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. Marcy Darcy

    How many terrorists do you estimate will be legalized through the amnesty, Ms. Napolitano?
    If you against any kind of Amnesty, go to this website and register.
    Google this: NUMBERSUSA .
    Once you are registered, go to the "action board"

    April 28, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  2. coolusernametwo

    Ever an optimist, 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 educating our kids about the absurdity of and the fraud of religions.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • Nietodarwin


      “Countries with a high percentage of nonbelievers are among the freest, most stable, best-educated, and healthiest nations on earth. When nations are ranked according to a human-development index, which measures such factors as life expectancy, literacy rates, and educational attainment, the five highest-ranked countries - Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands - all have high degrees of nonbelief. Of the fifty countires at the bottom of the index, all are intensly religious. The nations with the highest homicide rates tend to be more religious; those with the greatest levels of gender equality are the least religious. These associations say nothing about whether atheism leads to positive social indicators or the other way around. But the idea that atheists are somehow less moral, honest, or trustworthy have been disproven by study after study.”
      _ Greg Graffin

      April 28, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  3. bear


    April 28, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  4. trollol

    We don't have to criminalize religion, but rather criminalize preaching. One delusional person, I can deal with. A whole room full of delusional people; nope.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • Dennis

      There is a difference between leading, teaching, and preaching. Sometimes people need leaders and good leaders teach people how to make decisions. Preaching has bad and good connotations but more and more people think of only the bad. What they are preaching is the problem. People should not be placed on pedestals because they usually get knocked off of them. To blindly follow and not use your brain you have been blessed with is the biggest problem. This goes for religion, politics, and sometimes even sport fanatics.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  5. Nietodarwin

    "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

    April 28, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • The Right Left

      All religions start out as social movements to represent the voice of the poor and oppressed. As soon as the rich and powerful embrace it, it becomes another feudal tool to oppress and subjugate the masses. The net effect of all religions is a negative one for mankind. Religions lead to tribalism of humans and pitch them against one another. One good the other evil, depending upon which side you stand.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • Dennis

      “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”
      —Dom Helder Camara

      April 28, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • Nietodarwin

      Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.
      Seneca the Younger 4 b.c.- 65 a.d.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  6. Not all religions meet in a church

    The first time I read this I thought it was about Obama.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  7. Truth Hurts

    When religious beliefs become evil: 4 signs; Attending, Donating, Living it, and Believing it........................................

    April 28, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  8. nuclear mike

    The Feds made Ruby Ridge & Waco & Tim M. & yes, 911 now Boston...all by federalist propaganda against religious organizations which were then caused to react in the manner that the Federalists wanted to end any moral values in government. The "V" scenario of using fear of those different than what a good citizen has been defined by the Federalists is being used to remove all personal freedoms for one global village to rule all the wealth and give the very few the power over us...

    April 28, 2013 at 10:09 am |
    • Dennis

      It's not 4/20 still is it?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  9. Banjo Ferret

    Everything will be okay when the world unites and recognizes Ferretianism is the one true religion. Repent and secure your purple energy bubble! (banjoferret d c)

    April 28, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  10. Andrew

    American far right "Christians" use OT texts out of context to skip over the example and commandments of Jesus himself. It's the third Klan Era.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  11. Steve

    Moslems obliterate 8 year old boys and CNN's warning signs include SURPRISE no moslems. 1970? Really? Islam is the problem you boneheads. 2 nuts use ARs and it becomes CNNs mission to ban them but a steady stream international terrorism over decades by muslims? This is why Fox is and will remain #1.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  12. CNN Clown Tom Foreman

    Muslims can and will be persecuted to the fullest extent of the law!

    April 28, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  13. George Dixon

    Another CNN moral equivalence piece in which "Islam", the "lord Voldemort" of Liberalism (that which cannot be named") is barely noted at all.

    The convolutions Liberals go through to avoid reality are as endless as they are illogical.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:06 am |
  14. CXP

    QUOTE FROM THE ARTICLE – "Absolute claims can quickly move into a justification of violence against someone who rejects that claim,” Kimball said. “It’s often a short step.”

