Question from Jeremy:
Will you please explain to me the difference between an atheist and a heretic?

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists don’t believe in a god. Heretics commit heresy – they say and/or do things which contradict religious dogma.

Heresy is different from blasphemy, which is specifically a show of irreverence toward religion. It’s possible to be heretical without being blasphemous (for example by praising the actions of a church while debunking its beliefs) or to be blasphemous without being heretical (for example by insulting a god without questioning its existence) but it’s usually easier to be both at once.

All outspoken atheists and agnostics are also heretics in the eyes of the religious, because openly questioning the existence of an established god is a basic form of heresy. Silent or closeted atheists (the kind churches prefer) may not be heretics, especially if they pretend to worship out of some social obligation.

Not all heretics are atheists; in fact, the word is now most often used to describe those with religious beliefs that differ from the speaker’s to a relatively small degree. To a Catholic, a Muslim is a heretic, but Muslim beliefs are so far removed that the words “pagan” or “heathen” might seem more appropriate. A Catholic is more likely to use “heretic” to describe a Protestant, or a Mormon. Atheists may again be called “heathens”, or else unique words like “unbelievers” or “godless”.

Generally speaking, the word “heretic” has been de-emphasised when heresy has ceased to be a criminal offence. There are still places where heresy can get you killed, legally or otherwise, and there the word is still in regular use. For the rest of us living in pluralistic societies, heresy is a somewhat antiquated concept.

2 thoughts on “Heresy”

  1. I have been down the paths of theism and atheism. I endured a great deal of spiritual confusion before I understood that my leanings were more towards agnosticism. I am not buying the stories that organised religions have pedalled us over the years because they are quite simply full of holes and are misogynistic tools of social control. I am not arrogant enough to say that I have answers to every question (scientific or otherwise) that have plagued my mind for many a night. I am not skeptical enough to say that the human race can never find out the ultimate truth about why we are all here. All I am taking the liberty of saying is this. I don’t know all there is to know about every aspect of life or its mysteries. I have not divorced my intellect and am at peace with what I do not know. I want to leave it at that and not waste my precious time and energy debating about the existence or non existence of a God who has be ascribed human characteristics and made to sanction or not sanction various things which quite remarkably seem to coincide solely with the interests of the male gender of this world. To religion and atheism I say thanks but no thanks.

  2. That’s fair enough Martinique, but most atheists don’t claim to have all the answers either. Specifically, they don’t claim to KNOW there are no gods; I and many others refer to ourselves in full as agnostic atheists because while we don’t know, we don’t believe there are any.

    As for spending time and energy debating the existence of gods, it’s up to each nonbeliever to decide how harmful they think religious faith can be, and how much it would benefit believers to be free of it. In both cases, my assessment is: very much.

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