Catharism is the term used to describe a set of quasi-Christian beliefs held by a group of medieval ascetics known as the Cathars (or Cathari), which means “pure ones.” According to Catharism, everything physical was created by the evil god of the Old Testament, and everything spiritual was created by the good god of the New Testament. The Cathars believed that human beings are really angels trapped in corrupted matter, forced to reincarnate until finally released by a ritual of purification.
One of the tenets of Catharism, which began in the 12th century, was a rejection of marriage. Cathars forbade marriage for a couple of reasons. First, they believed that humans were simply angelic beings imprisoned in flesh—and angels are genderless. Also, the Cathari believed that procreation was an evil act, since it prolonged the suffering and evil of the physical world. Cathars were also vegetarian and pacifistic.
Catharism taught that salvation required a ritual known as a consolamentum. This was vaguely similar to baptism, with the addition of speaking in tongues and fasting. A Cathar typically observed the consolamentum as late in life as possible, since he believed any pleasure taken in the world after the ritual would corrupt his spirit and prevent him from ascending to heaven. Many Cathars undertook the consolamentum on their deathbeds, then voluntarily starved themselves to death in order to guarantee purity in the afterlife.
Theologically, Catharism was dualistic; biblically, Catharism is completely false, although the Cathars claimed to be Christians. Scripture says that the same God who created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) is the One who came in human form for our salvation (Acts 3:13). Unlike Catharism, the Bible says that each person is born and dies only once (Hebrews 9:27), has a human soul (Genesis 2:7), and is saved by grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9). No ritual can save us (Titus 3:5), nor are all worldly things inherently evil (Genesis 1:31).
In modern times, Catharism might be seen as a quirky or even progressive religious group. But in medieval Europe the Cathars were considered radical and profoundly dangerous to the stability of a fragile society. Those who denied the authority of the government to wage war and who refused to procreate were seen as anarchists threatening the culture. Catharism also rejected the Catholic sacraments and almost all other religious traditions. Unsurprisingly, Catharism was heavily persecuted by the Catholic Church; they were the particular targets of at least one minor Crusade and parts of the Inquisition. Catharism died out in the 14th century.