By Tim Mosteller

Tim Mosteller, California Baptist University


Is there heresy or blasphemy anymore? Heresy is understood to be an act committed by subject S just in case S, a member of a religious (or other) belief system R, believes h where h is a chosen rejection of a widely accepted belief p within and central to R, and blasphemy is committed by S just in case S believes p where p contains an irreverent or profane rejection of a widely accepted belief q within a religious (or other) belief system.1 Or have heresy and blasphemy gone the way of concepts like leprechauns and trolls? We can talk about them, but they don’t pick out anything real. We might tolerate people who pretend as if they existed, just like we tolerate small children who believe in the tooth fairy, but when people start acting like there really are such things as blasphemy and heresy and begin acting on these beliefs, then we might begin to worry.

What might be a good reason to believe that heresy and blasphemy do not exist? A rejection of the existence of heresy and blasphemy isn’t quite like rejecting the existence of leprechauns or the great Florida “skunk-ape” (who supposedly resides in the Everglades, and for whom the research institute is located in Ochopee). Most people who have thought about the existence of these entities reject their existence because there is insufficient evidence to believe that they exist. However, one wouldn’t want to reject the existence of blasphemy and heresy for those reasons. There are plenty of people who accuse others of being blasphemers or heretics, and there are plenty of people who claim to be blasphemers or heretics. But accusing someone of being a blasphemer or heretic doesn’t mean that blasphemy or heresy is real, any more than accusing someone of being a witch or demon possessed necessitates that they are. The question must be answered: Are heresy and blasphemy real epistemic possibilities? If so, then there may very well be blasphemers and heretics. I would like to consider two possible rejections of the notions of blasphemy and heresy and show that these rejections fail, and thus, there is a possibility that blasphemy and blasphemers along with heresy and heretics are really possible as well. I will then move to consider how this possibility relates to the value of freedom of speech.

There are two broad reasons why one might think that blasphemy and heresy are not real. First, there is a relativistic rejection of blasphemy and heresy. This first position rejects the reality of blasphemy and heresy because it views all religious beliefs as equally true, or relatively true. A religious belief is simply “true for” the adherent of a particular religion. On this view, someone who is putatively a heretic within a religion would not really be a heretic, because the truth (or justification) of her belief is relative to her (qua heretic) belief system. The second rejection of blasphemy and heresy might come from someone who is not a relativist (or who rejects relativism for the reasons I give below), and who thinks that religious beliefs do have truth values (they are neither meaningless nor merely expressions of religiously motivated emotions). Let us call this a realistic denial of the reality of blasphemy and heresy. This person would maintain that these concepts don’t apply to anything simply because all religious propositions are false. Thus, Catholics may call Protestants (or vice versa) heretics, but since the proposition that “God exists” is false, then both the Catholic and Protestant Christians have false beliefs and the notion of being heretical in this case simply falls flat. I will consider each of these two views in turn, first the relativistic and then the realistic rejection of the reality of heresy and blasphemy.

A Relativistic Rejection of Blasphemy and Heresy

There is a key distinction between two ways in which heresy and blasphemy are relative to religious traditions: (1) a trivial way and (2) a substantial way. On the trivial way, heresy and blasphemy are relative to a religion in that for a claim even to be considered heretical or blasphemous it must be made within a particular religion, where the orthodox or pious beliefs are centrally important to the religion. For example, the claim p: “Jesus was not crucified” is only heretical within the Christian religion, but not heretical within, say, Athena worship, since p is not central to Athena worship, or within Islam since p is believed to be true within Islam and so cannot be heretical. However, on the substantial (and I think problematic) way in which heresy and blasphemy are relative to religious traditions, not only is a belief p trivially relative, but p is thought to be true or justified only within that particular religion such that the truth of p is generated or made by the standards of the religion in which it is made.

The substantial relativistic rejection of blasphemy/heresy claims that the reality of the concepts of blasphemy and heresy are merely relative to the religious system in which they are being used. There may be putative blasphemers or heretics, but there are no real blasphemers, because really to blaspheme or to err in one’s religious belief is really impossible. This is due to the fact that the opposites of blasphemy and heresy (i.e., reverence and orthodoxy) contain within them beliefs the truths of which are simply relative to the religious traditions from within which they are made.

The substantial relativist account of blasphemy might take the following two part approach.2

  1. A putatively blasphemous or heretical belief p is blasphemous or heretical only within some religious (or other) belief system R, where R provides standards of evaluation such that p is judged to be heretical or blasphemous only within the constraints of the standards of epistemic justification within R.

2. Given a different religious (or other) belief system R* (where the blasphemous or heretical belief within R is established as pious or orthodox or both) there is no neutral way to determine which standards of justification to use to determine the orthodoxy or piety of p.

