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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.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

“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. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    To learn difference between truth absolute and and hindu Atheism, self center ism of secular, self centered human in detail please visit Limitisthetruth.com

    April 28, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • The Non Believer

      Please visit Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  2. 18E

    Without Religion there would be no evil.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Your ego has all the characteristics of the devil, so without religion there would be more evil.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "John P. Tarver", but the "devil" is an element of mythology, therefore your assertion is unfounded.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • 18E

      John P Traver; there is no self ethos or pathos in my statement, so to attack "my ego" is nonsense. Typical hateful religious response.
      Next time turn the other cheek.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Poltergiest

      Without religion you'd never exist. An interesting point many Athiest forget before engaging in alternate timeline fantasies.

      April 28, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
  3. syman pons

    We have been put on the Earth by the Creator to learn how to be loving and considerate toward the other spiritual beings (people), among whom we live. This is the purpose of our lives, plain and simple. Speaking contemptuously to one another is the exact opposite of what you are suppose to be practicing.

    Why don’t you people with bad feelings toward others know this?

    You are to treat each other with love, consideration and respect. This is what you were created to learn how to do during your short life here on planet Earth.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  4. Sal

    I am not a believer in religion, however if by praying to a "God" makes a person feel better when they have lost a loved family member or friend, then belief in a religion makes sense! If it makes a bereaved family feel better with their religion, then that is a good thing! Whatever makes you happy is fine with me. 

    April 28, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • tallulah13

      As long as they keep that religion to themselves. But I think this entire article is about what happens when religious people don't keep their beliefs to themselves.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  5. Godoflunaticscreation

    This is the best article I have read by CNN on the subject.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • yikesboy

      Agreed, a balanced article. However, it dances around the ultimate solution (IMHO anyway) and that is, we no longer require supernatural belief systems of any kind. Different gods are by their very nature, mutually exclusive and will inevitably end up clashing in the minds of their believers. It's time folks to say goodbye to magic books and their silly rambling accounts of their omnipotent beings.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • John

      It's curious that the author only uses select Christian examples and not Islamic jihadist examples. Far and beyond Christians help people throughout the world including feeding the hungry but no one wants to talk about that kind of thing.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • AhhhhYeah

      John the reason christian examples are cited is because daily we hear about the islamic examples. It's understood. This article is simply pointing out that we have white Americans who use religion to justify their insanity just like some jihadists do.

      April 28, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  6. The Flamingo Kid

    The governments are going to turn on fasle religion very soon and close down all religious facilities. The first to go will probably be the Catholic church. I cannot wait!!!!!!!!!! It will be so nice to see these hypocrites fall on their faces!!

    April 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

      religions are not part of American consti tution , but GOD, truth absolute is foundation of it. Have no doubt hindu secular ism, atheism , self center ism is a gross violation of it.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Serus

      Yes, you're right, let's shut down the source of some of the world's largest charities so that way millions will be without hospitals, adoption agencies, schools, homeless shelters, etc. That way, we can all have free birth control and a triumph of human self involvement over charity.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  7. The real Tom

    "Name some atheist that are smarter than there Christians"

    I'm pretty damn sure I'm smarter than anybody who'd write that dreck.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  8. John P. Tarver

    Jim Jones was about welfare fraud and Waco is proof that Janet Reno is evil; all Government evil then.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Your post is proof you're a muttonhead.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • ...

      Tarver = resident "know-it-all" who could use a few more brain cells.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  9. Ryan

    as my wise old grandfather once told me, "a man who stands for nothing... will fall for anything" still holds true today. this is the lamest bunch of rationalized nonsense i've read in a long time... what a joke!

    April 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  10. pat thompson

    This is one of the worst articles I've ever read. Another "politically correct" piece of garbage by CNN.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Troglodytes Entertaining All

      Truth hurts, doesn't it??

