Heresy: An Atheist Perspective

I am gratefully dependent on the work of Bill Cooke, John D. Henderson, and Leonard George for the information I am providing in this lecture.  Their works are listed in the bibliography below.

This lecture is devoted to the concept of heresy. In an earlier lecture I visited the topic of blasphemy, which is a different conception.  There is a definite distinction between blasphemy and heresy. (see Blasphemy) I have also spoken at some length about heresy in my lecture on the Inquisition (see The Inquisition)  But it is important to revisit heresy, to discuss it as a unique concept, and one that is not only constructed by orthodoxy but constructs orthodoxy as well.

As I have said, the definition of heresy differs from that of blasphemy, so I would like to clarify both terms in order that we may all be clear about the two concepts. First, here is Bill Cooke’s definition of heresy: heresy is the profession of unacceptable doctrines while accepting the fundamentals of the faith.  An example might be accepting belief in the Trinity but disagreeing with the exact nature of the father, son and holy spirit.  Blasphemy, if you recall from a previous lecture, means the reviling or mocking the name of god or outraging fundamental religious sensibilities.

Heresy is always relative to whatever orthodoxy is being defended.  Cooke goes on to explain that the concept of heresy is usually a feature of societies that have a monotheistic brand of religion or a universalizing ideology which brooks no rival or alternative vision of reality.

I would also like to define two terms that I shall be using many times in this lecture- heresiography and heresiology.  John B. Holland, in his excellent 1998 volume, The Construction of Orthodoxy and Heresy, explains what the terms encompass.  I plan to go beyond the simple description of heresiography as a literary genre, although it is a genre.  Heresiology is the study of heresy, while the word heresiography is most often defined as a treatise on the study of heresy.  Holland defines heresiography as “the science of the error of others.”  It is the identification, description, repudiation, and refutation of heresy.  Here is the remark of al-Ghazali, arguably the greatest of all Muslim theologians, who stated: “The aim of theologians is to defend dogma against heretical aberrations and innovations.” Heresiography is a term often used by Islamist theologians, but Western scholars employ it as well. 

I shall be focusing on Christian notions of heresy in this talk. Christianity has a long and well recorded history of heresy; we can see how the study and science of heresy developed, why it developed and how it was deployed throughout the centuries.  Although I am concentrating on Christianity, it is well known that with regard to the concept of heresy, Islam, ancient Judaism and neo-Confucianism were not far behind with their own formulations.

In the Christian tradition, the word heresy came from the Greek term, hairesis, which originally meant a belief chosen by an individual or by a sect.  In the ancient world, the word had a broad range of meaning, such as “choice,” “focus of action” “election,” and “discussion.”  It could also refer to a group of any people who had a clear doctrinal identity, such as a medical school, a philosophical school or a religious sect.  The meaning of the word was fairly neutral for many years, without the negative connotation that it later acquired.  Certain philosophical schools, such as the Skeptics, embraced it as a word that carried a certain prestige. Simon Marcel maintains that among those schools, “to profess a hairesis, i.e., a coherent and articulated doctrine founded on principles grounded on reason, demonstrated that one was intellectually alert, fitted for reflection and philosophical discourse.”

The neutral, non-pejorative, even positive definition and usage of hairesis survived into the 3rd and 4th Centuries of Christianity. The Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) and Eusebius (d. 340,) used the word with its earlier connotations. The Roman/Jewish 1st Century historian, Josephus, described many of the schools of Hebrew thought active at that time, such as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots, as types of hairesis. In the New Testament’s Book of Acts, 24:5, Christians are described as the “hairesis of the Nazarenes.”  Leonard George explains that in general, the standard English translation interprets and camouflages this phrase as “the sect of the Nazarenes.”

Increasingly, however, most early Christian writers began to use hairesis when referring to a body of false beliefs or of believers. 

Marcel explains that the Greek word, heterodoxia, which meant the act of mistaking one thing for another, was virtually synonymous with the term, hairesis, with both words being used to denote anything which diverged from the so-called truth taught by the Church.  This was a new and dangerous use of both words.

I would like to go into the history of the Christian Church once again, to trace the development of its doctrines, dogma and hegemony in the Roman Empire. Orthodoxy is made, not born.  The early Christian Church was made up of many diverse sects and ideas.  In previous lectures we have discussed how the old conventional notions of reality held in the ancient world were overthrown and how new ones came in to take their place.  Greco-Roman paganism had begun to decline, and in some ways, its ancient vision had lost its power to bind people together and inspire them. The Empire itself was losing its dynamism.  The mystery religions began to become more popular and influential.

In 321 CE, Constantine became Emperor of Rome, and the Empire had a brief revival of energy.  Constantine chose Christianity, which was a small, but growing sect in competition with the old religion and many of the mystery cults active at that time, as a semi-official belief system which would help unite the people of the Empire.  We should always keep in mind that Rome, in the opinion of some historians, was a police state. The Christian religion, elevated by Constantine, obtained access to the entire apparatus of persuasion, which included the army and the police, which finally enabled it to establish itself as orthodox Catholic Christianity.

We have seen in earlier lectures that the Church was centuries in the making of the decisions and distinctions concerning dogma that would finally crystallize into a unified orthodox world view.  It took many church councils and laws passed by the emperors to bring the solidification about; it took many persecutions, torture, armed attacks and burnings of heretics to establish a unified church with a single world view. Beliefs that came to be considered heresies- such as Gnosticism, Montanism, Marcionism, Docetism, and so on, were competitors with the nascent Church for the role of defining orthodoxy. If one looked at the 2nd Century Church, without foreknowledge of the conclusion, it would have been difficult to establish which competing group would attain victory. 

