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The burning of the Amalricians (1210)

Heresy is any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs.[1] Heresy is distinct from both apostasy, which is the explicit renunciation of one's religion, principles or cause,[2] and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion.[3]

Heresy is usually used to discuss violations of religious or traditional laws or legal codes, although it is used by some political extremists to refer to their opponents. It carries the connotation of behaviors or beliefs likely to undermine accepted morality and cause tangible evils, damnation, or other punishment. In some religions, it also implies that the heretic is in alliance with the religion's symbol of evil, such as Satan or chaos.[4] In certain historical Christian, Jewish, and some modern cultures, espousing ideas deemed heretical was punishable by law.



The term heresy is from Greek αἵρεσις originally meant "choice", but also referred to that process whereby a young person would examine various philosophies to determine how to live one's life. The word "heresy" is usually used within a Christian, Jewish, or Islamic context, and implies slightly different meanings in each. The founder or leader of a heretical movement is called a heresiarch, while individuals who espouse heresy or commit heresy are known as heretics. Heresiology is the study of heresy.


The use of the word "heresy" was given wide currency by Irenaeus in his tract Contra Haereses (Against Heresies) to describe and discredit his opponents during the early centuries of the Christian community.[citation needed] He described the community's beliefs and doctrines as orthodox (from ὀρθός, orthos "straight" + δόξα, doxa "belief") and the Gnostics' teachings as heretical.[citation needed] He also pointed out the concept of apostolic succession to support his arguments.[5]

Constantine the Great, who along with Licinius had decreed toleration of Christianity in the Roman Empire by what is commonly called the "Edict of Milan",[6] and was the first Roman Emperor to be baptized, set precedents for later policy. By Roman law the Emperor was Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the College of Pontiffs (Collegium Pontificum) of all recognized religions in ancient Rome. To put an end to the doctrinal debate initiated by Arius, Constantine called the first of what would afterwards be called the ecumenical councils[7] and then enforced orthodoxy by Imperial authority.[8]

The first known usage of the term in a legal context was in 380 AD by the Edict of Thessalonica of Theodosius I,[9] which made Christianity the State church of the Roman Empire. Prior to the issuance of this edict, the Church had no state-sponsored support for any particular legal mechanism to counter what it perceived as "heresy". By this edict the State's authority and that of the catholic Church became somewhat overlapping. One of the outcomes of this blurring of Church and State was the sharing of State powers of legal enforcement with Church authorities. This reinforcement of the Church's authority gave Church leaders the power to, in effect, pronounce the death sentence upon those whom the Church considered heretical.

Within five years of the official criminalization of heresy by the Emperor, the first Christian heretic to be prosecuted, Priscillian, was executed in 385 by Roman officials. For some years after the Reformation, Protestant churches were also known to execute those whom they considered to be heretics, including Catholics. The last known heretic executed by sentence of the Roman Catholic Church was Cayetano Ripoll in 1826. The number of people executed as heretics under the authority of the various "ecclesiastical authorities"[note 1] is not known. [note 2]


Massacre of the Waldensians of Mérindol in 1545.

The Roman Catholic Church had always dealt harshly with strands of Christianity that it considered heretical, but before the 11th century these tended to centre around individual preachers or small localised sects, like Arianism, Pelagianism, Donatism, Marcionism and Montanism. The diffusion of the almost Manichean sect of Paulicians westwards gave birth to the famous 11th and 12th century heresies of Western Europe. The first one was that of Bogomils in modern day Bosnia, a sort of sanctuary between Eastern and Western Christianities. By the 11th century, more organised groups such as the Patarini, the Dulcinians, the Waldensians and the Cathars were beginning to appear in the towns and cities of Northern Italy, Southern France and Flanders.

In France the Cathars grew to represent a popular mass movement and the belief was spreading to other areas.[15] The Cathar Crusade was initiated by the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate the Cathar heresy in Languedoc.[16][17] Heresy was a major justification for the Inquisition (Inquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis, Inquiry on Heretical Perversity) and for the European wars of religion associated with the Protestant Reformation.

Cristiano Banti's 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition

A few early modern scientists were accused of heresy by the Catholic Church. Giordano Bruno, who believed that the universe contained numerous suns, planets, and worlds similar to Earth, and that other such worlds could contain sentient beings, was condemned as a heretic by the Church and burned at the stake. Some sources claim that Bruno's scientific views motivated his prosecution, but other sources say that only his theological views motivated it, in particular, "that Christ was not God but merely an unusually skillful magician, that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the world, that the Devil will be saved, etc."[18][19] Galileo Galilei was also brought before the Inquisition for heresy, but recanted and was condemned to house arrest (where he spent the rest of his life) instead of being burnt at the stake.

Eastern Christianity

In Eastern Christianity heresy most commonly refers to those beliefs declared to be heretical by the first seven Ecumenical Councils.[citation needed] Since the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation, various Christian churches have also used the concept in proceedings against individuals and groups deemed to be heretical by those churches.


