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. Chien

    Beware, where there are evil acts, there are the devil and evil spirits who prowl about the world working hard seeking the ruin of souls. St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us and protect us.

    April 28, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      You should be more concerned about all of the false religions out there too...you know how to tell it is a false relgion....easy...it fits the definition of religion.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • logan5

      @Richard Cranium
      You are prepared to include Christianity in that list of "false religions," aren't you??

      April 28, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Of course.
      All religions have been created by men.
      All religious texts have been created by men.
      Men have created thousands of gods.
      To this point, there is absolutely no evidence that any of them have ever existed.

      Except for one I know of, where a WWII jeep was accidentally dropped on an island in the south pacific. Several years later, the inhabitants had made it a god. Now the jeep actually existed, but it wasn't a god, so they had a small part of it right.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Richard Cranium: "...you know how to tell it is a false relgion....easy...it fits the definition of religion."

      Now you may consider that Atheism fits the definition of religion as well as Atheism (just like every other religion) is based on a set of unprovable dogmas which are declared to be the "absolute truth" while all other religions are declared "false".

      April 28, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • oOo

      So you still don't understand what atheism is after all this time, Thinker? Try again. Hint – think about knowledge versus belief, then look at the standard definitions for mainstream atheism, then look at what you are assuming as absolute truth for an atheist and you'll figure it out.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Think again
      Atheism does not a religion as there is no supernatural component. Many of the religious like to try to say it is, but it does not fit into any definition of religion because of the supernatural component.

      Do you believe in ALL of the thousands of gods out there, or do you disregard them for lack of evidence?
      Like I do with yours.
      You disregard thousands of gods...I just disregard one more than you do.

      Meanwhile, the evidence that the bible was written by men, using stories from earlier cultures, shows that it is false.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • logan5

      My apologies Mr. Cranium. You clearly are a fellow atheist, glad to have ya aboard!

      April 28, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      No worries logan.
      It is odd though growing up in the sixties/seventies what the christians would do to me when they found out I am an atheist. From name calling, vandalism, and sometimes even violence...we had to remain in the shadows...now I see more and more people are not bowing to the religious peer pressure and standing up, letting our numbers be counted.

      I've often wondered how many true atheists that are out there who still feel compelled to hold on to the religious ideas just because of those around them...a similar thing as those whom the christians have done wrong, like asians, blacks, women, h0m0$exuals....odd for a nation the christains like to call christian.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • lol??

      Lookin' for coagulation in all the wrong places.

      April 28, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • biggles

      Big dick chromedomeous knows her stuff. She is an expert on comparative religions and how to live your life. She lives here. This is her life, her full time job, telling others what to do, what to think, how to act.

      April 28, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
  2. John P. Tarver

    Government killed Jesus and the Davidians.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      This is what happens when trolls get lazy

      April 28, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • oOo

      I know – next thing you know the troll will be saying "Ever since they took the Davidians out of schools . . . "

      April 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  3. lionlylamb

    I love God and God's brethren who have not left their cosmological dimension being the atomized realms of inner cosmologic wonders!

    1Corinthians 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building.

    Luke 17:21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  4. zanyargolabi

    Reblogged this on Zanyargolabi's Blog.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  5. biggles

    That's why she's here night and day. Sambo can't stand the yammerin.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
    • biggles

      Sambo is one of the great idiots/phonies/liars/demon infested big mouths who doesn't work and has no clue about Jesus blood and can't get enough Christianity. Got to love her. Got to. She is the funniest little jesusphobe ever but she wants you to pity her rough life. After all, she has no choice. See make her participate. Poor whittle baby girl!

      April 28, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  6. It's funny, you know...

    ...that they would do this on a Sunday.