The details of these ancient struggles seem strange and remote to us today.  But most of them were centered on two important ideas. The first area of dispute was about the nature of god and Jesus, whether the father and the son had the same nature or a similar one.  That question gave rise to the discussion of whether Jesus was the son of god or not.  The second area of dispute was whether the Trinity consisted of three separate entities or not, which took many years to determine. Both issues were ostensibly settled at the Council of Nicea in 325 and then later, in 381, but the questions continued to be hotly debated for many years. With such debates grew the conviction that heresy was a mistaken or wicked belief opposed to orthodoxy.  Heresy was discussed and written about very early in the history of the Church. Let us look at some of the factors that contributed to the fear of heresy.

Jesus, if a historical person, did not seem to concern himself with heresy, according to the New Testament. 

But there is scriptural warrant for the persecution of heresy, such as John 15:6, which states: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and are cast into the fire, and they are burned.” There is 2 Peter, one of the latest works included in the New Testament, which warns against false prophets and damnable heresies.  Bill Cooke believes that the author of Peter was anxious to hold together the infant Christian community in the light of Jesus’ failure to return in the lifetime of his believers.

Indeed, in addition to the issues of Jesus’ nature and the nature of the Trinity, was the additional and very serious problem of Jesus’ failure to return, the Second Coming.  Those members who interpreted this failure in ways that were perceived as threatening Church unity were labeled heretics.  In the light of the dawning realization there might be no reappearance of Jesus during their lifetimes, the Church hierarchy turned toward the concept of an ideal Christian community on the Earth, with members loving each other and cooperating with each other within the Church.  Dissenters were a major threat to this ideal. The issue of heresy began to be discussed more seriously. 

In the opinion of many historians, Paul has the clearest claim to the title of master protoheresiologist, or first heresiologist, in the Christian community. Edward Peters has noted that “St. Paul’s argument for a simple Christian truth gave the character of heterodoxy (erroneous teaching) to all other competing beliefs. He attacked dissenters and schematics of all types. According to Romans 16:17, Paul was very fierce against “those who create dissensions and difficulties in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught.” 

Such fanatic, but as yet still immature and tentative New Testament beginnings of formulating a policy of heresy were co-opted by later Church theologians.

The Church Fathers tried to claim they had found in the early Church a sort of developed polemic against heresy which actually developed much later.  Somehow Tertullian (d. 225) read into the Pauline Epistles developed strictures against the heretical sects of the Maronites, the Valentinians, and the Ebionites. We have noted in earlier lectures how loathe the Church theologians and hierarchy were to admit that orthodox doctrines had not been in place from the very creation of the Church.  The Church fathers were also reluctant to admit that the Church’s full blown concept of heresy was developed over a long period of time rather than during its early beginnings.  Such protestations were not out of the ordinary but became standard procedure.

The New Testament canon, which books would be included and which left out, was closed fairly early.  Then Justin Martyr, (d. 165 CE), founded the heresiographical genre of early Christian literature.  Henderson states that Martyr’s volume, written in the middle of the 2nd Century, The Compendium Against All Heresies, was the first book to use the term hairesis to designate divergent tendencies within Christianity.  The book is now lost.  But it was the inspiration for other, later works.

Irenaeus of Lyons was the most important theologian of the 2nd Century, and many historians believe he was the first true Church theologian. He was certainly the first systematic one. Irenaeus wrote the first Christian work against heresy to survive, called Against All Heresies, 185 CE, although his volume borrowed liberally from Justin Martyr. 

The book was written to call attention to the two most threatening heresies of his time, the Marcionite and the Gnostic heresies. Hippolytus of Rome (170-236 CE) wrote the second most important book of that era, circa 230 CE, which claimed that all heresies were ultimately taken from pagan philosophy.  It was called Refutation of All Heresies.

The Panarion (Medicine Chest) of Epiphanius (315-403 CE) is the culminating heresiological work from Christian antiquity. It was a historical encyclopedia of heresy and its refutations.  Later works, such as Augustine’s De Haeresibus (425 CE) and Vincent of Lerin’s Commonitory (424 CE) borrowed heavily from Irenaeus and other early works.  Indeed, the refutation of heresy began to take on a collective appearance, of a self conscious and aware enterprise requiring the work and effort of many generations.

The heresiographies also began to become repetitive, which is very common with most genre writing. However, the repetitive and consensus nature of the work served an important function, as some experts have pointed out.  Such compendiums provided church authorities throughout the Mediterranean world with the classifications to recognize and refuse heretical opinions within their various jurisdictions.  These authorities had to recognize, classify and be certain of heretical opinions.  The heresiological works were handbooks for their edification.

Early Church histories, such as Eusebius of Caesarea’s (260- 340 CE) famous work on ecclesiastical history, and other specific, rather than general, works on heresy were very influential in the construction of concepts concerning orthodoxy and heresy.  Athanasius attempted to refute the Arians around 325 CE and Augustine wrote against the Pelagian Heresy around 415 CE. Strictures against heresy also existed in works such as scriptural commentaries to letters and in the sermons of the Church Fathers. 