Christian heresy in the modern era

Although less common than in the medieval period, formal charges of heresy within Christian churches still occur. Key issues in the Protestant churches have included modern biblical criticism, the nature of God, and the acceptability of gay clergy. The Catholic Church, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appears to be particularly concerned with academic theology.

Perhaps due to the many modern negative connotations associated with the term heretic, such as the Spanish inquisition, the term is used less often today. There are however, some notable exceptions: see for example Rudolf Bultmann and the character of debates over ordination of women and gay priests. The subject of Christian heresy opens up broader questions as to who has a monopoly on spiritual truth, as explored by Jorge Luis Borges in the short story "The Theologians" within the compilation Labyrinths.[20]


Many in the two main bodies of IslamSunnis and the Shi'as—have regarded the other as heretical. Groups like the Ismailis, the Hurufiya, the Alawis, the Bektashi and the Sufis have been regarded as heretical by many, such as the ultra-conservative Salafi. Although Sufism is often though not completely accepted as valid by Shi'a and many Sunnis, the relatively recent movement of Wahhabism view it as heretical.

Starting in medieval times, Muslims began to refer to heretics and those who antagonized Islam as zindiqs, the charge being punishable by death.[21]

Medieval Muslim scholars and philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes were condemned as heretics.[22]

In some modern day nations and regions in which Sharia law is ostensibly practiced, heresy remains as an offense which may be punishable by death. One example of such is the recent fatwa issued by the government of Iran, offering a substantial bounty for anyone who might succeed in the assassination of author Salmon Rushdie, whose writings have been declared as "heretical".


Orthodox Judaism

Orthodox Judaism considers views on the part of Jews which depart from the traditional Jewish principles of faith to be heretical. In addition, the more right-wing groups within Orthodox Judaism hold that all Jews who reject the simple meaning of Maimonides's 13 principles of Jewish faith are heretics.[23] As such, most of Orthodox Judaism considers Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism to be heretical movements, and regards most of Conservative Judaism as heretical. The liberal wing of Modern Orthodoxy is more tolerant of Conservative Judaism, particularly its right wing, as there is some theological and practical overlap between these groups.

Other religions

Hinduism ignored or absorbed its heretics. In chapter XVI, the Bhagavad-Gita makes passing reference to heretics (as the Unheavenly).[citation needed]

Buddhist literature mentions a wrathful conquest of Buddhist heretics (see Padmasambhava) and a Buddhist theocracy once existed, but Buddhism doesn't accept the use of violence.[24]

Neo-Confucian heresy has been described.[25]

The act of using Church of Scientology techniques in a form different than originally described by Hubbard is referred to within Scientology as "squirreling" and is said by Scientologists to be "high treason".[26] The Religious Technology Center has prosecuted breakaway groups that have practiced Scientology outside the official Church without authorization.

Non-religious usage

In a secular, multi-polar world, the term heresy has lost utility outside of a well-defined (usually religious) context. While heresy is pejorative in a religious context and in some political contexts, it may be complimentary in other contexts where innovation is more welcome.

Today, heresy can be without a religious context as the holding of ideas that are in fundamental disagreement with the status quo in any practice and branch of knowledge. Scientist/author Isaac Asimov considered heresy as an abstraction,[27] mentioning religious, political, socioeconomic and scientific heresies. He divided scientific heretics into endoheretics (those from within the scientific community) and exoheretics (those from without). Characteristics were ascribed to both and examples of both kinds were offered. Asimov concluded that science orthodoxy defends itself well against endoheretics (by control of science education, grants and publication as examples), but is nearly powerless against exoheretics. He acknowledged by examples that heresy has repeatedly become orthodoxy.

The revisionist paleontologist Robert T. Bakker, who published his findings as The Dinosaur Heresies, treated the mainstream view of dinosaurs as dogma.[28] He is an example of a recent scientific endoheretic.

Immanuel Velikovsky is an example of a recent scientific exoheretic; He did not have appropriate scientific credentials or publish in scientific journals. While the details of his work are in scientific disrepute, the concept of catastrophic change (extinction event and punctuated equilibrium) has gained acceptance in recent decades.

The term heresy is also used as an ideological pigeonhole for contemporary writers because, by definition, heresy depends on contrasts with an established orthodoxy. For example, the tongue-in-cheek contemporary usage of heresy, such as to categorize a "Wall Street heresy" a "Democratic heresy" or a "Republican heresy", are metaphors which invariably retain a subtext that links orthodoxies in geology or biology or any other field to religion. These expanded metaphoric senses allude to both the difference between the person's views and the mainstream and the boldness of such a person in propounding these views.

