Religious disaffiliation is the act of leaving a faith, or a religious group or community. It is in many respects the reverse of religious conversion. Several other terms are used for this process, though each of these terms may have slightly different meanings and connotations.
Bromley (1998) describes a problem with the terminology used to describe the process of religious disaffiliation. He asserts that affiliation with a religious group is referred to as conversion, and describes the continuing debate over the referent for this term, as he sees no parallel term for dissafiliation. Researchers have employed a variety of terms to describe it, including:
- dropping out
Peter Berger (1998) describes that there are conflicting views about secularism. One, that secularism means disengagement from religion as such, and the other which regards secularism as the equal tolerance and/or encouragement of all religions.
Coerced and voluntary disaffiliation
In most cases, disaffilation is voluntary, but in some cases it is coerced. One form of coerced disaffiliation is expulsion (including excommunication) by the religious group. Deprogramming may involve kidnapping, though deprogramming sometimes fails (i.e., the deprogrammed member may go back to the religious group).
Stages of religious disaffiliation
Brinkerhoff and Burke (1980) argue that "religious disaffiliation is a gradual, cumulative social process in which negative labeling may act as a 'catalyst' accelerating the journey of apostasy while giving it form and direction." They also argue that the process of religious disaffiliation includes the member stopping believing but continuing to participate in rituals, and that the element of doubt underlies many of the theoretical assumptions dealing with apostasy.
- first doubts
- seeking and weighing role alternatives
- a turning point
- establishing an ex-role identity.
In the two samples studied by Ebaugh the vast majority of the ex-nuns remained Catholics.
According to Meredith McGuire (2002), in a book about the social context in religion, if the religious affiliation was a big part of a leaver's social life and identity, then leaving can be a wrenching experience, and the way in which one leaves a religious group is another factor that may aggravate problems. McGuire writes that if the response of the group is hostile, or follows an attempt by that person to change the group from "the inside" before leaving, then the process of leaving will be fraught with considerable emotional and social tensions.
The Handbook of Religion and Health describes a survey by Feigelman (1992), who examined happiness in Americans who have given up religion, in which it was found that there was little relationship between religious disaffiliation and unhappiness. A survey by Kosmin & Lachman (1993), also cited in this handbook, indicates that people with no religious affiliation appear to be at greater risk for depressive symptoms than those affiliated with a religion.
Although some of the above studies indicate a positive correlation between religious belief and happiness, in any event it is a separate task to distinguish between alternative causal explanations including the following:
- that religious belief itself in fact promotes satisfaction and that non-belief does not promote satisfaction and/or promotes dissatisfaction;
- that satisfaction and dissatisfaction contribute to religious belief and disbelief, respectively, i.e., that satisfied persons are more inclined to endorse the existence of a traditionally defined deity (whose attributes include omnibenevolence) than are dissatisfied persons, who may perceive their unhappiness as evidence that no deity exists (as in atheism) or that whatever deity exists is less than omnibenevolent (as in deism or maltheism);
- that although religious belief does not itself promote satisfaction, satisfaction is influenced by a third factor that correlates significantly with religious belief, e.g., a) divine providence as bestowed by a deity who shows favor to believers and/or disfavor to nonbelievers or b) sociopolitical ostracism of self-declared nonbelievers and/or fear of such ostracism by "closeted" nonbelievers; and
- that the process of religious disaffiliation involves traumatic stress whose effects limit, to either a subclinical or a clinical extent, a person's later ability to be happy even in the absence of actual or feared ostracism.
- Crisis of faith
- Exit counseling
- Formal act of defection from the Catholic Church
- Modern reasons for rejection of religion
- Religious disaffiliation in Germany
- Religious intolerance
- Spiritual abuse
- Bromley, David G. Perspectives on Religious Disaffiliation (1988), article in the book edited by David G. Bromley Falling from the Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy ISBN 0-8039-3188-3 page 23
”One obvious problem is the terminological thicket surrounding the process of religious disaffiliation. Affiliation with a religious group is referred to as conversion , although there is continuing debate over the referent(s) of this term; but there is no parallel term for disaffiliation. Indeed as the essays in this volume reveal, researchers have employed a variety of terms (dropping out, exiting, dissidentification, leavetaking, defecting, apostasy, disaffiliation, disengagement) to label this process”
- Hadden, Jeffrey 
- Roof, Wade Clark, and J Shawn Landres. "Defection, disengagement and dissent: The dynamics of religious change in the United States." Religion and the Social Order 7 (1997): 77-96.