    And I do like how this is all old news. Why not focus on current events?
    How any of this could be relevant to anything as of now is just as effective ever apparently. >_>

    April 28, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Old news? Soon your cult will be old news but for now you guys are still waging your holy wars.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  7. Adam G. in NC


    April 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      I think I know why neither Hitch nor I would make that choice. The reason is because I wouldn't want to be responsible for killing a philosophy. Even if an animal species "deserves" to go extinct, you wouldn't want to be the one to put to death the last example.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  8. Luis Wu

    Islam is a dangerous religion. But so is ours. Look at Iraq and other conflicts in the middle east. The main reason we're fighting those wars is because we support Israel, most Americans believe Israel is the "promised land" of the Jews and belongs to them because their sky fairy said so. All the terrorism, all the wars in the middle east are because of this fact and for no other reason. So how many people have American wars in the middle east killed? Countless millions. We are just as bad as they are if not worse.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • Smackme420

      When you used the word, "We". I was surprised to say the least. For nearly 250 yrs. the United States have committed more atrocities, more chaos, more destruction, coups, war, terror, torture, than any other country on the planet. We have more people behind bars than ANY other country on Earth. We have been the thorn on Humanity's side longer than that story it'self. And now we are being attacked and murdered by our own. Not our own people, our own government. PERIOD. Those poor sheep believing what the "news" tells them and donating hard earned money to the very monsters destroying this great country and not listening to reason because 'It might be true", is the saddest part of all. We are getting what we settled for- to paraphrase a line from "Thelma and Louise".

      April 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      When you say "our religion" which one would that be?

      I am an atheist so I have no religion.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
    • ..

      Stoner, please cite the sources for your statements. And, get out of the US if you can't stand it. Get real. Your Faux outrage and outright lies are ridiculous.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Luis Wu: "...all the wars in the middle east are because of this fact and for no other reason. "

      I beg to disagree. All the wars in the Middle East and in many other places are because the Muslims are unable to live in peace with anyone else and NOT because non-Muslims dare to exist too close to Muslims.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Ricjard Cranium... Atheism is as much a religion as every other religion. Just like any other religion Atheism is based on a set of unprovable dogmas and just like most other religion it declares these dogmas to be the "absolute truth" while other religions are being declared "false".

      April 28, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
    • logan5

      You were doing good until you went on that rant about our government blowing us up. Stop watching Youtube conspiracy videos, dude. they're making your mind into mush.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • oOo

      False. Thinker23 – even if you start with the wikipedia definition for mainstream atheism, you would see where you are falling flat.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
  9. Sue

    Seriously? David Koresh was a child molester masquerading as some sort of prophet. If you do any sort of research into that group you can find this out for yourself. While most of his followers were peaceful, they were brainwashed. Koresh was just another charismatic charlatan who used religion to satiate his own predatory urges.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • Tamsyn

      I agree. Those who hold him up as some sort of strange hero for their anti-Government and anti-FBI sentiments have placed their awe in the wrong man. He was a beast.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • lol??

      Yeah, they seriously killed the "victims", too.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • Tamsyn

      Yes, lol??, it was handled badly by both the FBI and the Branch Davidians. Further proving that even religion is not above the law, and the FBI made some critical errors that cost many their lives, when DK decided to martyr his congregation rather than be found guilty of manipulating them.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • lol??

      Manipulating statute?? Tell me more.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  10. biggles

    A day is soon coming when he will settle all these matters. Prepare. For as in the days of Noah and lot, u r gonna be sorry.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • biggles

      Weeping gnashing howling screaming begging pleading shouting crying

      April 28, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • sam

      Good, the sooner the better – then we don't need to keep hearing the yammering of idiots like you.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      What an utterly stupid post.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Biggies is a laugh riot. We don't fear your book of fairytales. You might as well threaten us with a comic book.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • syman pons

      As Christians we should encourage people to do what is good. We should bless not curse. You need to read the Lord's teachings with a little more discernment. We share the Gospel (Good News) not the Bad News.We need to be helping people find their way back to the straight and narrow way, not telling them that 'They will be sorry'.

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

      Symans. Care to challenge the video i posted below of "bible contradictions"? According to your bible we should be turning the other cheek and slaughtering those who don't believe.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  11. Carl

    "When any government, or church for that matter, undertakes to say to it's subjects, this you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motive." – Robert A. Heinlein.

    Never more true than today.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • lol??

      It is weird in america where you have masters and public servants. The bully socies took over.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  12. biggles

    He shed his blood to set the sinner free. BLOOD. Lots of it.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation


      April 28, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • sam

      Big deal. That's not a real good example of anything.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Because an archaic, ancient book of mythology says so? Nope. Just a stupid fairy tale. Grow a brain.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • The Non Believer

      Wow. A human being was crucified and spilled lots of blood. I don't think torture is a good thing.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  13. Godoflunaticscreation


    April 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  14. Boundgodsfan

    At the risk of making it worse. How do you find you're previous comments in this mess of an application? CNN please go to something else!