So, for example, the relativist might make use of the following example:

On the one hand an Orthodox Christian claims to have established p, p: Jesus was divine in nature and not created by God,

by means of the following standards of evaluation S1 found only within Christianity (R1), S1: Consistency with the accounts of the New Testament and Church Tradition.

For the Orthodox Christian, S1 is a legitimate standard found only within the constraints of R1 making p an orthodox belief within R1 and ~p a heretical belief within R1.

On the other hand, an Arian Christian claims to have established q, q: Jesus was not divine in nature and was created by God.3 by means of the following standard of evaluation S2 found only within Arianism (R2) S2: Consistency with philosophical assumptions of Greek philosophy.

For the Arian, S2 is a legitimate standard found only within the constraints of R2, making q an orthodox belief within R2 and ~q a heretical belief within R2.

The relativist will further add that given a dispute between S1 found within R1 and S2 found within R2, there is no neutral way to adjudicate between these two standards of evaluation which are relative to the religions in which they occur. Thus, one person’s putative orthodoxy is another person’s putative heresy. Thus, the concepts of orthodoxy/heresy and blasphemy/reverence are concepts with are not real at all in the sense that they point to something that is independent of the particular justification standards found within a particular religious tradition. These concepts are merely relative concepts. There is no real heresy (or orthodoxy), only “heresy within” or “heresy for” a particular groups within a religious tradition. There is no real blasphemy (or reverence), only “blasphemy within” or “blasphemy for” a particular religious person in a religious tradition. This completes the relativistic denial of the existence of blasphemy or heresy.

This relativistic denial of the possibility of blasphemy or heresy, however, is mistaken, because it rests on a faulty relativistic epistemology. Relativism about blasphemy or heresy functions as a broader instance of a type of self-defeating epistemological relativism which can be shown to be faulty by considering a fairly straightforward reductio argument.

  1. If the relativistic account of the relativism of blasphemy and heresy is itself a position that is reasonable to believe, then the relativist must have good reasons for holding to it.
  2. If there are good reasons for holding to the relativist’s position, then those good reasons are neutral (by definition of “good reason”).
  3. According to the relativist, it is not the case that those good reasons are neutral.
  4. Therefore, according to the relativist, there are not good reasons for holding to the relativist’s own position.
  5. Thus, there are not good reasons for holding to the relativist’s own position.

Further, the relativistic account of heresy or blasphemy (RHB) is a belief that is found within a belief system (B1) held by the relativist which contains internal to it its own standards of justification s1-sn. But, it is possible that on some other belief system (B2) with standards of justification of s1*-sn*, RHB is not justified. RHB might be justified within B1 but not be justified within B2. Further, the relativist on her own grounds must add that there is no neutral way to adjudicate between B1 and B2 in order to establish RHB or ~RHB. But this implies that there are no good reasons to accept RHB. Thus, the relativistic denial of the possibility of real blasphemy and real heresy fails.

It is not my intention in this paper to argue for or against the orthodoxy or piety of any particular religious belief (i.e., to point out which beliefs are heretical or blasphemous). It is simply to show that contra a relativist’s denial, heresy and blasphemy are real possibilities, that it could turn out that there are religious beliefs which are blasphemous (or pious) and heretical (or orthodox). The real possibility of these concepts comes from a consideration of the reasons that (in our case) religious people have for holding the beliefs that they hold. For example, in our case above, an Orthodox Christian might have reasons for holding to her standards of justification. Such reasons might include the reliability of certain other historical data presented in the New Testament (e.g., archeological confirmations of Gospel claims). Similarly, an Orthodox Muslim might have reasons for holding to her standards of justification. For example, the Quran itself might be considered as a book the properties of which cannot be explained other than through an appeal to a divine miracle. These are non-arbitrary reasons, and may turn out to be really good reasons for holding to the standards of justification that these religious believers have. Neither the Christian nor the Muslim must necessarily be committed to the possibility of these particular standards of justification as being the standards which solve all of the disputes about whose beliefs are heretical or blasphemous and whose are not. However, they are (in virtue of having non-arbitrary reasons for their standards of justification) committed to the possibility of a kind of “local neutrality” which provides the epistemic space for them to possibly adjudicate their dispute. Such adjudication would focus on the epistemic or evidentiary goodness of the reasons that each disputant has for their standards of epistemic justification. This implies that religious orthodox and pious knowledge is a real possibility. This may also imply a need for free inquiry between religious traditions in order that the opposing reasons for the justification standards within each tradition can be rationally (as opposed to non- rationally, e.g., by force) adjudicated.

