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Updated on January 31, 2015

Webster’s defines heresy as: "A religious or Ideological belief opposed to orthodoxy." The common idea is that heretics are fallen Catholics, and this true, but it was not always the case. In fact, the meaning of `heretic' is: Free thinker. It comes from the Greek word: hairessis, which means: "A choosing."

The Catholics turned it in to a dirty word when they used it to mean that a person who chooses to believe in something other than Catholic orthodoxy is by definition a heretic, and goes against the holy word of God.

This then, puts even the most fundamentalist Baptist at risk of hell. To the orthodox Catholic, the Baptist is a follower of satan. I think I would get quite an argument from the Baptists on this point, but the facts are indisputable in an historic context.

Heretics were put to death and tortured; they were ridiculed, jailed, ostracized, and exiled. The Spanish Inquisition was all about finding them and disposing of them once they were forced to confess to their crimes of heresy against the church. Very few who were accused were ever vindicated. Very few who were accused were actually heretics.

In 1965, at Vatican II, the church did a flip flop and decreed that we were no longer heretics. We now became "Separated brothers."

The reasons the church did this are obvious and, as usual, politically motivated. The church had lost a lot of ground throughout the world and was fighting for survival. It once ruled nations alongside kings. It ran most of the schools and influenced the government of almost every western nation. Only after the church began losing people in droves did they recant their errant views. Only after it became hard to recruit new priests did they decide we were all "separated brothers," and not heretics doomed to eternal hell.

Do they want us to believe that after centuries of conquest and fear mongering the church decided to put forth a kinder, gentler, image for no reason at all? How did they come to this new idea?

Shall we believe that the religion has evolved in to a more understanding and tolerant church? Has the word of God changed? What is going on here if it was not a politically motivated move? What other "need" would the church feel for trying to take back all the years of torment by recanting its position on heresy?

If God has not changed its mind then there is no reason, no justification possible for the church to recant its position, except: public relations. So much for faith alone bringing back the flock. Now the church makes concessions for the changing times. It evolves.

This same scenario was seen when they took Latin out of the Mass, when they said it was ok to eat whatever you want on Friday, and when they allowed guitars and folk music into the church in place of the traditional organ classics. If the church finally allows priests to marry, it will be another attempt to gain more priests. It will be another concession to the changing times that will have nothing whatever to do with God, and everything to do with politics.

But sometimes the church has to recant its position for reasons of simple logic. When Galileo challenged the church's idea that the earth was the center of the universe, they placed him under house arrest. (where he died eight years later.) The date was 1642.

It was only in the 1960s that the church finally conceded that he had been right. Because of him, they scraped their "seven levels of heaven" theory. (Which was Mithric, by the way.)

Though the church sees fundamentalism (as practiced outside of Catholicism,) as being heretical, I don't see fundamentalists as heretics. I see them as a stage in the evolution of Christianity, and at least in north America, the new Reich. These people have the same zeal as the inquisitors of old. Their beliefs and fanaticism is that of a breed that has taken the Bible as literal truth, instead of metaphor and analogy.

For centuries, the heretic has proven that they are far more open to new Ideas. They were the scientists of old that had to work in secret. They were the doctors who dared to exhume and use dead bodies to study anatomy. They are the men and woman who questioned and came to knowledge that has cured disease and extended the lifeexpectancy of mankind three fold over only a few hundred years. They were the ones who took "Knock and the door shall be opened," and "Seek and ye shall find," to heart.

To me, the heretic is anyone who embraces knowledge and change, and does not fear for himself, but wonders for the benefit of all. They are the people who buck the narrow mindedness and stagnation of the majority in any institution.

Without a faction of society shaking the foundations of the Religious/metaphysical universe, progress is impossible. I would think that every free thinker has a pinch of heretic in them. Most of what we espouse flies in the face of conventional belief structures, and contradicts or adds to the knowledge of old.

Mankind cannot help but question, and we cannot help but try to share our beliefs with others. This need often leads to fanaticism, (in its worst case scenario,) but at its best it propels and enhances the evolution of mankind.

