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ISHS Key Terms

Below are definitions of key terms as found in the appendix to the bylaws of the International Society for Heresy Studies. (You may download the Society’s bylaws as a PDF or Word file.)

We encourage ISHS members to use the comment box on this page to offer their own reflections on these terms and on the Society’s definitions of them. We welcome “heterodox” definitions, and we consider our definitions to be perpetually open to amendment and extension.

Programmatic Statement:
The Society is interested in what troubles religion, i.e. what disturbs the hermetic placidity of creeds and disrupts the normative discourses of doctrine. Against T.S. Eliot, the Society does not hold that a text will inevitably validate the central tenets of the dominant religious culture simply because it has been written in that context. The Society instead promotes the view that the most meaningful theologies are forged in the hinterland of heresy and at the boundary between heresy and orthodoxy, and that literature which addresses honestly matters of faith, doubt, and non-conformist practice can be a bearer of truth.

The following definitions of key terms represent the current consensus of ISHS Board, with input from the membership. These are dynamic terms that have been re-defined and re-evaluated over the course of time, and the process is not likely to stop here. However, in the interest of intellectual honesty and conceptual clarity, the society has adopted the following definitions, while leaving room for both future revision and for dissenting opinions:

The term heresy shall be used in a value-neutral way, neither celebrating nor condemning it, but rather making it a central object of critical inquiry and sober analysis. Heresies can be understood as follows: beliefs that depart from religious orthodoxies (including classical heresies such as Pelagianism, Gnosticism, Universalism, Deism, etc.); subversive belief systems such as Satanism; various nontraditional conceptions of the deity; contemporary radical theologies which stretch the boundaries of theological orthodoxy; intuitive nonconformist stances like misotheism or neo-paganism; and other understandings of what heresy means.

• Blasphemy shall not be understood as a punishable offense or a form of hate speech directed against a specific group of believers. Instead, blasphemy denotes the insult and attack against a deity or deities. Although it may give offense to followers of a deity, blasphemy needs to be considered under the aspect of freedom of speech. Sacrilege constitutes a sub-category of blasphemy since it, too, is the result of an emotional reaction that mocks or otherwise desecrates objects of worship. Where blasphemy and sacrilege are concerned, literature and art highlight the nobility of unfettered expression while at the same time confronting us with the controversial and at times uncomfortable results of free thought and free expression.

• Unbelief is the skeptical, rationalist stance that holds no belief in supernatural entities, spirits, or gods. Unbelief is not the same as hatred of religion or hatred of God (gods), although the study of unbelievers who are also antitheists, as well as the study of believers who happen to hate God (gods) falls under the purview of this Society as well.

Relationship between Heresy, Blasphemy, and Unbelief:
The Society is keenly interested in sharpening conceptual distinctions regarding religious non-conformisms and clarifying the relationship between heresy, blasphemy, and unbelief. Heresy is often comprised of theological and conceptual belief systems of various degrees of abstraction and complexity. Heretics are always believers. Blasphemy, on the other hand, is often an affective, emotional, and un-theorized expression of religious subversion; it is a polemic against divinity that may be uttered by both believers and unbelievers. Finally, unbelief covers a gamut from personal, quiet secularism to the militant public arguments against religion boiced by the New Atheists. Despite the significant differences between these stances, all three forms of critique are, in various degrees, subversive of established religious dogma, critical of ecclesiastical power, and unsettling of theological doctrine. This subversion, critique and disturbance is the subject of the Society’s study.

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