There was development within the genre itself over the centuries. Many of the earliest heresiographies were written against Simon Magus, a contemporary of Peter and Paul.  He was a Samaritan from the city of Gita.  Simon’s worst crime, according to the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, seems to have been offering to pay Peter for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Variant narratives, though, maintain that Simon was a magician and possibly a Gnostic Christian.  He was accused of hinting he was the Messiah, of trying to fly, of having an immoral relationship with a woman called Helen, and so on.  Simon was apparently a baptized Christian.  Many Church Fathers claimed that all later heresies emanated from him.  I would like to add an interesting digression here- there are some scholars who believe Simon may have been the prototype for the popular Faust tales written by Goethe and Marlowe many centuries later.

By the 3rd and 4th Centuries, the books on heresies became historical and encyclopedic.  There was a point to this broadening of focus. As I have mentioned, the Church Fathers worked to link the heresies they were working on in their own eras with the ones in the past, thus discrediting them even more deeply.  Such discrediting was likely financially important to the Church as well as religious.  Under Constantine, churches were exempt from taxes.  Being identified as heretical could cause a church to lose its exemption.  In this manner, churches deemed outside orthodoxy would find it difficult to function.

Saint Jerome (347-430 CE) declared than anyone against the Church was by default in league with Satan and thus deserved to die.  Saint Augustine identified unjust persecutions, which he said the impious commit against the Church and just persecution, which he argued the Church commits against the impious.  Here is a quote from a letter of Augustine’s to Boniface, 417 CE, in which Augustine asserts that “the Church persecutes out of love and the impious out of cruelty.”

An interesting fact is the lack of polemic that has been found in the books by heretical sects.  Since the Christian Church methodically and savagely destroyed so much of the writings of the Gnostics, Marcionites, Arians, Nestorians and so on, it is difficult to say for sure if there were such writing by the dissidents. There is some heresiological writing found in the Nag Hammadi material, but most of the heretical sects seemed more concerned with laying out their own positions, rather than inveighing against others.  Henderson mentions a chilling idea- that the successful propaganda campaign, the scorched earth policy of the Church might be a sort of proof of the adage that History is the propaganda of the victorious.  He ponders that perhaps “the victory is won in the first place by the most astute and prolific propagandists.”  It does well for the present day secular community to keep this thought in mind when attempting to refute fundamentalists, creationists, and so on.  We simply cannot afford to let them denigrate non belief in the propaganda war.  Organized religion is most thorough and engaged when it comes to smearing and discrediting its critics and foes.

As the Church reached its medieval years, it became much less reticent concerning heresy. 

Heresy was defined as an “opinion chosen by human perception, founded on the scriptures, contrary to the teaching of the Church, publicly avowed and obstinately defended.” It was quite characteristic of the Church at that stage to stipulate that the sine qua non of heresy was the persistent or obstinate resistance to ecclesiastical authority.  By that time, the Church had developed a very strong, central ecclesiastical organization. Let us keep in mind what I stated earlier- that not only does orthodoxy create heresy, but that heresy also helps create orthodoxy, forcing it to define itself as it faces threats from within and from the outside. In a little while, we shall see how such selection suffers too often from a capricious arbitrariness that has very little to do with a consistent policy.

I would like to point out that no matter how much we modern secular thinkers have difficulty accepting the fact that such deadly conflicts could have been fought over “merely religion,” it is regrettably true that they were. Yes, there were other factors, economic, political, class and ethnic issues.  But the most important and vital issue was “merely religion.” It is interesting that modern sociologists have found that it is religious or ideological notions that spark the mightiest quarrels or wars and the most intransigent combatants. The personal issues people struggle with generally do not give rise to the merciless and bitter wars that religious issues do.  The vituperative and frightening conflicts created by religion or ideology seem to come about because individuals embracing these ideas often see themselves as bearers of a group mission. 

Modern radical parties and both past and present religious sects apparently have engaged the total personalities of their members.

Such groups are extremely sensitive to dangers from within, as well as extremely vigilant in their attempt to detect them, such as the dangers coming from heresy. The astute George Simmel states that: “… the reaction may be stronger under these conditions because the ‘enemy’ from within, the renegade or heretic, not only puts into question the values and interests of the group, but also threatens its unity.”

Another important point to note is what the great 17th Century philosopher/heretic, Spinoza said: “No heresy without a book.” The Bible, which needed much translation and exegesis by Church experts and theologians, was just one such book. It was the experts who determined what the Bible decreed and which departures from such strictures were heresy. Emphasis on faith and obedience to the Church helped to develop a non-democratic, hierarchal power structure within the Christian community.  Rebellion or dissent from that fixed hierarchy was one of the most important notifications or manifestation of heresy.  Elaine Pagels, the respected expert in the Gnostic religion, has noted that the books chosen for inclusion in the New Testament by bishops in the Church Councils were not merely chosen by majorities or by monetary contributions in favor of certain gospels.  Very importantly, they were chosen because they best supported the power structure of the Church.  Their supposed historical authenticity played a much smaller role in the larger picture of Church control. 

The control the Catholic Church exercised over its members was likely one important reason Christianity was adopted as the Roman Empire’s semi-official, and then official religion. The government hoped for more social order in the Empire with citizens already used to obeying a controlling hierarchy.

