What is Heresy?


Sociologist Lester Kurtz analyzes the social processes involved in defining heresy and maintains that religious belief systems and institutions cannot be fully understood without paying attention to the heresies that have emerged within them (1).

We will treat Kurtz’s case study of the Roman Catholic church and its backlash to the perceived heresy of modernism in a follow-up article, but for now we will focus on Kurtz’s analysis of several features of the social process involved in defining heresy. These are: [1] heresy’s role in strengthening social institutions, [2] its simultaneous nearness and remoteness, and [3] the heresy-hunt ritual in which heresy is labeled and heretics are suppressed.

What is Heresy?

Although deriving from the Ancient Greek word Hairesis (which can mean “taking”, “course of action”, “choice”, “discussion”, or “election”; the term also lacked the negative connotation it has come to inherit), Kurtz uses the definition from Roman Catholic Canon Law which defines heresy as referring to “a sin of one who, having been baptized and retaining the name of Christian, pertinaciously denies or doubts any of the truths that one is under obligation of divine and Catholic faith to believe” (2). Here heresy is defined as a member of a tradition standing in opposition to what that tradition’s dominant institution and its elites deem to be orthodox belief. As St. Augustine once pointed out, “not every error is a heresy”, rather only that which is held in direct opposition to ecclesiastical authority is heresy (3).

Hersey is therefore not a charge leveled at unbelievers who are detached from a tradition: to be a heretic one has to be a member of a tradition who brings into question the obligations of that tradition. The notion that heresy constitutes an evil emerged through the theological disputes within the early church and its various councils that condemned false doctrines and went on to form fundamental aspects of Christian orthodoxy. Beliefs and doctrines become institutionalized and the elites in power attach their interests to certain definitions of orthodoxy. They become convinced that the belief system itself is threatened if their definitions of orthodoxy are challenged. Sacred doctrines and institutions thus “require perpetual defense from destructive forces; institutional authorities are charged with carrying out the defense, whatever the cost” (4). Both the heretics and the orthodox perceive their causes to be legitimate and both consider themselves to oppose forces they consider destructive.

Heresy as Strengthening Social Institutions

Kurtz elucidates the role heresy has in maintaining social institutions. Group identity and solidarity are strengthened by the existence of a common enemy in the form of the perceived heretic. Heresy allows an opportunity for the institutional elites to make demands of their subordinates and to reinforce the system/s of dominance. As Georg Simmel put it, “The resistance which has to be eliminated is what gives our powers the possibility of proving themselves” (5). Heresy is not solely disruptive but can be used to create solidarity and for purposes of social control: “Through the labeling and suppression of heresy, institutional elites can rally support for their positions through battle with a common enemy. Ironically, then, elites may actually be involved, sometimes inadvertently, in the development of heretical movements” (6). Solidarity can also work in favour of supposed heretics who may be brought together to form a movement in opposition to the institutional hierarchy. Heresy further assists in the effort for guardians of a tradition to more clearly articulate doctrine and belief. The boundaries of what is true and acceptable are, writes Kurtz,

“… marked out through a systematic identification of what is false and unacceptable. What people do not believe is often more clearly defined than what they do believe, and it is through battles with heresies and heretics that orthodoxy is most sharply delineated” (7).

Nearness and Remoteness

Lester argues that heresy constitutes a union of nearness and remoteness (8). According to the former, the heretic is within the institution and therefore close enough to be perceived as a significant threat to the faith and institution. He is also remote in that he is distant enough to be considered in error. This involves an important social dimension, namely that of the heretic being a deviant insider: “Every heresy implies a political stance and every heretic is the leader of an insurrection, implicitly or explicitly” (9). The deviant insider is a particularly direct threat because he is more likely to attract followers than is an external critic who has no legitimate position. The latter, external critic is an “outside agitator” who can be “defined out of the scene” and is therefore far more easily dismissed than is an internal critic. Thus, the heretic’s nearness can be detrimental to himself as immediate sanctions can be an effective means of silencing him. The heretic’s nearness can also trigger “the instinct of self-preservation in the ruling stratum”, which can lead, and has led, to active persecution (10).

The Heresy-Hunt Ritual

A further characteristic of heresy is the ritualistic process of defining and denouncing heretics (11). This “heresy-hunt” ritual functions to relieve social and psychological tensions, and to focus anxiety on that which is controllable. By analogy, anxiety over an uncontrollable event or phenomenon, such as the weather, is channeled into the proper performance of rituals, such as the rain dance weather-oriented ritual. The weather-oriented ritual becomes a method for mitigating anxiety over the weather. Similarly, anxiety brought on by the uncontrollable phenomenon of heresy is channeled into the performance of the heresy-hunt ritual as a means to alleviate anxiety. Heresies thus provide ritual occasion for church authorities to be proactive concerning the difficulties the church is facing. For example, the Vatican’s condemnation of modernism as a heresy by placing certain books on the Index of Prohibited Books (1930) was its attempt to exercise control in a situation dominated by the uncontrollable forces of modernism.


1. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. “The Politics of Heresy.” American Journal of Sociology 88(6):1085-1115.

2. Buckley, G. 1967. “Sin of Heresy.” In The New Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by the Catholic University of America. New York: McGraw-Hill. p. 1069.

3. Augustinus, Aurelius. 1956. De Haeresibus. Translated by L. G. Muller. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. p. 59.

4. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1089.

5. Simmel, Georg. 1971. On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago. p. 48.

6. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1089-1090.

7. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1085.

8. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1087

9. Kurtz, R. Lester. 1983. Ibid. p. 1087

10. Weber, Max. 1968. Economy and Society. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. New York: Bedminster. p. 213.

11. Kurtz, R. Lester. Ibid. p. 1090-1091.

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