So much at stake for today’s heretics

Geoff Ward
6 min readJan 26, 2021

Today’s heretics are not burned at the stake but marginalised, suppressed or ridiculed — even ostracised by their scientific, medical or academic communities: a metaphorical burning, if not of books then of reputations, no matter how impressive and relevant their credentials and status might be in their own fields of endeavour.

Heresy has moved from a religious to a secular context and today can be defined as a belief or opinion profoundly in conflict with what is generally accepted, whether that general acceptance is valid or not, rather than something contrary to prevailing religious doctrine.

The term is well known in reference to Christianity, Judaism and Islam where stating ideas regarded as heretical has been, and still is in some places, met with punishments ranging from excommunication to execution.

The Inquisition, also referred to as the Holy Inquisition in the history of the Catholic Church, was created to deal with heresy using torture and violence, to gain ‘confessions’, and the burning of books to prevent the spread of unacceptable ideas. The Inquisition began in the 13th century to deter religious dissent, especially among the Cathars and the Waldensians, who were persecuted ruthlessly. And yet then, as now, there was profundity, insight and truth to be discovered in so-called heretical beliefs.

Today the term ‘heretic’ equates with blanket pejorative labels routinely applied whether or not those labels actually adhere, and the manner in which they’re applied is vital — who applies them, who decides heresy is being uttered, and under what ostensible rules.

The charge arises both from fear of change among those with vested interests in the social, political or financial status quo and from arrogance and blinkered world-views, all too common today, within certain scientific, technological, academic and political communities. Yet science, environmental, medical or of any field, is never settled, or we’d still believe the earth was flat and the sun, moon and stars went round it. By the same token, just because an opinion is held by a minority does not mean that it’s automatically invalid.

Every heresy is a banner, and an exclusion, for the perceived reality of those who are at odds with the established order. There is much…

Geoff Ward

Writer, poet, tutor and mentor in literature and creative writing (MA and BA Hons degrees in English literature), book editor, journalist and musician.