As I see it, religion has two main functions. The first is to facilitate an environment for the social contract I spoke of before. "I won't eat you if you don't eat me." This is usually done through the use of fear and promises. Fear of damnation, and the promise of ever lasting life; the great reward for an existence of moral thinking and, sometimes, endless suffering. It is there to offer hope and quell man kind's subjective and physical fears of the unknown by providing them with reason for their fears

Through divine law, it quells man kinds fear of other people, and offers a form of virtual Judgment and ultimate justice.

The wrath of God can explain the unexplainable by default. We are not required to think any farther. God will take care of it. The promise of a life after death without pain or suffering, if we but believe, worship, and obey, offers mankind a way to quell their fears of oblivion on the condition they are willing to follow blindly.

Religion is a mental safety valve that trips when the data we are required to process gets to be too much to handle.

Dr. Jan Edward Garrett, is a professor with the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Western Kentucky. When this very subject came up in one of our e mail conversations, Dr. Garrett sent me an excerpt from a 2500 year old Greek play.

The words and the thinking are familiar. For me, reading them for the first time was like meeting a kindred spirit from the past. Critias and I would have gotten along quite well, it seems.

Dr. Garrett wrote: "This passage is of interest as a naturalistic explanation of the origin of religious ideas, but also an argument for propagating a more or less familiar form of religion even if you yourself do not believe it, in all its details."

"In the history of Western thought, quite a few not insignificant thinkers have held something like this position. Aristotle probably did (according to Richard Bodeus, author of ARISTOTE ET LA THEOLOGIE DES VIVANTS IMMORTELS [Bellarmine, 1992]) and so, I seem to recall, did a number of French Enlightenment thinkers and leaders of the French Revolution. Of course, the latter would have held it in its monotheist version."

"This is a lengthy quote from a work by Sextus Empiricus (a 3rd c. AD Skeptical author). Bury translated it from the Greek some time ago. I have made minor revisions of his translation based on the Greek."

"The text occurs in a passage where Sextus is reviewing the arguments of writers before him who he takes as trying to refute belief in the Gods. Many interpreters think that the fragment is an expression of an atheist position, but that may be an over-interpretation of the text. Sextus assumes that the "Critias" in question is the same Critias as Plato's uncle, the leader of the Thirty Tyrants who ruled Athens briefly at the end of the Peloponnesian War."

"This passage is generally taken to be an extract from a tragedy or satirical drama called SISYPHUS; it is a discourse uttered by one of its characters in the play. If the historical Critias is its true inspiration, then this document goes back to the 5th century B.C. In any case, it probably reflects ideas of approximately that time."

The Critias fragment, from Sextus Empiricus,


(trans. R. G. Bury, rev. by J. Garrett)

A time there was when disorder ruled Human lives, which were then, like lives of beasts, enslaved to force; nor was there then reward for the good, nor for the wicked, punishment.

Next, it seems to me, humans established laws for punishment, that justice might rule over the tribe of mortals, and wanton injury be subdued; and whosoever did wrong was penalized.

Next, as the laws held [mortals] back from deeds of open violence, but still such deeds were done in secret.

Then, I think, some shrewd man, first a man in judgment wise, found for mortals the fear of Gods, thereby to frighten the wicked should they even act or speak or scheme in secret.

Hence it was that he introduced the divine. Telling how the divinity enjoys endless life, hears and sees, and takes thought and attends to things; and his nature is divine, so that everything which mortals say is heard and everything done is visible.

Even if you plan in silence, some evil deed, it will not be hidden from the Gods: for discernment lies in them. So, speaking words like these, the sweetest teaching did he introduce, concealing truth under untrue speech.

The place he spoke of as the Gods' abode was that by which he might awe humans most,-- The place from which, he knew, terrors came to mortals and things advantageous in their wearisome life -- The revolving heaven above, in which dwell the lightnings, and awesome claps of thunder, and the starry face of heaven, beautiful and intricate by that wise craftsman Time,-- From which, too, the meteor's glowing mass speeds and wet thunderstorm pours forth upon the earth.

Such were the fears with which he surrounded mortals, and to the divinity he gave a fitting home, by this his speech, and in a fitting place, and [thus] extinguished lawlessness by laws.

The second function of religion is to provide us with someone's'' idea of unshakable answers to ultimate questions like: What's all this about anyway? If we believe in God, the answers are all there for us and we don't have to think for ourselves. Understandably, a whole society that thinks for itself is a dangerous concept to most people in power.