      April 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  11. Thomas

    Name some atheist that are smarter than there Christians:

    “God existed before there were human beings on Earth, He holds the entire world, believers and non-believers, in His omnipotent hand for eternity." - Max Planck (Founder of Quantum Mechanics)

    "I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily."– Issac Newton (Christian fundamentalist)

    Other Christians:
    Robert Goddard, Louis Pasteur, Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Michael Faraday, Wernher von Braun.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  12. Troglodytes Entertaining All

    “The difference between faith and insanity is that faith is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence, whereas insanity is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence.”

    William Harwood

    April 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      So true!

      April 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  13. ScottCA

    Faith based religion is always an irrational belief, because faith is to believe something without good reason to, in the face of counter evidence and without any evidence to support your belief.

    Irrational beliefs do not stay self contained, they warp the intellectual field sending ripples of distortion into all areas of study and thought. These distortions lead to decisions based on misconceptions. The end result of these mistakes in understanding and decision making results in the unnecessary suffering of people.

    Faith based religion is dangerous to logical thought and rational examination because to maintain faith one must suppress their minds ability to rational deduce what is real.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • oOo

      Yep.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • The Non Believer

      Two thumbs up.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  14. John

    We all came from the same God and guess what? You're It!

    Alan Watts: What to tell children about God and The Universe

    There was never a time when the world began, because it goes round and round like a circle, and there is no place on a circle where it begins. Look at my watch, which tells the time; it goes round, and so the world repeats itself again and again. But just as the hour-hand of the watch goes up to twelve and down to six, so, too, there is day and night, waking and sleeping, living and dying, summer and winter. You can’t have any one of these without the other, because you wouldn’t be able to know what black is unless you had seen it side by side with white, or white unless side by side with black.
    In the same way, there are times when the world is, and times when it isn’t, for if the world went on and on without rest forever and ever, it would get horribly tired of itself. It comes and it goes. Now you see it; now you don’t. So because it doesn’t get tired of itself, it always comes back again after it disappears. It’s like your breath: it goes in and out, in and out, and if you try to hold it in all the time you feel terrible. It’s also like the game of hide-and-seek, because it’s always fun to find new ways of hiding, and to seek for someone who doesn’t always hide in the same place.
    God also likes to play hide-and-seek, but because there is nothing outside God, He has no one but himself to play with. But He gets over this difficulty by pretending that He is not Himself. This is His way of hiding from Himself. He pretends that He is you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants, all the rocks, and all the stars. In this way He has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening. But these are just like bad dreams, for when He wakes up they will disappear.
    Now when God plays hide and pretends that He is you and I, He does it so well that it takes Him a long time to remember where and how He hid Himself. But that’s the whole fun of it-just what He wanted to do. He doesn’t want to find Himself out too quickly, for that would spoil the game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we are God in disguise, pretending not to be Himself. But when the game has gone on long enough, all of us will wake up, stop pretending, and remember that we are all one single Self-the God who is all that there is and who lives for ever and ever.
    Of course, you must remember that God isn’t shaped like a person. People have skins and there is always something outside our skins. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t know the difference between what is inside and outside our bodies. But God has no skin and no shape because there isn’t any outside to Him. . . . The inside and the outside of God are the same. And though I have been talking about God as ‘He’ and not ’she,’ God isn’t a man or a woman. I didn’t say ‘it’ because we usually say ‘it’ for things that aren’t alive.
    God is the Self of the world, but you can’t see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can’t see your own eyes, and you certainly can’t bite your own teeth or look inside your head. Your self is that cleverly hidden because it is God hiding.
    You may ask why God sometimes hides in the form of horrible people, or pretends to be people who suffer great disease and pain. Remember, first, that He isn’t really doing this to anyone but Himself. Remember, too, that in almost all the stories you enjoy there have to be bad people as well as good people, for the thrill of the tale is to find out how the good people will get the better of the bad. It’s the same as when we play cards. At the beginning of the game we shuffle them all into a mess, which is like the bad things in the world, but the point of the game is to put the mess into good order, and the one who does it best is the winner. Then we shuffle the cards once more and play again, and so it goes with the world.

