A thought on heresy

I’ve noticed a pattern.

A way of thinking.

A way of believing.

That has scorched the earth we share.

And made it almost impossible to discuss anything.

There are many iterations of this pattern, but they all share one thing. A willingness to retreat into absolutes. Lines drawn. Hilltops claimed. It’s the dynamic of binaries. Us and them. Insiders and outsiders. Believers and heretics.

Heresy is written in dictionaries alongside words like dissension and dissidence, blasphemy and idolatry, scepticism and atheism, but it has two main definitions.

The most widely understood relates to religion. Heresy is “a belief or an opinion that is against the principles of a particular religion; the fact of holding such beliefs”.

A broader definition describes what I call the secular understanding. Heresy is “a belief or an opinion that disagrees strongly with what most people believe”.

More recently heresy has taken on what I call the cult definition. It combines aspects of both the religious and secular interpretations but has a more sinister, authoritarian, tendency. In this version, it’s heresy “to disagree with, or question, any prescribed doctrine or articles of faith”.

The cult variant has its roots in, and more than a passing resemblance to, propaganda. It’s biased, often misleading, and “used to promote a political cause or point of view”.

It works by describing a set of values or principles, moral facts or correct thinking. These “articles of faith” are accepted and absorbed as ineffable truths. The faithful define who they are as people by committing, or more accurately submitting, wholeheartedly to these articles.

This creates a really simplistic binary. You either accept the orthodoxies, follow the path to acceptance and support, or you’re the enemy, a belligerent that can just “fuck-off-and-die”. Put another way, you’re either with us or against us. Think what we think or you will be destroyed.

It’s a seductive way of thinking. It offers security. Certainty. Your allies are easily identified. Your enemies clearly defined. What it doesn’t do, is allow for questions.

Anyone with a sceptical disposition, a natural curiosity, or even a question to ask, is treated as an unenlightened outsider. This makes enemies of even the most sympathetic minds. Condemning, dismissing, vilifying, shunning, threatening, or attacking, anyone who has divergent experience, a differing point of view, or a genuine concern.

Another thing I’ve noticed. This way of engaging with society doesn’t adhere to the traditions of the political compass, dissolving the distinctions between left and right. These positions still exist but only as insults. When the right-wing faithful condemn a heretic they’re “woke liberals”. When the left condemn what’s heretical, they’re “fascists”.

My conclusion, the binaries of faith and heresy have created a divide. You either believe or you don’t. Those that don’t are disappeared, erased from the conversation, vaporised like so many of George Orwell’s characters in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

Disappearing people doesn’t make the questions go away. The concerns don’t just evaporate. The condemnations only entrench positions. From the heretic’s point of view, it’s the intellectual equivalent of the faithful jamming fingers in their ears, and chanting la, la, la, la, la, at the top of their lungs.

I wonder if the faithful realise their dogmatism is heresy to me? I don’t know. I’m not sure they care. They’re safe in the absolutes of their understanding. For me that’s a problem. It shuts down discussion, stifles debate, and hobbles intellectual development. Not just for the faithful but for us all.

What the faithful should realise, what we all need to understand, is that we’re all someone’s heretic.

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