By the time Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the Church Councils had begun to soundly establish orthodox dogma.   I have mentioned how the concept of heresy helps orthodoxy decide on what it believes and holds as truth.  People and institutions learn who they are by reflection, and heresy forces reflection on which beliefs one embraces. Harold O. Brown, a believer in Christian Orthodoxy, admits in his volume, Heresies: “…that it is possible to say that Gnosticism is in a sense the stepmother of systematic philosophy and that a heresy is the stepmother of orthodoxy.”  Heresy was seen by some Church Fathers as providential as it defined more sharply the proper beliefs of the Church hierarchy.

I would like to spend a little time with the statements of the Church Fathers over the years as they waxed eloquent on the providential nature of heresy. Do not forget that most people were charged with heresy during the Inquisition. It was St. Paul who maintained in Romans 8:28, that “for those who love god all things work together for good.” He also remarked: “There must be heresies so that those approved may be manifest among you.” Tertullian added: “…they (heresies) occur precisely in order to prove faith by testing it.” He believed that god himself had arranged the scriptures so as to furnish matter for the heretics, giving them enough rope with which to condemn themselves. Tertullian’s was a common argument among early Christian theologians.  Heresies not only tested the faithful but testified to Christians’ status as the true people of god. Origen pointed out that heresy showed the richness and likely the truth of Christianity.  His works, by the way, were declared heretical and burned after his death.

According to the Church Fathers, the assaults of heresy against faith contributed to the vigor and vitality of orthodoxy. Otherwise, without challenge, orthodox doctrines might atrophy for lack of activity.  Augustine maintained: “If they (heresies) have power to do physical harm, they develop her (the Church’s ) power to suffer; if they oppose her intellectually, they bring out her wisdom, and since she must love even her enemies, her loving kindness is made manifest.”   Cardinal Newman, 1500 years later, agreed with Augustine.  He cited heresy’s god given ability to promote humility, to try believer’s faith- “to rouse the lazy to an intellectual study, and the religious to a more earnest realization of Christian verities- and to subserve the evolution of these verities in a dogmatic form.”  The theologians’ emphasis on how heresy brought out the loving kindness of the Church is a monstrous irony. It is a historical fact that the church hierarchy tortured and burned innocent people it deemed heretic.  But the theologians claimed the Church was acting out of love, trying to save heretics’ souls. The unintentional irony is chilling.

The last contribution to the development of Christian orthodoxy by heresy was that heresy did indeed stimulate the clarification and even constitution of church doctrine. Augustine saw the process as positive, arguing that the refutation of heretics makes the position of the Church and the sound doctrine it possesses, “stand out clearly.” Hilary of Poitiers (300 -360 CE) sounded a rare note of concern. He wrote: “The guilt of heretics compels us to undertake what is unlawful, to scale arduous heights, to speak of the ineffable and to trespass on forbidden ground… By the guilt of another, we are forced into guilt, so that what should have been restricted to the pious contemplation of our minds is now exposed to the dangers of human speech.”

Hilary longed for the Church’s vanished state of childhood innocence in which holy mysteries were unsullied by explicit doctrinal formulations.  Probably, unfortunate heretics also longed for the days before rigid doctrinal formulations.  The less doctrine, the less chance to be robbed of your property, charged with heresy, tortured, imprisoned and burned to death for holding an opinion contradictory to established doctrine.  Hilary sounds like a civilized man, a rarity among Church clergy.  But was the Church ever in a state of childhood innocence?  One doubts that notion.

Before I continue with heresy in the Western Catholic Church, I would like to glance at that concept in what is officially named the Orthodox Catholic Church. It was originally Catholic, but it has been called Eastern Orthodox since the schism with the Western Church in 1054 CE.  The Eastern Church was aligned with the Byzantine Empire, which was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society. However, in that Eastern Empire, the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy was considered the most significant difference between people and groups.  Heresy was perceived as a worse threat in Byzantium than armed rebellion, and it was the menace most feared by the government.  I would like to repeat once more how important it is to keep in mind that in both the East and the West, matters of belief were a matter of life and death.  What appears to the modern secular mind as hairsplitting abstractions were concrete issues.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 345) made a humorous, but telling observation concerning the religious state of affairs in Constantinople, the Eastern capital. He noted: “In this city (Constantinople), if one asks anyone for change, he will discuss with you whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. 

If you ask about the quality of bread, you will receive the answer: ‘The Father is greater; the Son is less.’ If you suggest a bath is desirable, you will be told: ‘There was nothing before the Son was created.’”

Not only was the public vitally interested in theological disputes of the Eastern Church cities, it often took an active role in the process by which one doctrine was declared orthodox and the rivals to it were condemned as heretical.  A famous example of the public pressure to have a doctrine declared orthodox was the situation concerning the Virgin Mary. When Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) vindicated the Virgin Mary’s status as Theotokos, or Godbearer, he described how the populace of Ephesus demonstrated night and day in favor of his decision. They boisterously approved of the Virgin’s elevation. Any dissent would have been considered heresy.

Thus we can detect once again the capricious element to the process of declaring one doctrine orthodox and the other, different opinions heretical.  Such capriciousness was apparent from the beginning of the early Church.  Bill Cooke points out an excellent example of the oddities involved in the selection of heresy. Around the late 1100’s to early 1200’s CE, there were two reform movements espousing basically similar ideas of returning the Church and its hierarchy to Christ-like simplicity and austerity.  The Waldensians were declared heretical.  The Franciscans were accepted into the formal church structure. St. Francis of Assisi, the Franciscan founder, was one of the few voices to counsel using persuasion rather than force when dealing with heretics. 

