On the Need for a Society for Heresy Studies:
James Wood

James Wood
Professor, Harvard University

I think that when Rebecca’s terrific novel was published, she was called something like a “New Secularist” or perhaps a “New New Atheist.” Or perhaps a “New Anti-atheist.” I can’t remember which, and of course the slippage of the terminology is telling: it doesn’t matter. The point is, there is territory to be claimed, and we should claim it: positioning ourselves as writers and scholars open to both religious expression and to anti-religious expression (as several previous comments by Rebecca and Greg and Jim have suggested). Personally, I’m a non-believer, but I’m probably like several of you, in that whenever I am reading (or listening to) a militant atheist I want to make the case for religious belief, and whenever I am reading (or listening to) a convinced religionist (or even just a mild, wishy-washy one) I want to make the case for atheism.

The ground we can occupy should be more than just “a plague on both their houses,” of course; and it should do more than make a case for the wonders of secularism. (Which I’m all for, it’s just that this is already a thriving academic project, as you all know well). Where we can do interesting work is at the place where belief and unbelief truly meet and grind together — that is to say, in the house of heresy, or the bunker of blasphemy. I take Greg’s point that heretics are believers, really; though we will probably want to expand that sense of heresy so as to include the blasphemer or atheist (in Dostoevsky’s sense) who truly does not believe, but who is very close to belief (while not necessarily moving TOWARDS believer, as the religionist would fondly hope). Bernard’s category of misotheism — God-hatred — is very helpful; I hope we can work with an expansive sense of heresy/blasphemy/misotheism…

The question is: how expansive? For instance, would we, as a group, want to argue for “the heretical” in contemporary art and writing? To defend daring and risky artworks (sometimes daring because they offend religious interests, sometimes just because they offend good taste), to fight censorship, and so on? That might be something to discuss tomorrow.

Permanent link to this article: http://heresystudies.org/2013/06/14/ex/


  1. Barry Lyons

    I’m also a non-believer, and I don’t understand this remark: “I’m a non-believer, but I’m probably like several of you, in that whenever I am reading (or listening to) a militant atheist I want to make the case for religious belief.”

    Really? Why, as a non-believer, would you ever feel an impulse to make the case for religious belief? Devil’s advocate, just for fun? And what does “militant” mean here anyway?


  2. Andrew Roach

    Dear all
    This society looks very exciting at looking at heresy in its broadest sense. Readers may be interested in ‘Heresy and the making of European Culture: medieval and modern perspectives’ eds. Andrew P. Roach (me!) and James R. Simpson published last month by Ashgate. Details at

    Hope to make the conference.

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