    Why is this premise applied only to theistic religions ?

    the article makes no reference to the ills, woes and bloodshed caused by adherents and proponents of non-theistic idealogies like atheism. communism, nazism, racism, capitalism that were practised with great fervor by many, to which history bears undeniable testimony.

    It Just refers so called mainstream "theistic" religions as if 'fundamentalism' and 'radicalism' is endemic to these


    April 28, 2013 at 10:05 am |
  15. William ZLatos

    How come we never talk about the men in cloth who do things to little boys I would call this wrong. RELIGION is a form of control I used to believe in the Easter bunny to but grow out of that. Think for yourself and question everything all people do is put their own spin on a book to make them feel better. Wake up.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • Austin

      I hated the bible and Christianity before the Holy Spirit revealed truth in my life and unveiled the truth to a desperate soul.

      He is the Living God. He is able, and He is faithful to forgive.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:06 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      He is a construct of men, like all of the other thousands of gods. Why do you so readily disregard all of the others?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  16. Raven

    Yes, the ATF and FBI turned evil that week, killing women and children by burning them to death.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • Thomas

      I agree. The ATF killed 19 children and David Koresh killed zero in Waco.

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

    Once again CNN validates its christophobia and ignorance on matters of faith. The radical Christian gives up his or her time, money and trappings of materialism to serve God and others. The radical Muslim gives up his or her life to murder himself and others. The radical Christian does so because they follow Jesus' commands in the bible. The radical Muslim does so because the Koran and clerics directs him to do so. Your analysis is profoundly weak.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:04 am |
    • Waiting

      Matthew 10:34 "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

      Numbers 31:17-18 Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      Deuteronomy 13:6-9 If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield himYou must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • Herp

      Listen up bud, not all muslims are terrorists. Saying that: "The radical Muslim gives up his or her life to murder himself and others." makes you like a racist, stereotype, and anti-muslim. You just now basically said that a muslim believe his/her purpose in life is to commit suicide, while taking others with him/her. That is not the case. You blame arabs because of 9/11, and what they do in their countries. They fight for freedom, and civil wars break out, that does not make them terrorists. I have NO IDEA where the suicide bombing idea came from, but it is quite stupid. And where did the KOREANS come into this? Who said musims had ANYTHING to do with the Koreans. You are simply blindly throwing out your beliefs in the open. Watch what you say in public otherwise you will most likely be told off by others (me in this case).

      April 28, 2013 at 10:20 am |
  18. treblemaker

    Religion and science must go hand in hand, like faith and works. You can't have one without the other.

    Think of what the world would be like today without scientific advancement.

    Think of what the world would be like today without belief in ANY higher power that gives us hope for the future.

    The advancement of science and religion have one thing in common-the relentless pursuit of truth by its followers.

    What is truth?

    April 28, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Austin

      true, good point.

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

      THEY ARE OPPOSITES. Religion has ZERO evidence and CLAIMS to be truth. Science DEPENDS on evidence and seeks to expand on "truth" that is supported by the evidence thus far.

      “Scientists do not join hands every Sunday and sing "Yes gravity is real! I know gravity is real! I will have faith! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down, down. Amen!" If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about the concept.”
      _ Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists

      "The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they've found it."
      Terry Pratchett

      "Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops."
      Richard Dawkins

      April 28, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  19. Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

    Religion poisons everything.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Joe

      Wow. You guys are so narrow minded.
      It's not religion as whole.
      I'm atheist, but saying religion itself poison everything is just what narrow minded, uneducated people believe.
      Please don't post stuff when you don't know what you are saying.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:06 am |
    • treblemaker

      Man poisons everything. Religion is the guidebook of life that man doesn't understand, so he screws up the directions and blames others for his mistakes.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  20. By-his-stripes-we-are-healed

    The home of the brave and the land of the free?????? Really? are we sure?

    April 28, 2013 at 10:02 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.