    April 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  15. biggles

    Let Nazi god hating atheists give up there sin and they will fade away. They have no beef with Christianity. They love something else more. That is all this is.

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


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

      Their agenda is to deflect. No one fights a sky daddy that don't exist cause they fear u r gonna vote against human rights. They love sin.

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

      You have invoked Godwin's Law. Now it's time for you to fuck off!

      April 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Who said that a bunch of cultist murderers is a sky daddy?

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

      Temper temper little girl. Get your pistol and aim at your fav christian

      April 28, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • Tamsyn

      The use of Nazism in relation to atheists is completely erroneous, and used only to incite fear of people who do not know any better; they have a poor understanding of history and would benefit from an education that goes beyond what Sunday School teaches.
      The separation of Church and State exists for the very reason that no religion, irregardless of what that religion is, may be codified into secular law.
      As long as religions, no matter which religion it is, tries to get their belief system legislated into law, there will be people of ALL faiths and belief systems who will fight against this. They are called Constitutionalists, and they are the true Patriots.
      Denying even one civil right to anyone is wrong, and Anti-American.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • biggles

      Sambo loves sin. Which is your favorite, honey? Lying, hatred, meth, murder? Lol

      April 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      Nice. Calling people Nazis because they don't blindly accept archaic, ancient mythology and ignorant superst!tious nonsense as reality. You live in a fantasy world of imaginary, invisible, supernatural beings. Try coming out of it and living in reality for a change. You'll like it a lot better.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  16. Jack H

    The main problem with the ‘religion is inherently evil’ argument is that humans were killing each other in droves long before there was organized religion. And in places where religion is largely absent (Like Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, North Korea today) tens of millions have been slaughtered. Indeed, people kill each other in the jungles of the Congo and the streets of Chicago for perfectly ‘secular’ reasons – like money, power, and ‘respect’.

    And there is no doubt, that if certain religious teachings, like ‘Love you’re your neighbor as yourself’, and ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ were religiously followed, it would result in a tremendous reduction in pain, suffering, and death.

    So the problem doesn’t seem to be in religion per se, but in the hearts of men. ‘Religious beliefs don’t ‘become evil’, they merely highlight the evil that already exists in humans.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  17. chuckmartel

    To the PC islamophiles posting here;

    Warning sign 1: Being muslim. Every day they blow up other muslims in the musilm world. At only 1 percent the US population they are already responsible for a disproportionately large number of terrorist attacks and incidents in the US. The US already has more than its share of indigenous nutjobs and psycho killers, the last thing we need is to import islam. They make the bible bangers look sane. You PC dummies are insanely stupid.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  18. Godoflunaticscreation


    April 28, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Syman, I think you are angry at reality because you know your god is absent.

      April 28, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
  19. Harold

    ALL religions are false.
    ALL religions cause pain, suffering, and hatred in someone else, somewhere.

    There is zero proof of life after death. If there is some extension of our energy beyond our mortal death, you can bet your last drop of blood it won't be any of the foolish ego driven notions of gods created by Human.

    April 28, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
    • Gawd Almighty

      Religions cause joy and relief all around the world everyday. These people and religions give millions of dollars in aid, food, shelter, clothing, and love on a daily basis. They care about humanity, and do something to help the needy. As opposed to selfish, petty haters such as yourself, who care about nothing or nobody else.

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

      Atheists give more and without the blood shed.

      April 28, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • syman pons

      To God-of-lunatics-creation:

      If you love Jesus, then you obey his commandments.

      "And Jesus said: "The great commandment is: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And, the like this (or the same as this), You shall love your neighbor as your self." "

      You are angry at God because He wants you to stop doing something(s) that you don't want to stop doing.

      Sin is the act of assaulting another spiritual being, be it God or be it man. God defines what is an assault. We do not.

      You will do well to think about these things I have just written to you. God is waiting for you to turn back to Him. But it means you must do it his way.

      April 28, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  20. ScottCA


    April 28, 2013 at 3:19 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.