Selected quotations

See also


  1. ^ An "ecclesiastical authority" was initially an assembly of bishops, later the Pope, then an inquisitor (a delegate of the Pope) and later yet the leadership of a Protestant church (which would itself be regarded as heretical by the Pope). The definitions of "state", "cooperation", "suppress" and "heresy" were all subject to change during the past 16 centuries.
  2. ^ The records to estimate the number of executions resulting from first millennium heresy convictions do not exist. The absence of records does not prove the absence of prosecutions. Priscillian is the only known case of capital punishment for heresy in the first millennium.[10] The charge of heresy is a weapon that fits many hands. A century and a half after heresy was made a state crime, the Vandals (a heretical Christian Germanic tribe), used the law to prosecute thousands of (orthodox) Catholics with penalties of torture, mutilation, slavery and banishment.[11] The Vandals were overthrown; orthodoxy was restored; "No toleration whatsoever was to be granted to heretics or schismatics."[12] Heretics were not the only casualties. 4000 Roman soldiers were killed by heretical peasants in one campaign.[13] Better records are available in the second millennium. To estimate the fatalities associated with Christian heresies requires careful definitions and careful accounting. Lists of heretics and heresies are available. Thousands were burned at the stake by the Inquisition - a search for heresy that lasted centuries.[14] Heretics were burned at the stake by an enraged populace without the official participation of Church or State.[10] Religious Wars slaughtered millions. The degree to which heresy was a motivation for these wars (as opposed to other religious charges or politics) is subject to debate. The application of the term heresy to witchcraft trials and antisemitism is more controversial.


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ Definitions of "blasphemy" at
  4. ^ Definition of "heresy" at Free Online Dictionary
  5. ^ W.H.C. Frend (1984). The Rise of Christianity. Chapter 7, The Emergence of Orthodoxy 135-93. ISBN 978-0-8006-1931-2. Appendices provide a timeline of Councils, Schisms, Heresies and Persecutions in the years 193-604. They are described in the text.
  6. ^ Cross and Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 1974, art. Milan, Edict of.
  7. ^ Chadwick, Henry. The Early Christian Church, Pelican 1967, pp 129-30
  8. ^ Paul Stephenson (2009). Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor. Chapter 11. ISBN 978-1-59020-324-8. The Emperor established and enforced orthodoxy for domestic tranquility and the efficacy of prayers in support of the empire.
  9. ^ Charles Freeman (2008). A.D. 381 - Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. ISBN 978-1-59020-171-8. As Christianity placed its stamp upon the Empire, the Emperor shaped the Church for political purposes.
  10. ^ a b Will & Ariel Durant (1950). The Age of Faith. page 778.
  11. ^ Edward Gibbon. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 37, Part III.
  12. ^ W.H.C. Frend (1984). The Rise of Christianity. page 833. ISBN 978-0-8006-1931-2.
  13. ^ Edward Gibbon. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 21, Part VII.
  14. ^ James Carroll (2001). Constantine's Sword. page 357. ISBN 0-618-21908-0.
  15. ^ "Massacre of the Pure." Time. April 28, 1961.
  16. ^ Joseph Reese Strayer (1992). The Albigensian Crusades. University of Michigan Press. p. 143. ISBN 0-472-06476-2
  17. ^ Will & Ariel Durant (1950). The Age of Faith. Chapter XXVIII, The Early Inquisition: 1000-1300.
  18. ^  "Giordano Bruno". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
  19. ^ Sheila Rabin, "Nicolaus Copernicus" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online, accessed 19 November 2005).
  20. ^ Borges, Jorge Luis (1962). Labyrinths. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation. pp. 119–126. ISBN 978-0-8112-0012-7.
  21. ^ John Bowker. "Zindiq." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. 1997
  22. ^ "Averroës (Ibn Rushd) > By Individual Philosopher > Philosophy". Retrieved 2012-10-13.
  23. ^ The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised, by Marc B. Shapiro, ISBN 1-874774-90-0, A book written as a contentious rebuttal to an article written in the Torah u'Maddah Journal.
  24. ^ (Buddhism Five precepts)
  25. ^ John B. Henderson (1998). The construction of orthodoxy and heresy: Neo-Confucian, Islamic, Jewish, and early Christian patterns. ISBN 978-0-7914-3760-5.
  26. ^ Welkos, Robert W.; Sappell, Joel (29 June 1990). "When the Doctrine Leaves the Church". Los Angeles Times.,0,4204659.story. Retrieved 2008-08-24.
  27. ^ a b Donald Goldsmith (1977). Scientists Confront Velikovsky. ISBN 0-8014-0961-6. Asimov's views are in Forward: The Role of the Heretic.
  28. ^ Robert T. Bakker (1986). The Dinosaur Heresies. ISBN 978-0-8065-2260-9. "I have enormous respect for dinosaur paleontologists past and present. But on average, for the last fifty years, the field hasn't tested dinosaur orthodoxy severely enough." page 27 "Most taxonomists, however, have viewed such new terminology as dangerously destabilizing to the traditional and well-known scheme..." page 462. This book apparently influenced Jurassic Park. The illustrations by the author show dinosaurs in very active poses, in contrast to the traditional perception of lethargy.
  29. ^ Coutou, Diane. Ideas as Art. Harvard Business Review 84 (2006): 83–89.
  30. ^ Daybreak, R.J. Hollingdale trans., Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 18. Available at

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