When religious beliefs become evil: 4 signs
The Branch Davidians, a religious sect led by David Koresh, clashed with federal agents in 1993 in Waco, Texas.
April 28th, 2013
06:00 AM ET

When religious beliefs become evil: 4 signs

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - An angry outburst at a mosque. The posting of a suspicious YouTube video. A friendship with a shadowy imam.

Those were just some of the signs that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, accused of masterminding the Boston Marathon bombings, had adopted a virulent strain of Islam that led to the deaths of four people and injury of more than 260.

But how else can you tell that someone’s religious beliefs have crossed the line? The answer may not be as simple you think, according to scholars who study all brands of religious extremism. The line between good and evil religion is thin, they say, and it’s easy to make self-righteous assumptions.

“When it’s something we like, we say it’s commitment to an idea; when it’s something we don’t like, we say it’s blind obedience,” said Douglas Jacobsen, a theology professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania.

Yet there are ways to tell that a person’s faith has drifted into fanaticism if you know what to look and listen for, say scholars who have studied some of history’s most horrific cases of religious violence.

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“There are a lot of warning signs all around us, but we usually learn about them after a Jim Jones or a David Koresh,” said Charles Kimball, author of “When Religion Becomes Evil.”

Here are four warning signs:

1. I know the truth, and you don’t.

On the morning of July 29, 1994, the Rev. Paul Hill walked up to John Britton outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, and shot the doctor to death. Hill was part of a Christian extremist group called the Army of God, which taught that abortion was legalized murder.

Hill’s actions were motivated by a claim that virtually all religions espouse: We have the truth that others lack.

Those claims can turn deadly when they become absolute and there is no room for interpretation, Kimball says.

“Absolute claims can quickly move into a justification of violence against someone who rejects that claim,” Kimball said. “It’s often a short step.”

Healthy religions acknowledge that sincere people can disagree about even basic truths, Kimball says.

The history of religion is filled with examples of truths that were once considered beyond questioning but are no longer accepted by all followers: inerrancy of sacred scripture, for example, or the subjugation of women and sanctioning of slavery.

If someone like Hall believes that they know God’s truth and they cannot be wrong, watch out, Kimball says.

“Authentic religious truth claims are never as inflexible as zealous adherents insist,” he writes in “When Religion Becomes Evil.”

Yet there’s a flip side to warnings about claiming absolute truth: Much of religion couldn’t exist without them, scholars say.

Many of history’s greatest religious figures – Moses, Jesus, the Prophet Mohammed – all believed that they had discovered some truth, scholars say.

Ordinary people inflamed with a sense of self-righteousness have made the same claim and done good throughout history, says Carl Raschke, a theology professor at the University of Denver in Colorado.

The Protestant Reformation was sparked by an angry German monk who thought he had the truth, Raschke says.

“Martin Luther’s disgust at the worldliness of the papacy in the early 1500s inspired him to become a radical revolutionary whose ideas overturned the entire political structure in Europe,” Raschke said.

So how do you tell the difference between the healthy claims of absolute truth and the deadly? Scholars say to look at the results: When people start hurting others in the name of their religious truth, they’ve crossed the line.

2. Beware the charismatic leader.

It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Japanese history. In March 1995, a religious sect called Aum Shinrikyo released a deadly nerve gas in a Tokyo subway station, leaving 12 people dead and 5,000 injured.

Two months later, Japanese police found Shoko Asahara, the sect’s founder, hiding in a room filled with cash and gold bars. Kimball, who tells the story of the sect in “When Religion Becomes Evil,” says Asahara had poisoned the minds of his followers years before.

Asahara demanded unquestioned devotion from members of his sect and isolated followers in communities where they were told that they no longer needed to think for themselves, Kimball says.

Any religion that limits the intellectual freedom of its followers, he says, has become dangerous. “When you start to get individuals who are the sole interpreters of truth, you get people who follow them blindly."

Charismatic leaders, though, often don’t start off being cruel. Jim Jones, who led the mass suicide of his followers in South America, was a gifted speaker who built an interracial church in San Francisco that did much good in the community. Few people at the beginning of his ministry could predict what he would become.

As time went on, though, his charisma turned cruel as he tolerated no questions to his authority and became delusional.

“Charismatic leadership is important, but in healthy religions, there’s always a process where questions are encouraged,” Kimball said.

