There is quite possibly no greater threat to the believer than the existence of the apostate. In order to reduce dissonance, the true believer must assume that their own particular system of faith is so obviously true that no open-minded seeker who is fully appraised of the facts can fail to accept it. The apostate represents the real-world disconfirmation of this assumption. It is possible to ascribe the existence of non-believers to several sources – the work of the Enemy, or a deliberate (and thus rebellious) close-mindedness or even, in some cases, non-election. The apostate, however, is in a different class altogether.
The apostate is defined as a person who, at one time, fully accepted the dogma and tenets of the particular system, who participated in its rituals, and who defended it from the attacks of unbelievers. However, the apostate at some point reached the conclusion that the system was intellectually bankrupt, and defected from the faith, either for another tradition, or for a system of freethought.
Thus, the apostate cannot exist in the worldview of the believer. There is no place in their psychological makeup for someone who was fully appraised of all the dogma of the tradition, who accepted all its pronouncements implicitly, and yet who later rejected the system. The very existence of such a person poses a threat to the careful mental balancing act in which act believers are engaged.
It is interesting to note some of the defenses against apostasy that have evolved in all traditions over the millennia. Most of the time, the believer utilizes these defenses in a completely unconscious fashion, since to acknowledge the reason for these defenses also raises uncomfortable questions.
Most religious traditions present two lines of defense. The first is to minimize the possibility of apostasy in the first place. The second is to reduce the threat that the existence of an apostate poses to the believer’s belief-system.
For the first line of defense, apostasy can be reduced by attacking the source – reason and logical thinking. Most religious traditions tend to denigrate independent thought, even going so far as to ascribe it to the Enemy. At the same time, these traditions will emphasize that faith is not only an alternative, but in fact a superior guide to truth.
Over the centuries, many religious leaders have noted that exposure to ideas and arguments from outside a particular system will very often start the believer on the path to apostasy. This has unconsciously resulted in an inherent distrust of independent thought, and even of education in general.
In some traditions, notably those derived from Eastern systems, reason is viewed as a direct impediment to enlightenment. Thus, believers are taught to empty the mind of all thoughts, to attain a state of unthinking clarity.
In Western traditions, the usual solution is to place independent thought in the category of sin. This is done either explicitly, or by implicitly emphasizing blind faith as a virtue.
Jesus' famous statement to doubting Thomas in the gospel of John perfectly illustrates this concept.
John 20:27-28 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!" Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
Recall that this quote occurs in the context of a demand for proof - Thomas refused to accept the testimony of the other disciples that Jesus had risen, unless he could examine the resurrected Master for himself. Jesus' reply, and the tone of the whole passage itself, suggests that Thomas was somehow in the wrong, that it would have been better if he had simply believed without question. We also find here the beginnings of the curious concept that the blinder the faith, the more virtuous it is. Thomas is commended for believing after demanding physical proof: Jesus heaps greater praise on those who simply believe without such proof.
The Bible makes many such assertions, in both the Old and New Testaments.
Proverbs 3:5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding...
I Corinthians 1:19-25 For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
The Bible is not alone in subtly denigrating human reason. The Book of Mormon, for example, also includes a number of polemics against earthly wisdom.
II Nephi 9:28 O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.
II Nephi 27:26 Therefore, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, yea, a marvelous work and a wonder, for the wisdom of their wise and learned shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent shall be hid.
In addition to casting reason and independent thought in a negative light, a further tactic to minimize apostasy is to prevent access to apostate, or polemical literature directed against the faith. The Catholic Church, for example, maintains a list of forbidden books, and has done so for centuries, ever since the laity became literate, in fact. Other traditions, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, will not designate certain books as forbidden, but will rather emphasize that only Church publications are fit for the use of the believer. In like manner, the LDS church frowns upon publications that are not deemed "faith-promoting".
This line of defense usually produces a curious paradox. Most human beings need rational thought in order to function effectively in the secular world. They are thus quite able to effectively apply logic and reason in everyday situations. But, it is important that this light of reason never be brought to bear on one’s own system of belief. The reason for this is not difficult to determine – very few, if any, religious systems can survive a dispassionate, rational dissection. This fact is acknowledged by the believer, usually unconsciously.
Thus, the believer often reaches a state of compromise which effectively creates separate mental compartments for faith and the "real world". This strategy, which is quite similar to George Orwell’s "doublethink", allows the believer to accept at face value any pronouncement made within the confines of his own faith, while subjecting any principle that originates outside of his system to rational examination.
This dichotomy is nowhere more evident than in the field of apologetics. In order to effectively produce a defense of the faith, the apologist must of necessity examine competing systems of belief. Generally, an apologist is easily able to spot the logical flaws and special pleading that exist in rival faiths, but seems completely unable to apply the same analysis to his own tenets. Thus, an apologist will sometimes refute the arguments of a religious opponent, and then use the very same arguments to support their own position.
In the second line of defense, it is important to minimize the potential damage that can be done to the believer’s faith by the apostate. The first frequently employed strategy is also the most obvious – disassociation. Many religious systems will forbid all contact with the apostate. This tenet is usually strictly enforced, even to the point of threatening believers with excommunication if they knowingly consort with apostates.
In this vein, it is worth noting that very few apologetic arguments are actually directed at non-believers. While an apologetic system is ostensibly designed to win over the non-believer, its primary purpose is actually to reassure the believer.1
A second tactic is simply to avoid all mention of apostates from one’s own particular system. This has to be carefully balanced, since apostates from other traditions, especially those that fall away in favor of one’s own system, are powerful apologetic devices. At the same time, it is imperative to maintain that apostasy from one’s own faith is rare or non-existent. So effective is this strategy that most believers are quite surprised to learn that apostates from their own ranks actually exist.
Yet another frequently employed tactic is used when a believer does come into contact with an apostate, despite the careful shielding that most traditions erect. This strategy seeks to reduce the believer’s dissonance by assuming that the apostate fell away due to some unacknowledged sin, or some other flaw on the part of the former adherent. It is extremely important, for the believer’s state of mind, that the blame for the apostasy must fall squarely on the shoulders of the apostate himself. It is quite literally unthinkable that the fault could lie with the system itself. This line of reasoning must be avoided at all costs.
With all of the above in mind, it is quite significant to note that the number of inactive members, or outright apostates, seems to be directly related to the amount of information that is available to the believer. During the Dark Ages, for example, literacy was restricted to the clergy, thus ensuring that the believer had little or no access to competing ideas. The believer was thus completely dependent on the Priest for an exposition of the Truth. This system allowed the Church to brand heretics as not only enemies to the faith, but in fact as enemies of society at large. Punishment of heresy was commensurate with this concept.
Over time the proletariat became increasingly literate, with a corresponding weakening of the Church’s power. Where the Catholic Church once held complete political and spiritual power in Europe, her influence has declined to the point where it is almost negligible. In contrast, the influence of the Church remains strong in third world countries, where literacy rates remain low.
The first world is now deeply immersed in an information explosion, due in large part to the exponential growth of the Internet and related information channels. The believer is now able to access information about his own or even competing faiths in mere minutes. He is also able to easily come into contact, and dialogue with adherents of other faiths, as well as former believers in his own tenets. It will be very interesting to see how traditional faith survives in this new era.