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Heresy refers to aberration from a (typically religious) orthodox system of beliefs, while still making a claim to hold said orthodox beliefs. It is distinct from apostasy, renouncing one's religious or political belief system altogether, and schism, rejecting the power and/or legitimacy of the established authorities of the religion, while still accepting the religion's established beliefs.[note 1] Today, the word heterodoxy — a Greek word from which heresy is derived — is the preferred term among people who wish to appear more erudite and/or less provocative.


A heretic is a person who preaches heresy and/or accepts heresy as fact, and a heresiarch is a leading heretic or even the originator of the heresy. It is usually — though not always — used in a religious sense. Frequently, the difference of opinion or interpretation may seem insignificant to outsiders, but will likely be a matter of life and death to those heretics involved.

As demonstrated by St. Irenaeus' five volume Against Heresies (c. 180), nearly any belief can be called heresy, even if it pertains to a very minor point.[1] However, in modern times, use of the actual term "heresy" has developed such a negative connotation (thought control) that it is viewed as easier to use terms like "deviant", "deviates", "blasphemer", or "unbeliever" as stand-ins.[note 2] So Creationists do not call Stephen Jay Gould's theories of a godless universe running on automatic heresy, but by the standards of St. Irenaeus, the concept would certainly qualify — were he a practicing member of the Catholic Church. The key to what makes a heretic, religiously, is that they are advocating a religious doctrine that directly contradicts the teachings of that religion while being a member of it. If you say something which contradicts a religion’s teachings while not being a part of that religion, you aren’t a heretic. This is why most Protestants aren’t considered heretics by the Catholic Church — they were never Catholic to begin with.[note 3]

The term derives from the Greek word airesis, meaning something like "a school of thought", which was used by the Jewish historian Josephus to refer to heterodox Jewish sects such as the Nazarenes, Pharisees, and Saducees. In Acts 24:5, the same word was used by the authorities to refer to the sect led by St Paul of Tarsus.[2] But the punishment of heresy requires an authority capable of enforcing orthodoxy. Hence, while the early Christian church was full of doctrinal differences (over the nature of the Trinity, etc.) and various unorthodox sects such as Gnostics, it was only once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and gained the powers of the empire that punishing heretics became a thing. Priscillian (died c. 385) is said to be the first heretic following the criminalization of heresy in the Roman Empire: a promoter of extreme asceticism and dualism, he was excommunicated and then executed for sorcery by the authority of Emperor Maximus.[3]

The Islamic prophet Mohammed was widely viewed as propounding a heretical version of Christianity in Christian Europe in the early middle ages, going back to John of DamascusWikipedia in the early 8th century, and he is punished as a heretic in Dante's Inferno and denounced as a heretic as late as 1936 in Hilaire Belloc's The Great Heresies.[4][5][6]

Catharism was one of the best-known heretical sects. The Roman Catholic Church established the Inquisition in 1229 to root out the Cathars. After executing the last Cathar in 1321, the Catholic Church continued the Inquisition for several centuries to suppress all perceived heresies. One of the most famous persecutions by the Inquisition occurred in 1633 when Galileo Galilei was found "vehemently suspect" of heresy and forced to recant his claims of heliocentrism (despite the fact that Pope Clement VII tried to encourage Copernicus to publish his heliocentric work in 1536, effectively making heliocentrism rather than geocentrism an orthodox belief).[7] The real reason for Galileo getting into trouble was that he put a favorite concept of the Pope into the mouth of a fool, even though said Pope was a big supporter of his. His insistence that his theory — one which, while eventually proven correct, he lacked the technology to prove at the time — on heliocentrism being accepted to the extent of changing Scripture at a time of massive religious strife was another reason.

On 11 July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI stated that all non-Catholic churches are "ecclesial communities."[8] The members of these "ecclesial communities" have little doubt that the pope really called them all a bunch of heretics[9] (the pope later backpedaled a bit on his statement).[10]

Oddly enough, not all religious sects view each other as heretical. Presbyterians and Congregationalists are less likely to view each other as heretics, since they share essentially the same theology (Calvinism) while simply practicing a different sort of church polity. However, Presbyterians and Congregationalists are much more likely to view Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses as heretics.

So, who's a heretic?[edit]

St. Dominic presiding at an auto de fe, by Pedro Berruguete (c. 1490)

Some religious groups considered heretical by other religious groups:

Theological justifications for persecution[edit]

With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death.
Thomas Aquinas[11]

It might be thought (or hoped) that Christian teachings such as to "love thy neighbor" would preclude responding to heretics with anything other than attempts to persuade them of their perceived errors. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), widely considered the most influential Christian teacher since the Apostle Paul and to this day a Doctor of the Church, thought differently. He held that just as a good father prevents his son from picking up a venomous snake, or a good gardener cuts off a rotten branch to save the rest of the tree, so the Church had a duty to suppress heresy forcibly. Ironically, this doesn't mean that God had the duty to keep a dangerous tree away from his children (see Garden of Eden). Augustine opposed the death sentence and meant "only" that heretics should be coerced to conform. His successors showed no such scruples, though.[12] The logic, if you accept that belief will send you either to heaven or hell (although obviously these "ifs" are the issue), is simple: torturing a person into confession and repentance of heresy is doing them the greatest favor, since it saves them from hell. If they refuse to repent, killing them prevents the heretic from spreading their "false" beliefs and sending others to hell (Augustine also referred to heretics as "robbers of souls" and said they were worse than murderers, as a murderer could only kill the body), which is doing the same ultimate favor to those people. Heretical literature and preaching should be suppressed on the same grounds, of course. Augustine and others could thus justify such actions on the basis of love. Twisted, chilling, yet rational (assuming you accept their starting premises). The fact that almost no Christians advocate such things now (while also something to give thanks for, obviously) shows how much their belief is no longer taken to its logical conclusion, but moderated by modern progress.

The siege of Béziers[edit]

An often repeated story of Christian treatment of heretics occurred during the siege of the southern French city of Béziers during the Albigensian CrusadeWikipedia in 1209:

"A German monk repeated a story that Arnald-Amaury (a Papal legate), when asked in the middle of the slaughter how the Catholics could be distinguished from the heretics replied, 'Kill them all, God will recognize his own.'"[13]

The story is apocryphal, but does at least sum up the general attitude of the Church toward its victims heretics.

Political heresy[edit]

As in religion, there can be heresy in politics. The political heretic has been defined as the deviant insider.[14]

Often, those at the extreme ends of the political spectrum will hurl accusations of RINO or DINO, either because the candidate doesn't toe the party line as the accuser thinks it should be or that they are moderate enough to work with differing opinions in an attempt to govern. There will sometimes only be one detail that makes the candidate a heretic to a person or group, which results in the candidate being expelled from their orthodoxy.[15][16] The "in name only" candidate will often still get the vote if there is no one more orthodox, or if the only other option available is the other party candidate.

Those accusations can be true, as a candidate can be running in a district heavily on the opposite side of the spectrum and would like to gather appeal. Often, these are a minority of those claims. In online political forums, that likelihood reduces to almost zero.

In late 2009, the Republican Party put forward a checklist, and anyone found deviating on more than two principles was to be denied party campaign funding.[17][18] Ironically, the only reason that the party even allowed dissent from two principles was lest they should go against an utterance from the blessed Ronald Reagan. Some conservatives believed it would be suicide, as it would drive away moderates and independents.[19]

Deviant outsiders[edit]

Political outsiders are so far from True Believers that they cannot even be called heretics. They also face prejudice and stereotyping.

Self-described "third Party" groups like Tea Partiers and Libertarians will often lob names they find pejorative (Nazi, Socialist, Marxist, Statist, Atheist, Muslim, collectivist, etc.) at opponents of their orthodoxy without regard to the actual meaning of the terms. Since many in these groups feel everyone should be like minded to them, because they are the right way, it doesn't matter if the people they are lobbing these insults at even want to be a part of their system of beliefs. These groups also tend to be inherently unstable, as egos fight for control and claim others are heretics to the true orthodoxy under their leadership.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, political "deviationism", being identified as "anti-party", "reactionary", "counter-revolutionary", being a "capitalist-roader", having a "bourgeois mentality", or even being in general a "bourgeois" individual, has also been severely punished in communist countries, usually by punishments far more draconian.

See also[edit]


  1. However, heresy can certainly lead to a schism if the heretic's difference of opinion from the dogma of their old denomination gets enough of a following to lead to the formation of a new denomination; this is especially likely to happen if the heretic is excommunicated.[citation needed] The Protestant Reformation is an excellent example of this.[citation needed]
  2. In reality, heresy and blasphemy are not the same thing and should not be treated as such. See Essay:Why Heresy Is Good And Blasphemy Is Bad for an unconventional explanation of the differences.
  3. Well, at least in the modern day, that is. During the Protestant Reformation itself, virtually all Protestants (particularly the founders, like Martin Luther and John Calvin) were former Catholics, so the term "heretic" was fully applicable.
  4. Yes, we know that we stated in the History section that the Roman Catholic Church doesn't consider Protestants to be heretics by virtue of not even being Catholic. This is the stance taken by the leadership of the Catholic Church, which spends a lot of its time pondering theology and philosophy and thus has some respect for the proper usage of logic. Hardline layperson Catholics generally don't care for the finer points of a definition (or for critical thinking in general) and will happily throw the label of "heretic" at Protestants just for not being Catholics, despite this stance being fractally wrong.


  1. Against Heresies at
  2. Acts 24:5, Greek Bible, BibleHub
  3. See the Wikipedia article on Heresy in Christianity.
  4. Debt and damnation: Islam in Dante, Ian Thomson, Standpoint, Aug 28, 2018. (Archived)
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Medieval Christian views on Muhammad.
  6. The Heresy of Mohammed, The Great Heresies, Hilaire Belloc, 1936
  7. Dr. Severyn Żołędziowski When the Earth Moved Polish Academic Information Center, University at Buffalo
  8. Cf. the documents "Responses to Some Questions" and "Commentary" from the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith.
  9. Dismay and anger as Pope declares Protestants cannot have churches, The Guardian, 11 July 2007
  10. Will the Pope's Pronouncement Set Ecumenism Back a Hundred Years?,, 11 July 2007
  12. Toward the light of liberty: the struggles for freedom and rights that made the modern Western world, A. C. Grayling, 2007, New York: Walker, p. 25
  13. Sumption, Jonathan, The Albigensian Crusade, Faber and Faber, London 1999, p.93
  14. The Politics of Heresy
  15. McCain censured as too liberal for Arizona GOP
  16. RINO Alert: Mitt Romney Endorses Minimum Wage Hike
  17. Conservatives Make a List to Measure Candidates’ Commitment
  18. Some Conservatives Push a ‘Purity Test’ for GOP Candidates
  19. Ten principles could keep thinkers away from the GOP