Conversation Guide #3: Apostasy in Terms of Moral Deviance – by Robert Ermers

In this article I argue that apostates – people who renounce their family’s and their community’s religious beliefs – often regarded as heroes by outsiders, are in fact considered by their own in-groups and communities as having also given up fundamental moral principles: they have declared themselves immoral. This explains the conflicts between apostates and their families as well as the families’ fears about their position in the community.

The importance of groups

Humans are in essence social beings who have a basic need to feel included by other humans. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that this basic need is related to an evolutionary need for protection. Social psychological research has shown over and again that being included and accepted by others makes an individual feel better and happier, safer and stronger. The family, the most coherent human group, scores highest on entitativity, the degree to which groups regard themselves as coherent. Different groups form a community.

Group membership is always conditional

Group members have to adhere to written and unwritten rules of their group. If there is too much  disagreement and too often, the group may fall apart, with significant consequences for all of its members. Therefore, a member’s inclusion in a group (and the larger community) can never be unconditional: when a member  endangers the unity of the group because of their behaviour, by scorning, insulting or harassing other members, they will be reprimanded. These processes also occur within a family.

With the help of moral principles groups and communities distinguish between good and bad. In this way, members of a given group will know what sort of attitude is expected of them and what sort of activities they cannot engage in.

Individuals who due to their behaviour are considered immoral by other members of their group also constitute a danger for the group’s unity and cohesion. Young group members may copy the undesired behaviour, while others feel embarrassment and distress over the immoral conduct. Dissenting and deviant members, therefore, can be reprimanded, punished, stigmatized and, eventually, excluded from their group. In this context, family members often ask themselves what they did wrong, while trying to keep the behaviour secret.

A stigma-by-association

Yet an immoral individual can damage their in-group in another way: when members of other groups in the community learn about the immoral behaviour, they may believe all members of deviant’s group are immoral. In other words, the stigma of one member sticks to their fellow group members: a well-known social mechanism called ‘stigma by association’ or ‘courtesy stigma’. The result of a stigma-by-association process is that all associates, the members of the deviant’s closest in-group including children, risk social exclusion by other community members, and marriages and engagements with members of other families may fail.

In this way, deviants not only cause trouble and arguments within their families, they often also cause a stigma for the family in the community. In this latter situation, families are torn between their love for the deviant member on the one hand and  community pressure on the other. Thus, family members may see no other option than to break with the deviant, while other groups, such as friends and employers, in general  cut off the relationship more easily.

For example, recently Jeroen Rietbergen, a musician who worked for the Dutch TV programme The Voice, and also the brother-in-law of the owner of the broadcasting company, John de Mol, was publicly accused of transgressing important moral norms in his contacts with women. There were discussions on social media, the press and in talk shows. Because of the moral stigma-by-association, De Mol saw no other option than to stop the programme, fire Rietbergen and distance himself from his behaviour (which he did rather clumsily). Linda de Mol, in her tun, immediately ended her relationship with Rietbergen.

People may be morally stigmatized when they express non-conformist convictions. Although in western societies tolerance is an important social and moral ideal, societies have difficulty in coping with citizens who publicly renounce important but arguably multi-interpretable notions like ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’ and who, for example, disturb national commemoration rituals. Those who question these important notions, or the pre-determined interpretation, may be considered immoral (and labelled Nazi, extremist, communist, etc.), and face indignant and angry responses.

How is this related to apostasy?

In many publications the positions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim apostates both in the Middle East and Africa have been studied. There, the point of departure appears to be that the apostates and the families have a (minor) ideological dispute, which escalates because the families – the parents in particular – are needlessly ‘rigid’, ‘traditional’, ‘patriarchal’, or overly religious, and against the freedom of religion.

Yet on a closer look, in my view, it appears that apostates have similar conflicts with their families as do those considered as moral deviants, and the apostates’ associates appear to have a similar delicate position in their communities (although more research is needed on this). Other research has shown that in many communities, especially in the Middle East, being moral implies being ‘religious’, in the sense that individuals without religious beliefs are inherently immoral. In this context, believing family members still fear that the dissident member may not enter heaven, that they will lose ground.

In some families the conflicts and arguments with the apostates, after attempts to talk ‘sense’ into the ‘deviant’, lead to a break of the relationship with the apostate. When families give in, this is often on condition that if it should leak out in the community, they have all to face the consequences.

The case of Lâle Gül

A case in point is that of Lâle Gül (23), a university student, who in 2021 published her novel Ik ga leven (‘I will live’), about her youth in a conservative Turkish Muslim immigrant family in Amsterdam. In her novel she ridicules what she sees as the superficial Islamic religious notions and empty rituals. In numerous interviews, Gül repeatedly stated that she now considered herself not merely an apostate, but rather an atheist and an Islamophobe.

Apart from her apostate ideas, she also lashes out at her mother, whom  she subsequently calls ‘Carbuncle’ in her book, and she describes in quite explicit terms  the secret and forbidden sexual relationship she had with Freek, a Dutchman.

Many members of the majority Dutch society, politicians and journalists, hailed her as having ‘liberated’ herself from her ‘backward’ and ‘rigid’ Islamic background, comparing her to authors from protestant and catholic backgrounds before. Gül was considered a courageous heroine – even more so when she received threats from people within the Turkish Muslim minority community.

In the meantime, there was much less interest for the fate of Gül’s family members, her associates. In interviews Gül herself mentioned how her parents, brother (20), younger sister (10), uncles and minor cousins were harassed by phone calls and degrading comments from the Turkish Muslim community both in the Netherlands and abroad. Gül’s little sister and brother had begged Lale not to appear in public anymore and draw negative attention to herself and their family – which she refused.

In our multicultural society there are many groups with differing moral norms. When an apostate leaves one group, people from other groups, especially the majority, tend to applaud the apostate’s ‘courage’. Yet these outsiders often tend to forget about the fate of the apostate’s former group members who almost inevitably will suffer from the stigma.



  1. Do apostates and their families merely have a difference in opinion or is there more to it – as argued in this article?
  2. Is it possible to be an apostate of ‘communism’, ‘liberalism’ or ‘democracy’? Do you agree that this sort of apostasy includes giving up important moral beliefs?
  3. How can members of other communities make apostates feel welcome in their new (moral) community?
  4. Do you think there is enough attention for the fate of the apostate’s associates?
  5. What sort of impact could the lack of interest for the fate of the deviant’s associates potentially have?
  6. What could we in our community do?



This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Robert Ermers, which can be found here: Apostasy in Terms of Moral Deviance.

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.