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.
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.
WHEN they take on an evil turn? It's a lot harder to find examples of when they do good.
To: Ed F. ~Ask God to reveal Himself to you. You will be surprised by the result. But, it takes real courage to honestly do this.
To; anon7364 ~I have never said that women are second class citizen's. Women are a precious gift to mankind. They are to be treated with all equity, respect, consideration, and kindness. They are the mothers of all our children, and men are to care for and protect them, so they can fulfill their responsibilities as human beings, wives, mothers and holy children of God. This applies to all the women on earth, regardless of they religious convictions.
To; The Flamingo Kid ~ You did.
Treating women with equality has NOTHING to do with the Bible. They are opposites.
Women are not gifts. They are human beings.
HE is reviled, but blinded in hindu secular ism, self center ism like animals have no capacity to recognize HIM. truth absolute GOD. founding fathers did and witnessed HIM in consti tuion of USA.
To Observer: ~ You do not know the Bible and what it says, or you would not say such a thing.
They are both human beings and they are a gift to mankind.
Read the Bible someday. Read how women should never instruct men. Read how a r@pe victim MUST marrry their rapist and can never divorce. Read how a woman who is injured and miscarries gets NOTHING, but the father gets money.
As Non Believer said, women are not gifts. Nor are they baby factories any more than men are simply sperm donors. This is the problem of religion. It reduces humans, and indeed all life, to card-board cutouts. I suppose it's an easy philosophy for those who don't want to trouble themselves with actual thought, but it's hardly satisfying for those who are willing to question what they are told.
@syman: If you posit that women are a gift to mankind, you objectify them and posit that they are not the same as mankind. For shame.
Organized religion is always a problem. They think they can conquer others by proselytizing and even attacking. The leaders of these religions keep their grip on followers by feeding hatred over other religions. I believe in God but not in organized religion.
"With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." - Steven Weinberg
Religions are not a scale of any goodness. but following of truth absolute in life, way of human and foundation of american consti tution, but denied by hindu secular s, self centered like animals, self centered by nature.
Most child abusers were abused when they were children. Most people who abuse children psychologically and intellectually this way, (because forcing a child into a RELIGION IS CHILD ABUSE) were likewise abused by their parents who brought them up in this brainwashing and delusion. ("Believers" of religion call this delusion "faith.")
Maybe all these sick stories will make some parents WAKE UP.
STOP TAKING YOUR CHILDREN TO CHURCH. Break this abusive cycle, don't you want your kids to have it better than you?
abuse is nothing but result of human atheism, self center ism, denial of truth absolute of civility, not of huamn but animals, secular, self centered by nature.
So all those Muslim, Christian, Jewish abusers are really atheists?
Agreed. Telling young children that they won't go to heaven if they don't believe is abusive and immoral. Teaching children that dinosaurs and man existed at the same time is detrimental to the child.
they follow atheism self center ism of few as their hindu sanatans, goon man gods as religion, but never bother to learn truth of life, original teachings, as they were.
christianity and islam are both bad for this world – they both poison peoples minds
worst of all is hindu Atheism, self center ism , secular ism, denial of truth absolute GOD, not way of human but of animals and believers of fabrication called evolution.
R'amen! Although you left out judaism.
I agree. Anyone that believes in converting others, is a danger to the society.
Religion is like a penis. It's ok to have one, and be proud of it, but when you take it out and wave it in my face , we have a problem.
When I am in a courtroom, and I see the lie "In god we trust", or a bible to swear in on, or the 10 Commandments in OUR courts and OUR schools, the exclusionary statement "under god" in OUR pledge of allegience ( a clear case of christianity not only not bringing people together, but arrogantly excluding people), it is christianity waving itself in my face and we have a problem.
I was waiting for the vulgarity to come. It's amazing! I truly waited for it and you made it appear. I have to give it to you, you are true to master pal.
Stop making excuses for your inability to back up your statements, Hughie.
Penis isn't a vulgarity; it's a body part that was used as part of an anology. It is quite a good analogy, too.
What part of my statement was vulgarity?
Christians think reproductive organs are dirty dirty dirty.
I just wonder if Richard Cranium would use that analogy of smacking a face with a penis when explaining his religion of Atheism to his 7 year old girl. The Bible asserts that it's all about the heart, and the mouth speaks what is in the heart. Richard spoke what entered into his heart when talking about God. I simply found that interesting.
No, dear, because atheism isn't a religion. When are you going to figure that out?
