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. Awesome-O

    Religion has actually convinced people that there is an invisible man! living in the sky! who watches you every moment of everyday and the invisible man has a list of 10 things you should not do! and if you do any of these 10 things he has a special place for you full of fire and hate so you can burn and scream and cry til the end of time!!!!!!


    April 28, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • One one

      And the first three of the ten rules are to worship him, or else.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • Awesome-O

      Yep, right off the bat you can knock off those 3 and make it 7 commandments lol. Plus the whole not killing is negotiable since more people have ever died for a belief so yeah kinda contradicting. Plus why is there 10? because 10 sounds official! its a universal list of things that is commonly used. so i think the commandements were a marketing strategy since i see 8 out of the 10 being useless or stupid.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  2. The Dude

    Sinking to yet a deeper low, CNN? I cannot even read the article when the associated picture is an inferno started by the feds that killed many, including children.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  3. NDLily

    "I know the truth and you don't." Isn't that the very essence of religion? And actually, the other three are pretty common as well. Let's just say religion is dangerous, period, full stop. It's a little like alcohol. In small amounts, it might be okay, though even in small amounts it does damage, through bigotry and an us and them mentality that leads to us judging differently an eight-year-old's death in Boston and the hundreds of kids who have died in the MIddle East due to our bombs (after all they weren't good white Christian children). But most people can't be trusted to use it wisely and must constantly be drunk on their own righteousness or use it to avoid facing the world. In the end, we would be better off if we'd just give up the drug of religion entirely.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:01 am |
  4. Misguided

    This article is misguided and poorly researched exhibiting the personal biases of the author. It's really more or less useless as far as the subject matter is concerned.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • One one

      How so ?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  5. Alex

    Interesting. For CNN's four examples of when religion becomes terrorism we have three stories of Christianity and a story of Buddhism. Extreme minority cases in the larger category of religious-fueled terrorist acts. Why were no Muslim cases used? Gee, I wonder. I guess CNN is starting to "Lean Forward" also.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • Sane Person

      Muslim cases are also extreme minorities. You just dont like it when your hypocrisy is called out.

      April 28, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  6. One one

    The problem with religion is that it is full of absurd supernatural hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo, juju that people actually believe. It seems to be a form of mental illness.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:01 am |
    • JaseTX

      Well, not asking you or anyone else to believe it – but have a little bit of an open mind and read about it. Perhaps you can see the at least the "why". Plus it's more of a way of life. If it ends up making you kill innocents, then it's nnot the religion. Even that supposed "kill the non believers" verse in thhe Quran was oout of a context. The context was for a SPECIFIC war and a treaty was signed. Those were the conditions agreed upon on, with the jahilya arabs. It's not a universal command. The war i think was called the battle of Badr last i saw, google it, its really interesting!

      April 28, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  7. Be careful! or Janet Reno or Napoliano may swoop in kill all of you

    Pull the media back-we don't want any witnesses. Burn em out.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  8. expakistani

    "extreme forms of Islam" – Please write an article on the extreme form of Islam. I'd like to know more about it because about 80% of mosques in the USA are teaching this form of Islam.

    April 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • JaseTX

      Ever been to a mosque? Nice stat btw, beautiful lie.

      If indeed you are a "Pakistani", only your mosques teach that. But you cant be an "ex" nationality

      April 28, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  9. ml

    more lives wasted by religion.

    April 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
  10. Ajax

    I predict many people will break the Caps Lock key on their keyboards responding to this article. The Beliefs Blog needs to switch to Disqus in order to really let the dogs loose. This blog is always too sedate. Too sedentary.

    April 28, 2013 at 9:58 am |
  11. Luis Wu

    All religions are evil. They're just ancient mythology and ignorant superst!tious nonsense. Only stupid people are gullible enough to believe in any of them. They live in a fairytale world and they want to suck everybody in with them. Most are full of hatred for anyone that doesn't believe like they do. Religion will cause the downfall of mankind.

    April 28, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • John Gault

      Thumbs Up.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:00 am |
    • Michael

      I could not figure out how first to respond to this comment. I just laughed to myself, and thought that people hide behind computers to call people stupid, but in actuality, most young Christians are highly intelligent, and I bet they would school you up and down. I, however, am not gonna waste my time arguing with a bigot like yourself. You are doing the same thing that this articles says without being religious.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:05 am |
    • coolusernametwo

      Still, I think there's hope as finally, even in some backward, educationally under-developed countries like the U.S., the religious tide is turning. In the next 30 to 40 years, we'll start aducating our kids about the absurdity of and the fraud of religions.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:08 am |
    • The Dude

      Mr Wu,
      You sound dangerously like a fanatic. The largest mass murders in human history were non-religious and purged religion. Stalin, Pol Pot and Hitler. Its when people start attacking others beliefs as "stupid" and "evil" that leads to the rise of oppressive and murderous states that commit genocide...

