Manichaeism (also known as Manichaeanism and Manicheanism) is an ancient religion that arose several centuries after Christ. The faith was a purposeful blend of Zoroastrianism and Christianity, borrowing concepts and terminology from both. Manicheans believed that the universe was dominated by two competing forces of good and evil, represented by light and darkness, respectively. While the religion of Manichaeism did not survive very long, historically speaking, its reputation has endured. The term Manichean is used today mostly to criticize a viewpoint for being too black-and-white, or overly simplified.
Manichaeism arose in Persia in the middle of the 3rd century. Like other early heresies, such as Gnosticism, it taught that the physical world was inherently evil and that salvation is obtained primarily through knowledge. The founder of Manichaeism is known only as Mani, which is actually a title meaning something like “King of Light” or “Shining One.” His teachings particularly criticized Christianity. Mani took specific issue with the Bible for suggesting that some truths in the universe might not be easily understood by human beings.
This criticism is somewhat ironic, since Manichaeism is one of the most complex and convoluted faiths in history. The faith is an intricate story of the battle between two competing forces, one of goodness and light, the other of evil and darkness. This includes at least three distinct “creations,” all based on the details of these cosmic battles. Mani’s intent was to create a universal religion, combining many of the basic ideas of Zoroastrianism with the terminology of Christianity. To that end, Mani often claimed to be the reincarnation of religious figures such as Jesus or Buddha.
Manichaeism has far more in common with faiths such as Zoroastrianism than with Christian theology. Other than certain words and phrases, there is little connection between the Bible and the teachings of Mani. As a result, Manichaeism was much more successful in the East. As paganism faded out, it was replaced mostly by Christianity in the West. Manichaeism, briefly, was the primary competitor to the Christian gospel. This was a relatively short era, however, and, within a few centuries, Manichaeism was practically extinct.
Manichaeism’s legacy comes in two primary ways: historical and rhetorical. Some of the earliest Christian theological works were composed specifically to point out errors and heresies in Manichaeism. In fact, one of the first major Christian apologists, Augustine, was a convert from Manichaeism. Prior to committing to Christ, Augustine was part of Manichaeism as a “hearer,” or someone who participated without making any overt vows toward the faith.
In modern times, Manichaeism is mostly used as a derogatory term. When some particular viewpoint is being criticized for ignoring shades of gray or for taking a strong “us-versus-them” mentality, it is often referred to as “Manichaean” or as “Neo-Manichaeism.” This word is often applied to sects that have borrowed ideas from Mani and his teachings, particularly in early Christian history. As used today, though, the term typically has little to do with religion and much more to do with politics and philosophy.