Atheism is not just a religion, it shares the same master as the other oppressive falls religions. You need to educate yourself on the things Real Tom. The same spirit that works in atheism has been around since the beginning. Biblical Christianity stands alone as the only true tolerant faith.
51 And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,
52 And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.
53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.
54 And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?
55 But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.
56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.
"You need to educate yourself on the things Real Tom."
I am educated, you ass. That's why I laugh at chuckleheads like you.
Islam is nothing but an evil religion.
Yes,Christianity has had some 'stains',but when so many countries are fuled by this eveil religuion(Islam) and do so much evil in the world.There must be something wrong.
Muslims want to KILL and DESTROY. They want the world to burn.
I love how you simply gloss over Christianity's historical acts of genocide by calling them "stains", that's precious. Classic, my religion is good, theirs is bad because " I know mine is right".
You have a skewed view of history. Christianity and Judaism hide behind politicians to declare their holy wars, to this day!!! The death toll is immense and continues to grow.
How much do you want to bet that Christians have killed more people in the last 10 years than Muslims? Drone attacks have killed more innocent civilians than 9/11 by now; It's estimated that the Iraq war killed at least 100,000 Iraqis, and possibly as many as 1,000,000. This is not defending Islam, or saying that these attacks were done *because* the attackers were Christian. But to suggest that Christianity is this religion that makes you peaceful is ridiculous.
The holocaust...a stain.
the crusades... a stain
the inquisition... a stain.
Now that you have minimalized some of the most attrocious acts ever commited, let me get some club soda to get that stain out.
In a way, with comments like that, you exemplify everything that this article is about. Reference the section on "absolute truth," above. Then, reference the "end justifies the means" section. You justify wrongdoing (i.e. – perpetuating animosity against an entire religion) for a "greater truth" (i.e. – "they're all evil killers, and my religion is better than theirs"). Go think on your self-righteousness.
Is there a distinction between religious extremists and political extremists? Both seem to be peopled by the same personalities and both submit to absolute ideologies. Discounting the Crusades and the 200-years bloodshed sparked by Luther's thesis and the printing press (1440) that got his "heretical" views circulated, the current difference is the number of deaths attributed to religious zealots and the destruction of nations by political leaders who've instigated war. Beware these two.
There is one difference. Almost all humans are able to convince themselves that their actions are altruistic and good-natured. To achieve this mental balance, we have psychological filters that examine the morality of a given situation and apply our personal beliefs. Religious adherents have a filter gummed up with magic, mistruth, personal guilt, psychological abuse, bad history, and antiscience. They are unable to rationalize their actions in a way that is compatible with the reality of the world around them.
Here's the difference: Politics is built on controlling the actions of people; religion os built on controlling their thoughts. The similarity is that both want to control people.
My spiritual guru used to say: whatever good in this world is mine but mine is not always good. If this principle is adopted then there will be no inter-religious arguments or rivalries
He would always say: God bless us all
Do people realize that a system of thought, of rules and the group that makes or follows those can be called a religion? And, do people realize that they've been sucked into this crazy religion called america? Not the America of Washington and Jefferson, which was bad enough as it was, but the America of the neocon neo-Nazis, who make their plans in the Bohemican Grove in California on how to mess up the world. American nationalism is the biggest threat to mankind in the near, possibly distant future, if someone doesn't fix it ideologically. We need some good, articulate, leader, not like Obama, who may be called president, but is still a slave to his white masters from afar.
Wow...delusions in overdrive.
You conveniently left out that those beliefs have to involve spirituality. When my car is having problems I don't take it to the church of mechanichism.
The biggest lie of all: Islam is a religion of peace.
And you, sir, are the biggest LIAR! almost as big a liar as dubya.
The second biggest lie, Christianity is a religion of peace.
"Good people will always do good things and bad people will always do bad things... But in order for good people to do bad things, you need religion."
It tends to take an evil turn when the focus is more on either the leadership or the religion itself. In the past it has been shown that the reliance on leaders had pushed people to have more faith in those leading than of GOD himself. The Catholic Church is a major sign of that issue at hand. When the leaders make choices that we do not agree with we tend to leave. because our faith is put into them and not GOD. "The way to the father is through me" (JESUS). People tend to forget that. Then on the other spectrum. People putting their faith in the establishment of their faith. Putting your faith in the Church and the doctrine given outside of the bible. "I was born a (faith) i will die a (faith). this is a wrong belief. The bible is an instruction manual of life. Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. If people just followed what is in scripture and not what the leaders or Church says then they will be closer to GOD.
