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Reflections from the perspective of sociology of religion on belonging, joining, and leaving a faith group: membership, conversion, 'deconversion,' and sociological factors impacting conversion and deconversion; includes videos.
Mirrored with permission from Dr. Smith's website: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Essay written 2019, videos prepared 2020; see author's website.

Membership, Joining and Leaving Religious Movements and Organizations

by Peter Smith


1. Membership of Religious Movements and Organizations

This is based on an essay I wrote back in April 2019, ‘Membership, Joining and Leaving Religious Movements and Organizations’, which I later turned into a set of four videos on my You-tube channel (link below). For reasons of length, I will follow the division I established in the videos into 4 separate sections on: (1) Membership; (2) Conversion; (3) ‘Deconversion’; and (4) Sociological factors impacting conversion and ‘deconversion’.

-1. My focus here is sociological-historical and not theological. Like other sociologists of religion, I am looking for general ways of understanding religious movements and organizations, and general patterns of human action related to such movements.  Also, I have kept the number of examples I cite here to a minimum for the sake of clarity and brevity. This is not yet an academic article with lots of footnotes.  

-2. What do we actually mean when we say that someone is a member of a particular religion? There is no straightforward answer to that question. In general, most people do not consciously ‘choose’ their religion. Rather, they ‘inherit’ their religious identity from their parents through the normal process of socialization into a particular family and cultural group. This process may be explicit – as when the child is sent to religious education classes, but is often largely implicit in the social involvements, beliefs and practices which the parents impart to the child as it grows up (e.g. family religious rituals such as saying grace before meals; taking the child to church, temple or mosque). Later, the adolescent may be expected to affirm their membership of the religious community as a social marker for entering adulthood, as in the Jewish bar mitzah (for boys; bat mitzah for girls), but this is not universal.

-3. The importance of religious identity for the individual varies enormously. For some, it is a central defining characteristic of who they are and dominates their beliefs, behaviours and social interactions. For others, however, it plays an essentially peripheral role. An individual’s level of religiousness is not fixed, and may vary over time, reflecting both their personal life experiences and the wider social context in which they live. Such changes may include the following: (i) The personal search for meaning; (ii). Becoming more or less religious in response to life crises (e.g. as a coping mechanism, or as an expression of despair), or to changes in life context (e.g. rural to urban or international migration); (iii) Turning to religious identity as a means of communal identity; and (iv) Becoming less religious when alternative options become socially available (e.g. recreational sport, popular entertainment).

-4. It must be emphasized that such processes are not deterministic. There may well be general trends – as in 19th C France, where it was often said that a formerly devout Breton peasant would cease to be religious the moment he or she stepped off the train in Paris and began a new life as a big city immigrant, but individuals may make their own decisions.

-5. Note that personal religious identity is normally related to and shaped by membership of a particular religious group (the case of hidden identities will be considered below). Such groups include both local congregations (which sociologically may function as real communities) and the wider trans-local or even trans-national religious organizations of which the local communities form part (e.g. the Anglican Communion, Soka Gakai). Groups vary enormously in their nature, including in (i) their criteria for membership, (ii) the degree of control which they try to exert over members, and (iii) the penalties which they may exact on those who have deviated from their norms (which might include penance, expulsion from the group, and even — in the not too distant past – death).

-6. The social role of the local religious communities and the larger groups to which they belong can be enormous, including (i) providing a pool of possible marriage partners, (ii) schools to help in the socialization of children, and (iii) in some cases, even social networks which facilitate finding employment. In groups with some form of clerisy (monks, priests, rabbis, ulama), religious institutions can also provide particular means for social advancement as a cleric.

