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. The Dude

    Wow the hate spewing out against Christians is scary stuff. And you people think you are tolerant and enlightened? We need Christs teaching more than ever today. Don't cast hate on forgiveness, don't cast hate on love, don't cast hate on charity, don't cast hate on humility, don't cast hate on helping those in need...That is what I heard from the gospel today. You should all reflect on it.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • tallulah13

      If only Christ was the foundation of the churches named after him. As far as I can tell, most churches follow the teachings of Saul of Tarsus.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • sam stone

      do you see more "hatred" toward christians or muslims?

      April 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • biggles

      Remember, little fatty Sammy wants u to fvck yourself and remove or head at the end of your pistol. Gets to love sambo. Not one filthy atheist rebukes her, so she must be alright, right dodo?

      April 28, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • sam stone

      why do you feel we need christ "more than ever"?

      i suppose you know that the hext generation will claim this too? and the next, ad naseum.

      is it because there is a turning away from religion?

      are you having a hissy fit?

      the sky is falling! the sky is falling!

      oooh, oooh.....we'z done pi$$ed off jeebus and he is fvking mad.....he is coming back...."ARE YOU READY TO HUMBLE?"

      all those quallities you have mentioned are admirable, and not the province of any religion

      good people do good things, bad people do bad thigs. for a good person to do a bad thing takes religion

      April 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Harold

      You just missed the point – your 'god' is not real, a figment of imagination, fiction, like stories that you read. A farce! In the same way that you understand the gods of Greece were false, the gods of Egypt were false, Mythrias didn't exist etc, your Mediterranean god is not real either...get it? It was doomed from the start, any premise that is purely based on bad math will eventually fall apart and the three Abrahamic religions all got their math way wrong.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • sam stone

      biggles: hey, pen-day-ho, i am a guy

      you are welcome to do either of those things

      April 28, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
  2. John P. Tarver

    The Davidians are an example of evil Government, not religion. Government is inherently evil and real socialism requires less religion.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Koresh forced the government to act by not abiding by our laws. The government screwed up in its handling of the situation (not the one from jersey shore), but it was Koresh that could have ended it peacefully, and it was Koresh that refused to abide by the law. He felt he was justified by his faith to have $ex with the underage girlks in his care as well.

      Place the blame squarely on the religious fanatic...the government would have much prefered he simply abide by law.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  3. ScottCA


    April 28, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  4. syman pons

    "If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other cheek to him that he might strike it also." Jesus said this. What does it mean?

    April 28, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      (Matthew 10:34-36) – "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35"For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household."
      (Luke 12:51,52) – "Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; 52for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three..."
      (Luke 22:36) – "And He said to them, "But now, let him who has a purse take it along, likewise also a bag, and let him who has no sword sell his robe and buy one."

      April 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      It means to show your attacker that violence will gain you nothing, that they may then try a different tactic, like discussion.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  5. Godoflunaticscreation


    April 28, 2013 at 3:10 pm |

    Living proof of difference between followers of truth absolute GOD and hindu Atheist, self centerd, seculars, denire of truth absolute GOD, foundation of American consti tution.


    Atheist self centered, secular by nature in denial of truth absolute GOD.


    Followers of hindu secular ism, self center ism, Atheism by faith in denial of truth absolute GOD.


    April 28, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  7. faith

    TAKE SAM'S ADVICE AND VISIT THE END OF YOUR FIREARM. lovely christian chap that fvcking little fat sammy, as atheists cheer her on

    April 28, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • biggles

      Our government could have brought out every innocent child. Turned off the water supply. Tear gas. Our government needlessly participated in the burning deaths of children.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • biggles

      Happy Sammy?

      April 28, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • biggles

      That idiot had nothing to do with Christianity. He was a nut job like Hitler and sambo

      April 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Hitler was a nutjob, but he was a christian nutjob. He believed his christian almighty sanctioned his actions.

      He was your brother in christ and yet you deny him...will you do it three times?

      April 28, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • faith

      hitler said god exists! god exists u idiot!

      April 28, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • faith

      sambo is a cutie

      April 28, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • sam stone

      awwww, faith.....that's sweet. still got that concession behind the trailer park?

      April 28, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
  8. AhhhhYeah

    I like snacks. Prove me wrong.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • biggles

      No u don't. Snacks r in our mind, u stupid moron. No proof snacks do anything for u. Just another addiction. Yes. That's right and addicts repress gays and so we r gonna get rid of u.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • biggles

      Snackers want to change the labels on packages to push their agenda so by all means available we will destroy them.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  9. Godoflunaticscreation


    April 28, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • Mary

      LOL – oh but that's sad thinking of the people who bought into that...

      April 28, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      With him [is] strength and wisdom: the deceived and the deceiver [are] his.

      Job 12:16


      April 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  10. Lpartain

    Atheists are weak minded fools. So easily they fall into ad hominem fallacies.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  11. adam

    I think it's really funny that the author assumes the Protestant Reformation was a positive outcome, when in reality it generated a lot of the type of religious violence that this article examines.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  12. Godoflunaticscreation


    April 28, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Great Video. Great Post.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Thank you.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • HeavenSent


      With him [is] strength and wisdom: the deceived and the deceiver [are] his.

      Job 12:16


      April 28, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  13. RP

    Religion is the root of most evil, therefore religion is evil. Millions have needless died because of religion and will continue to do so.You don't have to believe in fairy tales to be a good and moral person.

    April 28, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      I prefer to believe what Jesus said.

      For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

      1 Timothy 6:10


      April 28, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • biggles

      More accurately. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil

      April 28, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Ignorance is the root of all religion.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • RP

      I agree with the statement your argument makes (not the source you quote from), thus " most evil" is in my statement. do not forget the riches amassed by religious empires. Money and most religions are closely tied.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      Revelation 22:18   For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:

      Revelation 22:19   And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and [from] the things which are written in this book.


      May 1, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  14. Science

    Thomas ...........open mouth insert foot !

    Learning is fun with facts.......................... and facts work when teaching children.

    Atheist Prof. Peter Higgs: Stop calling Higgs boson the ‘God particle’

    Professor Peter Higgs said recently that there is no God and so people should stop referring to the theoretical partial that
    bears his name as the “God particle.”


    April 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  15. Just Call Me Lucifer

    Religion is a virus. The sooner a cure is found the better.

    April 28, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      The ironic thing is the only way that would happen is if a deity came to us and said to knock it off.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
  16. Bob

    Religion and reason are not incompatible. Nor does it have to be exclusionist,
    Dee book The Dawkins Delusion God vs Atheism by Slater on Amazon Kindle, Bob

    April 28, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  17. Godoflunaticscreation


    April 28, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
  18. Kat

    when the media becomes a government war propaganda tools: when it goes out of its way to spin and twist simple confessions by the terror suspects of their motive as retaliation for wars by saying it was instead all about religion. It's like blaming the religion of americans for their gov wars on the civlians of its enemies

    April 28, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      You admit that it is a religious problem then deny it in your last sentence.

      April 28, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Akira

      As Bush told the media, "God told me to do it", you're exactly right.

      April 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  19. AhhhhYeah

    If christians are so smart then why can't the prove their god exists?

    April 28, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
  20. ScottCA

    An informative video that you may choose to watch:

    April 28, 2013 at 2:48 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.