The bible is an instruction manual for life? You must be kidding! Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Colossians 3:20- and David Koresh, Matthew 15:4, Leviticus 27:1-7, Leviticus 21:5, Leviticus 25:44. And my personal favorite Exodus 21:7-10. And don't get me started on the Biblical contradictions.
Ted Kayzinski. Has 2 Phd's and is brilliant!
Behold the mental illness called religion and it's effects on the human mind.
The problem with ibrahimic religions like Islam and Christianity is that they say anyone who does not follow their religion is wrong and will go to hell. This is the root cause for the all problems. Atheism makes people more selfish. Sikh path and Buddhism are good choices for peaceful and loving society and healthy physical and spiritual life
"Atheism makes people more selfish"
Exactly how did you come to this conclusion?
I know it is BS, but I want to see where your BS comes from
Actually, some very well respected Muslim Scholars say that Islam provides exceptions whereby some non-"Muslims" will also go to heaven (though not all Muslims will go to heaven under Islamic rules). This includes people that did not know about Islam or that grew up in an environment where they were taught to hate Islam from such a young age that psychologically speaking they could never really listen to any real information about Islam in a fair way.
Apparently whatever Ramy believes doesn't keep him/her from making blanket judgements based on personal prejudice.
Good people will be good, bad people will be bad. Religion doesn't affect that, but it does allow the bad people to make excuses.
OK I UNDERSTAND, BUT WHAT ABOUT WHEN ATHEIST BELIEFS TAKE AND EVIL TURN?? (IN OTHER WORDS, PEOPLE WHO HAVE NO CONCEPT OF RIGHT OR WRONG BECAUSE THEY DO NOT BELIEVE IN ABSOLUTE TRUTH AND COMMANDMENTS OF GOD?) HOW COME THAT IS NEVER TALKED ABOUT? THERE ARE DANGERS ON BOTH ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM.
Why don't you try googling a few atheist websites and read them rather than just making assumptions? And please turn off your caps lock.
You are making a wild a$$umption about atheists, that we do not have a concept of right and wrong. Very foolish.
We have the same sense of right and wrong as all humans, traits that have been passed down from the social animals that are our ancestors. All emotions are expressed in the animal kingdom, they have a sense of right and wrong, they build communities and help each other. and they do it without gods...and so do we.
Laurie you asked !
An Awesome Message from P.W. Swivel
People are People
Thanks for watching.
What Atheist beliefs turn evil. Atheists have done evil things just as believers have done evil things but I can't think of a single case where Atheists have killed and injured people because of their supposed knowedge that atheism is the true knowedge. And no people like Pol Pot and Stalin don't fit the formula, they didn't kill people because they were Atheists and more than Hitler killed people because he was a Christian. They killed people to gain and maintain power a fairly normal human behavior.
As for atheists having no concept of right and wrong. Of course atheists have a concept of right and wrong and no you don't have to be a follower of a God to understand right and wrong. Remember Jesus himself said there was only 2 laws.1. Love God with all your heart soul and mind. 2. Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Funny I have met no Christian who follows rule 2. There is always some excuse as to why your neighbor is less lovable that you yourself is. I admit it is a hard rule to follow if not impossible, especially since there are no exceptions like unless they are gay or of the opposing political party or go to a different church or belong to a different religion entirely or fail to mow their lawn. If I ever met a Christian who actually loved their neighbor as much as they love themselves I might think there was something to the faith, till then it is sounding brass and tinkling cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1 ).
Hey Laurie? I think your caps lock is stuck.
Because morality isn't granted by the Bible, it existed long before the Jewish oral traditions and will be around long after the current crop of religions have been supplanted by something else. Morality is a creation of society, and changes to fit those societies, and sometimes even changes the society itself. A number of things we as Americans feel to be immoral, such as slavery and religious oppression, are very moral according to the Bible, and many things the Bible condemns we accept happy, such as pepperoni pizza and Sunday sports.
Politics and not religion are at the root of the Boston bombing.
Typical statement by a religious person. Make a definitive conclusion before the investigation has completed. Do you ever consider making conclusions and decisions based on data?
That seems in doubt John. Religion appear to have fueled the resolve to reckless harm. It reminds me of a great quote from RIchard Dawkins (paraphrased): Only religion can make good people do wicked things.
Stand by for john to criticize islam next.
Better yet JPT..............go pound sand !