-7. The case of hidden religious identities is most likely to occur in situations where individuals are compelled to be members of a religious organization which they do not believe in. A notable example was the forced conversions of Jews and Muslims by the Spanish authorities from the 1490s onwards. Threatened with torture and death, many members of these religious minorities accepted baptism as Christians, but – unsurprisingly – many of these new converts maintained their original religious identity in secret and brought up their children as crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims. There have also been crypto-Christians (e.g. living under the threat of persecution in the ‘pagan’ Roman Empire; in Japan during the period when Christianity was illegal (1643-1858); and under some of the 20th century Communist regimes). There were also ‘crypto-Pagans’ in the Roman Empire after it had been Christianized (some of whom were executed for their beliefs), and crypto-Protestants and crypto-Catholics during the period of Early Modern Europe’s religious wars. Note that some ‘crypto’ communities have successfully survived for hundreds of years, such as the secret Jews of Belmonte in Portugal (They have their own Wikipedia entry).

-8. Membership distinctions. Many religious movements and institutions make distinctions between different ‘types’ of members. This is most obviously the case when there is a clerical stratum of some sort – priests, monks, and the like, with clerics being contrasted with the mass of the laity. There may also be a formal distinction between those who are recognized as full members of the religion, and those who aspire to membership, who are often required to undergo some sort of initiation ceremony before they can become full members (for example, adult Christian baptism in some churches).

The actual distinctions employed in a particular religion vary enormously, as with the various forms of Christian priesthood, ranging from the elaborate Church hierarchy of Roman Catholicism to the simple pastorships of many Protestant groups. It is of note that in the Catholic case, clerics have to be both ordained (setting them apart from laity) and appointed to a particular clerical rank, ranging from a lowly priest to a high-ranking cardinal.

-9. Commitment. It is common for there to be gradations of commitment within a religion, ranging from (i) a core of highly committed activists, (ii) through a wider circle of members who are less actively involved but still committed, (iii) to an outer fringe of those who are only marginally involved. There may also be a circle of sympathizers who are attracted to the religion but not yet members. These gradations may be formally recognized by believers or an informal part of the life of the particular religious community.

Note that religious groups may develop ‘commitment mechanisms’ so as to try to increase the participation of members (reference below). Briefly, individuals are more likely to remain members of a particular movement the more they have invested their time, energies and resources in it. Correspondingly, movements which successfully motivate their members to make such investments are more likely to survive than those which don’t.

-10. Exclusivity & inclusivity. A final point to make is that religious movements and organizations – and thus their members – vary along a scale of exclusivity and inclusivity. Traditionally, the Western monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have generally had an exclusive concept of religious membership: the world is divided between believers and unbelievers, and membership of one religion means one cannot be a member of another. This is not a universal concept of what religion is like, however, and in many societies, it is considered quite normal to have more than one sense of religious belonging at a time – a subject for another day.

Note. On ‘commitment mechanisms’: This is a concept first developed in relationship to the Sociology of Social Movements by Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1968). ‘Commitment and social organization: A study of commitment mechanisms in utopian communities’. American Sociological Review, 33(4), 499–517.

For the You-tube video see:

2. Conversion

This is adapted from the second part of an essay I wrote back in April 2019 on ‘Membership, Joining, and Leaving Religious Movements and Organizations’, this one dealing with topic of conversion. As with the earlier section on Membership [SRM 1], there is a video version on my You-tube channel (link below). As noted in the earlier post, my focus here is sociological-historical and not theological.

-1. ‘Conversion’ here refers to the process whereby an individual adopts a different religion or belief system from the one they previously held. Commonly, it involves both a psychological and a sociological change: the convert comes to believe in and identify with their new faith and also to participate in its activities.

-2. In some cases, however, these two aspects may not coincide: an individual may keep his or her conversion private or even secret in order not to antagonize family members (in some cases waiting in order to make a ‘death-bed’ conversion), or to avoid social costs (including in some societies the danger of persecution). Conversely, an individual may feign conversion insincerely in order to garner social rewards. Not all religionists are sincere in their beliefs, and even genuine belief may be combined with the desire for personal advantage. Thus, for example, parents might join a religion in order to get better school access for their children; the impoverished might expect material help as a result of membership; the upwardly socially-mobile might be attracted by a religion which carried higher social prestige than the one they previously belonged to; a politician might keep his or her conversion to a minority religion secret lest it damage their political ambitions — or make a public show of religiosity in order to gain votes; or an individual might make a pro forma conversion in order to marry someone of a different religion. Conversions can also be made under duress, as with those who have ‘hidden religious identities’ as mentioned in the Membership post [SRM 1].

