“Not religious, not spiritual, not atheist — what’s left?”

Kate Blanchard has left the Christian faith, but doesn’t want to be an atheist. Instead, she embraces the term “heretic.”

Thus, for folks who are unorthodox but aren’t atheists, who care about metaphysics but who aren’t mystics, perhaps the good old-fashioned term “heretic” will satisfy. The kind of heresy I’m talking about here is what Thomas Aquinas defined as “restricting belief to certain points of Christ’s doctrine [as determined by the Roman Catholic hierarchy] selected and fashioned at pleasure.” (I would question only the implication that heretics are unique in “selecting and fashioning” their beliefs “at pleasure.”)

I find this name appealing for multiple reasons, not least of which is that it allows me to claim some connection to Christianity. The more I’ve learned about the history of Christianity, the more I’ve come to accept its ongoing diversity. The earliest Christians, as evidenced by both the New Testament and ancient theological writings, did not agree on the nature of Jesus or his work. In the fourth and later centuries, Christians made valiant (if misguided) attempts to unify their beliefs and practices by stamping out what they saw as errors; but Jesus people haven’t agreed since then either, despite centuries of the religious elite claiming otherwise.

A very interesting perspective, and it’s certainly good and well that Blanchard hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater with regards to religion. However, I must admit that it’s difficult to not see this as a semantics game that is as much driven by emotion and experience as the “spiritual but not religious” descriptor that she rejects.

Related: Rachel Ozanne has written a response of sorts, in which she agrees with Blanchard in theory but questions whether “heretic” is the best term or not, and wonders whether atheism needs self-professed heretics to serve as moderates within the movement.

In my life after orthodox Christianity, it is unsurprising that I have found myself associating with nonbelievers and nontraditional believers of many stripes – including many self-avowed atheists. Do these individuals fall into Blanchard’s description of atheists as intellectual elitists? Sometimes. However, more often than not, they are people like Blanchard and me who can recognize both the good and the bad in various religious traditions.

Yet they insist that I, and others like me, who doubt the existence of God or gods, am in fact an atheist by definition. Thus, they argue that, while atheism and heresy may refer to two different things — lack of belief in god and an outsider-insider relationship to the Christian tradition, respectively — heretics should be more willing to own up to their de facto atheism.