    ~Alan Watts

    April 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • ScottCA

      How about just telling the truth. That there is absolutely no evidence to support the existence of any god.
      To believe in god in the absence of any evidence, would be as irrational as believing in the 6ft tall green monster in my closet, without any evidence that it exists either.

      God is only as likely to exist as the tooth fairy is to exist, or closet monsters.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • AhhhhYeah

      Children would never dream up god. They must be told to believe in the fairy tale.

      April 28, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  15. The Flamingo Kid

    The governments are going to turn on religion very soon and close down all religious facilities. The first to go will probably be the Catholic church. I cannot wait!!!!

    April 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Ed F.

      LIAR

      April 28, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  16. crindal3000

    religious beliefs always take an evil turn sooner or later.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • Tim Schmidt

      Communist and Atheist atrocities:

      65 million in the People's Republic of China
      20 million in the Soviet Union
      2 million in Cambodia
      2 million in North Korea
      1.7 million in Africa
      1.5 million in Afghanistan
      1 million in the Communist states of Eastern Europe
      1 million in Vietnam
      150,000 in Latin America (mainly Cuba)

      It's not a religious thing.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • The real Tom

      It's not an atheist thing, either, sh1twit.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • oOo

      @Tim – "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 1:24 pm |
    • crindal3000

      so all communists are atheists? that's news to them.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Poltergiest

      So who gets to decide who's ideologies are extreme? North Korea thinks we're extreme.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • ScottCA

      To try and say that Communist attempts to engineer society are caused by atheism is asinine.
      Fascist attempts to engineer society during that historical period were just as devastating to the societies where they took place, such a Nazi Germany, Spain, Italy, all of which were highly religious nations at the time.
      The common error that took place in thought during the early 20th century that lead to these atrocities was a misunderstanding regarding human nature. Interestingly enough the error predominates in faith based religious thought. These were the conceptions of human nature as the ghost in the machine and the blank slate. In this conception people are infinitely malleable and changeable. this led theorists of this time to believe they could change society to anything they wished. These were mistakes in logic because both the ghost in the machine and the blank slate are fallacious beliefs, propagated by religion. Human beings are not infinitely malleable but have a innate genetic nature that cannot be changed, and attempts to change it led to suffering in people.

      So more than anything else, faith based religions constant denial of science and propagation of a false understanding of human nature, led to these terrible atrocities in the early 20th century.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • AhhhhYeah

      Atheism isn't a political ideology rooted in mythology Tim. Atheism is simply non-belief in a "god".
      Your examples are like saying that all people who don't think the sky is green commit genocide.

      April 28, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  17. PeteZ

    Not everybody who does not believe in religion is an atheist. Believing in a higher power is very different from following a cult. Yes, all religions are cults.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  18. Troglodytes Entertaining All

    When one person believes in a delusion, it's called 'insanity'... When many people believe in a delusion, it's called 'religion'.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  19. Thomas

    No one is better at murdering than atheists. They make it legal, systematic and "moral" to kill. No religion has ever killed as many people as the atheists. Not even close.

    April 28, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • Troglodytes Entertaining All

      Completely wrong.. More people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason... Ever heard of the 'Crusades'?? Look it up, if you dare.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Nonsense. More drivel that you can't back up. Keep running around here lying, Thomas. It simply proves that Christians like you are hypocrites.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Ed F.

      Christians are the greatest murderers in world history.

      The Crusades
      The Inquisition
      The Holocaust
      Aptratied
      The native American slaughter
      400 years of slavery
      Vietnam
      The Iraq war
      Etc
      Etc
      Etc

      April 28, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • tallulah13

      No one is better at lying than those who are religious. I suppose it stems from the fact that their very belief system is nothing more than codified wishful thinking.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • AhhhhYeah

      Thomas please. It's beyond easy to prove you wrong.
      What does your "god" say about lying?

      April 28, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
  20. LEONOR arango*

    Very good and I shy away from this issue.
    Thank you
    Leonor Arango

    April 28, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • AhhhhYeah

      Bury your head in the sand. Good strategy.

      April 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
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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.