-3. Conversions vary widely in their nature, both in terms of the convert’s relationship with what might be termed their ‘religion of origin’, and in terms of the psychological dynamics experienced by the convert. Thus, acceptance of a new religious identity and set of social relationship does not necessitate the rejection of the previous ones. There are instances in which the convert abandons – or may even be forced to publicly renounce — their religion of origin, but it is also possible for a convert to understand their new religious identity as a fulfilment of their former religion: for example, the early Jewish Christians who saw Christianity as simply a messianic continuation of their Judaism and who continued to observe the requirements of Jewish law (or a Baha’i friend of mine who saw his acceptance of his new religion as simply a continuation of the Shi’ism he had grown up with: becoming a Baha’i gave him a sense of fulfilment of his existing beliefs rather than conversion to something new).

-4. The policies of the convert’s new religion are key here, and may include acceptance or toleration of the religion of origin or its rejection. These policies may also change over time, as in the complex history of the relationship of the developing Christian Church with its Jewish roots. 

-5. The ‘psychological dynamics’ of conversion can also vary. A common image of conversion is based on the New Testament account of the conversion of the Apostle Paul, which was evidently a sudden and dramatic moment of attitudinal change: a previously anti-Christian Jew suddenly became convinced of the truth of the religion he had been persecuting. This is not the only pattern of conversion, however. There are evidently many conversions which are gradual and cumulative in nature. In contrast to the often intense emotionality of the sudden ‘Pauline’ conversion, such gradual conversions are more likely to be a matter of careful consideration of the new religion over time in which intellectual factors often play an important role as the potential convert becomes convinced of the ‘truth’ of the faith that he or she eventually embraces.

-6. Conversions can also vary in the degree of change involved: a modern American Christian who becomes a Muslim or Buddhist is making a much greater change in their life than one who merely moves from one mainstream Christian denomination to another.

Again, the attitude of the followers of the convert’s new religion is important here. Joining a religion which has an ‘exclusivist’ attitude towards truth and condemns other religions is a far more radical step than joining an ‘inclusivist’ one which lacks that hostility, or which shares much of the same worldview as their previous religion. I will return to this question in the final chapter of this essay [SRM 4].

-7. There is also ‘conversion’ to a more intense version of one’s existing religion, as when a hitherto lukewarm believer becomes a religious activist. Some religions encourage such a radical shift – as with the evangelical Christian groups that believe that ‘real’ Christians must have undergone a personal ‘born again’ experience.

For the You-tube video see:

3. ‘Deconversion’ and departure from religious movements

This is adapted from the third part of an essay I wrote back in April 2019 on ‘Membership, Joining, and Leaving Religious Movements and Organizations’, this one dealing with topic of ‘de-conversion’ (i.e. leaving a religion). As with the earlier section on Membership [SRM 1] and Conversion [SRM 2], there is a video version on my You-tube channel (link below). As noted earlier, my focus here is sociological-historical and not theological.

-1. What I am terming ‘deconversion’ is the process by which a member of a particular religion loses their faith and leaves their religious community. As with conversion, it includes both psychological (belief) and sociological (membership) elements, that is, both disaffection and disaffiliation, and may be either sudden and dramatic (e.g. as a result of a ‘spiritual crisis’ of some sort), or a long-drawn-out departure. As with conversion, it is possible for the sociological and psychological aspects to be out of synch, as when an individual becomes inwardly disaffected from their religion but maintains membership (for example, for family harmony or to keep-up appearances). I assume that inwardly remaining a believer whilst leaving the religious group (i.e. disaffiliating) is rare except in situations of forced conversion.

-2. Disaffiliation may have serious social consequences, particularly when a religious group is close-knit and membership is linked to family and economic ties. Some religious groups are antagonistic towards ex-members and may socially ostracize them, impacting many aspects of their lives – notably in breaking-up marriages and relationships between parents and children, and, perhaps less commonly, ending work and housing opportunities which were linked to membership.