- Berger, Peter L. –The Limits of Social Cohesion: Conflict and Mediation in Pluralist Societies p.279, Westview Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8133-6719-0
- McGuire, Meredith B. "Religion: the Social Context" fifth edition (2002) ISBN 0-534-54126-7 Chapter Three:the individual's religion, section disengagement pages 93
- Cited in Ballis, Peter H. –Leaving the Adventist Ministry: A Study of the Process of Exiting, p.24, Praeger Publishers (1999), ISBN 0-275-96229-6
- Cited in Brinkerhoff, Merlin B. and Mackie, Marlene M. – Casting off the Bonds of Organized Religion: a Religious-Careers Approach to the Study of Apostasy, p.249, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 34, 1993.
Brinkerhoff and Burke ( 1980 ) typology of the process of religious disaffiliation posits that doubting members may stop believing but continue to participate as ritualists. Doubts precede apostasy. The element of doubt underlies many of the theoretical assumptions dealing with apostasy.
- McGuire, Meredith B. "Religion: the Social Context" fifth edition (2002) ISBN 0-534-54126-7 Chapter Three:the individual's religion, section disengagement pages 91-94
- Ebaugh, Helen Rose Fuchs Leaving Catholic Convents: towards a Theory of Disengagement (1988), article in the book edited by David G. Bromley Falling from the Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy ISBN 0-8039-3188-3
- Ebaugh, Helen Rose Fuchs Leaving Catholic Convents: towards a Theory of Disengagement (1988), article in the book edited by David G. Bromley Falling from the Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy ISBN 0-8039-3188-3 page 114
"The vast majority of ex-nuns in both samples remained Catholics after they left the convent. In fact, many of them because lay leaders in their parishes and reported that religion was still very important to them. Leaving the convent in no way indicated disaffection with the institutional church for most ex-nuns. Less than 3% left the church after exiting religious life. The exit process, therefore, and the establishment of an ex identity involved change in their role as nun, not as a Catholic."
- Koenig, Harold G., Larson, David B., and McCullough, Michael E. Handbook of Religion and Health (see article), p.122, Oxford University Press (2001), ISBN 0-8133-6719-0
Feigelman et al. (1992) examined happiness in Americans who have given up religion. Using pooled data from the General Social Surveys conducted between 1972 and 1990, investigators identified more than 20,000 adults for their study. Subjects of particular interest were “disaffiliates”—those who were affiliated with a religion at age 16 but who were not affiliated at the time of the survey (disaffiliates comprised from 4.4% to 6.0% of respondents per year during the 18 years of surveys). “Actives” were defined as persons who reported a religious affiliation at age 16 and a religious affiliation at the time of the survey (these ranged from 84.7% to 79.5% of respondents per year between 1972 and 1990). Happiness was measured by a single question that assessed general happiness (very happy, pretty happy, not too happy). When disaffiliates (n = 1,420) were compared with actives (n = 21,052), 23.9% of disaffiliates indicated they were “very happy, ” as did 34.2% of actives. When the analysis was stratified by marital status, the likelihood of being very happy was about 25% lower (i.e., 10% difference) for married religious disaffiliates compared with married actives. Multiple regression analysis revealed that religious disaffiliation explained only 2% of the variance in overall happiness, after marital status and other covariates were controlled. Investigators concluded that there was little relationship between religious disaffiliation and unhappiness (quality rating 7)
- Koenig, Harold G., Larson, David B., and McCullough, Michael E. – Handbook of Religion and Health, p.111, Oxford University Press (2001)
Currently, approximately 8% of the U.S. population claim no religious affiliation (Kosmin & Lachman, 1993). People with no affiliation appear to be at greater risk for depressive symptoms than those affiliated with a religion. In a sample of 850 medically ill men, Koenig, Cohen, Blazer, Pieper, et al. (1992) examined whether religious affiliation predicted depression after demographics, medical status, and a measure of religious coping were controlled. They found that, when relevant covariates were controlled, men who indicated that they had “no religious affiliation” had higher scores on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (an observer-administered rating scale) than did men who identified themselves as moderate Protestants, Catholics, or nontraditional Christians.
- Oakes, Len Dr. Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, 1997, Syracuse University press ISBN 0-8156-0398-3
- Wright, Stuart A. Leaving Cults: The Dynamics of Defection, published by the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: Monograph Series nr. 7 1987 ISBN 0-932566-06-5
- Apostasy and defection entry by Ross P. Scherer in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society edited by William H. Swatos, Jr.