However the Franciscan Order shamefully aided the Dominican Order in carrying out the inquiries, persecutions and burnings of the Inquisition. (Please see An Atheist Perspective on the Inquisition at have glanced at the issue of the Franciscans and Waldensians because it is an excellent example of how often the rules and standards for declaring one doctrine orthodox and another as heresy were often inconsistent and bewildering.

I have spoken about Constantine and his embrace of Christianity for political and civic reasons.  It was under his rule that the aforementioned Council of Nicea, in 325 CE, decided that Christ, the son of god, had the same divine nature as god the father, and therefore, the same power to save humanity from its sins.  The opposing party, the Arians, held that the son of god did not have god’s divine nature, but was a creation of god. (see The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason) Arians, including the movement’s founder, Arias, were exiled.  The Arians remained a threat for several decades, but eventually the orthodox view was adopted as official Church doctrine and naysayers were persecuted as heretics.

It was the emperor Theodosius who declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire on Feb. 27, 380 CE.  The Christian Church now had the army and police in its service, although the army still had many pagan members.  The Church wasted no time in consolidating its favorable and powerful position. Within five years, the first execution for heresy had taken place.  In 385 CE, the Spanish Bishop, Priscillan, was executed for heresy, although he was formally charged with sorcery.

Theodosius’ draconian measures escalated against all unorthodox variants of Christianity and against all non-Christian religions and beliefs.  In the Theodosian Code of 438 CE, the law decreed: “…all heresies are forbidden by both divine and imperial laws and shall forever cease.” In 529 CE, the Emperor Justinian closed Plato’s Academy and most pagan places of learning where people had been exposed to various ideas of thinking about the world.  Scholars often mark this date, 529 CE, as an arbitrary, symbolic end to free thought and to the beginning of the Dark Ages. 

The Council of Chalcedon, which had met in 451 CE, had already marked the complete establishment of orthodox, Christian doctrine, according to Leonard George. By the time of the closing down of the schools, there was a fairly unified idea and understanding of what constituted heresy.  The Gothic successor states to the Roman Empire, however, embraced Arianism, and so for a while in the West, Niceans or followers of Athanasius, were deemed heretics.  Since the Eastern Roman Empire had a greater ability at that time to enforce its will, Arianism, as I have mentioned, was the doctrine that was treated as heresy.  But ultimately the Nicean doctrine prevailed and was embraced by both Eastern and Western Churches.

As I promised when I began this lecture, I have focused on the Christian concept of heresy and Christian practices against it because they were so well developed and historically established. The phenomenon of heresy and the measures taken against it reached their epitome in the Christian religion. 

For a brilliant discussion of the concepts and practices against heresy in Islam, ancient Judaism, and neo-Confucianism, please see John D. Henderson’s volume, The Constitution of Orthodoxy and Heresy, which is listed in the Bibliography at the end of this written lecture at

Christians deemed heretics had been suffering persecution for quite a while since Theodosius, but it was Pope Innocent III who raised the stakes to a wretched new level.  On March 25, 1199, the Pope announced that heresy was high treason against god.  He went on to say: “…the children of heretics are to be subjected to perpetual deprivation for the sins of their parents.” It is obvious that the Church was using all possible means to stamp out heresy, including using the natural love and care of parents for their children as a threat.  The sins of the fathers and mothers would be visited on the following generation.

It was Innocent III who in 1199, decided that the property of all convicted heretics should be seized.  In 1208 CE, faced with the heretical and well-organized Cathars, Innocent declared the Church’s war on them was a Crusade, a holy war.  The same absolution of all confessed sins offered to the Crusaders to the Holy Land was extended to those warriors who fought the Cathars.  This popular heresy was wiped out during the following two decades.  In 1215 CE, more harsh penalties were laid down for heresy at the important Fourth Lateran Council.

Now that Pope Innocent had made the elimination of heresy a significant priority of the Church, the scholars and theologians began to undertake a clarification of the meaning of heresy and tried to distinguish the varieties of it.

As I have mentioned, Augustine had given Church persecution of heresy and other crimes justification, claiming that the Church was acting out of love.  Thomas Aquinas, (d. 1274) one of the Church’s greatest theologians, said this about heresy: “It is a species of infidelity in men, who having professed faith in Christ, corrupt its dogmas.”  Bill Cooke states that Aquinas then proceeded to describe two types of heresy.  They were (1) refusing to believe in Christ himself (a failing he attributed to pagans and Jews) and (2) retaining some elements or items of Christian belief, while rejecting others.

By the middle of the 1200’s, some puritanical Franciscans, the Spirituals, had become attracted to the teachings of Joachim of Fiore. Joachim proclaimed the dawning of a new age when the Church would be ruled by monks who owned nothing.  Since the Popes and many Bishops were busily engaged in accumulating wealth and property, such predictions were enraging to the Church hierarchy.  By the end of the Century, one of the Spirituals called the Church “the Whore of Babylon.”  This term of opprobrium lasted for centuries, although the Catholic Church blames Martin Luther, the Protestant rebel, for first using this term of opprobrium. 