-3. Reasons for deconversion vary enormously between individuals, and may include: (i) a loss of belief in the religion’s doctrines or intellectual credibility, (ii) a reaction against its social teachings and practices (e.g. in the modern West, different views about homosexuality or the ordination of women priests), (iii) and social conflicts with other members. Although there may well be patterns of disaffection from particular religious groups, there does not seem to be any general account of deconversion that would cover all religious groups.

-4. Individuals may leave a religious group in various ways:

-i. Simple disaffiliation: the individual leaves and gets on with their new life outside of the group with little or no reference to their former membership.

-ii. ‘Angry disaffiliation’ [Again, my term]: the individual chooses to leave the group, but continues to refer to it, often engaging in denunciation and criticism of the group they have left.

-iii. Excommunication: the individual is expelled from the group, possibly against their will.

-5. Sociological terminology for the first two types of departure is not fixed. Massimo Introvigne (building on earlier work by David Bromley) has described simple disaffiliation as ‘leave-taking‘, which I would see as a useful term, but he wants to describe what I have termed ‘angry disaffiliation’ as ‘apostasy‘, which I regard as a problematic usage, both because of its well-established pejorative tone against religious dissidents (as also the term ‘defector’), and its continued usage by some orthodox religious authorities to describe anyone who has left a particular religion, including both simple and angry disaffiliates.

Let me note in passing, that Sociology sometimes has a ‘language problem’. Most sociologists avoid introducing new technical terms to their descriptions of social life, preferring instead to use everyday language but giving it a particular sociological slant – for example ‘alienation’, ‘social class’, ‘culture’, ‘deviance’. Generally, this works quite well, but in a few cases the words chosen have such powerfully negative connotations in everyday language that they negatively flavour what is being described. In the Sociology of Religion, two such terms are ‘cult’ and ‘apostasy’ – both of which I personally try to avoid as sociological descriptors despite their use by other writers.

-6. Presumably, an important variable in any kind of disaffiliation is the extent to which the abandoned religious identity was an important part of the individual’s life. For those for whom the religion was central to their self-understanding and social relationships leaving would be difficult if not traumatic, particularly if they were long-time members who had invested a large part of their lives in the movement. By contrast, for someone whose level of involvement was slight, leaving could be of relatively minor importance.

The social context is also important here. Disaffilitation is easier in a relatively secularized or pluralistic society than in a strongly religious one in which religious norms and identities play a major role in most people’s lives. Again, the reaction of the religious group to disaffiliation is important: ‘angry disaffiliation’, rather than simple ‘leave taking’, is presumably more likely when the reaction to disaffiliation is extremely hostile.

-7. Lapsing and disengagement. In English, we have the term ‘lapsed’ to refer to someone who still belongs to a particular religion in terms of identity and possibly belief, but no longer practices it. In all cases, these are individuals who retain an identity at least partially defined in terms of their religion of origin, whatever their current practices and beliefs. They are currently ‘disengaged’, but not disaffiliated, and may well continue to follow many of the cultural norms of their religion of origin. They may even maintain an occasional level of participation (e.g. Christians who only go to church for major occasions such as Christmas and Easter), and accept only those parts of their religious tradition which they like whilst rejecting or ignoring others (as with ‘cafeteria Christians’ and similar individuals in other religions). More devout members of a religious tradition may condemn such marginal members, but in a free society where religious membership is not coerced, the wholly or partially disengaged are always likely to be present – most people are neither religious adepts nor zealots.

-8. Note that religious identity is not fixed, and that whilst it is true that marginality may be a stepping stone towards total disaffiliation, it may also be a pause in an individual’s religious biography, a future change in circumstances or perspective leading to reengagement. 

-9. ‘Apostasy’, ‘heresy’ and excommunication. Negative labelling of those who leave a movement or object to some of its teachings and practices whilst remaining members varies considerably between religious groups: some are relatively tolerant of disaffiliation and ‘deviant’ thinking whilst others can be extremely hostile.

