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. lol??

    Why don't the A&A's picket North Korea's daddy god instead of telling everybody here how smart they are?

    April 28, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Why don't people like you adhere to your own creed?

      April 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • oOo

      What makes you think they don't? They are people, not robots dedicated to one task, idiot.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • ..

      Why don't you take a armful of Bibles and a bag full of rice and attempt to spread your "Word" in NK? See how far you'd get, you vapid moron. Man, you are ignorant.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • lol??

      An imperial cult is a form of state religion.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • lol??

      Weak gods, double dot. Pearl Harbor raid.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • Science

      go pound sand lol??

      April 28, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
  2. freep

    Even not so extreme religious beliefs have an element of evil intent to them. I have observed, from being on both sides of this issue, is that church members have a sense of being exclusive or chosen and of more value to a deity than non church members. The 'love thy neighbor" is usually reserved for other members of the same faith and you will get thrown under the bus if you don't belong to their group. I worked in an office where if you weren't a Southern Baptist you could not be hired, promoted or given much of a raise. And, refusing to join the lunch time Bible study group would get you ostracized from the social structure of the office.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • mama k

      One sect calls homosexuality an abomination while the next one (over 4,000,000 members) in the same denomination is already performing gay marriage.

      One sect, the Westboro Baptist Church believes Americans are being killed at war because America is too kind to "fags".

      One sect believes women to be subservient, while another sect in the same denomination promotes equality between the sexes.

      One sect believes that Jesus and Satan were brothers and that Christ will return to Jerusalem AND Jackson County, Missouri.

      Some believe the Pope is the Anti-Christ. Some believe Obama is the Anti-Christ.

      Some believe that celibacy is the only option for certain people, or for people in certain positions. Many of the people from these same institutions advocate against abortion, but pretend not to understand the realistic benefit of the morning after pill or even basic contraception; their unrealistic wishful thinking is causing the death of many at the hands of disease.

      In the U.S. recently we learned of the head of Lutheran CMS chastising a minister of that church for participating in a joint service for the victims of the Newtown school shooting.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  3. catholicboyrichard

    Reblogged this on catholicboyrichard (Stephen Francis) and commented:
    I think that there is something we each, regardless of our beliefs, gain from this article. I post it in that spirit.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  4. oOo

    I'm sure these people think they are working in His name as well (H_Post, 4/25/13 from AP):

    SANTIAGO, Chile — Chilean police on Thursday arrested four people accused of burning a baby alive in a ritual because the leader of the sect believed that the end of the world was near and that the child was the antichrist.

    The 3-day-old baby was taken to a hill in the town of Colliguay near the Chilean port of Valparaiso on Nov. 21 and was thrown into a bonfire. The baby's mother, 25-year-old Natalia Guerra, had allegedly approved the sacrifice and was among those arrested.

    "The baby was naked. They strapped tape around her mouth to keep her from screaming. Then they placed her on a board. After calling on the spirits they threw her on the bonfire alive," said Miguel Ampuero, of the Police investigative Unit, Chile's equivalent of the FBI.

    Authorities said the 12-member sect was formed in 2005 and was led by Ramon Gustavo Castillo Gaete, 36, who remains at large.

    "Everyone in this sect was a professional," Ampuero said. "We have someone who was a veterinarian and who worked as a flight attendant, we have a filmmaker, a draftsman. Everyone has a university degree. "

    April 28, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Kelly

      Supports the notion that advanced degrees do not indicate wisdom. Ted Kyzinski (sp) had 2 PhD 's

      April 28, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  5. Visitor

    The last one is the only one that isn't completely common in every religion. This list is not very good at all.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  6. lolCAT2000

    Maybe someone can explain to me how contemplating how the universe was created by the big bang or how humans gradually emerged from ape-like beings could prevent people from going nuts like this?
    I often can't believe how stupid Atheists are with all their crazy wisdoms that do absolutely nothing to give you an orientation with your daily life.
    It often seems like just another cult with a clearly cut out "us" vs. "them", opinionation about "I know what's right and you don't" and some charismatic figures (Dawkins, Harris etc.) all its own.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • ReasonRules

      Yes, athiests are just another "cult". A group of people who don't claim to "know" anything. They simply refuse to believe things that are asserted by other cults without evidence. A truly evil notion indeed. It does seem to get in the way of the religious, to encouner those who require evidence before they believe ridiculous claims. I guess I would be annoyed by those type of people too, if I was trying to convince other people of fantastical claims without evidence to back them up.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • ReasonRules

      Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go pray to my Sam Harris statue, and sacrifice a live chicken to the Great Christopher Hitchens (may he rest in peace in his non-existence).

      April 28, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Most atheists will say " I don't know" when they do not know,
      Religious people will say they do, when they cannot.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
  7. WAKEUP48


    April 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • ReasonRules

      Yes, I see itnow. I am awake. The gubment has been a'dupin me all along. The Boston bombing was staged, 911 was a hoax, the moon landing was fake. What next? Am I going to wake up and find out that Malli Vanilli WASN'T REALLY SINGING AFTER ALL?!?!?!? Oh the HUMANITY!!!!

      April 28, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
    • derp

      [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGjaEMP8ACU&w=420&h=315%5D

      June 7, 2013 at 8:58 am |
    • derp


      June 7, 2013 at 8:58 am |
  8. RichardSRussell

    The real problem isn't religion, as such. Religion is just a symptom. The underlying problem is that people think that FAITH is a valid method of arriving at conclusions.
    Religion, of course, is in the forefront of promoting that att¡tude, because otherwise people would just lalf at all the wacky things their faith leads them to believe. But believing in something "just because I want to" or "just because it feels good" also leads to things like climate-change denial, smoking yourself to death, or imagining how you're going to spend all your lottery winnings.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  9. ..

    Atheists commit suicide more often, perhaps this is true, but one thing that is irrefutable is that Christians murder others far FAR more often than atheists. FAR more often. Just shows that atheists may want to kill themselves before inflicting harm on other innocents, while Christians have no compunction about killing others at ALL, while trying to save their own sniveling hides...or if they DO commit suicide, it's after taking out a number of people with them.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  10. Zippy

    Odd that CNN chose to use the Branch Davidians as an example when there are other examples that would have made their point with less ambiguity.
    As I recall, the Davidians were not hurting anyone and had no plans to do so.
    The FBI invaded their compound and burned it to the ground.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  11. lol??

    How come nobody mentions the bombings at Pearl Harbor?

    April 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • ..

      Was rthat religiously based?? NO! That's why.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • lol??

      Hint, pway for a bwain.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  12. Bostontola

    “The antidote to extremism is religion itself,”

    Religion is the methodone to extremism. Humans are a piece of work. If that's what it takes, ok.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  13. ReasonRules

    No Religion > Some Religion > Fanatical Religion.

    It is all man made baloney. Some just believe more passionately about the baloney. Those we call extremists. Get rid of the baloney and you will see an amazing reduction in baloney related violence.

    To say, "Religion is good, but religious extremism is bad" is just as silly to say, "Poison is good, but A LOT of poison is bad".

    April 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  14. Paul

    CNN has the incorrect history of the Branch Davidians. Although sharing living spaces like a dormitory seems strange to most, they didn't do anything wrong. The FBI's claims of child molestation and weapons violations were later proved to be wrong. Furthermore, it was the FBI's use of gas that caused the compound's fire. Also, the police who died in the siege were found to have been shot in the back by their fellow officers (friendly fire). This was a clear case of the government making false allegations (hate) and acting like an extremist organization (terrorizing).

    April 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Cite your sources.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Paul, both CNN and you have it wrong. It was aliens that attacked and killed both the Davidians and law enforcement.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Come on, Paul. Where are your sources?

      April 28, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  15. lol??

    Is the mob coagulatin' today? They are early. Must be a holyday.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • ..

      lol??, you enjoy your work with the boltgun at the slaughterhouse, don’t you?

      April 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  16. mike

    Just ban religion with an iron fist, problem solved.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • FreeFromTheism

      can't do that... people need to understand why religion is harmful
      if forced, they'll never believe it

      April 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • Bostontola

      You ring up strong on points 1 and 4 from the article.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • ReasonRules

      No, just ridicule it's ridiculous beliefs until it is nothing more than a memory to our species.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  17. Jack

    Becomes evil? It already was. All of it. Except for Jainism, as Sam Harris has pointed out. And I hate the terms "fanaticism" or "extremism." There's nothing extreme about it when you're simply being loyal to your (disgusting) faith.Anything less than fundamentalism is hypocrisy in the eyes of religious texts. Once people realize that, they should realize religion, faith, and dogma for the poison it is.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  18. Scott

    Religion is the root of all evil.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  19. dragonfire77

    And to "E", I know they are not mutually exclusive. Those that follow fanatical 'faith', be in science, religion or nothing at all are the dangerous ones. Blind faith is just that.....blind.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
    • Jack

      Well that's the good thing about science. You can and should doubt it. It will inevitably prove itself to you, because that't how science works. All religions demand blind faith on top of an unlimited number of other atrocities against reason.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • Kelly

      You are making science into a religion, it is not! It is a systemic discipline, that like everything else in this world is flawed!

      April 28, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  20. Ben

    Seems like, according to this article, the only way to really avoid getting caught up in dangerous, evil religious sects is to take your religion in moderation.

    April 28, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
    • Paul

      That's just what CNN's biased reporting is attempting to make you think.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • ReasonRules

      The only way to get rid of religious based violence is to give up our bronze age myths and embrace reason.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Ben

      Why is it biased? As far as I can tell from personal experience any Conservative Evangelical Christian church in this country is only a nudge to the right away from Westboro, and Westboro is only a nudge away from the Waco Branch Davidians. It's not like anyone is expecting Methodists to hold siege against the ATF, now is it?

      April 28, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
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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.