Pope John XXII actually made a ludicrous attempt to deny that Jesus and his apostles had been poor. The Spirituals, like many other medieval heretics, saw themselves as following the true spirit of Christianity, attempting to reinstate poverty, simplicity, non-hierarchal churches and so on. Such thinking was completely unacceptable to a worldly Church in pursuit of power and wealth. By 1318, the Spirituals were marked to be hunted down as heretics, and many of them were burned at the stake.

Pope John issued a bull which defined heresy as “…any baptized person who, retaining the name Christian, pertinaciously denies or doubts one or another truth believed by the divine and Catholic faith.” The papal desires to weed out heresy grew into what we know as the Inquisition.  By the end of the 1100’s, Western Europe had begun to see significant growth of unorthodox versions of Christianity.  Pope Lucius III became alarmed and in 1188, he decided on a weapon to stop the spread of heresy, the first Inquisition.  In 1233, Pope Gregory IX centralized control of the Inquisition and placed Dominican friars in charge of it.  No one was allowed to interfere in the work of the Inquisition.  On May 15, 1252, Innocent IV issued an Ad Extirpanda, permitting the torture of heretics.

I am gratefully dependent on the research of Bill Cooke for this portion of the lecture. The rest of Europe took up the work of rooting out heretics.  Some countries were more enthused than others.  England did not take up the issue until 1400 CE, when King Henry IV decided to allow the Bishops to acquire large ranging powers to arrest and detain anyone they accused of heresy.  Eight days before the Statute of Heretics was passed, a follower of John Wycliffe was burned at the stake on March 2, 1400.  The enthusiasm of the clergy was such that they could not wait for the official passing of the Statute. Wycliffe was an early opponent of papal influence over the secular government and a precursor of Protestantism. Henry increased clerical power in 1414, and heretics burned for over 200 years in England.  1610 was the date for the last burning of a heretic in England, but the Statute was not repealed until 1677.

Although the Statute of Heretics was repealed, the English Ecclesiastical Council could still try people for heresy. 

Let us not forget that convicted witches continued to be burned for another century in England.  Heretics were not tolerated, even with the repeal of some of the laws.  In 1698, England passed a draconian law that penalized anyone who dared to criticize Christianity.  Critics of Christianity faced harsh penalties, such as ineligibility to hold public office, buy land or take legal action.  Cooke states that people in opposition to Christianity then wrote treatises in which they criticized one specific religion, such as Roman Catholicism or Islam.  Readers understood that the authors were actually criticizing Christianity in general.

At the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the signing of The Treaty of Westphalia granted some degree of religious toleration. However, this toleration had been preceded by a century of heightened and shameful degree of persecution of heresy.  Charles V enacted a comprehensive law against heresy in the Holy Roman Empire in 1523.  The Hapsburg monarch, Philip II of Spain, encouraged more intensified extirpation of heretics during the same period.

France suffered eight religious wars between the Huguenots who were Protestant and the Catholics during this same time period.  On August 23 and 24, 1572, about 20,000 Huguenots were massacred in Paris. It has been named the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre because it began on the evening before the feast for that Saint. Pope Gregory XIII celebrated by holding a Te Deum Mass and proclaiming other events of thanksgiving. The following story may be apocryphal, but the King of Spain was said to have laughed when he was told of the horror.  Hate and war continued, culminating in the absurd Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648, which was both religious and political.  It was known as Europe’s bloodiest war until the First World War. 

Sadly for the orthodoxy and hegemony of the Catholic Church, a strong new religion had risen up as a formidable rival. The Church had been trying to establish itself as the universal mode of belief. Its hierarchy wanted people to believe and accept that all moral and civil order depended on that one mode.  The Protestant Reformation demonstrated a viable alternative to the Catholic Church, and the Protestant Religion was quickly embraced in many parts of Europe during the 16th Century. The old world view was fatally undermined by the Reformation and so were the assumptions on which heresy had rested.  I have discussed in an earlier lecture (Please see Blasphemy at how Protestants were loath to bring heresy charges as so many heresy charges had been brought against them.  They charged people with blasphemy, however, and put them to death for that crime.  As one scholar has pointed out, the fires were just as hot for the crime of blasphemy as for the crime of heresy.

An edict giving Huguenots religious freedom in 1598 gave France some measure of peace, but when it was revoked in 1685, there was a mass exodus of Huguenots from France. This was an economic drain and an intellectual one as well.  In an earlier lecture I have discussed how many Huguenots settled in the Netherlands, where they wrote and printed cogent critiques of Catholicism, further eroding the Church’s hegemony.

The scientific revolution further undermined the outworn geocentric view of the universe from the Medieval era. At the same time, Christian scripture was beginning to be interpreted in new ways.  Leonard George has an interesting view of heresies sometimes serving as decoys. 

He states that by the 15h Century, the Church, beset from menaces from within and without, some of them real and some of them imagined, must have seen the magnitude of its failure.  It had mounted a ferocious attempt at extirpating heretics for the preceding three hundred years, and yet orthodoxy still had not prevailed.  Heresies kept emerging. 

George believes that this impotence was one factor in the witch hunts. The wicked persistence of heresy must have been in part, the Church began to believe, due to the machinations of Satan.  It was necessary to hunt down and eliminate the Devil’s assistants, and so the witch hunts began to become widespread.  It was surely one factor among many reasons for the witch persecutions. Witches and heretics helped distract from the scientific researches that would play such a significant role in reducing Church influence and opening the way for divergent views.