Although I want to avoid using the term ‘apostasy’ as a sociological label for someone who chooses to leave a religious movement (because of its pejorative tone in everyday language), I would retain it when it refers to one of the control devices used by some religious authorities to describe those ideas and actions they wish to proscribe – and explicitly identify it as a control device. In this, it is closely linked to the term ‘heresy’ (wrong belief). In such situations, those who have been labelled as apostates or heretics by religious authorities are viewed as traitors, rebels, and defectors who have rejected the group’s accepted truths, whether by leaving the group or opposing its orthodoxies. The labels attached to them serve to mark them off as enemies.

Note that the labelling is typically performed by the group’s leaders rather than the individuals concerned: traditionally, the consequences of such labelling were too severe (even including death in some instances) for the individual to voluntarily adopt such labels. The forcible removal of the individual from the community (i.e. excommunication) was and in some cases still is a common result of both declared apostasy and heresy.

I will discuss what I see as the major sociological factors impacting patterns of conversion and deconversion in the next and final section.

References: Bromley, David (ed.) Falling from Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy. Sage, Newbury Park, 1988; and Bromley, D., (ed.). The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements. Praeger, Westport CT, 1998.

Introvigne, Massimo. ‘Defectors, ordinary leave-takers, and apostates: a quatitative study of former members of New Acropolis in France’. Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 3/1  (October 1999), pp. 83-99.

For the You-tube video see:

4. Sociological factors impacting conversion and ‘deconversion’

This is adapted from the fourth and final part of an essay I wrote back in April 2019 on ‘Membership, Joining, and Leaving Religious Movements and Organizations’, this one dealing with the sociological factors impacting conversion and ‘deconversion’. As with the earlier sections, there is a video version on my You-tube channel (link below). As noted earlier, my focus here is sociological-historical and not theological.

-1. Sociological factors. Given the enormous strength of normal processes of socialization in most people’s lives, we would expect that simple ‘inheritance’ of a religious identity from one’s family and local community would be the sociological norm (as indeed is the case across much of the world). By contrast, any form of conversion or deconversion goes against this common sense assumption and needs to be explained.

I will discuss 2 major sociological factors which I think influence patterns of conversion and deconversion: (i) The availability of alternatives; and (ii) Boundary maintenance and control.

-2. Availability. The most important sociological factor underlying both conversion and deconversion appears to be the simple availability of alternative forms of religiosity: i.e. people are more likely to change their religious beliefs and identities when they have a choice. When there is a local religious ‘monopoly’, everyone (or at least almost everyone) will simply follow their inherited religion (For an individual ‘eccentric’ see Carlo Ginzburg’s famous study, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980). 

Three patterns of increased availability can be readily identified: those connected to ‘resource mobilization’, the development of pluralistic societies, and the development of the internet.

-2A. ‘Resource mobilization’. Recruitment to a religious movement may occur when the movement organizes itself to contact and receive potential new members (e.g. through advertising and missionary outreach). Other things being equal, movements which mobilize effectively are more likely to attract converts. Naturally, such conversions are likely to follow existing social linkages and communication networks. So too are any mechanisms increasing membership commitment and involvement.

-2B. Pluralistic societies are often assumed to be a crucial characteristic of ‘modern societies’ (an assumption open to debate). This depends on the development of a society in which different religions and worldviews coexist peacefully with each other, and people are free to follow the religion of their choice. Thus, historically, many modern countries are relatively ‘secular’ societies in which leaving or changing membership of a religion is a permissible choice, whilst traditionalistic societies have opposed such a choice and heavily penalized those who make it.

NB. Agencies such as the UNHCR specifically regard freedom of religion as a human right, which includes the freedoms to either choose, abandon, or change one’s religion or belief system. Several countries oppose this ‘right’, however, with laws which prohibit voluntary departure from a particular religion, the acceptance of a new one, or the adoption of atheism or non-belief.

-2C. The internet. The developing technology of interconnected computer networks provides any participating individual with access to a vast number of online sites of information and opinion. As a consequence, individuals can be converted or have their existing beliefs radicalized on-line, and cyber-communities can develop for those who have a particular set of beliefs (This includes groups of former members of a particular religion who may ‘gather’ together on-line for mutual support). 

