Shunning is the act of social rejection, the deliberate avoiding association with, and habitually keeping away from, an individual or group. It is a sanction against association, often associated with religious groups and other tightly knit organizations and communities. Targets of shunning can include, but are not limited to, apostates, whistleblowers, dissidents, people classified as "sinners" or "traitors" and other people who defy or who fail to comply with the standards established by the shunning group(s).

Social rejection was and is a punishment used by many customary legal systems. Such sanctions include the ostracism of ancient Athens and the still-used kasepekang in Balinese society.



Shunning can be broken down into behaviours and practices that seek to accomplish either or both of two primary goals.

  1. To modify the behaviour of a member. This approach seeks to influence, encourage, or coerce normative behaviours from members, and may seek to dissuade, provide disincentives for, or to compel avoidance of certain behaviours. Shunning may include disassociating from a member by other members of the community who are in good standing. It may include more antagonistic psychological behaviours (described below). This approach may be seen as either corrective or punitive (or both) by the group membership or leadership, and may also be intended as a deterrent.
  2. To remove or limit the influence of a member (or former member) over other members in a community. This approach may seek to isolate, to discredit, or otherwise dis-empower such a member, often in the context of actions or positions advocated by that member. For groups with defined membership criteria, especially based on key behaviours or ideological precepts, this approach may be seen as limiting damage to the community or its leadership. This is often paired with some form of excommunication.

Some less often practiced variants may seek to:

Shunning is usually approved of (if sometimes with regret) by the group engaging in the shunning, and usually highly disapproved of by the target of the shunning, resulting in a polarization of views. Those subject to the practice respond differently, usually depending both on the circumstances of the event, and the nature of the practices being applied. Extreme forms of shunning have damaged some individuals' psychological and relational health. Responses to the practice have developed, mostly around anti-shunning advocacy; such advocates highlight the detrimental effects of many of such behaviors, and seek to limit the practice through pressure or law. Such groups often operate supportive organizations or institutions to help victims of shunning to recover from damaging effects, and sometimes to attack the organizations practicing shunning, as a part of their advocacy.

In many civil societies, kinds of shunning are practiced de-facto or de-jure, to coerce or avert behaviours or associations deemed unhealthy. This can include:


Shunning is often used as a pejorative term to describe any organizationally mandated disassociation, and has acquired a connotation of abuse and relational aggression. This is due to the sometimes extreme damage caused by its disruption to normal relationships between individuals, such as friendships and family relations. Disruption of established relationships certainly causes pain, which is at least an unintended consequence of the practices described here, though it may also in many cases be an intended, coercive consequence. This pain, especially when seen as unjustly inflicted, can have secondary general psychological effects on self-worth and self-confidence, trust and trustworthiness, and can, as with other types of trauma, impair psychological function.

Shunning often involves implicit or explicit shame for a member who commits acts seen as wrong by the group or its leadership. Such shame may not be psychologically damaging if the membership is voluntary and the rules of behavior were clear before the person joined. However, if the rules are arbitrary, if the group membership is seen as essential for personal security, safety, or health, or if the application of the rules is inconsistent, such shame can be highly destructive. This can be especially damaging if perceptions are attacked or controlled, or various tools of psychological pressure applied. Extremes of this cross over the line into psychological torture and can be permanently scarring.

A key detrimental effect of some of the practices associated with shunning relate to their effect on relationships, especially family relationships. At its extremes, the practices may destroy marriages, break up families, and separate children and their parents. The effect of shunning can be very dramatic or even devastating on the shunned, as it can damage or destroy the shunned member's closest familial, spousal, social, emotional, and economic bonds.

Shunning contains aspects of what is known as relational aggression in psychological literature. When used by church members and member-spouse parents against excommunicant parents it contains elements of what psychologists call parental alienation. Extreme shunning may cause traumas to the shunned (and to their dependents) similar to what is studied in the psychology of torture.

Civil rights implications

Some aspects of shunning may also be seen as being at odds with civil rights or human rights, especially those behaviours that coerce and attack. When a group seeks to have an effect through such practices outside its own membership, for instance when a group seeks to cause financial harm through isolation and disassociation, they can come at odds with their surrounding civil society, if such a society enshrines rights such as freedom of association, conscience, or belief. Many civil societies do not extend such protections to the internal operations of communities or organizations so long as an ex-member has the same rights, prerogatives, and power as any other member of the civil society.

In cases where a group or religion is state-sanctioned (e. g. in communist states), a key power, or in the majority (Singapore), a shunned former member may face severe social, political, and/or financial costs.

