The concept of Hersey
I wrote some of this years ago. I'm going to edit it a bit and post it here... with one addition: while heresy is a religious concept, atheists could fall prey to thinking in terms of heresy too.... so let's all be on the lookout for this type of thinking when it creeps up in our own thoughts.
"The act of asking one's pastor or priest a question he can't answer."
Ok, officially, "heresy" is an opinion or a doctrine at variance with established religious beliefs, especially dissension from or denial of Roman Catholic dogma by a professed believer or baptized church member.
The concept of heresy ought to arouse any theist's critical thinking skills....in fact it would serve as an indicator of the falsity of religion, as any system that was undeniably true would hardly need to fear and punish doubters.
In science, for example, criticism of a new theory is eagerly sought after by theorists, for the failures to disprove the theory serve to validate its truth. For example, quantum theorists wanted the great Einstein to try and knock their theories down. Einstein's failure to knock down quantum theory (particularly the work of Niels Bohr) helped support quantum theory - if the brilliant Einstein could not disprove it, then this served to show the theory's strength.
Yes, scientists who postulated or even just supported the old, discarded theory may be upset, but "scientific heresy" serves science as a whole, it serves to discard false or inferior theories and to support true theories.
Shouldn't a true religion equally desire such rigorous challenges?
Here's a way to make my point even more clear. Imagine you are a furnniture salesman, about to sell a chair, and you are encountering a difficult customer who questions its craftsmanship. Your chair is one of the sturdiest chairs on the market, and can easily hold his weight. How do you confront your customer?
By damning his soul?
No. You invite him to sit on the chair.
Now, imagine the chair is a repainted piece of rickety garbage. You have to prop it up against a wall to help it brace against even a mild wind. Yet you still must sell it. Now, you meet the same fellow, and need to unburden yourself of the chair. Do you let him sit on it?
You do all you can to pawn off the chair on him, without allowing him scrutinizing it. You might use the above mentioned techniques, if possible. And, if your own guilty conscience rises up during your sale... well, you'll have to use the same methods on yourself, right?
Those who doubt the law of gravity quickly gain an appreciation for the truth of it the second they defy it. "Newtonians" don't need to go around torturing doubters and enforcing acceptance - even their enemies can be compelled to recognize the law's verifiable and replicable proof. Those who refuse to appreciate the evidence defy gravity at their own peril. Burning at the stake would be superfluous - "Anti-Newtonians" would all perish given enough time.
Another way to see the problem with heresy is to consider a crude style of bluffing in poker. Some oafs try to bluff you by suddenly placing a large wager into the pot, and then make strong eye contact with you - imparting the message: "How dare you enter that pot when I have this powerful hand? You better fold." The message is clear - it is a threat. But the truth is that anyone who really possessed a good hand would have no fear of your hand and would GLADLY accept your addition to the pot, after all, its going to be his money. If he has the best hand, what does he have to fear?! A poker player with a winning hand welcomes challenge. He will win in the end. So he would never threaten you with the prospect of losing. A poker player who does so clearly tips off his actual hand as being weak, not strong.
From these examples it should be clear that a system of beliefs that fears "heretics" and actively seeks to silence them by threats of violence or excommunication, reveals that they do not trust in, or that unconsciously doubt, the veracity of their own beliefs. Challenges frighten them, yet challenges should only frighten those with false creeds.
I think we ought to all take this to heart in our debates, whatever side we are on... if we find ourselves feeling that our opponents words are heretical.... then we're clearly going down the wrong path.
Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates