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. Jokesterer

    The unicorn told me to.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  2. Adian

    I find the constant focus on religion, in whatever form, as the epicenter of explanation very troubling. Religion is simply a convenient albeit dangerous front man, either for the victim grasping to find an explanation to the unexplainable, or for the perpetrator trying to hide behind a cowardly false reason for the act. Inevitably, these acts are driven by power hunger, criminalism, madness, delusion, or despair. Human frailties, none of which to my knowledge are actively promoted by the core messages of the world's great religions. To focus on religion as the root source of these acts will only further divide humanity from a greater understanding of each other. We need to keep talking to each other face to face.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • Thomas


      April 28, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
  3. Gingeet

    Religion in itself is evil. It manipulates/controls the majority of gullible people to believe in things that are completely wrong regardless of the evidence that proves it wrong. Anyone that is "religious" is suspect of doing wrong. They have proven themselves already to be less than intelligent.
    Time and time again we put up with this foolishness. Ban religion... do away with it! The stupid people in the world can find better things to do with their lives than be controlled by a manipulative few.
    Arrest all the religious leaders for brainwashing and stealing the weak's money.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • tony

      The usual personal conscience is a far better judge of right and wrong than any religion. But the opposite is what religious teachers want you to believe. That's the only way they can become leaders.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:44 am |
    • Gingeet

      Yes, they promise everything, provide nothing and get paid for it. Then judge everyone other than themselves.
      What a racket!

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

      Gingeet, So you are saying you know the truth, and we don’t?

      April 28, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  4. Light of Purest Most Undeniable Truth and Love

    This article is disgusting! How dare CNN attempt to associate His righteousness with Satan's evil ways! Many of the commenters as well are obviously Satan's minions working in unison to tarnish His name. Many of these same vile creatures are the ones who are fornicating in odd ways and trying to change the laws of our country that God has selected to be the greatest nation on earth! These sinners will soon kneel to Him trembling for forgiveness and to accept his love as the mark has already been put upon the land – there is little time left! Repent or you will surely burn a thousand deaths forever! Amen.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • tony

      Even the most religious don't seem able to avoid the first death.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • Dan

      LOL. They must have started to brain-wash you at a very young age. Say hello to your imaginary friend.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • SImran

      Get over yourself and your religious delusions already!

      April 28, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • Ed

      It is YOU who perpetuates evil by refusing to bow to the one true GOD, His Noodloness The Flying Spaghetti Monster. One day soon you will kneel down and be smitten by His Noodly Appendage. How DARE you deny Him and tarnish His name by being a minion for SATAN. You will paaaaaaaayyyyyy! Ramen.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:50 am |
    • Jay

      "Repent or you will surely burn a thousand deaths forever! Amen."

      ...but remember, he is a kind and loving God.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • The Non Believer

      1. I know the truth ad you don't.
      3. The end is near
      4. The ends justify the means

      April 28, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • akmac65

      I hope your comment was pure satire. Otherwise, it does nothing but illustrate the irrational beliefs of too many people who refuse to think.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Personal responsibility

      LOL....prime example here!!! Way to go in proving the underlying premise of what this story is about.

      April 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  5. Lance Brown

    I wonder how many of the haters have that little Coexist bumper sticker on their cars. Atheist hating Christians, Christians hating Atheist. Nothing new here. Each making the same circular arguments trying to prove what can't be proven. When that doesn't work, each takes on the intellectually superior role, making themselves look and sound even more ridiculous. Thanks for the laughs. Why don't each group just get a life and leave the other group alone?

    April 28, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • tony

      Leave children alone then. They are all born as atheists, then it's best to leave them that way.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:42 am |
    • KMDAB

      "Leave each other alone"? When Christian fundamentalists get their beliefs out of my government, I will be more than glad to about that.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:45 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      What I see is the word hate used far too much, when it is incorrect.

      I do not hate christians, nor any other group of people.
      It is like being called anti-semetic for saying one thing negative about Isreal, or a h0m0phobe for criticizing a gay person. The criticism might be completely unrelated to either being gay or jewish, but you have these automatic responses to criticism that you automatically escalate as hate.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:46 am |
    • Lance Brown

      Tony; who are you to say how someone else raises their children? If the child is born into an Atheist home, he's probably going to be raised with some Atheist inluence. Likewise a Christian home. You prove my point. Neither has the right to tell the other how to live.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • Lance Brown

      KMDAB; I'm sure when you leave their Christmas tree alone, or the cross they place to remember an event or someone, you might have a fighting chance. Practice what you preach, otherwise, you're nothing but a part of the problem.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
  6. Godhelpus

    A Religion or Cult that looks to physcially harm people is not from God. It is from Satan to do and to confuse others.
    That is pretty evident in the NT. I can see what this article is trying to say, but am confused. We live as Jesus did, not as killers for religion or arrogant people. Humble people with faith, shaing truth and loving others. I am a pertty committed Christian that believes in the Bible and respects others who live differently. This article almost seems like it is a attempt to ban all religion.
    God is good All the Time, and All the Time God is Good. Best wishes to all who reat this.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • tony

      See "Burning at the stake"

      April 28, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • Godhelpus

      Tony, I dont see your point. Jesus didn't burn people at the stake nor did he command anyone too.. Kinda confused.

      April 28, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  7. Sam

    This is ridiculous how the majority of this are perceived Christians (not real Christians – because when the Bible is taken to it's logical conclusion it is about God's love for mankind)

    What about using an example in the end is near Ahmadinejad and his violent Islamic end time eschatology, or his claims that one day Zionism will be destroyed and Islam will rule the world.

    No it's much easier to label Christians as extremists because a few number of crazies tried to say they were.

    Islam when taken to it's logical conclusion incites violence against infidels (christians, jews, and ex-muslims), with verses like "And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out"

    The Bible when taken to it's logical conclusion is about God's love. So called Christians are disobeying God when they murder and oppress in the name of Christ.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:38 am |
    • tony

      He loved the Tsunami victims to death. Including masses of innocent women and children

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

      No, christians are of course not all bad, nor is Christianity bad. As a muslim, I do have a lot of respect for christians. However, I do appreciate how the article makes the point that religion radicalism is not specific to Islam. It is a disease that exists everywhere. In the media, we often hear about islam radicalism, but people tend to forget that there are radicals from every faith and every place.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  8. Henry

    The editors of CNN and the author of this piece are nothing but horse’s Asses for saying that Islam is a religion, Islam is only a political ideology disguised as a religion, and for trying to lump up Christianity with Islam. Jesus says in Matthew 5:44, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in contrast to the Quran calling all Muslims to slay the pagans or unbelievers as stated in Sura 9:5, “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, an seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem of war”

    Human Beings are commanded by God to believe in Jesus Christ who is God's Only Begotten Son, as stated in John 3:17-18, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.”


    April 28, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • akmac65

      Henry.... The Catholic/Christian church was a politically motivated creation of the Romans. The Old Testament was a handbook on how to conquer and eliminate your enemies of faith. Islam is no better or worse.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  9. syzito

    The Branch Davidians did not kill or attack anyone,Bill Clinton and his administration attacked and killed them.Has no relation to Islam and Muslims at all.Only one religion will kill you for not believing as they do, and guess what, it is not Christianity. Only one religion will hunt you down and kill you for making fun of their mass murdering pedophilic prophet....Mohammad......Islam.Get your facts straight and stop with the political correctness junk....Call a spade a spade.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  10. Roger

    When you have Crusader lust within an individual or group of people you have extremism. Fact is, these people have know idea that their self righteous acts are condemned by Almighty God Himself. Why? Because God does the Works for salvation for an individual and the good works through Christians. Crusaders are nothing but war mongering, self pious monsters who want the ends to meet their needs. Learn accurate Bible Doctrine and you won't have this big of a problem.

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

      This article just described Jesus and Mohammed.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:39 am |
  11. Thomas

    Showing Hal Lindsey's predictions was unfair because the author did not balance it with atheistic predictions of the same time period:

    “...civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind,” biologist George Wald, Harvard University, April 19, 1970.

    By 1995, “...somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.” Sen. Gaylord Nelson, quoting Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, Look magazine, April 1970.

    Because of increased dust, cloud cover and water vapor “...the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born,” Newsweek magazine, January 26, 1970.

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

      Good point Thomas. Thank you

      April 28, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  12. cnnbias

    Talk about a biased blog against Christians. the first two lines about the boston bomber and is radical islamic beliefs, then goes on to only bash the Christian faith.

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

      You mean the Christian faith isn't universal? But there is only one true god!!! Says so in the Bible.

      We need to check these contradictory statements out!

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

      tony, Eventually you will certainly know that Christ exists. Will it be too late?

      April 28, 2013 at 11:39 am |
    • The real Tom

      Yeah, Thomas, threats will work wonders. If that's what you need to do to convince people, you have nothing worth selling.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • Gingeet

      Thomas, eventually you will realize that he does not exist.
      How stupid will you feel?
      Get a grip, there is still time to live a life that is useful and purpose driven.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:51 am |
    • cnnbias

      My point is that the article is misleading and one-sided, basically using the tragedy in boston which had absolutely nothing to do with the Christian faith, to bash the faith. The premise of the article was when religious beliefs turn evil – you would think the author would give examples of relevant to the boston case which it used as the initial example. It could have sited numerous examples of radical islamists (what the boston bomber apparently believed or became before committing this horrible tragedy. Islam is the only one who publically said they want to destroy all infidels (any and all other religions). Granted this does not excuse radical cults that form in a variety of other faiths as well, but typically those cults (like some of the ones sited – jim jones and the like end up imploding from within – usually taking their own lives and those within their cult. This is still horrible but very different from a cult or religious group that seeks to destroy those who do not share their same beliefs.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
    • Thomas

      Gingeet, Explain how I will know that Jesus doesn't exist. How is that logically possible?

      April 28, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • Thomas

      The real Tom, It was not a threat. You are already doomed. I am only warning you of the only possible hope you have. When your in hell, will you say: "No one told me"? That will be a lie because I am telling you right now. Repent or be punished. How could it be any clearer?

      April 28, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
  13. Marc

    If you're concerned about absolute truth then take the 4 points in this article with a healthy skepticism.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  14. Jay

    There is only one warning sign; believing in invisible deities whose "laws" are in direct conflict with humanism. The author's points are only catalysts to greater evil.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:33 am |
  15. Chris

    I think we need to address the excesses of those who claim to have no faith. The firm belief in atheism killed more people in the 20th century than any religious system. When you start with the precept that you only have yourself to answer to, than any act is justified.

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

      This is a tired argument. You should read more about the difference between Atheism and Totalitarian governments.

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

      "Belief in Atheism"....that right there lets me know you have no idea whatyo uare talking about.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • oOo

      As another poster recently said here: "Atheism means only one thing, one doesn't believe in a god or gods, nothing more. Ideologies of any stripe taken to extremes get people killed."

      April 28, 2013 at 11:43 am |
  16. mindstorms

    Good people do good things and bad people do bad things. However, for good people to justify doing bad things they often use religion as an excuse.

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

      Well then, they really are not good people.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  17. tony

    I read history.

    Catholics burning heretics at the stake "TO SAVE THEIR SOULS" . Ain't Christianity great?

    April 28, 2013 at 11:31 am |
    • Chris

      Jesus Christ made more of an impact on world history than anyone. You can choose to say the impact was negative or positive, but the facts remain. He is the supreme reality on history.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Jay


      It was not Jesus that has made an impact on world history. At the time, he was was little more than a Jewish rabble rouser. A that time, he was one of many.

      Those that made the impact were his followers and the the rise of the organized church – and their interpretation of what "Jesus" stood for. The impact was man-made and not divinely inspired.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  18. tony

    Why don't religious folk want to leave this evil world and go to heaven ASAP????

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

      Some of them do. You should read up about pastor Rick Warren's son, Matthew Warren, who recently killed himself. Rick is on the record saying that his son asked him why he couldn't go to heaven. I'm looking for the exact quote, so consider the previous sentence just a very rough paraphrasing.

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

      Your atheist heros made that a reality for many religious people.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  19. ray

    These "warning signs" are ridiculous, so people who are either overly charismatic, fatalistic or self righteous should be watched for potential terrorist behavior? That's like half of the US population. Don't try to simplify a complex matter.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  20. Pirate65

    It should say "five signs".

    5. You live in Oklahoma, and you are a Republican.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:28 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.