because they still identify with the emotional and value dimensions of the community. These dimensions together inform the process of apostasy as transgression of the socio-religious identity of the community.

Dynamics of in/exclusion

How is it that individuals come to be and/or feel included in a community of faith, or alternatively, be/feel excluded? Theologically, apostasy as a transgression of religious identity is marked by certain sacred texts of exclusion (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:2-7), while other texts include ethnic and socioeconomic differences within the community (Deut. 16:13-15, 18-20). In a Jewish context, only transgression of specific covenant obligations may lead to exclusion, because the covenant shapes Israelite identity, while ethnic or economic differences are explicitly included in Israelite identity. This fits a largely agrarian, collective context (as in ancient Israel) where religious, ethnic and social identities overlapped significantly, so that only the gravest of differences, those relating to the covenant, should be marked as apostasy and reason for exclusion.

Modern life is highly differentiated. People move in many different social networks that hardly overlap, with religious identity not integrated but compartmentalized. Thus, most people have meaningful relationships with others, apart from their religious identity. To be excluded or exclude oneself from a religious group does not necessarily breach relationships in other spheres of life, which may well continue without interruption even in the case of religious identity switch/apostasy.

The concept of apostasy functions quite differently in these contexts: although the theological definition might continue unchanged, its social relevance and impact varies greatly. In individualized societies, apostasy becomes a matter of religious preference, with few sanctions in the case of identity switch; in a more collective society, a religious identity switch can be very costly, even resulting in violence and death.

Sacred texts concerning apostasy play a different role in these contexts. In more collective societies, with religious and political powers in close cooperation, these texts become instruments to guard these boundaries and to heighten the cost of religious identity transfers. In societies marked by social mobility and personal preference, these texts have little impact on one’s religious affiliations, and even less on other social relationships and identities.



  1. Have you ever experienced such a major change in your religious beliefs and/or practices that you left (or were ‘asked’ to leave) a religious community?
    • Did you think this was a form of apostasy?
    • Did the community you left see your leaving as a form of apostasy?
  2. How does your faith or religion influence the groups with which you identify or from which you distance yourself? Is your faith the primary dimension for the group, or does it play a less important role?
  3. To what extent does a change in your religious beliefs or practices involve a change in social or even economic relationships?
  4. Do you feel that your religious identity is the most important identity that influences all other social identities in your life? Why or why not?
  5. Are there people that you feel should be excluded from your religious community, while more formally or officially they are included? Or do you think some should be included, that are formally excluded? How does this chapter help you understand your own feelings about this?
  6. Have you ever been part of a (sub)group that excluded someone else? On what basis? Was this something that was marked as ‘apostasy’?
  7. Have you ever felt that someone in your community was an apostate – or perhaps even yourself? Why did you think so? Did your community agree with that?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Jack Barentsen, which can be found here: Apostasy: A Social Identity Perspective.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.