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When someone accuses another person of being a heretic, the image that most people conjure today is a rather amusing one. Fervent declarations of “heresy!” tend to be viewed on the same level as semi-joking statements that hating chocolate is blasphemy. When stated fiercely, the single word “heresy” becomes an accusation that seems so outdated to many people today that rather than causing horror or shame, it makes people snicker and think of mocking portrayals of Disney’s Judge Claude Frollo shrieking “witchcraft!” On the other hand, the word “heresy” does still carry a great deal of weight to some people. As such, claims that a person is a heretic can cause others to shy away from them or, should they be accused themselves of heresy, to feel an automatic, visceral need to defend themselves. 

Though it is sometimes used mockingly, heresy is meant to be a loaded word in organized religion. Islam, Judaism and Christianity are the religions most likely to use the term heresy, but Neo-Confucianism has described various forms of heresy and Zoroastrianism has historically persecuted Zuvansits and Mazdakists as heretical sects. 

Although the word could technically be applied to a member of any organized religion who speaks English, heresy is most heavily associated with Christianity. It was fears of and ideas about heresy that gave rise to one of Christianity’s greatest shames, the Inquisition. Although the existence of the Inquisition, especially the Spanish Inquisition, is common knowledge today, many people are unaware of why the Inquisition was formed or what purpose the Inquisition was meant to serve. People are aware of its bloody history and knack for using brutal torture to extract, often false, confessions. The majority of people, however, seem to forget that the Inquisition was formed neither in order to become a sort of twisted boogeyman for people in later centuries nor to kill people for no reason. The original purpose of the Inquisition was actually to search out and suppress heretical ideas that were becoming of increasing concern to authorities within the Catholic Church. Naturally, the matter rapidly spiraled out of control. People used accusations of heresy to get revenge on those they did not like, and King Ferdinand of Spain, not the Pope, was the one who initiated and controlled the infamous Spanish Inquisition. 

The Middle Ages and the Inquisition are still seen, in some ways, as the heyday of heresy. Heretical teachings were a matter of concern for every church authority and, given the consequences of falling prey to heresy, for the average lay person as well. At that time, Christianity was structured in a way that made heresy easy to identify. There were really only two denominations of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church that effectively controlled Western Europe and the Orthodox Church which held most of Eastern Europe and parts of the modern day Middle East. Both denominations had detailed and explicit doctrines and clear structures of authority. The Catholic Church had the Pope, various cardinals, bishops and priests. The Orthodox Church was composed of patriarchs, bishops, presbyters and deacons. 

After the Protestant Reformation, the word heresy lost a great deal of its weight. There were suddenly many different forms of Christianity once again, returning the religion to how it looked in the early days of its existence. There was no one doctrine, or even two doctrines, to check heresy against. Each of the ever multiplying denominations regarded all other denominations as heretical. The last execution of a heretic took place in July of 1826, but from a spiritual standpoint, the word had lost much of its power.

The word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairetos, meaning “able to choose.” The term originally applied to the process by which a young Greek would examine various philosophies and choose which would dictate the rest of their life. Heresy was once an accepted part of life and even celebrated. When applied to monotheistic religion and clear doctrine, however, heresy came to have a very different definition. A heretic was not just someone who made a choice, but someone who chose to believe or follow an idea that went against accepted church doctrine. Although the word itself technically continued to mean “to choose,” heresy meant that a person had chosen wrong.

Over the years, the term “heresy” slipped into everyday speech and began to be used in non-religious contexts. Scientists who put forward theories that ran contrary to accepted paradigms were considered heretics by their peers, and politicians who embrace views that do not fit their party’s platform may be seen as committing a political heresy. Outside religion, heresy is generally used in a tongue in cheek manner, but there is still an inevitable subtext present in the term of making a mistake and even betraying one’s beliefs present in the term.

Today, use of the word “heresy” in a serious manner can startle the devout simply because the word has fallen so far out of disuse. That said, modern Christianity is technically filled with more heresy than ever before. As heresy simply refers to embracing a set of beliefs that run counter to established doctrine, everyone outside of one’s own denomination is, by definition, a heretic to that denomination. Presbyterians, Mormons, Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians are heretics to Baptists. Orthodox Christians, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals and Nondenominational Christians are all heretics to Methodists. Every Christian today is regarded as a heretic by someone because they follow different doctrines from different denominations. They have chosen different creeds. Heresy is everywhere today, but this has returned the word to its original meaning. Heretics are once again simply those who chose which doctrine they will follow.