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. Mel Stricker

    Every religion has done evil things. The Catholics has the inquisition, Protestants had witch hunts, both Catholics and Protestants have Northern Irland, Jew have the terror attacks on the English and the never ending imprisonment of the Palestinians and it goes on.

    Religion in general is bigoted. To almost every religion the people who worship in the name of another religion are condemned.

    For me, I believe in God and I know that God recognizes no religion because God existed before religion. God made man and man made religion..

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

      Education works better than a fairy in the sky

      April 28, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  2. treblemaker

    Only one charismatic religious leader laid down his life without taking others with him. You all know who that is.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • Richard Cranium


      April 28, 2013 at 10:22 am |
    • sqeptiq


      April 28, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • rational63


      April 28, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Nietodarwin

      Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock and roll or Christianity.
      John Lennon

      April 28, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  3. Thomas

    Funny...these four attributes describe our government as well.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:19 am |
    • sqeptiq

      You see what you want to see. A lot like religion.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:32 am |
  4. DWS

    the stock caption under the photo is very questionable. No doubt the Koresh/Branch Davidians were a cult. They may or may not have been dangerous to its members.
    However the initial badly mismanaged ATF assault, resulting siege, and disastrous final assault and conflagration ending in the death by fire of the cult members and their families, (very few suicided read the congressional hearing testimony autopsy reports) was almost completely the result of over reaching and out of control federal agency actions.
    Any "clashing" would most likely be considered self-defense by an unbiased court

    April 28, 2013 at 10:19 am |
  5. Just Me

    Religion is when people decides to follow the doctrines and regulations of MEN instead of the teachings of Jesus Christ. God is NOT about RELIGION, God is all about a RELATIONSHIP through Christ Jesus, the KING of kings, LORD of lords.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:18 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      All religions and all religious texts were created by men...no gods required.

      Why do you disregard all of the other thousands of gods (many of them are the one true god)?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:21 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Well, congratulations. With your delegitimizing of all other religions, you join the "evil" group.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  6. Nietodarwin

    “The difference between faith and insanity is that faith is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence, whereas insanity is the ability to hold firmly to a conclusion that is incompatible with the evidence.”
    _ William Harwood, Dictionary of Contemporary Mythology

    April 28, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  7. more2bits

    “When you start to get individuals who are the sole interpreters of truth, you get people who follow them blindly."

    Sounds just like every supposed god, religious leader, priests, cultists, etc. throughout the history of man. How blindly they follow theology when it's nothing but a myth for weak minds and the deprived.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  8. thegadfly

    Disagreement as to the existence of God may go on forever, but this I know: If you pray to a God that favors one team of athletes over another, one country over another, or any one group of people over another, you are praying to a God that contradicts both Jesus and Muhammad, and that quite frankly cannot possibly be God. To whom, then, are you actually praying if you do so? Could it be ... Satan?

    I also have this to say: Anyone who would deprive another person of free will is not serving any God. And Jesus never said to love your friends. Why would he? He said to love your enemies.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      free will cannot exist if one believes what the bible says.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:19 am |
  9. Livelystone

    It is the believers responsibility to teach the truth but it is God's responsibility to change the person......... Not the believers!

    All "believers" need to learn the difference.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  10. One one

    This scripture is interesting. Is this something early Christians had to worry about ?

    Deuteronomy 23 1He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • JimmyAlex777

      This just explains that only good looking dudes with good working tools are welcomed to the naked festival of fun and games.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  11. Name*penguin

    If my religion is the "true" religion, any religion that has differing precepts must be a "false" religion. The only way to avoid this conundrum is to concede that there is no "true" religion. One can believe in God while, at the same time, not believe in the "Bible." Society would be better off without "relgion."

    April 28, 2013 at 10:15 am |
    • JimmyAlex777

      That's for sure! Religious people are ignorant and even EVIL!

      April 28, 2013 at 10:17 am |
    • sqeptiq

      jimmyalex thinks he has the only "truth." RUN!

      April 28, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  12. stevie68a

    Simply put, religion just isn't true.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:15 am |
  13. MandoZink

    Religion is doing what you are told no matter what is right.
    Morality is doing what is right no matter what you are told.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  14. JimG.

