Heresy, Smith defines in his preface, is the rejection of the orthodox, and heresies are considered a threat to the established social order once the dogma of the institution (be it religious or otherwise) has become aligned with the power of the state or political force. The state, holding the reins of power, uses force, instead of persuasion, to enforce the orthodoxy. The Founding Fathers, most practicing Deists, itself a form of heretical thought, understood this and insisted on the separation of church and state, thus preventing the establishment of an official religion, preventing, they hoped, official heresies as well. Orthodoxy itself is not dangerous, only its alliance with political power. The central theme of Smith's book is the "crucial difference between the voluntary orthodoxy of organizations and the politicized orthodoxy of governments. "A free society, complete with orthodoxies and prejudices, is the best of all worlds for the heretic. Liberty permits the heretic to pit his beliefs against those of the orthodox majority." The paradox for the heretic is whether if and when his view becomes the dominant - to politicize the new orthodoxy or to permit liberty, which enabled the heretic to conquer ideologically, to possibly undermine the new orthodoxy?
Smith is unapologetically atheist; belief in God for Smith is simply unreasonable and irrational. Asked to prove the nonexistence of God, Smith's answer is simply that one cannot prove a negative and that the person who asserts the existence of something bears the burden of proof. He asserts that to believe in faith or to rely on faith is to "defy and abandon the judgment of one's mind. Faith conflicts with reason. It cannot give you knowledge; it can only delude you into believing that you know more than you really do. Faith is intellectually dishonest, and it should be rejected by every person of integrity.
The book is a loosely connected series of essays that discuss a variety of Christian and social heresies. He begins with his own philosophic journey to atheism. He is certainly a libertarian, and the essays on public education and the War on Drugs reflect that philosophy. But the reason I began this book was to discover his writing about Ayn Rand. He devotes two substantial chapters to her and the Objectivist philosophy.
Rand evokes fierce passions, both pro and con. "Accounts of Objectivism written by Rand's admirers are frequently eulogistic and uncritical, whereas accounts written by her antagonists are often hostile and what is worse, embarrassingly inaccurate." The situation has been made worse by her appointed heir to the throne, Leonard Peikoff, who has declared Objectivism to be a "closed" philosophy, i.e., no critical analysis will be tolerated; one must accept it as he says it is and that's that. Whether Objectivism will survive such narrow-mindedness remains to be seen. It's a classic case of the true believer "unwilling to criticize the deity. Thinking for oneself is hard work so true believers recite catechisms and denounce heretics instead." Typically, this was contrary to Rand's philosophy of individualism and critical, rational thinking where "truth or falsehood must be one's sole concern and the sole criterion of judgment -- not anyone's approval or disapproval."