But if, upon inspection, those answers were the real ones and if they made sense, all would be well for the world and our Journey would be all but over. We could, indeed, rejoice. It would be justified. But this is not the case at all.

Religion did not hold the magic bullet which eliminated aggression and greed from man kind's psyche, It did not eliminate ego and the hunger for power that some feel; and the reason it didn't live up to its expectations was because it is based on, as Critias puts it: Untruth.

Though I agree with Critias on the probable origins of religion, and though I see that religion has filled a need in our social evolution, I disagree with both Critias and Jan Garrett's interpretation of the text, concerning any future need for religion. That is, of course, if Critias really meant that religion is a positive influence on the stability of society, even though it is but a device, and not truth in and of itself. In his time, that may have been the case, but no more.

On the other hand, religious "feeling", or feeling "awe" in the sight of the majesty of nature, and our part in it, is both socially and personally beneficial. Also, the lessons that teach empathy as a way of life can and do have a beneficial effect in eradicating or at least controlling ego, greed, and lust for power.

But these feelings of awe, and the realization that empathy is the key to the betterment of all mankind, as well as the environment, do not hinge on a belief in a god or gods. Many of us have them, or practice them religiously. Our justification for doing so, need only be a desire for harmonious and peaceful existence. But when these tenets are practiced, it becomes evident that there is much more to it.

We are almost compelled to better ourselves through asking questions, and actively seeking the answers. I agree that religion was, and is, an attempt to define the questions we are, and should be asking socially. But it is a crude tool, and one which can be improved upon dramatically, through rational thought. I think Critias shows us this, above all else.

Knowing a bit about Dr. Garrett, I think it is the "self enhancement" or "self reflection" aspect of religion he was referring to, as being worthy of future cultivation, and not the "big stick" aspect, that modern religion waves, in order to impose its artificial morality on the masses. In that case, I would agree with him.

"Artificial morality" refers to the behavior and mind set associated with the practices of Christianity, which have to do with ,satan, guilt, sinful nature, and eternal punishment.

Most of the laws and "social" commandments of religion, are sound for a healthy functional society, but the method of imparting that wisdom by, as Critias put it: "concealing truth under untrue speech" is one I think we must do away with in favor of trying to find better ways of saying what it is we really mean.

The heretic's function is to examine and question all. The heretic embraces change as a natural process. They have always been the ones who dared to think, and draw strength from their fears; pushing their personal safety aside to fulfill their dreams for a better future for others. They are those among us who cannot quench their thirst for truth, no matter what it may be; No matter where it may lead.

Our social contract and morality have been enforced, (thus far) by religion. They have always told us that there is no morality, nor a need for one, without god. They tell us that we are sinners by our very nature and unworthy to live. Only by the grace of god do we exist, and only through that grace will we be saved.

But this seems to be a great fallacy. If it were true, one would expect that no other culture had ever come up with a moral code of ethics on their own. This is blatantly false. Every culture in the world has come up with its own morality. My personal favorite is the credo of the Wiccan. "Do what you will, but do no harm."

To me, this speaks to freedom and at the same time it addresses the need for self control. It shows us that mankind can, indeed, come up with an almost perfect moral guide without the aid of any outside force. To top it all off, it is eloquent in its absolute simplicity and precise in its meaning.

Had we always followed that credo, wars would be nonexistent; Mosses would have found another way. It strikes me as funny that the physicians of our time have adopted this idea as their own moral base and swear an oath to it. I am speaking, of course, of the Hippocratic oath. It states that a physician will do all in his/her power to help the sick, but above all, they will do no harm.

If morality can be seen and taught to our young as it is, (truly the only way we can survive as a species) perhaps it won't be necessary to also retain the religious dogma that morality has been couched in for so long.

Realizing through education, not fear of omnipotent reprisal, that Cause and effect are the forces at work here, should become the motivating force for a sane and healthy society of the future. That kind of thinking might even prevent a few (so called) holly wars.


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    • Slarty O'Brian profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Hooft 

      7 years ago from Ottawa

      I'm so glad you liked it. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      Ana Louis 

      7 years ago

      I enjoyed reading this hub. You have tackled a very complex subject with I believe objectivity. I think I will need to read it more than once.

      I agree that we should examime every "truth" before we accept it as our own.


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