Weaning followers away from corrupt charismatic leaders and bad religion can take years, but it can be done if one knows how to speak their language, says Ed Husain, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt will often deploy imams to reach out to young men in prison who have adopted “Islamism,” or extreme forms of Islam sanctioning violence against civilians, says Husain, who has written about Muslim extremism.

These Muslim clerics know the Quran better than the extremists and can use their knowledge to reach extremists in a place that logic and outsiders cannot penetrate, Husain said.

“The antidote to extremism is religion itself,” Husain said. “The problem is not to take Islam out of the debate but to use Islam to counter Islamism.”

3. The end is near.

In 1970, an unknown pastor from Texas wrote a book called “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” The book, which linked biblical prophecy with political events like Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, predicted the imminent return of an antichrist and the end of the world.

Author Hal Lindsey’s book has sold an estimated 15 million copies and spawned a genre of books like the “Left Behind” series. Many people are fascinated by the idea that the heavens will open soon because the end is near.

That end-times theology can turn lethal, though, when a follower decides that he or she will speed up that end-time by conducting some dramatic or violent act, says John Alverson, chairman of the theology department at Carlow University in Pittsburgh.

“A religious terrorist mistakenly believes that God has ordained or called him or her to establish the will of God on Earth now, not gradually and not according to the slow and finicky free will of other humans,” Alverson said.

Yet this impulse to see God’s intervention in human affairs now and not in some distant future can also be good, he says.

There are vibrant religious communities that teach that political and economic injustice must be addressed now. Liberation theology, for example, was a movement among pastors and theologians in Latin America that called for justice for the poor now, not in some future apocalyptic event, Alverson says.

“Hope is a good breakfast but not much of a supper,” Alverson said. “We can’t just live on the hope that justice will happen; we have to actually experience justice from time to time so that our hope can continue.”

4. The end justifies the means.

It was one of the biggest scandals the Roman Catholic Church ever faced, and the repercussions are still being felt today.

In January 2002, the Boston Globe published a story about Father John Geoghan, a priest who had been moved around various parishes after Catholic leaders learned that he had abused children. It was later revealed that Catholic officials had quietly paid at least $10 million to settle lawsuits against Geoghan.

Kimball says the Catholic scandal revealed another sign that a faith has turned toxic: Religious figures start justifying doing something wrong for a higher good.

 “The common theme was trying to protect the integrity of the church,” Kimball said of some Catholic leaders who covered up the crimes. “You get all of these rationalizations that we can’t let this scandal bring the whole church down, so we have to pay off this family and send the priests off to rehab.”

Religion is supposed to be a force for good. Still, it’s common that everyone from suicide bombers to venal church figures finds ways to justify their behavior in the name of some higher good.

Those rationalizations are so pervasive that religious movements that avoid them stand out, scholars say.

Jacobsen, the theology professor from Messiah College, cited the civil rights movement. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow activists renounced violence, even as they were attacked and sometimes murdered.

“They were willing to lay down their lives for what they believed in, but what’s incredible is, they practiced not retaliating when they suffered violence,” he said. “Those people really believed that God created everyone equal, and they were committed to the point of death.”

In some ways, it’s easy to say we would never adopt a form of religion that’s evil. But when we use the word “evil” to describe those who kill in the name of their faith, we’re already mimicking what we condemn, Jacobsen says.

In his new book, “No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education,” Jacobson writes that calling a religion evil is dangerous because “bad or wrong actions can be corrected, but typically evil needs to be destroyed.”

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“To label someone or something as evil is to demonize it, putting it in a category of otherness where the rules of normal life do not apply, where the end often justifies almost any means,” Jacobson writes.

And when we do that, we don’t have to read about radical imams or look at angry YouTube videos to see how easy it is for someone to drift toward religious extremism, he says.

We need only look at ourselves.

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Catholic Church • Christianity • Courts • Culture wars • Egypt • Fundamentalism • History • Islam • Jesus • Leaders • Moses • Muslim • Quran

soundoff (3,810 Responses)
  1. Sanjaya

    In this 21st century, we are adhering to the same religion having ambiguous foundation and are waging war in the name of religions .... more on "Religion and its Repercussions"

    April 28, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Chris

      Sanjaya, look at the history of what the atheist rulers did to Eastern Europe, The Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and North Korea. They left a trail of blood, loss of freedoms, and economic ruin. Ask those who have lived under atheism which foundation they would prefer.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Those people whom you speak of, did not kill BECAUSE of their atheism. They killed as a means to control the people, for political reasons, not religious.
      Get your facts straight.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • akmac65

      Chris...... As others have pointed out, it was the POLITICS of the leaders involved that led to their actions, not their belief or lack thereof in religion.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  2. tony

    You can always tell the power of a God by the size of the collection plate "he" NEEDS.

