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Header image The Religion Factor

Apostasy: Between the Personal and Political

Date:27 January 2020
Author:Dr. Julia Martínez-Ariño
Image of the feminist apostasy campaign that took place in Madrid on 25 November 2019. Used with authorization. Taken from Facebook.
Image of the feminist apostasy campaign that took place in Madrid on 25 November 2019. Used with authorization. Taken from Facebook.

Why are increasing numbers of Spaniards "apostasising," or actively removing themselves from the registers of the Catholic Church? CRCG Fellow Dr Julia Martínez-Ariño investigates.

Twentieth- and twenty-first century sociology of religion invested great efforts into deciphering the complex relationship between religion and so-called “modern societies.” The secularization paradigm, predominant over an extended period of time (despite having been questioned and revised in recent decades), anticipated the decline of traditional forms of religious belief, adherence and practice, the confinement of religion to the private sphere, and the functional differentiation of societal spheres from religion as societies modernized.[i] Despite its limitations in the great majority of countries in the world (where religion persists), the secularization theory holds explanatory power for the situation in Europe,[ii] which is the exception rather than the norm.[iii]

The way and intensity in which religion, at least in its more traditional and institutional forms, has lost popularity among the population varies across European countries. While in countries such as England and Scandinavia the process was more or less gradual, in other cases, such as Spain, the population secularised later and more abruptly. This was the case largely due to the impact that the Franco dictatorship had in this country, which delayed the secularisation process.[iv] In this post, I examine apostasy as an assertive form of detachment from the Catholic Church.

In Spain, the indicators traditionally used to measure the importance of religion in people’s lives indicate a clear decline of Catholicism. On the one hand, the number of people who self-identify as Catholic decreases progressively: while in 2001 82% of the Spanish population identified as Catholic and only 12% considered themselves non-religious or atheist, in 2019 the data represent 67% and 27% respectively (according to data from the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas).[v] On the other hand, the rites traditionally associated with the Catholic Church, such as marriages and funerals, take place more and more frequently in civil form only. In short, there is a growing disaffection of the Spanish population towards the Catholic institution and its doctrines, which have a diminishing influence on people’s lives. We could refer to this as indifference or passive detachment, that is, a trend among the population of having less to do with the Church, whether in terms of identifying as a member, getting married, being buried, or participating regularly in its religious services.

However, beyond this attitude of indifference, there is a much more active decision of distancing oneself from, and breaking with, the Catholic Church, which is called apostasy. To apostatize means to follow an administrative procedure whereby a person renounces his or her Catholic faith and membership to the Church. And although there is no data in this regard, my own observations suggest that, while not exponentially, the number of people who decide to break actively and formally with the Catholic Church in Spain is increasing.

It is precisely apostasy that has attracted my attention and academic interest in the last few months. What makes a person take the decision to formally leave the Catholic Church, even though this sometimes requires considerable effort and time investment? Why is it not enough for them to no longer have any relationship with the institution and passively get away from it but, instead, decide to take it a step further? How do these people narrate their experience and their motivations for apostatizing? To address these and other questions, I conducted a qualitative study based on narrative interviews with people who had apostatized in Spain.[1] I interviewed 20 people, ten women and ten men, with very diverse demographic, socioeconomic, educational and professional profiles, as well as highly varied experiences of religious socialization. The age range was between 27 and 74 years, and the average age was 49 years. The educational level ranged between basic secondary education and doctorate. Professionally, the people interviewed occupied a wide variety of jobs, from high school teachers and university professors, to retired textile workers, police officers, psychologists, administrative and sales staff and nurses, to mention just a few of them.

The reflections that I offer below are a first analysis of the narratives that I collected during fieldwork in Spain between November 2019 and January 2020. Although in the sociology of religion apostasy has frequently been analyzed as the loss or rejection of faith and the act of disengaging from a religious community,[vi] I explore its socio-political dimension too. If there was one thing that the narratives of the people I interviewed highlighted, that was that their decision to apostatize was not motivated solely by the fact that they considered themselves non-believers, and many of them atheists. On the contrary, their decision was largely motivated by their disagreement with the Catholic Church as a social institution. In other words, for these people, apostatizing meant breaking with an institution to which they did not choose to belong (all of them were baptized as babies) and with which they strongly disagreed.

