When creating religions for our stories, one of the things to think about is how the people who follow that tradition respond to offenses against its rules and principles. Is your character running the risk of torture and death if they question the accuracy of the sacred texts, or are they just going to get a stern glare from their grandmother for using the wrong hand to swirl the incense at the family altar?
Just as there are lots of different religious traditions that people practice in many different ways, there are lots of different ways of disrespecting religious ideas and offending the people who hold them. I’m going to talk about three kinds of religious transgression today that are often confused with one another. The differences between them are important, though. Which of these kinds of transgression a society recognizes and how it responds to them reflect important things about its history and religious traditions. These three are: sacrilege, blasphemy, and heresy.
(Or, as we call it my house, Saturday night.)
Sacrilege is an act that interferes with a religious object, person, or practice. Almost all religious traditions recognize certain people, places, things, or rituals as having special status and disrupting any of these things is often viewed as sacrilege. The sorts of actions that typically merit the term include, for example, attacking a person of religious authority, damaging or mishandling sacred objects, performing inappropriate acts in a religious site, disturbing grave sites, and so on. How any of these actions is viewed depends on the customs and traditions of the culture in question. Many modern Christian and Muslim communities, for example, would look down on people sleeping in church or mosque and would be very offended by people having sex there, but welcome strangers to join them in worship services. In certain ancient Greek and Mesopotamian temples, on the other hand, sleeping and sex were normal activities, but outsiders to the community were not welcome.
As usually understood, sacrilege is an act, not an intention. The state of mind of the person committing the act does not come into play. Destroying a sacred object is—from the point of view of the people who hold it sacred—equally sacrilegious whether the destroyer intended to destroy it or not, or whether they themselves hold it sacred or not.
Blasphemy is a spoken or written insult to a divinity or religious tradition. Many religious traditions expect a display of respect towards scared figures and things, but not all regard blasphemy as a distinct offense. In many traditional religions, insulting a divinity is regarded the same way as insulting a family member or elder: a shocking and disgraceful thing to do, but not a separate kind of transgression.
In the history of our world, the religious traditions that have devoted the most attention to blasphemy as a distinct religious offense have been the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While some of the concern these faiths show with blasphemy likely traces back to the originally Jewish tradition of protecting the deity’s name with special reverence, it may also have to do with the experience all three religions had at various times in their history of being the religion of an oppressed minority. The special sensitivity to expressions of contempt for these religions may be a vestige of the self-protection that was vital in those small communities.
Heresy is holding a belief that conflicts with established correct beliefs. This means that heresy is only possible in a religion that considers beliefs important and has some mechanism for determining which ones are correct and which are not. Many traditional religions attach relatively little importance to belief and are far more concerned with action. Even among religions that value belief, not all have ways of deciding which beliefs are correct and which are not. As the history of major religions like Christianity and Islam shows, it can be very hard to get a large community of believers to agree on a single set of orthodox beliefs.
Large religions have historically tended to break down into smaller sects with their own particular interpretations of doctrine, but these differences do not necessarily amount to heresy. Most disagreements on religious matters, even in traditions that value adherence to a set of orthodox beliefs, are just differences of opinion. They don’t become heresy unless someone in a position of authority decides to declare them so.
A useful analogy for heresy is copyright infringement. Anyone can copy another person’s artistic work, but that only becomes copyright infringement if there is a copyright law that is actively enforced. Otherwise, it’s just copying.
Sacrilege is incorrect action; blasphemy is incorrect speech; heresy is incorrect belief. In all cases, what is correct or incorrect depends on cultural context. How people respond to these transgressions is also a matter of cultural context.
There is a strand of popular history that imagines religions (or at least certain forms of them) as orthodoxy-enforcing machines that routinely use violence and persecution to squelch any deviation from strict conformity, but this is a gross exaggeration. Violent reactions to religious transgressions are a historical rarity and tend to appear in societies under stress from other forces.
For many societies, religions serve practical social functions. What those functions are varies from culture to culture, but creating a sense of unity within a community and setting norms of behavior are two things that people often look to religion to do, especially in times when other social, political, and economic structures seem to be failing. When an act of sacrilege, blasphemy, or heresy appears to threaten the authority of a religious tradition that is holding together important parts of peoples lives, the faithful are more likely to respond in extreme ways. Transgressions that don’t pose this kind of threat, though, are more likely to be clucked at disapprovingly and forgotten.
Thoughts for writers
What forms of disrespect your imagined religions care about and how they respond to them can reveal a great deal about how those religions function and how they fit into the societies they thrive in, so think about them carefully.
The things that bother a religious community are a reflection of what they care about. If their tradition is mostly concerned with the correct performance of certain rituals, then arguing about beliefs is likely to be no more than an annoyance to them, but interfering with their ceremonies may provoke a far stronger reaction. If they mostly care about keeping up correct beliefs, then mishandling their sacred objects may be worthy of only a sharp scolding but propounding a novel interpretation of doctrine could land your character in serious trouble.
Even so, serious trouble in a stable society under reasonably good conditions might mean no more than a public rebuke or social shunning by the more devout members of the community. Only in a society that is already under stress and being held together by the unifying force of a religious tradition is a troublesome character likely to face physical punishment or death for showing contempt to the faith.
Other entries in Fantasy Religions:
Image: Sibylline sisterhood via Giphy
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.