The Broken Apostate
The act of renouncing one’s religion is known as apostasy and ridda or irtidād in Arabic. However, found in sociological studies of apostasy is the additional meaning of betraying and opposing one’s religious community. Other studies have revealed that apostates don’t passively leave their previous religions, but subsequently become “active opponents” who speak out against the defected religion. (1) In recent interactions and online reports, I determined that many apostates leave their religious communities because of a distorted understanding of their religion, combined with their own specific psychological dysfunction.
I am a fairly recent convert to Islam from Christianity myself, but did not convert to Islam as a so called dissenter from Christianity. My conversion was more of being drawn towards Islam, as opposed to a drawing away from Christianity. Certainly, I had some criticism of specific Pastors (of the large non-denominational AOG based church I attended as a member) and concerns about the hypocrisy that appeared to be growing due to the adherence to the sociopolitical climate of conservative Christianity which doesn’t necessarily align with gospel teachings. But, nevertheless, my criticisms were explicitly directed at specific people and their behavior, not at Christianity in general. Also, I didn’t convert to Islam out of dissatisfaction with Christianity, as members of both Christianity and Islam don’t always follow their respective prophets with their behavior choices.
The first case of apostasy I would like to discuss is a Professor in Communications (I will refer to her as Dr. E.) at a local university who is an apostate of Christianity who now self identifies as “humanist.” Dr. E. was brought to my attention because of my interest in interfaith dialogue by a woman who is on the communications committee of our city’s Interfaith Council. Dr. E. is the fairly new Director of the Interfaith Council, and is a strong proponent of interfaith dialogue. The woman I mentioned directed me to a recorded TedX talk by Dr. E. after I suggested the three of us meeting together for coffee or lunch. On the YouTube video, Dr. E. describes her defection from Christianity as sort of a “light bulb” moment when she suddenly realized how rigid, narrow minded, and judgmental she had become as an evangelistic Christian. However, instead of reflecting upon her own misguided behavior, she turned her angst and frustration against Christianity in general. In her perspective or illogical thinking, if Christianity had turned her into this monster of self-righteousness then the tenets or foundation of Christianity must be wrong. Dr. E. took no responsibility for her own behavior other than mentioning that she was a perfectionist which is revealing in and of itself. She displayed no evidence of the deeper understanding of the Gospel message or the exemplified unconditional love and compassion of Jesus (pbuh).
I would argue that Dr. E.’s lack of self understanding discloses underlying personality dysfunction. Many perfectionists display rigid, or unbending mindsets, and furthermore, Dr. E.’s inability to take responsibility for an inaccurate expression of Christianity may be due to unresolved issues of guilt and shame. The tenets of humanism as set forth by the Society’s “Humanist Manifesto III” declares that humans should lead “ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” Additionally, they believe that science and reason are important and values are determined by “human need and interest as tested by experience.” Humans were created by “unguided evolutionary change,” and nature is “self-existing.” Also, humanists are committed to advocating for diversity, equality and civil rights for all humans with the intention of supporting humanity’s highest ideals, but that this responsibility should be born by each individual alone.(2) The belief system of humanism for the most part shares the very core beliefs of all of the world’s monotheistic religions, except without “God,” a “Divinity” or an “Intelligent Creator.”
So, Dr. E.’s choice of pursuing humanism also reveals a rejection not only of Christianity, but of God as well. How would Dr. E. explain that not all those who claim a belief system behave as if they follow that system’s tenets, including humanism, and furthermore, why would an adherent of humanism differ any less than members of monotheistic religions who are imperfect in the expression of their belief system? Somehow, her rejection of everything she used to believe in clears her of all culpability which contradicts the humanist belief that we are all responsible for living to our highest potential and thereby supporting “humanity’s highest ideals.”
Another professor I would like to mention was one of the Islamic converts to Christianity presenting evidence during a webinar at the church I attended of why Islam is not a true religion, and the importance of Christians converting Muslims (otherwise Muslims are doomed for hell). Numerous verses of the Qur’an were taken out of context to prove the violent nature of Islam to ignorant, non-suspecting congregants nodding their heads in agreement to everything the presenters discussed in the typical mode of propaganda (at the time of the webinar I had studied Islam and the Qur’an for a year with the purpose of ascertaining the Christian response to Muslims). The professor had written several books and was well known among Christian leaders. I imagine he made a substantial income from his book sales and speaking engagements alone. This particular professor didn’t enlighten us with a personal story of his rejection of Islam other than inferring it was the violent nature of Islam that motivated him to convert to Christianity. Was he ignorant of the Qur’an’s teachings? In his case, I don’t think so. However, on a deeper level, his religious orientation was most likely shallow. Reading between the lines, I would guess he certainly has a personal story of dysfunction, but revealing the true story wouldn’t sell as many books, and would ruin his reputation and status in the Christian world.
Recently, I read about a young Muslim man who developed confusion regarding the Qur’an’s teachings after starting college which was most likely due to the influence of other students and/or professor challenging him because of his belief system. Relative to the weak core of his personality, the confusion caused him to begin failing classes, caused depression with an acute episode of psychosis, and eventually apostasy. His Middle Eastern family initially rejected him because of the apostasy, but some have now come to acceptance, and he has returned to college. He states his rejection of Islam comes from the constant threat stated in the Qur’an of going to hell. This is again indicative of the personality that has difficulty handling guilt and shame with the additional aspect of not really understanding his religion’s teachings.
Another well-known academic, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has written numerous books and is quite well known regarding her rejection of Islam, and also like the male professor mentioned above, has made a significant amount of money from book sales and talks. I read her book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, and was greatly disappointed as she has been described as “brilliant” by numerous sources. I found her book poorly written with simple subjective logic that constantly repeated that the Qur’an was a book that does nothing but warn people of going to hell. She claims she suffered from female mutilation and was almost married forcefully, but was able to successfully escape. If you haven’t read the Qur’an let me emphasize that the Qur’an does not promote female mutilation, nor does it support forced marriages. Ali’s rejection of Islam is understandable in relation to the treatment she received as a female Muslim in Somalia, but her lack of understanding of the Qur’an belies the real issues. In her book, instead of focusing on advocating for fair treatment of women as described in the Qur’an, she chose instead to reject the entire religion and spread propaganda thereby taking advantage of her apostasy by turning it into a money making/status endeavor. In fact, another frustration I had with the book, Heretic, is that the focus of the book is primarily not on positive reformations of Islam to benefit women as inferred by the title of her book, but more in discussing why Islam is a bad religion.
There are several complex underlying issues that contribute to apostasy including, but not limited to, early environmental conditions, parental adherence to their religion, whether the religious motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic, psychological conditions, religious instruction, and personal spiritual growth. A person whose religious orientation is intrinsic will pursue religion because of a true, sincere faith in Allah. In other words, they don’t make religion as a means to an end. For example, the person who hopes to gain status or reputation as a member of their religion without true belief (evident by a change in behavior) would be extrinsically motivated. (3) The apostate typically doesn’t have faith rooted into their hearts. They may have grown up in religion, but because of the above stated conditions, the seed of faith never grew. This is evident by the apostate’s lack of deep understanding of the core beliefs of their respective religions. As mentioned, many apostates seem to have issues with guilt and shame, which reveal underlying issues of psychological maladaptation. When religion is intrinsically motivated then the outcome produces a healthier personality, especially in regards to guilt and shame. In speaking of Islam, I believe a person’s original language if not Arabic, may contribute to the risk of a lack of understanding. Islamic prayers are in Arabic, as well as the Qur’an’s recitations in the Mosque. If the non-Arabic speaking Muslim doesn’t study the Qur’an, hadiths and prayers in their own language then their understanding of Islam’s religious values and ethics will be poor. Furthermore, the Qur’an accentuates the importance of pursuing knowledge (‘ilm) to draw closer to Allah, so lack of knowledge would certainly increase misunderstanding (“My Lord, increase me in knowledge!” 20:114, “Are they equal, those who know not!” 39:9, “Our Lord embraces all things in knowledge.” 7:89, “Be godfearing, and God will teach you.” 2:282). According to Chittick’s understanding of Ibn al-’Arabi teachings on knowledge, “Likewise all true and useful knowledge comes from God and takes the knower back to Him.”(4)
Some Middle Eastern Islamic State countries either punish apostates, or sentence the apostate to death. This is because of the risk of the apostate turning others against Islam, which may create societal conflict and chaos. However, this ignores the underlying issues of apostasy. Are the parents put to death if they were the major contributor of their child’s later apostasy because of their own weak faith? Unfortunately, for those whose religion is enmeshed within its politics and culture, it is easy to “hide” within the religion. To explain further, a person may be born into a religion like Islam, but the only evidence of belief is the outward expression of following the five pillars of Islam without inward belief. This person is not rooted in their faith, and inwardly is a hypocrite. So, can one be an apostate without leaving their religion? The issue becomes complex when looking deeper at the issue of apostasy. For example, in speaking of Islam, would not the Muslim who is a Muslim in name only, be an apostate in their heart? The Qur’an mentions many times the danger a hypocrite poses to the religion because the hypocrite will attempt to destroy the religion from the inside out.
Also, many religions will outright reject the apostate without any type of intervention to ascertain what may be the problem with the apostate’s spiritual and psychological state. Additionally, families of the apostate will perceive their family member as rejecting the values of the family, thereby rebelling against the family’s authority. The apostate is then seen as an outsider who must be rejected in order to teach the apostate a lesson. However, this increases the confusion of the apostate thereby deepening their already weak hold on faith. The ideal response to an apostate is early intervention when they begin revealing their confusion, or shortly after stating their wish to leave their religion. This should be a high priority for any religious institutions leaders who should be trained to address such serious spiritual issues among their members. The leaders have responsibility for the spiritual well-being of their members, and that includes even one person falling away. As far as Islam, the Qur’an states that sincere repentance disallows the typical punishment, and emphasizes that grace and mercy ALWAYS supersedes punishment, so the apostate should be first approached by a spiritually mature leader in the hopes of bringing those who misunderstand their religion back to a state of understanding. Surah 4:16-17 states, “God is always ready to accept repentance, He is full of mercy. But God only undertakes to accept repentance from those who do evil out of ignorance and soon afterwards repent: these are the ones God will forgive, He is all knowing, all wise.” In other words, God does not accept the repentance of those who upon their death beds offer repentance after deliberately sinning their entire lives to avoid punishment. This is not sincere repentance. However, for the apostate who deserts religion because of confusion, psychological problems, or lack of understanding of their religion, receives healthy intervention and then subsequently repents by returning to their religion, there is no need for punishment as this would do further harm. Out of love, God wants all His children saved and returned safely, so is always merciful to those who sincerely ask forgiveness and repent. This is grace.
(1) Dr. Jonathan A. C. Brown, The Issue of Apostasy in Islam, (Dr. Brown is the Director of Research at Yaqeen Institute, and an Associate Professor and Chair of Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University.) https://yaqeeninstitute.org/en/jonathan-brown/apostasy/
(2) Humanist Manifesto III: http://aha-files.s3.amazonaws.com/2/238/HumanismandItsAspirations.pdf
(3) For more information on Gordon Allport’s intrinsic versus extrinsic religious orientation: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1971/JASA9-71Malony.html
(4) Chittick, William C. explaining Ibn Al-’Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination on “knowledge.”