Heresy in the 21st Century

by Peter Tim

Outside of an historical context, heresy is not a word much used today. It is a term that refers to an opinion or belief that is contrary to orthodoxy. And orthodoxy is a word that comes from the Greek “ortho” — right — “doxia” — opinion. But in the modern world there seem few if any “right” opinions. Rather, people choose their opinions and not always through a process of drawing reasonable conclusions from reliable facts. All too often, they then consider their own opinions to be the only “right” ones.

A modern dictionary gives the meaning of orthodoxy as “adherence to correct or accepted creeds.” Heresy, then, is contrary to what are considered “correct” or “accepted” religious opinions. But so considered by whom? By those who claim to be authorities in such matters, of course, that is to say by those who claim to speak for each creed or for each religious tradition. The terms “heterodox” and “unorthodox” are also used to refer to what is at odds with orthodoxy, or to what may “fall short” of heresy.

The Catholic Church, which still maintains that it is the only authentic Christian Church, has the longest history and experience with heresy. Indeed, it may be fairly said that its insistence on specific doctrines and their details, especially that of papal infallibility, brought heresy into being in the same way that a suitable law can make anything crime. Had differences of opinion in Christianity been tolerated the worst eventuality would have been a few more splinter religions in addition to the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches. As it is, we get the saying of “an iota of difference,” meaning a trivial difference, from the ferocious struggle in the 4th Century over whether the “substance” of Jesus and “God the Father” are the same or only similar. The two Greek words for this are “homoousios” and “homoiousios” which differ only by one letter. The first won out and the second, which became the heresy — known as Arianism after its chief proponent Arius — is often cited as the earliest and worst heresy, one that supposedly endangered the very existence of Christianity.

The Vatican’s preoccupation with heresy has never flagged. The official Catechism of the Catholic Church, which runs to hundreds of pages, is perhaps the only document that authoritatively spells out in some detail what a particular religion is and requires. It states:

“Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same;”

The news media often carries items featuring how folksy and friendly the Pope is. Seldom is it mentioned that he stands for doctrines “which must be believed” and that it is heresy even to have “obstinate doubt” about the Church’s teachings. To be sure, the Catechism makes it clear that this is only if one has received the Catholic sacrament of baptism, most often as an infant. So it is that holy water and magic words turn non-Catholics into Catholic heretics. But the Catechism describes other sins that apply to non-Catholics. For example, the crime of “incredulity,” which “is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it.” In addition, “atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion.”

Protestants were no less vigorous in rooting out and destroying heretics when they enjoyed political power.~ While the Roman Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno in 1600, Calvin and his followers burned Servetus in 1553. Calvin wrote of such matters:

“Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime … it is God who speaks … [and] demand[s] of us so extreme a severity … so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.”

It should come as no surprise that the European religious wars of the 16th and 17th Century occasioned loss of life and destruction of property that far exceeded both anything connected with the Crusades or perpetrated in modern times by Islamic extremists such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. It was this recent history which, in the 18th Century, motivated the American innovation of separation of state and church.

Muslims, too, have and struggle against their heretics. The 1989 death sentence fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini against British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie is well known. Rushdie remains alive while Egyptian writer Farag Foda was murdered in 1992 following a similar fatwa against him by clerics at an Egyptian university. Another death sentence fatwa issued by Indian Muslim scholars remains outstanding against Bangladeshi physician and writer Taslima Nasreen. Other fatwas have been issued against the Pokemon game, TV shows, Israeli and American products, and calling for the destruction of the Egyptian pyramids and Sphinx. One fatwa issued by a Moroccan cleric pronounced it acceptable for a man to have sex with his wife’s corpse up to six hours after her death. The situation with fatwas, though, is that any Islamic cleric can issue them. Nor is there any clerical hierarchy in Islam or even any authority to say who is or is not qualified to pronounce fatwas. A TV channel in India in 2008 aired a story showing respected Muslim clerics demanding and receiving cash for issuing fatwas. There are deeper divisions in Islam than these, though. The most prominent is certainly that between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Both groups regard the other as heretical.

The important thing about heresies is their diminished importance in the modern world. And for the not-yet-modern world, there are lessons offered by the conflicts and violence that heresies — which is to say efforts to combat heresies — always bring about. In particular, it is clear that conformity to orthodoxy has never turned out to be as vital as claimed. Rather, as Thomas Jefferson put it:

“Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. … Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth”

Nor does it help to call orthodoxy sharia, “murder” of an embryo or “the gender on your birth certificate.”

~ Violent Jewish suppression of its dissenters has not been practiced since Jews enjoyed political dominance in biblical times. Jesus –allegedly — was perhaps the most famous example. Neverthless, the Jewish authorities of Amsterdam in 1656 officially pronounced against the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza:

“we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, … with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant.”

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