    That's why we have Soooooo many gods.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Joe

      God apparently is bad with money, because he always needs ours.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • ROFLcopter

      Anyone else think the top image should be the 9/11 towers instead?

      April 28, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  3. WW

    Religion permits fools and nuts to excuse foul behavior.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  4. doctorstrangeluv

    When religious beliefs become evil: Sign number 1 ... having religious beliefs

    April 28, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  5. Dee Microsofsux

    I agree LOOK AT OURSELVES!!!!!

    April 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  6. Brenda

    But shoot anyone kids, dogs just shoot them and it is ok; Because there GOD is their GUN.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • ROFLcopter


      April 28, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  7. Brenda

    All religion turns evil; because it breeds intolerance-look at the evangelicals in this country.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  8. chuckmartel

    Warning sign 1: Being muslim. Everyday they blow up other muslims in the musilm world. At only 1 percent the US population they are already responsible for a disproportionately large number of terrorist attacks and incidents in the US. The US already has more than its share of indigenous nutjobs and psycho killers, the last thing we need is to import islam. They make the bible bangers look sane.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  9. John P. Tarver

    Evolutionists killed more people during the 20th century that all religion for all time.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • tony

      That's written in the Bible somewhere I suppose?

      April 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • oOo

      Tarver = Idiot Deluxe

      April 28, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • thinker in the sun

      Whatever are you talking about?

      April 28, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Joe

      Coming from someone who believes an invisible man in the sky will send you to hell for eating shell fish. All religion has lost all credibility, and inherently, so have their sheep-like followers.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • Gingeet

      A perfect example of how religion makes you stupid. Evolutionists killed more people? I would love to hear this argument? Sorry already have... you lack critical thinking skills

      April 28, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • Darwin

      Mr. Tarver is a believer in magic invisible characters who live in the sky. Therefore he doesn't have to provide any evidence or logic for his claim that "evolutionists" killed lots of people.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • Poltergiest

      Evolutionary theory was originally applied as a way to justify seperation and segregation of races. There was a great deal of evolutionary based pseudo-science that sprung up around the theory. In the end evolution use in this manner simply promoted ignorance. Science can be used for good to bad just like everything else, and truth isn't always the goal.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Tarver, what the hell is an "evolutionist"?

      There is no such thing, dumbfvck.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  10. tony

    Don't forget the mass slaughter of the last couple of the Tsunamis Dude. Brought to us by the loving god of parting the red sea fame.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • chuckmartel

      if that remark is serious, you are insanely stupid.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  11. Darwin

    Notice that those GODLESS ATHEIST SCIENTISTS – whom the Christians will tell you are the most potentially dangerous and evil among us – aren't committing any TERRORIST ACTS. When the bombs go off, you can be sure that some RELIGIOUS group or person was behind the violence. I say it's time for humans to STOP believing in MAGIC INVISIBLE CHARACTERS who live in the sky. Then nobody can claim that he or she was told by God or Allah to kill little 8 year old kids.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Evolutionists created WWII, but thanks for playing.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • tony

      If god created you . . .god help us 🙂

      April 28, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      You really need to explain that one since you are the only one who thinks that.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • Joe


      April 28, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Rob

      Ted Kaczynski was an atheist.

      Benito Mussolini was Catholic.
      Hirohito was Shinto.
      Hitler was a Christian. "My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter." April 12 1922
      Truman was a Baptist.
      Churchill was a non-practicing Anglican.
      Stalin was an atheist.

      Not sure where you get this "Evolutionist" thing Tarver.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Tarver, you are such a toad.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  12. Annie

    What about the Christian people who ran TOWARD all the killed and horribly injured victims to help them? Christianity and other religions are not about killing. People who WANT TO KILL are who does the murdering. They are looking for an excuse to hurt people. Stop bashing the good, decent, God loving people who are the vast majority of this country. They are not the ones who worship "gods" as in some other countries.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • tony

      Yup, all first responders have "CHRISTIAN" written on the back of their jackets, while the rest run the other way.

      Just like we all see in the ambulance and rescuer scenes in the Middle east violence??? . . . .Moron!

