Apostates and New Religious Movements

By Bryan R. Wilson Ph.D., Emeritus Fellow, University of Oxford, England

SYNOPSIS:

In this article from 1994, Professor Bryan Ronald Wilson briefly describes the history of apostasy—for instance in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian churches—as a means to compare and contrast contemporary understandings of apostasy with respect to new religious movements. According to Dr. Wilson, apostates (ex-members) of new religious movements ought to be viewed with suspicion by academics and media outlets. “The apostate,” he explains, “is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates. Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an ‘atrocity story’ to explain how, by manipulation, trickery, coercion, or deceit, he was induced to join or to remain within an organization that he now forswears and condemns. Apostates, sensationalized by the press, have sometimes sought to make a profit from accounts of their experiences in stories sold to newspapers or produced as books (sometimes written by ‘ghost’ writers)…. Neither the objective sociological researcher nor the court of law can readily regard the apostate as a creditable or reliable source of evidence,” Dr. Wilson concludes. “As various instances have indicated, he is likely to be suggestible and ready to enlarge or embellish his grievances to satisfy that species of journalist whose interest is more in sensational copy than in objective statement of truth.”

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