George is of the opinion that amid the tumult, the work of Copernicus, Kepler and others slipped through intense Church scrutiny.  By the 17th Century, the very real danger to religion from science had been recognized.  Giordano Bruno was executed in 1600, partly for his atomist views and stating the universe was infinite. In 1633, Galileo was silenced, at least publicly, although he continued his work privately.  But George states that by then, many strands of scientific thinking had been released.  He is of the opinion that heretics, real and imagined, “drew the fire of orthodoxy away from those who were constructing its replacements.”

While the Church struggled against the ideas of heretics, which opposed its orthodoxy, the scientists were beginning to provide proof concerning the nature of reality. 

The fantasies and notions of the earlier centuries, miasmas that had reigned so long, began to be seen as non solid, unreal, and they began to fade like a fog attacked by the heat of the sun.  The old world view was decisively undermined.

People had begun to be disgusted with religious dissension and bloodshed by the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Many countries took several decades to recover from its effects. Germany was particularly hurt by the conflict, ending up impoverished and under populated for years. There was a groundswell for the concept that there were many different ways for a Christian to not only worship god but to interpret Scripture.

The philosopher, Spinoza, himself an excommunicated heretic from the Jewish faith, began to write and offer, what, for the times, was a radical solution. This is what he said in the 1670’s regarding government: “…it is not the purpose of government to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger or deceit, nor watched by the eyes of jealousy and injustice.  In fact, the true aim of government is liberty.” He held forth on the consequences of the terrible mistake of mixing religion and government.

There was a rise of anti-clericalism during the Enlightenment of the 18th Century and writers like Voltaire, who pilloried the crimes of religion, became popular. Bill Cooke states that Voltaire began a study of heresy by noting that “…it is not greatly to the honor of human reason that men should be hated, persecuted, massacred or burned at the stake, on account of their chosen opinions.”

What the Church sought- to clutch by all means possible, a world-wide authority over states and men, a god’s kingdom on earth, began to, if not collapse, be severely scrutinized, criticized and curbed.

But Church power, even though weakened, continued.  In the 19th Century, Catholicism remained a closed system.  Bill Cooke points out that when the Englishman, John Henry Newman, converted to Catholicism and became a bishop, as well as an important theologian, he stated that it was better for the universe to expire than for one venial sin to be committed.  It is difficult for the modern secular mind to understand such a remarkable statement and the conceptual thinking that would give rise to it. 

But Pope Pius IX was surely in agreement with such thinkers as Newman.  On December 8, 1864, he published a huge and all-encompassing list that condemned all the thoughts that were generally agreed upon by people of sense and education in the modern world.  It was called: “The Syllabus of Errors.” When one hears the word error used in matters of religion, one may be sure that it is a working euphemism for the term, heresy. Some of the popes who followed Pius IX also followed him in the hard line approach to modernism.  They did not seem to understand they had lost the struggle to effect god’s kingdom on earth, with the Catholic Church in command of that Kingdom.  It was a remarkable attempt at obfuscation in the face of change.

The Pope’s Syllabus contained some statements that he considered false.  Here are some of the falsehoods that Pope identified: “Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to god, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, good and evil.

All the truths of religion proceed from the innate strength of human reason; hence reason is the ultimate standard by which man can and ought to arrive at the knowledge of all truths of every kind. In the present day it is not longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship.  The Church ought to be separated from the State and the State from the Church.  Every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true.  The Roman pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” The secular community will of course recognize such so-called falsehoods as the part of the philosophy it embraces and tries to live by. Do not forget that the date this document was issued was 1864- it seems unbelievable, but there it is, an encyclical that stands in the history of the Catholic Church.

Pius X, another foe of modernism, oversaw the production of the Institutes of Public Ecclesiastical Law in 1901, which supported the death penalty for “obstinate heretics and heresiarchs.” Luckily the Church was in no position to enforce the death penalty for those who disputed Church dogma. Pius X also encouraged the formation and the practices of Sodalitium Pianum (The Fellowship of Pius X) which accused people of heresy on the flimsiest of evidence.  Information was gathered on suspected culprits, and the Pope’s agent, Monsignor Umberto Benigni, reported to the Pope in a secret code.  The Pope was called Mama.  Pius X was canonized as a saint in 1954.

Two important Church theologians discovered that, while not able to try and burn dissenters for heresy, the Church meant what it said about modernism.

Louis Duchene questioned the belief that god acts in a direct way in the affairs of humanity.  While he received the French Legion of Honor for his various writings, the Church placed his Early History of the Christian Church on its Index of Forbidden Books in 1912.  Alfred Firmin Loisy spent his scholarly life trying to defend the Church from Protestant allegations that it distorted the teachings of the Apostles.  Unfortunately, he had to effect this defense by throwing overboard any concept of Biblical inerrancy.  He was excommunicated in 1908.

Bill Cooke points out that despite the popes, the concept of heresy outside of the Church was beginning to take on a lighter meaning.  Secular people began to use it to describe themselves as free thinkers, as rebels. The word began to have positive connotations in such quarters.  The conservative author, G.K. Chesterton, lamented such a state of affairs in his 1905 volume, Heretics. He said that such modern people had philosophies that were ‘quite solid, quite coherent and quite wrong.’