A Realistic Rejection of Blasphemy and Heresy

This leaves us with the second way in which one might deny that blasphemy and heresy are real epistemic possibilities. They simply cannot be real because the content of the religious beliefs which are called heretical (or orthodox) and blasphemous (or pious) do not correspond to anything in the world.4 They are simply false. One might be an anti-relativistic atheist or naturalist committed to the belief that the only things which are real are physical entities reducible to the categories of current or future physics. The reason why one might think that there simply are not or cannot be blasphemers or heretics is due to the content of the beliefs accused of being heretical or blasphemous. The content of S’s putatively heretical or blasphemous belief is directed toward a particular object. If the belief is thought to be heretical then it is directed towards the negation of the content of a widely held religious belief, and if it is blasphemous then it contains an irreverence and profane content directed toward a widely held religious belief. But, in regards to religious beliefs thought to be heretical or blasphemous, since the religious beliefs are false, there simply can be no heresy or blasphemy. This might be analogous to a small child who believes in Santa Claus and has a belief that is directed toward a fictional man in a bright red suit. While it may be that a believer in Santa Claus who denies that St. Nick lives at the North Pole (a fairly central belief for believers in the big man), would be a heretic within the community of believers in Santa Claus, in what sense would this person really be a heretic? In this case the belief held by the putative heretic is directed toward a non-existent object. If these beliefs do not have objects answering to them, then the putative heretic does not really exist at all qua heretic. The same might be said about blasphemy. If I climb mount Olympus in Greece and curse Zeus when I reach the summit, am I committing blasphemy? No. There is nothing in existence towards which I am being impious.

This very well may be right that, qua religious heresy or blasphemy, the concepts fall flat, but this does not rule out these concepts altogether. For even the realist (in this case atheist/naturalist) rejecting these concepts has within her system of beliefs some beliefs which are central and even essential for her to have the belief system she has. If someone deviates from one or more of those central beliefs, then that person would be a heretic within that particular system of belief. Eleanor Stump recognizes this notion with respect to agnosticism of religious belief when she writes,

In fact, we couldn’t even have agnosticism [about religion] if we abandon the notion of orthodoxy5 … the agnostic, too has some claims he takes to be true and central to his position …. Someone who advertised himself as an agnostic but who rejected the claim that we don’t know religious truth would himself be rejected by the agnostics he was trying to associate with. In agnosticism too, there is an orthodoxy. Accepting the notion of orthodoxy therefore seems to be necessary in order to have any coherent worldview at all.”6

It is just on this notion of a coherence of worldview that I would like to turn to how the concepts of heresy and blasphemy relate to free speech and social charity. It seems reasonable to believe that one hopes to have a belief system that is at least coherent and true as well. One need not look farther than simple examples to show the importance of a coherent belief system. I might incoherently believe that gasoline is needed to power my grey car, but diet cola will power my red car, due solely to the fact of the difference in the color of the vehicles (even though I know that they have the same type of gasoline engine). Having this incoherent belief system can lead to trouble just getting my red car out of the garage. In addition, one might have a coherent belief system that is just false all the way around. I might believe that all gasoline engines can run on diet cola, a coherent but false belief system. If it is possible to recognize that a coherent system of beliefs is desirable, but that it is possible that a coherent system of beliefs could be false, and if orthodoxy is a necessary component to having coherent belief system, then it seems that one of the things that can provide a possible check on orthodox systems which are coherent but false, is the possibility of freedom to pursue what is true. This freedom would be hollow, if it did not contain within it the possibility to speak freely about what one believes. Since orthodoxy and with it the possibility of heresy and blasphemy, are necessary conditions for a coherent belief system, it follows that freedom of thought and speech (even if they really are blasphemous or heretical) are necessary checks upon belief systems so that incoherence and falsehood can be avoided.

I’m not sure that I can argue for the truth of the claim that we ought to desire to have both coherent and true beliefs. I think that it is fairly self-evident. Just try living life with lots of false beliefs or beliefs that are incoherent. We desire coherence and truth in our beliefs, and we don’t have to look beyond simple cases to see this. If the concepts of orthodoxy are necessary for a coherent system of belief, and if we desire coherence of our beliefs as well as truth, then we ought to desire freedom of speech as well. This simply means that free speech will be necessary for the possibility of any coherent belief system of which necessarily orthodoxy (and heresy and blasphemy) are real possibilities.

Conclusion: Blasphemy, Heresy, and the Necessity and Need for Free Speech

Let me make one final thought on the connection between heresy/blasphemy and freedom of speech. In his Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argues that all values are contained within, what he calls for short, The Tao. This is a broad inclusive notion of objective value in which the truth of value judgments are determined by real value properties which are in the world, are independent of human cognition, and to which human emotions can be either congruent or incongruent. In the second chapter of this remarkable work, Lewis argues that all values hang together. The idea is that if any value is real, then all values are real. Any attempt to pick some values as real over others, is purely arbitrary. Eleanor Stump argued above that orthodoxy is a real value (epistemically speaking) and a necessary condition for any coherent belief system. I want to add to this that if orthodoxy is a real value, then freedom of speech is a real value as well. For the distinction between a coherent versus an incoherent or a coherent and true versus a coherent and false system of belief necessarily requires that one be able to see the distinction between incoherence and coherence or falsehood and truth. Being able see this distinction requires the freedom to examine one’s belief system and freely choose to identify incoherence or falsehood and to act appropriately when it is recognized. This freedom to search for what is true and coherent is a necessary condition for the possibility of any epistemic orthodoxy, and thus necessarily it should highly valued.