      April 28, 2013 at 10:13 am |
    • Minh Tran

      All religions have this warning sign: "I know the truth, and you don’t", and they try very hard to convert the others to their belief even they themselves don't know the truth.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:13 am |
    • I Am God

      TheDude you are apparently a religious bigot ignorant of what religion has done. You are obviously not intelligent enough to know that Communism is different from Atheism and that Stalin and so on committed the genocide in the name of Communism which is political. Get a clue.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:18 am |
    • The Dude

      @ I am God,
      Your comment makes no sense. The genocidal states referenced largely oppressed religion and replaced faith with a commitment to a secular government. If you read your, and Mr. Wu's, posts and mine which would fit the definition of bigotry?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  12. Clear as Fog

    I think some of these comments confirm that a persons thought process or logic can become toxic about almost anything. Conspiracy theories feed paranoia that creates an environment of fear, distrust, and horrific behavior on the part of a few who "take the law into their own hands" to strike out against (insert anything like gun control, Islam, abortion, government, capitalism, etc.) What happened to critical thinking? The media today is full of talking heads on the ultra right and left who need to keep the flame of intolerance burning so their ratings remain high, they get renewed (aka FOX CEO: "It's all about ratings" ) and donations keep coming in from those they have convinced that (e.g. gays, liberals, gun control, etc.) are a threat to our control and individual liberty. Unfortunately, but predictably, they contribute to an environment that drives a few individuals to horrific acts against life.

    April 28, 2013 at 9:56 am |
  13. Mike D49

    LOL they don't even mention any muslim terrorist attacks in any of their examples, what a crock, muslims have killed millions globally from muslim extremism.

    April 28, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • I Am God

      What is a crock is the fact that fools like you only believe Muslim extremists commit violence.

      April 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Alex

      I Am God- He is stating that they commit the majority...not all. For a broad topic like "religious beliefs becoming evil" why wouldn't CNN focus on the most common examples rather than examples from the extreme minority?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  14. jesus

    The one aspect of all religions that leads to the dehumanizing and ease of killing nonbelievers is the tenet that "Since we believe this religion's dogma, we are going to Heaven and as you heathens do not believe, you are NOT (or you are going to Hell)". That belief makes it so easy to look at nonbelievers as less human or not (their) God loving than the believer and justifies their deaths.

    April 28, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  15. Doug

    As soon as someone tells me they are religious I stay away... Who believes this stuff ? Crazy weirdos ?

    April 28, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Dan

      About 90% of America. Just pat yourself on the back and keep telling yourself you're better and smarter than all of them.

      April 28, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • John Gault

      Dan, everyone in the world used to think it was flat and the center of the universe. Just because the majority are afraid to accept reality doesn't make their fantasy true.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:02 am |
  16. The real Tom

    It's easy to tell that Austin spent yesterday at his fundie church and is now on the warpath against anyone who doesn't see eye to eye with him.


    April 28, 2013 at 9:46 am |
    • One one

      I agree, the farce is strong in him.

      April 28, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • Science

      Austin is in DENIAL ...........or Austin can you READ the font in front of you ?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  17. jason


    April 28, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • Sane Person

      bwanana. Yes CNN religious opinion blogger, stop giving your opinion! Idiots read it and think its a news story! Someone, please think of the religios zealots that dont understand these things!

      April 28, 2013 at 9:58 am |
    • Dan

      CNN's job isn't just to report the news. Their job is to do whatever they want. That includes a lot of commentary, like this. The reason they do it is because people like you give them hits, so they're going to keep doing it.

      April 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Saraswati

      I take it you're a conspiracy theorist who doesn't agree with the official findings as to who started the fire killing off their own people. These were murderous religious nuts, plain and simple.

      April 28, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Joe

      Jason, I completely agree.
      Actually, the fact that they are blaming solely religion for all of this is ridiculous.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • stejo

      I'd say don't read the "Beilief" page if you don't want opinion, Mister ALL CAPS.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:03 am |
    • Fred

      How dare you suggest that David Koresh was innocent. He was telling mothers that they had to allow their 13,14,15 year old girls to have relation with him. Its called STATUATORY r@pe.

      When he was asked to come downtown and talk about he declined. I hate to break it to you, you DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT to decline to speak to police when they suspect you are diddling 13 year olds!!

      To suggest he was minding his own business when he was r@ping kids is incorrect my friend.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:07 am |
    • oh

      well this article flew right over jason's head.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:13 am |
    • Harvey

      Actually quite easily. Two sides of the same coins. If the Davidians were so peaceful why was the FBI trying to bust them for illegal weapons?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • 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 12:11 pm |
  18. lol??

    "2Cr 1:9 But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead:"

    April 28, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • Science

      Go pound sand lol??

      April 28, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • JJ

      Psalm 137:9 – Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

      April 28, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • brianz72

      Anybody who believes that nonsense may as well believe in Bigfoot or leprechauns. The evidence is just as good.

      Bible quotes are so silly. My favorite bible verse is the one where Moses recommend exterminating a village and raping the virgins.

      Numbers 31:17-18 NLT

      17 So kill all the boys and all the women who have had intercourse with a man. 18 Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  19. Golden @ss


    April 28, 2013 at 9:44 am |
    • Science

      From Soup to Cells—the Origin of Life


      Why do you believe that ?................there is a word filter ?

      April 28, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • I Am God

      With dumb comments like this I'm not surprised. Stop acting like a child.

      April 28, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  20. Golden @ss


    April 28, 2013 at 9:42 am |
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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.