In religious practice


Early Christianity

Passages in the New Testament, such as Corinthians&verse=5:11-13&src=! 1 Corinthians 5:11-13. and Matthew 18:15–17, suggest shunning as a practice of early Christians,[citation needed] and are cited as such by its modern-day practitioners within Christianity. However, not all Christian scholars or denominations agree on this interpretation of these verses.

Policies governing the use of shunning vary from one organization to another.


Prior to the Code of Canon Law of 1983[citation needed], the Catholic Church expected in rare cases (known as excommunication vitandi) the faithful to shun an excommunicated member in secular matters.[1] In 1983, the distinction between vitandi and others (tolerandi) was abolished, and thus the expectation is not made any more[citation needed].


Some sects of Anabaptist origin shun former members.

Upon taking instruction classes, each applicant must make a confession to uphold shunning of all excommunicated adult members, and also submit to being shunned if they are excommunicated. The stated intention is not to punish, but to be used in love to win the member back by showing them their error. (Ref Johns Hopkins Press, below).

Shunning occurs in Old Order Amish and some Mennonite churches.[citation needed] Shunning can be particularly painful for the shunned individuals in these denominations, which are generally very close-knit, as the shunned person may have no significant social contact with anyone other than those in their denomination.

The Amish call shunning Meidung, the German word for avoidance. Shunning was a key issue of disagreement in the Amish-Mennonite split. Former Amish woman Ruth Irene Garrett provides an account of Amish shunning in her community from perspective of shunned individuals in Crossing Over: One Woman's Escape from Amish Life. Amish shunning is also the subject of popular fiction novels about shunning. Different Amish communities vary in the severity and strictness of shunning employed.

The Mennonite ban does not usually involve shunning, but excommunicated members are banned from participation in communion. A few Mennonite groups do practice shunning, or have in the past. Mainstream and progressive Mennonites either do not shun, or employ less extreme forms of shunning. Some very conservative Mennonite churches use shunning to exclude, punish, and shame excommunicated members. In its extreme form, Mennonites who practice shunning do so by condemning, snubbing, and shaming excommunicated individuals in all social, spousal, and familial contexts without regard for family ties. When a member is excommunicated, shunning continues until the individual's death unless they repent.[citation needed] The practice has been described as "one of the cruelest punishments known to man" by a shunned Mennonite[citation needed] and "a living hell of torture" by a Mennonite member who has practised shunning.[citation needed]

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses practise a form of shunning which they refer to as "disfellowshipping".[2] A disfellowshipped person is not to be greeted either socially or at their meetings. Disfellowshipping follows a decision of a judicial committee established by a local congregation that a member is guilty of a "serious sin", including "fornication, adultery, homosexuality, greed, extortion, thievery, lying, drunkenness, reviling, spiritism, murder, idolatry, apostasy, and the causing of divisions in the congregation";[3] Watch Tower publications cite sexual immorality as the most common reason.[4][5]

The Watch Tower Society directs that those who voluntarily renounce membership of the religion ("disassociation") are also to be shunned.[6][7] The organization cites their interpretation of various passages in the Bible, such as 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, and 2 John 10-11 to support their practice of shunning. Total shunning is not enforced in the case of disfellowshipped members living in the same household, although in this case the remaining members will not usually discuss spiritual matters with the disfellowshipped person. Parents are still expected to give Bible instruction to a disfellowshipped minor.[8][9] Contact with family members not living in the family home is to be kept to a minimum.[10] Sociologist Andrew Holden claims his research indicated many Witnesses who would otherwise defect because of disillusionment with the organization and its teachings retain affiliation out of fear of being shunned and losing contact with friends and family members.[11]

Other Protestant groups

In some Protestant groups or churches, shunning goes by other terms, such as disfellowshipping or "marking," based on the King James Version of Romans 16:17, which says to "...mark them which cause divisions...." Some groups perceive any disagreement with their teachings or leadership as being divisive, or even having a "demonic" influence and use shunning as a means of ensuring all church members' absolute submission to church leadership. Some use the so-called "Moses Principle" as a justification to shun any dissenters. It is estimated that 10% to 15% of Protestant evangelical churches practice shunning.[12]


Cherem is the highest ecclesiastical censure in the Jewish community. It is the total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community. Except in rare cases in the Ultra-Orthodox and Chassidic community, the practice of cherem ceased after The Enlightenment, when local Jewish communities lost their political autonomy and Jews were legally enfranchised into the Gentile nations in which they lived.

