Heresy: The Guardian of Truth

I first posted this on October 2, 2013. It seems relevant again.

The first reaction to truth is hatred – Tertullian

One of the most difficult things in life is to stand up for truth as you know it. Nothing will bring down public scorn as readily as believing something that is different from what the masses believe. Both religion and science abound with examples of people who dared to think differently and were ostracized, humiliated, excommunicated, litigated, and worse.

Group acceptance is not just important psychologically, it is basic to survival. Especially as a child. Being part of the tribe, being part of the in group, being part of the team is an important aspect for developing or maintaining a sense of self-worth. Look at any group of middle-school or high school kids and you’ll see this at play. However, the deep desire for group acceptance doesn’t end in adolescence and the need for it can prevent an honest search for unadulterated truth.

I say unadulterated because what was once truth is no longer so. For example, medical practices that were once thought to be revolutionary and cutting edge we now see as quaint or sometimes even vicious or deadly. We used to keep people with mental illness in chains believing they were possessed by demons. Bloodletting, purging, vomiting, and blistering (raising blisters on the skin) were all once common medical treatments. Frontal lobotomies were once thought to be a cure for mental illness and depression. Mercury was once a medicine. And the wonder-drug thalidomide once given for morning sickness caused terrible birth defects.

Conversely, true advances like hand-washing to prevent the spread of disease from one person to the next were met with such scorn that their discoverers were subject to ridicule and loss of position (Ignaz Semmelweis who realized and championed the benefits of hand-washing was dismissed from his position in the Vienna clinic where he made his discovery).

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Science—the religion of the rational age— progresses in fits and starts.  What were once heretical notions are now believed to be absolute truth. The science that guides our every day lives is more about discovery rather than any absolute truth. The real truth is that there are such vast amounts of information unknown to us that we can’t even guess at all we don’t yet know. So how can experts claim to have the answer?

Unless we each develop critical skills to question experts and question authority, unless we embrace our own inner rebel, we may make decisions that are not in the best interest of ourselves, our family, or our community.

Noreena Hertz in her book, Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions In a Confusing World tells us to challenge the experts, embrace dissent, and encourage differences. These are not behaviors that are popular if you want to remain in the in group but they may be the only way to find fundamental truths that work.


If you would be a real seeker of truth it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things – Rene Descartes

To myself I am only a child playing on the beach while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me – Isaac Newton

A harmful truth is better than a useful lie – Thomas Mann

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