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Heretic vs. Heathen: What's the Difference?

By Harlon Moss & Aimie Carlson || Updated on May 22, 2024
A heretic is someone who holds beliefs that deviate from established religious doctrine, while a heathen is someone who does not follow a major religion, often considered pagan.

Key Differences

A heretic is a person who professes beliefs that go against the accepted teachings of their religion. This term is often used within a specific religious context, indicating deviation from established doctrines or practices. On the other hand, a heathen is someone who does not adhere to a major religion, typically Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Heathen is often used to describe individuals who follow pagan or polytheistic religions, or those who are considered irreligious.
Heretics are usually members of a religious community who dissent from the official teachings, often facing censure or punishment from religious authorities. Their beliefs are seen as a threat to the orthodoxy and cohesion of the community. In contrast, heathens are viewed from the perspective of major religions as outsiders or non-believers, without necessarily having any ties or obligations to the doctrines they reject.
The use of the term "heretic" implies an internal conflict within a religion, as the heretic is often someone who was once a part of the religious community. "Heathen," however, implies an external stance, representing those who stand outside the established religious frameworks. The terms also carry different connotations: "heretic" often suggests rebellion or reform, while "heathen" can carry a sense of otherness or cultural difference.

Comparison Chart


Believer with deviant religious views
Non-believer in major religions


Within a specific religion
Outside major religious traditions


Internal deviation from orthodoxy
External non-adherence


Rebellion against established doctrine
Otherness or paganism

Religious Standing

Often a former member of the faith
Typically not affiliated with the faith


Viewed as a threat to unity
Viewed as outsiders or non-believers

Heretic and Heathen Definitions


A person promoting reformative ideas that contradict traditional beliefs.
His heretical views sparked a debate within the church.


A person who does not belong to a widely practiced religion.
The villagers referred to him as a heathen due to his pagan practices.


Someone who challenges the core beliefs of their faith.
She was labeled a heretic for her progressive ideas.


A non-believer in the context of major world religions.
She was called a heathen for her disbelief in God.


A dissenter within a religious community.
The heretic was excommunicated for his controversial sermons.


An individual outside the major religious traditions.
Medieval Christians often viewed Muslims and pagans as heathens.


An individual whose religious views are considered unacceptable by religious authorities.
The council condemned the heretic and his writings.


A term used to describe followers of polytheistic or nature-based religions.
The heathen rituals fascinated the anthropologists studying ancient cultures.


A person who holds controversial opinions, especially one who publicly dissents from the officially accepted dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.


An adherent of a religion that does not worship the God of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.




Such persons considered as a group.


Someone who believes contrary to the fundamental tenets of a religion they claim to belong to.


Heathen An adherent of a Neopagan religion that seeks to revive the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Germanic peoples.


Someone who does not conform to generally accepted beliefs or practices


One who is regarded as irreligious, uncivilized, or unenlightened.


(archaic) Heretical; of or pertaining to heresy or heretics.


Such persons considered as a group.


One who holds to a heresy; one who believes some doctrine contrary to the established faith or prevailing religion.
A man that is an heretic, after the first and second admonition, reject.


Not adhering to the Christian religion (though usually excluding the Jews); pagan.


One who having made a profession of Christian belief, deliberately and pertinaciously refuses to believe one or more of the articles of faith "determined by the authority of the universal church."


(by extension) Uncultured; uncivilized; savage, philistine.


A person who holds religious beliefs in conflict with the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church


Alternative case form of Heathen.


A person who holds unorthodox opinions in any field (not merely religion)


A person who does not follow a Christian religion; a pagan.


A person who holds beliefs contrary to established religious doctrines.
The church declared him a heretic for his unorthodox teachings.


(by extension) An uncultured or uncivilized person, philistine.


Alternative case form of Heathen.


An individual of the pagan or unbelieving nations, or those which worship idols and do not acknowledge the true God; a pagan; an idolater.


An irreligious person.
If it is no more than a moral discourse, he may preach it and they may hear it, and yet both continue unconverted heathens.
Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance.


Gentile; pagan; as, a heathen author.


Barbarous; unenlightened; heathenish.


Irreligious; scoffing.


A person who does not acknowledge your God


Not acknowledging the God of Christianity and Judaism and Islam


Someone who is considered irreligious or pagan.
The missionaries aimed to convert the heathen tribes.


What does heresy imply?

Heresy implies an internal conflict and deviation from accepted religious doctrines within a faith.

Can a heretic be part of a religious community?

Yes, heretics are usually members of a religious community who dissent from official teachings.

Is heresy considered a serious offense?

Yes, heresy is often considered a serious offense within religious communities.

What is a heathen?

A heathen is someone who does not follow a major religion, often considered pagan.

Are heathens necessarily religious?

Heathens are typically not affiliated with major religions and may follow pagan or polytheistic beliefs.

What does heathenism imply?

Heathenism implies being outside the bounds of major religious traditions.

Is being a heathen considered an offense?

Being a heathen is not an offense but signifies non-adherence to major religious beliefs.

Can a heretic become a heathen?

A heretic can become a heathen if they completely renounce their faith and adopt no major religion.

What is a heretic?

A heretic is someone who holds beliefs that deviate from established religious doctrines.

Are heathens always pagan?

Heathens are often associated with paganism but can also be irreligious.

Can heretics face punishment?

Yes, heretics often face censure or punishment from religious authorities.

Can a heathen become a heretic?

A heathen can become a heretic if they join a religion and later dissent from its doctrines.

What is the origin of the term 'heretic'?

The term 'heretic' originates from the Greek word "hairetikos," meaning able to choose.

What is the origin of the term 'heathen'?

The term 'heathen' comes from the Old English "hæðen," meaning not Christian or Jewish.

Can heathen practices influence major religions?

Heathen practices can influence major religions through cultural exchange and adaptation.

Do heretics seek to change their religion?

Some heretics seek reform, while others may simply hold different beliefs.

Do heathens face punishment?

Heathens may face social ostracism or discrimination but are not punished within a specific religious framework.

Are heretics always reformers?

Not all heretics are reformers; some may simply hold beliefs contrary to mainstream teachings.

Can heresy lead to new religious movements?

Yes, heresy can sometimes lead to the formation of new religious movements.

Do heathens seek to oppose major religions?

Heathens do not necessarily oppose major religions; they simply follow different or no religious beliefs.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Co-written by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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