The following are, schematically put, some of the points of disagreement with the Church that the people interviewed articulated as the main motivations to “sign out” of the Church:

  • First and foremost, all the interviewees indicated that they did not want to be “counted” in the statistics of the Church. Apostates articulated this as a rejection of their person being considered part of the volume of believers used to legitimize the decisions of the Church, as well as its presence and influence in society. Expressions like “I don’t want to be counted when the Church says ‘the Catholic Church is formed by millions of Spaniards’” or “I don’t want to be included when they say that x million people in Spain are Catholics” were recurrent in the interviews.
  • These people reject and denounce the political and social power of the ecclesiastical institution in Spain, both in the present and in the past. Explicit references to the Franco dictatorship, in which the Catholic Church had a very prominent role, legitimized by the ideology of “national-Catholicism,”[vii] are common. However, discourses are not limited to this historical period. References to earlier as well as more recent historical periods are also frequent. Specifically, a significant portion of the interviewees rejected the preferential treatment enjoyed by the Church in Spain in relation to its real estate assets and the access to public subsidies. Many of them, particularly those whose profession was linked to education, also rejected the presence of Catholic religious education in the public school system.
  • Third, a widespread discourse refers to the position of the Church in relation to the body and biopolitics. The rejection of the Church’s positions on issues such as reproductive rights (particularly in relation to abortion), family planning, the use of contraceptive means, the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as the regulation of euthanasia are key points that motivated apostasy of many of the people interviewed.
  • Issues related to the rights of LGBTQI+ people, and the position and role of women in society, as well as within the Church itself, also emerge regularly in interviews. In some cases apostasy is a response to a position of the Church that, as expressed by some of the interviewees, “denies” their own self as women or as LGBTQI+ people. In other cases, it is a more generic rejection of the stance of the Church that my interlocutors considered opposed to theirs. In this regard, the renewed feminist mobilization that has taken place in Spain since 2017 stands out. This widespread social mobilization played a crucial role in the decision of a number of women to apostatize. An example of this was the feminist collective apostasy that took place in Madrid on November 25, 2019, coinciding with the celebration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. This feminist collective action was inspired by another feminist collective apostasy organized in Argentina previously.
  • Finally, references to cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic authorities that have come to light in Spain and in many countries of the world in recent years, as well as personal experiences of physical and psychological punishment during the school period of some of my interviewees were also mentioned as reasons to distance themselves from, and reject, the Catholic Church and its authorities.

The above are some first impressions and ideas expressed in a schematic way that do not do justice to the richness of the stories and narratives offered by my interlocutors. Despite this, this synthesis captures the main points of disagreement with the Catholic Church as an institution that led these people not only to passively move away from the Church, but to formally and actively break with it. Therefore, I consider it fruitful to also analyze the socio-political dimension of apostasy, and not limit the analysis to the question of the loss or rejection of faith. This is relevant for the Spanish context – and I would venture to say that this is similar for countries such as Argentina and Italy, where the Catholic Church also had and still has a great social and political influence. In other words, this socio-political approach to apostasy is particularly relevant in countries where the Catholic Church has left less room for accommodating nonconformity and where the Catholic-Conservative / Secular-Progressive divide has been sharper.[viii]

**This article was published first in LOFRSC and later translated into English and adapted by the author.**

[1] I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank all of them for their time and generosity. Their stories have been of great inspiration for my scholarly reflection and teaching.

[i] Casanova, J. (1994). Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[ii] Pollack, D. (2008). Religious Change in Europe: Theoretical Considerations and Empirical Findings. Social Compass, 55(2), 168–186.

[iii] Davie, G. (2002). Europe: The Exceptional Case. Parameters of Faith in the Modern World. London: Darton, Longmand and Todd.

[iv] Pérez Agote, A. (2012). Cambio religioso en España: Los avatares de la secularización. Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas,

Requena, M. (2005). The Secularization of Spanish Society: Change in Religious Practice. South European Society and Politics, 10(3), 369–390.

[v] Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (2001 y 2019). Barómetro. Accesible en:

[vi] Brinkerhoff, M. B., & Mackie, M. M. (1993). Casting off the bonds of organized religion: A religious-careers approach to the study of apostasy. Review of religious research, 235–258.

[vii] Burrieza Sánchez, J. (2019). El nacionalcatolicismo: Discurso y práctica. Cátedra.

[viii] Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.