      April 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      What about all the athesit, hindu, muslim that ran toward the area as well...I didn't think they were taking attendance and checking religious preferences.

      If you have data for this please show it...otherwise, you may want to think before posting.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • Poltergiest

      His point is one religious nut job detonated a bomb. But he was far outnumbered by religious individuals that ran towards the bomb blast to help. Like you said there were even Muslims helping.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  13. capnmike

    Religion is the greatest evil the human race ever invented. Period. It is all an enormous lie and a fairy tale, yet millions of people are brainwashed with it and believe all that supernatural nonsense, and even kill each other over it. The human race needs to GROW UP and toss religion, ALL of it, onto the trash heap of history where it belongs.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  14. Momma

    You're really going to use Jim Jones and David Koresh as examples?

    Koresh didn't kill his followers. The US government did, in a horrible manner.

    And the Jim Jones case was a case of enslavement in a foreign country, from what I've read. Those people were shot, their bodies lined up neatly in such a way that a painful method of poisoning would not permit, and the few remaining survivors were later murdered in the US.

    There are great examples of religious fanaticism gone wrong – such as the Crusades, Salem witch trials, coverups of child molestations in churches, the fundamentalist Mormon Church, etc. Next time, use examples that actually make sense.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • The real Tom

      Where in the world did you get the idea that JJ's followers were shot and not poisoned?

      April 28, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      David Koresh forced the goverment to act by refusing to comply with law.

      It was executed very poorly by the law enforcement that was there, but the fault lies entirely with David Koresh. He could have ended it peacefully at any time, and would then have been able to argue in court like a civilized person.

      You can blame the government for botching their handling of it, but the blame is on David Koresh and no others.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • akmac65

      What doesn't make sense are your unsupported allegations of conspiracies.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • Rob

      There are audio tapes of the Jonestown poisoning.


      April 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  15. karmaal2010

    This was a very thoughtful article that presented several categories of "warning signs." I noticed, however, that all of the examples were Christian. Really? No examples from Islam? None? Not even one? Obviously, this article was inspired by the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers. Yet, there is not a single mention of Islam. After the second paragraph, the word doesn't even appear. This was a good article. I challenge the author to write a second article, called "When Muslim beliefs become evil." The article should explore the dubious relevance of "fatwah" and "jihad" in the modern world.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • akmac65

      You cannot understand the generality of the points being made? Perhaps you want every religion in the world listed, or is your point that Islam is more evil than any others? Perhaps you might look at yourself first, as Jesus directs people to do.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • davidaims

      Good point.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • Rob

      "These Muslim clerics know the Quran better than the extremists and can use their knowledge to reach extremists in a place that logic and outsiders cannot penetrate, Husain said."

      Last paragraph
      "And when we do that, we don’t have to read about radical imams or look at angry YouTube videos to see how easy it is for someone to drift toward religious extremism, he says."

      Plus, We hear enough about Big Bad Ooga Booga Islam every day. Or didn't you get that from what the article was attempting to discuss.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  16. Voice of Reason

    Look at you people go! you can clearly see the people whom this article warns of and the others who have accapted reason.

    no one is perfect. and no one idea is absolute.

    this article simpy states where the line between man and god are crossed. our god, your god, their god... my god. its all the same, just a different name. ultimitley, all religions try to lead followers down the path of a better life.
    aithiests may not belive in any religion but that just means they dont want to be bothered with your (mans) beliefs. this does not make the evil ones, as stated in this atricle.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • akmac65

      Well said.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:38 am |
  17. mikeinsjc

    Few seek truth, and change their lives to conform to it. Most say, "What can I believe in that allows me to live however I choose and feel minimal guilt about it?"

    April 28, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • davidaims

      Yes, well said.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  18. Religion

    Religion = "My imaginary sky daddy is real and yours isn't."

    April 28, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  19. Jimmie Russells

    CNN, why did you choose a photo of the site at Waco in an attempt to blame religion for violence when it is fact that the ATF started the fires there which killed the Davidians?

    April 28, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • davidaims

      Yes, you spoke the truth here.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:48 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Because it was the religious beliefs of the group that made them think they were above the law, and by not comoplying with law, escalated the situation to where the ATF had to take action.

      The ATF did make mistakes, which they have acknowleged, but the situation statrted and ended with the group feeling they were above the law.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  20. muslim2012


    April 28, 2013 at 11:12 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.