Indeed, the concept of heresy, at least, may be a double-edged sword. It may provide a motivation for strengthening beliefs which are true but don’t have good justification. When heresy occurs, and it is real, (i.e., the orthodox beliefs are true), it may motivate those who do have true beliefs to give further more reasonable and better justification for their beliefs.7 Similarly, heresy might motivate a radical shift in beliefs such that in calling into question the putative truth of orthodox beliefs, it causes a community of believers subsequently to reject those beliefs in favor of the ones that are true.8

Blasphemy seems to me harder to justify as motivating a search for coherency and truth. Although, it seems that real blasphemy might motivate members of a religious tradition to question the veracity of their own piety. It also may be useful in causing members of a religious community to further demonstrate love towards those who really are blaspheming, especially if the cultivation of charity is central to the religion.9 In addition, acts of putative blasphemy might motivate a further search for truth. For example, suppose we leave as an open question the truth of Jesus’ claim that in the future the people accusing him during his trial would see him sitting at the right hand of God.10 While the New Testament narrative claims that Jesus was accused of blasphemy, and although he may have really been committing blasphemy (if his claim were false), the blasphemous claim itself at least might motivate his hearers to consider whether it were true or false, thus contributing to the possibility of a coherent and true belief system.

My main motivation for this paper has been to show that blasphemy and heresy are real possibilities since relativism is a non-starter. In addition, the connection between freedom of speech and the possibility of blasphemy and heresy seems like a reasonable one as it may contribute in our search for what is true. I fear the loss of the reality of the concepts of blasphemy and heresy in contemporary intellectual and popular discourse, partly because as Stump argues above, these are connected with orthodoxy which is a necessary condition for any belief system whatsoever, including belief systems about the real values of religious tolerance and freedom of speech, which we so desperately need. If we jettison these concepts due to relativistic thinking, we jettison too the very possibility of freedom of thought and inquiry so central to human well being.



MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1984.

Stump, Eleanor. “Orthodoxy and Heresy.” Faith and Philosophy 16.2 (April 1999): 147-163.

Siegel, Harvey. Relativism Refuted: A Critique of Contemporary Epistemological Relativism. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1987.







  1. Eleanor Stump has argued that heresy requires that the person intentionally rejects a central tenet of the religion in which the heresy is committed. See “Orthodoxy and Heresy,” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 16, No. 2 (April 1999), 147-163. The definitions I am using here operate on the assumption that one can pick out beliefs which constitute heresy, which, as Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, can be quite difficult. See “On Heresy, Mind and Truth,” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 16, No. 2 (April 1999), 183-193.
  2. This account of relativism is taken from Harvey Siegel, Relativism Refuted: A Critique of Contemporary Epistemological Relativism (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1987), 6.
  3. This is the Christian heresy of Arianism, from Arius (250-336 A.D.), which is roughly the idea that Jesus was not one nature with God but was created by God.
  4. This assumes, I believe, some type of minimal correspondence theory or view of truth.
  5. I would add, “and with it the possibility of heresy.”
  6. Stump, “Orthodoxy and Heresy,” 155-156.
  7. Augustine says, “For while the hot restlessness of heretics stirs questions about many articles of the Catholic faith, the necessity of defending them forces us both to investigate them more accurately, to understand them more clearly, and to proclaim them more earnestly; and the question mooted by an adversary becomes the occasion of instruction” (City of God, Book 15, Chapter 2,, referenced in Stump 1999, 160.
  8. This might occur along the lines suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre in which one religious tradition begins, to understand and to evaluate–by their own standards–the characterizations of their positions advanced by their rivals …. Indeed nothing precludes the discovery that the rival tradition offers cogent explanations of weaknesses, of inabilities to formulate or solve problems adequately, of a variety of incoherence in one’s own tradition for which the resources of one’s own tradition had not been able to offer a convincing account …. [A]n encounter with a rival tradition may in this way provide good reasons either for attempting to reconstitute one’s tradition in some radical way or for deserting it (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (U of Notre Dame P, 1984), 276- 277).
  9. Christians, I think, should especially be committed to this. On their view, the one believed to be the way, truth, and life was one who, when reviled and tortured, forgave and loved.
  10. Matthew 26:65.

Tim Mosteller