What is Heresy?

The Origin

The word heresy derives from the Greek word hairesis and was originally a neutral term that signified “choice” and the process whereby a young person would examine various philosophies to determine how to live.

Via religion the word heresy has taken on a slightly different meaning, which throughout history and even to the present day has resulted in uncountable deaths.


Heresy in Christianity

If you were to look up heresy in the dictionary the first example of the term would likely be along the lines of “belief or opinion contrary to orthodox religious doctrine” and would largely be in reference to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam, and predominantly Christianity.

In early Christianity, any deviation from orthodox Christianity was considered heresy, for example a follower of Judaism was considered a heretic and therefore would be classed as a corrupting influence on true religious teachings.

Constantine the Great, who lived most of his life as a Pagan, was the first Roman Emperor to declare a toleration of Christianity within the Roman Empire and upon his deathbed was baptised a Christian.  It is widely believed that from this point onward the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion.  The motives behind the adoption of Christianity were largely political and is a fascinating story within itself of which we will touch on in future posts.

Christianity became the Church State of the Roman Empire and with this the Church now shared legal powers influencing the law, which now pronounced the death sentence upon anyone who the church considered to be heretical.

During the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries church sanctioned campaigns, also known as Holy Crusades, were fought across Europe and the Middle East to combat paganism and heresy.  In the 12th century the Holy Inquisition was created which was a group of institutions within the Catholic church whose aim was to combat heresy.  The Spanish Inquisition was established three centuries later in 1478.  The tool of the crusades was war, but the tool of the inquisition was trial and torture, the consequences of both were often the same… death or conversion.

Watch this short clip from British comedy panel quiz hosted by Stephen Fry for some interesting (and humorous) facts about the Spanish Inquisition:


Giordano Bruno, an Italian mathematician, scientist, and philosopher who proposed that stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets was tried for heresy by the Inquisition.  He was found guilty, not just for his scientific claims but also as a response to his religious and philosophical views.  Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 and following his death, particularly during the 19th and 20th century, he was regarded by many as a martyr for science.

The "Giordano Bruno Appreciation Society" T-shirt by Tees of Heresy:

Fifteen years later another scientist, Galileo Galilei, an Italian Physicist, who is now considered to be the “Father of Modern Science” was brought before the Inquisition and charged with Heresy.  His scientific claims which included the Sun being at the centre of the Universe and not the earth, which we now know to be correct, were his crime.  By denouncing his own beliefs to avoid the death penalty he lived the remainder of his life under house arrest.

The last execution of a heretic under the banner of Christianity was in 1826.  Cayetano Ripoll, a Spanish schoolmaster from Valencia, Spain was tried and sentenced to death for teaching Deist principles.  The last execution may have been 200 years ago however the Inquisition still exists today albeit under a different name "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith".


Heresy in Islam

In Islam, the charge of heresy is similar in accusation to that of Christianity.  Starting in medieval times, Muslims began to refer to heretics and those who antagonised Islam as zindiqs, the charge being punishable by death.

Apostasy is a term in religion, that differs slightly from heresy, and refers to “the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle”.  Under Sharia law Apostasy and Heresy is punishable by death and to this day there are still thirteen countries where the death penalty is still enshrined in law.

In 1989 a fatwa was issued against Booker prize novelist, Salman Rushdie by the government of Iran.  They offered a substantial reward for anyone who was successful in assassinating him.  His crime was heresy, his writings, particularly the Satanic Verses was deemed heretical due to its depiction of Muhammad.  Rushdie now lives in New York and has won countless awards for his writings however there is still a bounty on his head to this very day.

The 13 countries that have the death penalty for heresy are as follows:  Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

These countries, except Pakistan, also allow for capital punishment against apostasy, while Pakistan imposes the death penalty for blasphemy - including a disbelief in God.


List of Heretics – Are you on the list?

  • Protestants (by the Roman Catholic Church)
  • Roman Catholics (by most Protestant and Orthodox churches)
  • Orthodox Christians (by Roman Catholic Church)
  • Mormons (by Roman Catholic and Protestant churches)
  • Jehovah's Witnesses (by Roman Catholic and Protestant churches)
  • Sunni Muslims (by Shiite Muslims)
  • Shiite Muslims (by Sunni Muslims)
  • Sufi Muslims (by Sunni and Shiite Muslims)
  • Non-Orthodox Jews (by Orthodox Judaism)
  • Moderates of any of the above (by fundamentalists of any of the above)
  • Atheists – Non-religious (by all the above)
  • All other religions (by all the above)


Heresy in a non-religious context

With regards to the non-religious use of the term heresy, the Cambridge dictionary has this to say:

(the act of having) an opinion or belief that is the opposite of or against what is the official or popular opinion, or an action that shows that you have no respect for the official opinion: Radical remarks like this amount to heresy for most members of the Republican party.

She committed the heresy of playing a Lady Gaga song on a classical music station.


In summary… Maybe we are all heretics?

The "Heretic" T-shirt by Tees of Heresy


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1 comment

  • Amy

    Very interesting x

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