    WHEN religion becomes evil? Look I know HISTORY has abondoned actual history, but all of the things done in the name of religion are still out there to learn and learn from.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:12 am |
  15. us_1776

    Islam is more than a religion.

    t is a 7th century violent culture.

    It is civil governance in the form of Islamic Sharia Law.

    And it seeks to overthrow the governments of the world.


    April 28, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • khaled

      US_1776. You really need to learn history before you throw your ignorant judgement. Islam is the reason why you live the way you live right now. Muslim scholars and Scientists in the middle ages revolutionized thinking and started a process that impacted Europe and the world. People from everywhere in the world went to the Middle East and Gortuba (now spain) to study and learn. Muslim scholars invented the number "0" and introduced Algebra to the world. Muslim scholars achieved advances in science and medicine long before the European revival.

      You should not try to understand religion from the acts of one or a group of followers when the majority of Muslims are the opposite of this one or group of followers. Also these acts are politically motivated rather than religiously motivated. Moreover, violence has been committed by Christian and Jewish people but these people have never been called terrorists in purpose. But when someone who commits an act of violence and this person happens to be a Muslim, then Islam is to blame and this person is called a "Terrorist" in purpose. Islam is a strong and a powerful faith and it will remain though despite the ill feelings and despite the double standards of US and Western political systems.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Ray

      Khaled – much of what you said is true, but if you really look at your history I think you'll find that those advances (algebra, '0', etc., were made by Arabs prior to the advent of Islam. Since the founding of Islam, how many scientific advances have come out of the Middle East?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • Nietodarwin


      April 28, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  16. JimmyAlex777

    All religion is evil because it is all wrong and deceiving.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • TAJW

      Because you know the truth and anyone who believes in God doesn't? So, you pretty much fit the profile specified in the article, right?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:18 am |
    • sqeptiq

      I think warning sign 1 says you are evil for believing that.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  17. TRose

    Funny how all the torturing and killing of Catholics that was carried out by the "good" Protestant reformers is ignored in favor of perpetuating the mythology of Father Luther, who took some valid criticisms and became an extremist (read his later writings). Our blogger clearly has yet another anti-Catholic agenda. This gets old, CNN. Your bias is showing.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • sqeptiq

      I think you should go back and reread the part about Luther. The author was describing him as a n extremist.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  18. Extremophil

    If you make a bomb out of a pressure cooker, you might be a religious fanatic.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:12 am |
  19. Julie

    Fortunately the fastest growing religious group or non-religious group in the States is referred to as the "Unaffiliated" t about 18%. Mathematicians have predicted that within 100 years organized religious groups as we know them today will be a very small minority. As less and less parents stop indoctrinating their children from birth as they were, religion will become obsolete and science will prevail.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:12 am |
    • JimmyAlex777

      Thank goodness! The sooner the better! RELIGION IS EVIL!!!!

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

      Let me guess, you are in favor of indoctrinating children that God doesn't exist and all religion is evil?

      April 28, 2013 at 10:22 am |
    • Mark

      Yes because the Atom bombs and all the toxic waste and pollution that science has helped create are so much better. No, I am not against technology or advancement but look at the byproducts of our science and what it has done to the planet. In the end it might wipe us all out faster then any religion ever could.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • OldMo

      In many fewer years than 100, you will be forced to swear allegiance to a humanistic one-world religion. That is, if you're among the small percentage of people that aren't killed off. Don't worry, it'll all be for Mother Gaia and for the kids of course (isn't it always "for the kids"?). At least that's the plan. You see, when you believe we're the end result of the Big Bang it's easier to justify exterminating a huge percentage of the earth's population. It's no coincidence that Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, was the father of eugenics. The people who really control the world have very sinister plans. They're going to make Hitler, Mao and Stalin look like choirboys.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  20. GG

    When I was a kid I read the entire Bible (parts of it multiple times) and played Dungeons and Dragons. Besides Revelations I really like the parts where the Jews killed "every man, woman, and child" in village after village. It made a good story line in my D&D sessions for what the bad guys were doing and the hero players need to go stop them. The same goes for the dark ages in Europe .. iron maidens! really those Christian torture devices are just made for D&D.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:10 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.