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Modern Heretics: Global Perspectives


Admission requirements



Due to the rapid modernization of society and culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century religious believers came to face the question whether they should modernise their beliefs, rituals, practices, ecclesiastical structures etcetera in accordance with ‘the spirit of the age’. A number of believers wanted to adapt their religion to modernity, just as today believers all over the world cherish similarmaspirations.The openness to the modern world of these ‘religious liberals’ or ‘modernists’ was considered as heretical by many traditionalist believers who feared that religion would be fundamentally and definitely undermined by embracing modernity. When religious liberals started to organise international and inter-religious conferences in Europe and North America, in line with their global modernist ideal and inspired by the World Parliament of Religions (Chicago 1893), these gatherings were soon denounced by conservative believers as ‘conferences of heretics’. The formal and informal networks of these ‘modern heretics’ played a significant role in forging a transnational alliance between representatives of modernist currents within Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions.

The focus of the seminar will be on an in-depth analysis of the proceedings of these international ‘heretical’ conferences.
1) First of all, the proceedings provide us with very interesting material on a wide range of key intellectual, religious, social and political issues of the time.
2) Secondly, they also familiarise us with the varied state of affairs with regard to liberal religion in diverse areas on the globe – from America to Australia and from Europe to Asia.
3) Thirdly, they show us the impact of the often harsh repression of the ‘modern(ist) heresy’ by conservatives and fundamentalists. Thus one gains insight into the concept of ‘heresy’ in relation to modernity.
4) Finally, these sources allow us to make significant comparisons with the global religious situation in our own day.

Course objectives

  • Students shall be familiar with the main themes of religious liberalism/modernism, conservatism, and modernity. – Students shall be able to analyse relevant religious and social phenomena in relation to concepts of liberal religion, traditionalism, transnationalism, and processes of modernisation. – Students shall be able to grasp and specify various theories concerning these and other major concepts. – Students shall be able to critically analyse and evaluate primary sources and put these in wider contexts (historical, theological, ecclesiastical, cultural, social, political).



Mode of instruction

The course is based on a combination of lectures by the instructor, presentations by the students, close reading of primary sources, class room discussion and individual studies.

Course Load

  • Total course load for the cours: 5 EC = 140 hours [can be extended to 10 EC = 280 hours]

  • Hours spent on attending lectures and seminars: 24 hours – Time for studying the compulsory literature : 36 hours – Time to prepare a presentation and write a paper (including reading / research): 80 hours

Assessment method

Assessment will be based on:

  • participation in class (is obligatory), including weekly readings and assignments (25 %) – a short lecture on a case study (25 %) – an essay that explores the case study (50 %)


Yes, Blackboard

Reading list

Primary sources:

  • Hugenholtz Jr., P.H. (ed.), Religion and Liberty. Addresses and Proceedings of the Second Congress of the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers, Held in Amsterdam, Holland, Sept 1. to 4, 1903 (Leiden 1904).

  • Wendte, Charles W. (ed.), Freedom and Fellowship in Religion. Proceedings and Papers of the
    Fourth International Congress of Religious Liberals, Held at Boston, U.S.A., September 22-27, 1907 (Boston 1907).

  • Fischer, Max & Friedrich Michael Schiele (eds.), Fünfter Weltkongress für freies Christentum und Religiösen Fortschritt, Berlin 5. bis 10. August 1910 (Berlin 1910) [Also translated into English].

Centennial Reflections. International Association for Religious Freedom, 1900-2000 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 2001).

For a list with further reading material see Blackboard (about two weeks before the start of the semester).


uSis and blackboard

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

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Contact information

Prof.dr. E.G.E. van der Wall


Please do not hesitate to contact Professor Ernestine van der Wall for any further information about this course (