Moral and intellectual courage in the face of government tyranny and censorship.
Heretic is set in the near future and portrays an Orwellian world in which believing the wrong things can get you sent to re-education camps, and possessing books not approved by the government will get you jail time. It is a world in which ‘free thinking’ has been narrowly defined and dissenters are arrested as intellectual terrorists.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood portrays an Orwellian world in which women are severely oppressed, prohibited from holding jobs, and are valued only for their reproductive abilities. Atwood wrote her novel in the 1980’s to warn of the dangers of extremists in the religious right, who started talking openly about what they would do with women if they ever gained power. The rise of the alt-right and its merger with the religious right in their joint support for the racist and misogynist Trump presidency shows how prophetic her novel was.
Extremism is a danger to us all, whether religious or not. Stalin and Mao butchered tens of millions in purges to cleanse their nations of religious faith and intellectual dissent. The Khmer Rouge killed off over a quarter of the population of Cambodia. China is currently repressing and persecuting religious and ethnic minorities, and Russia is actively repressing the gay community within its borders. And then we have that charming little citadel to atheism, North Korea.
Extremists of all flavours are a threat to freedom
The novel that George Orwell wrote – which gave rise to the term ‘Orwellian’ – is 1984. He was inspired by the oppressive regime of communist Russia to warn of the dangers of secular extremism. Orwell’s books were subsequently banned in the USSR for its criticism of Stalin’s methods (and ironically by some states in the US for other reasons).
Both secular and religious extremists are utopian idealists who are convinced they have the best plan for society, and therefore feel justified in using violence to force it on the rest of us. Both atheist and religious extremists share a common disdain for personal freedom, despise liberal democracies as weak and corrupt, have no respect for a free press and other democratic institutions, and are in fact intolerant of liberty for anyone but themselves.
When atheism becomes religion
“Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”
– Sam Harris, The End of Faith
In a similar vein, Heretic was inspired by Sam Harris, who wrote The End of Faith. In this disturbed little book he uses ‘science’ to justify a nuclear first strike on the Islamic world, reduces billions of people to faceless enemies who should be incinerated, and advocates killing people for what they believe. Chris Hedges summed it up perfectly in When Atheism Becomes Religion: “Religious fundamentalists pervert and distort religion to serve their own fears and aggrandize themselves. Atheists such as Harris do the same with science and reason.”
Orwellian censorship & free thought
Heretic is about intellectual courage in the face of government censorship. Set in the near future, it portrays an Orwellian world in which people are arrested and sent to ‘re-education’ camps for believing the wrong things, and dissenters are branded intellectual terrorists. It explores what could very likely happen if Sam Harris’ idea is ever taken to its logical conclusion.