Apostasy Assessed

Ryan Cragun

Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, by Phil Zuckerman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0-19-974001-7) 224 pp. Cloth, $24.95.


Historically, those most interested in the reasons people leave religion have been the religious. Those who have already left typically aren’t concerned with why people leave; they’re just glad for the company. But the religious want to know what they can to do stem the tide. Much of the research examining the reasons for people leaving religion has been undertaken either on the behalf of religions or by religious scholars with the aim of helping religions reduce exiting. This can be seen in the way that those who have left are characterized and the terminology used to describe them: they are called “apostates,” “unchurched,” “dropouts,” and “defectors.”

Faith No More, by Phil Zuckerman, provides a very nice change of perspective. While the author does use the word apostate to label the individuals he interviews, he is clearly sympathetic to religious exiting. As the title suggests, his goal is to understand why people reject religion. To do so, he interviewed eighty-seven people using snowball sampling. He recorded most of the interviews, which were then transcribed. They feature prominently in the book. The sample, while not random or representative, is very diverse. The interviewees are a mixture of races, ethnicities, ages, occupations, and levels of education and include former Mormons, Muslims, Pentecostals, and Presbyterians, among others.

The book is divided into ten substantive chapters and an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction briefly discusses some of the previous research on the reasons people leave religion and introduces a new typology of apostasy. Zuckerman suggests that apostates fall into three categories: (1) those who leave “early” or “late” in life; (2) those whose apostasy is “shallow” or “deep”; and (3) those whose apostasy is “mild” or “transformative.” The first dimension is fairly straightforward, but the second is possibly a little judgmental. It refers to how secular people become as a result of their apostasy. If their apostasy is “shallow,” they have rejected institutional religion but retain some supernatural beliefs or ritualistic practices. If their apostasy is “deep,” then they have completely rejected religion and spirituality.

The third category is a little confusing. It refers to the degree of movement along a religiosity/secularity continuum. If apostates were not very religious before they left religion and are not very secular afterward, then they are “mild” apostates. If, however, they were very religious before they left and are very secular after, then their apostasy was “transformative.” The typology, then, is a 2x2x2, resulting in some potentially odd combinations. For instance, could you have an “early” and “shallow” but “transformative” apostate? Since the latter two categories draw upon the degree of secularity post-apostasy, they can potentially be contradictory.

The typology also seems to offer insufficient options. If you leave religion in your mid-thirties and were very religious but become only mildly secular, what would that be? As is the case with many typologies, it is probably better to consider it a guide for thinking about apostate trajectories than for actually categorizing apostates. Even so, it is somewhat problematic. That may be why there is virtually no mention of the typology throughout the rest of the book.

The ten chapters that follow are primarily focused on reasons people leave religions, and they draw upon the interviews. The first and second chapters suggest that some people leave religion because they find the religion incredible, in the sense that it literally is not credible. Among other beliefs, they reject the fear of hell and Satan that had bothered them much of their lives. That was the case for the two brothers interviewed whose mother claimed to be able to perform exorcisms. The third chapter details how misfortune can lead some people to reject religion. The fourth, which features two former Mormon individuals, highlights how a religion’s involvement with political issues can alienate its members. The fifth chapter examines religion’s regulation of sex and sexuality and how it can cause psychological harm and overwhelming guilt, leading people to reject religion. Chapter 6 covers two factors that can drive people out of a religion. The first is religious malfeasance. This is often dubbed “hypocrisy” and refers to the extensive immorality observable within religions, which can be difficult to reconcile with the claim that religions make people better. The second factor claimed to motivate religious exiting may occur when people meet and become familiar with people outside of their religion who are good and decent. Particularly for members of exclusive religions, this can lead to doubts about the benefits of their religion.

The seventh chapter is rather unique. It focuses on two interviewees who do not fit the typical mold of apostates: they are female, not affluent, relatively uneducated (or were when they left religion), and have suffered serious hardships. Statistically, if anyone is likely to be religious, it is people like them. Yet both women have given up religion. Both met men who were not religious but were positive influences in their lives, leading them to question their religious beliefs. They are used to illustrate the influence of acquaintances and significant others on religiosity.

Chapter 8, while informative and well written, seems out of place. Rather than discuss reasons people leave religion, it strives to describe what apostates are like to show that they are moral, happy, decent people. The next chapter returns to examining the reasons people leave religion and notes that parental influence can be a major contributor. Many apostates have a parent who is either not religious or less religious, and that increases their odds of leaving religion.

Chapter 10 provides a list of the nine most prominent sociological reasons that people leave religions, but their order does not correspond with the chapters in which they are discussed. And the second reason given for people leaving religion—education, particularly in college—is not the primary focus of any particular chapter but is instead mentioned in several places. The main focus of chapter 2, which argues that people leave because they do not find their religion’s beliefs credible, is not included at all on this list.

While my discussion of the book to this point has been rather critical, I consider most of these criticisms very minor. Faith No More is a very good book—well written and engaging. Zuckerman generally uses his interviews to good effect, creating sympathetic individuals who are simultaneously believable and useful in illustrating the topical themes he wants to emphasize. The book also combines the findings of prior research into a single volume that will serve as the standard reference going forward.

I believe Zuckerman’s conclusion as to the causes of apostasy is probably the most accurate conclusion to date: people do not typically leave religions for any one single reason but for a combination of sociological reasons and other factors, including their social networks and potentially psychological proclivities. Zuckerman also, quite accurately, notes that the reasons given do not guarantee that someone will leave religion; they only increase the odds of doing so. While it would be nice to know by how much these factors increase the odds of someone leaving religion, Zuckerman’s qualitative data cannot answer that question. Future research should attempt to quantify these factors.

I began this review by noting that it has historically been the religious who are interested in why people leave religions because they want to stop the flow of people out the door. I’m guessing that lots of pastors and social scientists working for religions will read Faith No More carefully, hoping to glean more insights as to how to stop the exodus. But given this examination of the factors that push people out, I don’t think religious leaders can do much.

I also think it’s time secular activists take a careful look at this research. If they are interested in increasing apostasy rates, Faith No More provides some actionable suggestions. While secular activists shouldn’t wish misfortune on anyone, they should become more open about their nonbelief. That doesn’t necessarily mean buying more space on billboards but rather getting to know people who are religious. Knowing and respecting a nonbeliever increases one’s odds of exiting. Secular activists can also emphasize religious malfeasance. A DVD mail campaign detailing religious immorality may be effective, especially if it is specific to the local area religions. Maybe secular activists should consider advertisements suggesting sex is better outside of religion. Try this on a billboard: “God Isn’t Watching: Masturbate Without The Guilt.”

Ryan Cragun

Ryan T. Cragun is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Tampa. His research interests include Mormonism and the nonreligious.

He is the author of more than a dozen peer-reviewed articles, including several for Free Inquiry, and half-dozen book chapters. His research is regularly featured in national media.


Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, by Phil Zuckerman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0-19-974001-7) 224 pp. Cloth, $24.95. Historically, those most interested in the reasons people leave religion have been the religious. Those who have already left typically aren’t concerned with why people leave; they’re just glad for the company. But …

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