Religious approaches to literature have been dominated by apologetics and by the confessional tendencies advocated by T.S. Eliot. An atheist, therefore, still sticks out like a sore thumb at the Conference on Christianity and Literature (CCL), and the majority of publications in journals such as Literature and Theology and Religion and Literature are cast in a traditionalist, pietistic mold. Critics who examine the heretical, blasphemous, or atheistic implications of literary texts--without using such analyses to advance a conformist religious agenda--tend to be relegated to the margins.
It is time to give those who specialize in nonconformist or even antireligious aspects of literature a “home,” i.e., a society, a peer-reviewed journal, and regular conferences. To this end, I propose to found the Society for Heresy Studies.
Please note that I use the term heresy in a value-neutral way, neither celebrating nor condemning it but simply making it a central object of critical inquiry and sober analysis. Consider Jeffrey Burton Russell’s lapidary definition that “a heretic is one who is designated by the bishop as a heretic,” and it should be clear that heresy cannot mean an “aberration from the truth.” Indeed, one person’s heretic is likely to be another person’s saint. Heresies can be understood as specific doctrinal deviations from normative articles of faith (one thinks of Pelagianism, Gnosticism, Tritheism, Deism, etc.), as subversive belief systems such as Satanism, as various nontraditional conceptions of the deity, or as intuitive nonconformist stances like misotheism or neo-paganism.
As for blasphemy, recent developments to criminalize this vital aspect of free speech and to intimidate and persecute blasphemers worldwide shows just how central and timely the study of this “victimless crime” is. This is an area where literature plays a vital role in preserving the freedom of conscience and the nobility of unfettered expression.
If you are interested in the formation of a Society for Heresy Studies and would like to make a contribution to this nascent field, please contact Bernard Schweizer (author of Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism [Oxford, 2010]). Specifically, I am looking for people willing to work in an advisory position, for potential members of the society’s board of officers, for editors of a future journal dedicated to Heresy Studies, and for organizers of and contributors to future conferences. Contact: email@example.com.