The Catholic Church, at its reform Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965, attempted to bring the Church into some reconciliation with the modern world.  Remarkably, the Council stated that: “It has always been the teaching of the Church that no one is to be coerced into believing.” Did anyone believe such a statement?  Does anyone now? If so many people had not suffered and died over the centuries because of the Catholic Church’s attempt to coerce their beliefs, the Church’s claim would be laughable. When it had the ability to enforce severe penalties, the Church persecuted dissenters with a savagery that is on the record and gives the lie to any denials it attempts to propagate.

Matters have changed with the rise of secularity. Most of the Western modern world thinks of heresy as something belonging to history.  However, Bill Cooke reminds readers that churches in the 20th Century conducted heresy trials of their dissenting clergy and theologians. The Episcopalian Church of America found one of its clergy, Algernon Sidney Crapsey, guilty of heresy and expelled him in 1906.  In New Zealand, the prominent theologian, Lloyd Geery was charged with heresy in 1967, but was acquitted.  Both men went on to successful public careers, a demonstration of the secular nature of the modern world.

How much the Catholic Church moved away from the reforms and aims of the liberal Second Vatican Council may be demonstrated by its treatment of the eminent Swiss theologian, Hans Kung.  In 1970, he published his book, Infallible? An Inquiry. Since 1870, the concept of the infallibility of the Pope on matters of Church doctrine had been dogma.  Now Kung, disturbed by the papal position that most forms of birth control were wrong to employ, decided that papal infallibility must be false.  In 1979, Pope John Paul II forbade Kung from writing or publishing as a Catholic theologian.  Kung had a subsequent successful career as a public intellectual.  In an article, he stated: “The truth is that Rome is not waiting for dialogue, but submission.” The same might be said about most religions.

What struck me when I was researching the topic of heresy was the permission granted by the Church Fathers for the subsequent violent actions and practices of the Church. Many of the writings of the theologians affirmed orthodox dogma and claimed that the Church persecuted heretics in the name of love.  It was the heretics, the Church Fathers maintained, who persecuted the Church out of grievous and evil error. 

It was the Church who punished such heretics in a spirit of charity.  I have read some of the theologian’s writings on the issue during this lecture. But when I turned to the actual history of the persecutions and the attempted extirpation of heresy and heretics, all that I could discern in the final analysis were savage imprisonments, tortures and burnings, as well as vicious crushing of not only individuals, but of groups of dissenters, and sometimes entire regions. The writers and theologians were as guilty as the armies and the inquisitors.  The writers helped the murderers by providing them with justification they claimed had come from god.

For most of us in the secular community, the concept of heresy is one that belongs to the past. As Bill Cooke states: “The closed, geocentric understanding of the universe that gave rise to the notion of heresy has gone forever.” He is correct.  Antediluvian thinking has altered and diminished beyond recognition. It has collapsed in many quarters, especially among the most educated people, particularly in the West. 

But let us keep in mind that in earlier times, reading or hearing my lecture, or any of the lectures in this series, would have opened you, my readers and listeners, up to charges of heresy, torture, imprisonment, loss of property, and death by burning.  I would have been burned as a heretic for expressing my thoughts concerning orthodox notions, as I believe none of those notions. In fact, I find them egregiously wrong and state that fact often.  Yes, the times have changed. We are free to write and speak what we are thinking.

But the rise of conservative religions in some areas of the world serves to alert us that we cannot yet predict the absolute end of the concept of heresy.  There are persecutions all over the world for heresy and blasphemy. I have discussed some of them in my previous lecture on blasphemy. The threat from Christian fundamentalists, Islam and other religions is always with us.  We need to resist, to push back both legally and philosophically against such fundamentalists and obscurantists . It is necessary for the secular community to present a united front against their closed world views. Many of them would bring back the burning times if they were able.

The threat from them is still real and still severe.  The burning times will only be over if we work to undermine religion’s power and influence.  Keep a watchful eye on the fundamentalists; do not let their ideas spread and gain converts. I hope this lecture has done its task. I hope that it has demonstrated how heresy came to be defined and what was done to dissenters from orthodoxy. But I hope that it has also exposed religious orthodoxy as the infamy and perversion it was and continues to remain. Let us celebrate many of the heretics of the past as heroes and dedicate ourselves to the elimination of universalizing ideologies that would try to extirpate freedom of thought, of conscience and of speech.

Video of Lecture: Heresy: An Atheist Perspective

Lecture: Heresy: An Atheist Perspective

Video of Discussion: Heresy: An Atheist Perspective

Discussion: Heresy: An Atheist Perspective


Bauer, Walter.  Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. 2nd German Ed. With added appendices by George Streker.  Translated by a team from the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins.  Edited by Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

Chesteron, G.K.  Heretics.  London: John Lane/Bodley Head, 1911.

Cooke, Bill. “Heresy” in Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 385-388.

George, Leonard. Crimes of Perception: An Encyclopedia of Heresy and Heretics. St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 1995.  An Excellent Source Work.

Henderson, John B. The Construction of Orthodoxy and Heresy. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1998. An excellent and informative volume that contains a very comprehensive bibliography on the topic of heresy.

Herrin, Judith.  The Formation of Christendom.  London: Phoenix, 2001.

Liu, Samuel N.C. Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China. 2nd Ed. Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1992.

Peters, Edward, Ed. Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe: Documents in Translation.  Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1980.

Simon, Marcel.  “From Greek Hairesis to Christian Heresy.” In Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition: In Honorem, Robert M. Grant. Ed. William R. Schoedel and Robert L. Wilken.  Paris: Editions Beauchesne, 1979. 101-16.