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What is a Schism?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A schism is a rift or break in an organization that causes two distinct and separate factions to emerge. Typically, it is very difficult to reunite after a schism occurs, and the division can set up centuries of strife and chaos. Someone who triggers this is known as a schismatic. Some schismatics have gone on to become folk heroes as a result of their roles in schisms, especially when they are perceived as breaking from a corrupt organization.

Many people use the term specifically to refer to religious schisms, most notably in the Christian church. The most famous is probably the Great Schism of the 11th century, in which the Christian church broke into two main branches: the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, other religious have also experienced schisms, and Christianity has witnessed a number of lesser divisions, explaining why there are so many branches of Christianity today.

Schisms can also happen to sports teams, educational institutions, and other organizations. Typically, it starts with a small ideological disagreement that slowly snowballs, becoming more and more important as people start to take sides. A widening gap begins to emerge, and if the gap cannot be breached, the result will be a schism. In some cases, people actively work to promote this division in the belief that their differences are too great for the issue to be resolved.

The term comes from a Greek word which means “to tear,” and this is a very apt description of the events associated with a schism. Especially in the case of a highly organized organization, a schism can tear followers apart, creating entrenched resentment which may boil over later. Classically, one party retains power, and it may use its powers to abuse the breakaway group mercilessly in the hopes of suppressing the renegades and regaining control.

Human history is littered with numerous examples of schisms, and while some have been extremely violent, many have also contributed in a positive way to history. The Great Schism, for example, created two thriving branches of Christianity once over a century of discord passed, and it undoubtedly inspired religious renegades in the 16th century Reformation. They have toppled governments, divided communities, and caused sports fans a great deal of grief, but they have also restructured and sometimes greatly improved society, though it may take decades to realize it.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ceilingcat — On Jun 24, 2011

@sunnySkys - That's pretty funny. My friends are a little more mellow about sports so my only personal experience with a schism is the song by Tool. The lyrics to Schism make much more sense now that I know what a schism is!

By sunnySkys — On Jun 22, 2011

It's really amazing how one small disagreement can cause a huge rift in a group of people. I personally witnessed a group of friends go through a schism over sports a few years ago.

My state didn't have it's own football team for awhile so everyone supported the team from the nearest major city. Then, a football team came to my state. That season was fraught with drama and arguments over which football team to support and eventually a schism resulted. About half supported the old team and half the new team.

I don't take sports that seriously but so many people do I'm not surprised this happened!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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