Bahá'í faith

Members of the Bahá'í Faith are expected to shun those that have been declared Covenant-breakers, and expelled from the religion,[13] by the head of their faith.[14] Covenant-breakers are defined as leaders of schismatic groups that resulted from challenges to legitimacy of Bahá'í leadership, as well as those who follow or refuse to shun them.[14] Unity is considered the highest value in the Bahá'í Faith, and any attempt at schism by a Bahá'í is considered a spiritual sickness, and a negation of that for which the religion stands.[14]

Church of Scientology

The Church of Scientology asks its members to quit all communication with Suppressive Persons (those whom the Church deems antagonistic to Scientology). The practice of shunning in Scientology is termed disconnection. Members can disconnect from any person they already know, including existing family members. Many examples of this policy's application have been established in court.[15][16][17] It used to be customary to write a "disconnection letter" to the person being disconnected from, and to write a public disconnection notice, but these practices have not continued.[18][19] The Church states that typically only people with "false data" about Scientology are antagonistic, so it encourages members to first attempt to provide "true data" to these people. According to official Church statements, disconnection is only used as a last resort and only lasts until the antagonism ceases.[20] Failure to disconnect from a Suppressive Person is itself labelled a Suppressive act.[21] In the United States, the Church has tried to argue in court that disconnection is a constitutionally-protected religious practice. However, this argument was rejected because the pressure put on individual Scientologists to disconnect means it is not voluntary.[22]

See also


  1. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia, Entry Excommunication, read on April 23, 2010
  2. ^ Discipline That Can Yield Peaceable Fruit - Jehovah's Witnesses Official Web Site
  3. ^ "Expelling". Insight on the Scriptures, volume 1. p. 788. 
  4. ^ Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, page 103
  5. ^ The Watchtower, February 15, 1993, page 8
  6. ^ "Disfellowshiping—How to View It", The Watchtower, September 15, 1981, page 23.
  7. ^ Questions From Readers, The Watchtower, July 1, 1984, page 31.
  8. ^ “Helping Others to Worship God”, The Watchtower, Nov 15 1988, p.20.
  9. ^ “When a Minor Is Disfellowshipped”, The Watchtower, Oct. 1 2001, p.16. par. 12
  10. ^ "Discipline That Can Yield Peaceable Fruit", The Watchtower, April 15, 1988, p. 28.
  11. ^ Holden, Andrew (2002). Jehovah's Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement. Routledge. pp. 250–270. ISBN 0415266092. 
  12. ^ Alter, Alexandra (2008-01-18). "Banned From Church". The Wall Street Journal. 
  13. ^ Van den Hoonaard, Willy Carl (1996). The origins of the Bahá'í community of Canada, 1898-1948. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press. p. 107. ISBN 0889202729. 
  14. ^ a b c Smith, P. (1999). A Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications. pp. 114–116. ISBN 1851681841. 
  15. ^ Judgement of Mr Justice Latey, Re: B & G (Minors) (Custody) Delivered in the High Court (Family Division), London, 23 July 1984
  16. ^ "Judge brands Scientology 'sinister' as mother is given custody of children". The Times: p. 3. 24 July 1984. 
  17. ^ "News and Notes: Scientology Libel Action". BMJ 1 (5743): 297–298. 30 January 1971. doi:10.1136/bmj.1.5743.297. ISSN 0007-1447. PMC 1794922. PMID 5294085. 
  18. ^ Wallis, Roy (1976). The Road to Total Freedom: A Sociological Analysis of Scientology. London: Heinemann Educational Books. pp. 144–145. ISBN 0435829165. OCLC 310565311. 
  19. ^ Hubbard, L. Ron (23 December 1965) HCO Policy Letter "Suppressive Acts" reproduced in Powles, Sir Guy Richardson; E. V. Dumbleton (30 June 1969). Hubbard Scientology Organisation in New Zealand and any associated scientology organisation or bodies in New Zealand; report of the Commission of Inquiry. Wellington. pp. 53–54. OCLC 147661. 
  20. ^ What is Disconnection? (Accessed 5/29/11)
  21. ^ Hubbard, L. Ron (2007). Introduction to Scientology Ethics (Latin American Spanish ed.). Bridge Publications. p. 209. ISBN 978-1-4031-4684-7. 
  22. ^ California appellate court, 2nd district, 7th division, Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology of California, Civ. No. B023193 Cal. Super. (1986)

Further reading

External links

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