-3. Boundary maintenance and control. A second major sociological factor which impacts patterns of conversion and deconversion is the nature of the particular religious movement or group to which religious adherents belong. Particularly important characteristics in this regard are the ‘openness’ of its own boundaries, and the degree of control it seeks to exercise over its members.

 I need to define my terms here:

-3A. ‘Openness’ refers to the movement’s policy towards ‘boundary maintenance’. What is the attitude it inculcates towards the relationship with other religions and religionists – is the movement ‘open’ and ‘inclusive’, seeing other religions as having their own alternative validity, or is it ‘closed’ and ‘exclusive’, rejecting other religions in decisive and perhaps derogatory language? In the latter case, the group is likely to insist on sharp boundaries between its own self-perceived truths and the wrongness of alternatives.

3B. Control. Is the movement ‘democratic’ or ‘permissive’, allowing its members relative freedom of action and belief, or does it have an ‘authoritarian’ ethos, seeking to control its members’ lives, and punishing those who deviate from its prescribed norms?

There are several likely patterns:

-i. There is probably a natural tendency for open and inclusive movements to be democratic or permissive, & for closed and exclusive movements to be more authoritarian and controlling (although we cannot rule out the theoretical possibility of the other two combinations: exclusive-democratic, open-authoritarian).

-ii. In these terms then movements which are both closed and controlling are likely to be more suspicious of outsiders (or even openly hostile towards ‘unbelievers’) and will seek to regulate, limit, or even ban interpersonal relations between their members and outsiders – including family members and former friends, whilst open and permissive movements institute few or no such social barriers.

-4. Two asides.

-4A. It is important to emphasize that I am talking here about religious movements and local congregations – not large trans-local religions such as the various world religions. Unfortunately it is quite common for some people to make generalizations of the type that all Buddhists/ Christians/ Muslims/ Hindus/ Jews and so on have such-and-such a characteristic. This is a mistake. Any detailed study of any of the major trans-local religions will reveal enormous diversity. None of them are monolithic entities.

-4B. Religious movements – and religions in general — change over time. They are not static entities. There is always an historical dimension.

-5. Now let me return to my main topic: The characteristics of a particular movement have major social consequences for its members. Thus, in the present discussion, conversion to a closed and authoritarian movement has far more social impact than to an open and permissive one. Correspondingly, deconversion is far more fraught. Movements and groups which have an ‘exclusive’ attitude towards their own truth claims and an authoritarian ethos towards their members are likely to be far more hostile towards those they regard as apostates and heretics than more ‘liberal’ religious groups. The boundary line between ‘true believers’ and unbelievers is already established, and the ‘defector’ or critic is regarded as having crossed over that line.

-6. The attempt to exercise a high level of control over members may well have social costs, however, and can itself create particular problems both by generating internal opposition and in situations in which control is lost.

-i. Thus, whilst a non-controlling group can tolerate a high level of internal disagreement without fissuring, a controlling group cannot, and if there is a very marked divergence of views amongst members this can easily lead to schism as one side or the other seizes the mechanisms of control and expels the other which may then establish its own rival organization and power structure. An example of this occurred in the early Christolological disputes between theologians which led to the creation of rival churches to the ‘Orthodox’ mainstream such as Arianism.

-ii. Again, when members realize that they are not allowed to express their own personal views or find them disregarded they may leave.

 -iii. & groups that seek to isolate converts from the outside world (in some instances including from family members and former friends) may quickly lose those converts if that social isolation comes to an end and those social ties are reestablished (a situation which is said to have occurred in several of the ‘New Religious Movements’ which emerged in 1970s).

For the You-tube video see:

5. Review Questions

© Peter Smith, 2020

Bio: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Peter Smith taught at Mahidol University, Thailand from 1985 until 2020, most of that time at Mahidol University International College (MUIC) (originally the International Students’ Degree Program), which he helped establish. He also established MUIC’s Social Science Program, and served as its first Chair (1998-2013), as well as the Deputy-Director for Academic Affairs (1999-2003). For details of publications, research interests, and available courses for teaching see

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