In the 500 years since Martin Luther started the Reformation, not much that he believed has survived. The thought world in which he moved has vanished utterly and his perspective is very difficult for us to recapture. But one thing has lasted – he made “heretic” into a term of moral approval. He didn’t mean to: he thought it was his opponents who had fallen into heresy. To Luther, and to everyone before him, a heretic was someone who was wrong in fact and morally wrong as well. Today’s equivalent would be climate change denier or a “scientific racist”. But all these people would nowadays claim the benefit of heresy. The word has come to imply moral integrity, and the hope of future vindication. “Orthodoxy” is, by implication, something to be overthrown.
This means that heresy, after Luther, has become an innately unstable condition. No heresy can persist for very long: either it must triumph, and then it will form a new orthodoxy of its own, or it will fade into oblivion. This was not always true. Before Luther, and still in pre-Lutheran thought, heresies were perennial: they represented recurrent temptations to be wrong, the sort of thing we call today a cognitive bias rather than an intellectual disagreement. Some beliefs, like flat Earth theory, are heresies in both the modern and pre-modern senses. But most of the things we call heresies are meant in the modern sense.
Not every disagreement or wrongness can be a heresy. It’s not heretical to prefer one flavour of ice cream to another. If all moral choices are reduced to preferences, heresy becomes impossible, because it requires an intellectual disagreement about the objective world. Such disagreement can appear quite trivial to outsiders. As the historian Edward Gibbon observed, “the degrees of theological hatred depend on the spirit of the war, rather than on the importance of the controversies”.
This seems a point against heresy hunting. The sheer unreasonableness of it is awful: the fact that it can so easily be overcome by the exercise of modesty and fairmindedness, suggests that it is something that we should grow out of, and perhaps already have. Yet heresy hunting seems to be a recurrent feature of history. It is, if anything, much more popular today than it was 10 years ago.
Whether this is in politics or in ethics, moral vices are commingled with intellectual ones. The popularity of heresy hunting, and our willingness to cast opposing positions as heretical, and not merely mistaken, suggests something important about the contemporary world, and about the way that morality works in practice.
For a start, heresy relies on the existence of an orthodoxy of generally accepted ideas. If everyone is a heretic, no one can be. The orthodoxy must also be vulnerable to doubt. The heretic’s beliefs must seem to threaten the orthodox even where no direct harm can be demonstrated. So for heresy to arise, morality must be understood as a collective property and not just something that individuals practice. This understanding makes perfect sense in the light of evolutionary theory, which shows that cooperative or collective behaviour requires coercive action against cheats; and cheating is a morally loaded term. To put it another way, collective action requires collective morality. The great problem of cooperative behaviour, according to evolutionary theory, is the danger of cheats, or free riders, who get the benefits of collective action but pay none of the costs, since cheating behaviour will spread through successive generations until cooperation collapses completely and no one benefits. Therefore the detection and punishment of nonconformists, as potential cheats, is something that comes naturally to social animals.
This is why blind loyalty and unconditional commitment can be more desirable and valuable than rational calculations of relative advantage. Covenants (which can’t be broken) are worth more than contracts because they are more expensive. It is also one reason why so many societies have painful and dangerous initiation rites, or, in more elaborate forms of religion, inconvenient taboos against harmless foods. These are costly signals of a willingness to serve the community. Heresy threatens this collective trust. But it is more than merely nonconformism. It has an inescapable intellectual component. The heretic is someone whose moral badness, lack of trustworthiness and deficient loyalty to the collective is revealed not so much by their behaviour as by their ideas. That’s what makes the phenomenon remarkable.
In heresy, moral values come to be identified with particular ideas, quite often ideas so subtle that it’s possible to become a heretic by accident. But even if the ideas are valued in themselves, they become merely a means to make the conflict a decisive one, from which one side must emerge clearly victorious. This is something that very rarely happens in purely intellectual disputes. But if heresy is understood only as a conflict of ideas, it makes no sense at all, and there are many intellectual disagreements, no matter how deep, which do not lead to heresy hunts. That is because they have answers, which can emerge from inquiry. By contrast, the intellectual questions around which heresies coalesce aren’t soluble. There is no evidence and no analytic knowledge which can settle arguments about the nature of the trinity, or whether the founder of the Bahá’í faith was a prophet – a position which sees Bahá’ís as “heretics” in Iran rather than members of an independent religion. And when the questions at issue have no final answers they can only be decided by contests of political force if they are to be decided at all.
Arguments about heresy are therefore political battles which are understood by the participants as intellectual ones, and they are peculiarly savage and unforgiving because the intellectual issues at stake are seen by both sides as expressions of their deepest values. This is a very dangerous pattern. Writ large, it can lead to genocide, where the mere survival of Jews, or Muslims, Christians or Canaanites seems to threaten the existence of the majority community. Played out on a small scale and without much violence, it leads to an obsession with small intellectual differences held to have huge moral significance.
Hysteria over Brexit
In either case, compromise comes to seem indistinguishable from treachery. This is the logic that comes into play when people are fighting over shrinking and diminishing resources. And once such a fight begins, it has its own logic and its own momentum. Extremism and fanaticism on one side summon up the same fervour in their opponents.
This dynamic is not confined to Luther’s time. Today’s tumult has led to questioning in many fields. In economics, the prevailing neoclassical thinking has become an unquestioned belief system and treats those challenging the creed as dangerous. Perhaps most volubly it has spread to politics, and especially to the political culture of groups who feel their share of power threatened. In Britain the increasing hysteria of the Brexit press is part of the process. The language of “saboteurs” or “enemies of the people” and even the elevation of “the people” to a metaphysical entity, a jealous God, shows the way in which intellectual dissent is transformed into moral turpitude. The claim that “naysayers” will sabotage the negotiations is not just magical thinking. It’s also an exploitation of very deep instincts of belonging and solidarity. And against that sort of argument, heresy is a belief whose moment has arrived – again.
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