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.
Researchers employ a variety of terms to describe disaffiliation, including defection, apostasy and disengagement. This is in contrast to excommunication, which is disaffiliation from a religious organization imposed punitively on a member, rather than willfully undertaken by the member.
If religious affiliation was a big part of a leaver's social life and identity, then leaving can be a wrenching experience, and some religious groups aggravate the process with hostile reactions and shunning.:91 Some people who were not particularly religious see leaving as not ‘all that big a deal’ and entailing ‘few personal consequences’, especially if they are younger people in secularized countries.
In 1993, the UN's human rights committee declared that article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights "protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief." The committee further stated that "the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views." Signatories to the convention are barred from "the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers" to recant their beliefs or convert. Despite this, minority religions are still persecuted in many parts of the world.
While most Western societies permit their citizens to choose their religion, many Muslim majority countries forbid people recognized by the state as Muslim to change their religion.
In some cases, religious disaffiliation is coerced.:93 Some religious people are expelled or excommunicated by their religious groups. Some family members of people who join cults or new religious movements feel concerned that cults are using mind control to keep them away from their families, and support forcefully removing them from the group and deprogramming them.:93
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.
In her article about ex-nuns, Ebaugh (1988) describes four stages characteristic of role exit::91–94
In the two samples studied by Ebaugh the vast majority of the ex-nuns remained Catholics.