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. Charlie Johnson

    Self righteousness fueled by a beleif system is dangerouse.

    Self righteousness fueled by antipathy toward beleif systems is also dangerous.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:31 am |
  2. gera

    Jesus is Lord, the light of thw world, the everlasting God

    April 28, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      or not.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  3. ondeck

    Let's not forget Christianity. Even though I am a practicing Christian. Many wars have been waged and hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost due to "our" religion as well. Point being ...fanaticism leads any religion and or their leaders astray. Right now that strict, biased, judgemental segment of the United States is dividing our own Christian religion right here in this country. Not what God intended. Look it up.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      You have no way of knowing what god intended.
      Men created your bible, so that doesn't indicate what god wants or intends.
      Men have made thousands of gods. No one has ever had any evidence that any of them exist, so first you need to establish that there is a god, but you cannot ever know what (his?) intentions were or are.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  4. Thomas

    Current Science Czar John Holdren wrote this in 1977:
    • Women could be forced to abort their pregnancies, whether they wanted to or not;
    • The population at large could be sterilized by infertility drugs intentionally put into the nation's drinking water or in food;
    • Single mothers and teen mothers should have their babies seized from them against their will and given away to other couples to raise;
    • People who "contribute to social deterioration" (i.e. undesirables) "can be required by law to exercise reproductive responsibility" - in other words, be compelled to have abortions or be sterilized.
    • A transnational "Planetary Regime" should assume control of the global economy and also dictate the most intimate details of Americans' lives - using an armed international police force.

    When non-religious people have fanatical ideas they tend to get into government and become far more effective at evil acts than the most fanatical religious person:
    61,911,000 Murdered: The Soviet Gulag State
    35,236,000 Murdered: The Communist Chinese Ant Hill
    20,946,000 Murdered: The Nazi Genocide State

    April 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
    • Big Sky Humanist

      Atheism means only one thing, one doesn't believe in a god or gods, nothing more. Ideologies of any stripe taken to extremes get people killed.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  5. nc1965

    All religions have their dark side.

    Muslims have radical Islam and Jihad.

    Christians had the Crusades and currently have the Catholic church (child -f u-c k e r s-), Right Wing Christian Fundamentalists, K K K (Burns Crosses), TV evangelists, and doctor killers.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  6. WMCK6167

    The case you mentioned is the extreme case for the religionist. It’s not fair to provoke the common goodness of religion. Here is another extreme example. I appreciate Jesus Christ to bring the love to world to cover sin 2000 year ago. What you mentioned for the 4 signs, in my opinion, all is covered by him in the past. 1. He knows the truth, and you don’t. 2. He is the charismatic leader. 3. He knows the end is near if you know your sins. 4. He knows eventually the end justifies the means.
    The key factor, I believe that, it’s personality. I do not see anything wrong about your mentioned. Thanks for providing your opinions.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  7. Andy

    Nice picture of Waco CNN. How many Islamic terror attacks have there been since Waco?

    April 28, 2013 at 10:29 am |
    • The real Tom

      So, you didn't read the article, just looked at the pictures, right?


      April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • Liberalism RequiresTyranny

      Not one, from their point of view.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  8. Asif Siddiqi

    Interesting article. I would agree to many of its parts.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  9. Nietodarwin

    "Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities." Voltaire

    Religion. It`s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion. Charlie Chaplin

    “The reason people use a crucifix against vampires is because vampires are allergic to bullspit.” _ Richard Pryor

    If god created man in his own image, how come I'm not invisible?” _ David Powers

    "Prayer has no place in the public schools, just like facts have no place in organized religion." School Superintendent on "The Simpsons" episode #1

    April 28, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  10. Quentin Leer

    This book I read, "Death: Are You Ready For The Truth?" explains and reveals everything you need to know about religion.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  11. The Right Left

    All religions are evil. They do nothing but foment hatred, violence among one group over another. Muslims are no exception. Christians and Jews have been doing the same for centuries, slaying entire people, in the name of religion. History is full of dead in homes and in battlefields fighting for their God.

    21-Cnetury and beyond these pagan practices will fade. Mankind will be better off when all these practices have become distant memories.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • Liberalism RequiresTyranny

      Every single human being who ever lived had a religion. No exceptions. We have religious beliefs, which are our religion.

      Only the most narcissistic among us are able to delude themselves into thinking their religious beliefs are the exception. Those are the people who exempt themselves from the rules they'd hold others to.
      I assume you are one of those?

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

      "Every single human being who ever lived had a religion" You need to look up the definition of religion. It requires a "sacred" or "supernatural" explanation.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  12. LiBerty

    You know its funny. It is like the pot calling the kettle black! The Crusades, Inquisition, Civil War, Slavery, Holocaust, all such events were led by who? None other than the ancestors of the self righteous holier than thou people writing this story. The Pope, his catholic disciples, all the so-called good christians of this world. Even Hitler was a good alter boy to the pope.

    And since when do we equate the Boston incident with WACO. Maybe you should go read more history about WACO and who the real crazies were. The ATF and everyone else involved sat there, maimed and killed innocent men, women, and children because their beliefs did not conform. The whole illegal gun stocking deal was a joke, a cover up to the real motives behind their actions.

    It is scary to see this happening in a country that professes to be the defender of religious beliefs, freedom and justice for all and so on. Makes one wonder, will history repeat itself?

    April 28, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Nietodarwin

      Hitler was evil , Hitler loved his Meth, and HITLER LOVED RELIGION, (because it makes people evil and crazy.)

      . “The greatness of every mighty organization embodying an idea in this_world lies in the religious fanaticism and intolerance with which,_fanatically convinced of its own right, it intolerantly imposes its_will against all others.” [Adolf Hitler, "Mein Kampf" Vol. 1 Chapter 12]

      "Secular schools can never be tolerated because such a school has no religious instruction and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith . . . We need believing people." (Adolf Hitler. April 26, 1933, from a speech made during negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordat of 1933.)

      “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so [Adolph Hitler, to Gen. Gerhard Engel, 1941

      April 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  13. Waiting

    Thomas – don't think so! More have been killed in the name of religion

    April 28, 2013 at 10:24 am |
  14. Just Me

    Before Atheists say or agrees that religion is evil, know this, ATHEISM is a RELIGION itself. It is a RELIGION of REJECTIONISM. London has built their a church and held their first service on March 17, 2013 and had over 200 worshipers attending.

    Atheism is a SELF-WORSHIP cult that doesn't care about anything or anyone except for those who agrees with them.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • I Am God

      Hey Just Me this is America not Great Britain and a small minority doesn't represent a majority. Get a clue.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • MagicPanties

      Atheism = without belief [in god]

      That's it. Nothing more. No religion.

      Get a clue.

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

      You should really get a life. You should also learn that you don't know what you are talking about with regard to atheists and atheism. Very simply, you are ignorant. Period. Live with it.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • The real Tom

      Just Me, you're full of crap. Get an education. You need one desperately.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • Sane Person

      Once again, the religious zealots demonstrate thier lack of knowledge. Atheism is a religion like OFF is a television channel. They do not worship themselves, trees, water, fire, chicken bones, invisible undead zombie genies or any other such fantasy.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • ...

      @ just me,

      You have no clue what you are saying. Atheism is neither a religion nor a belief style; it is non-belief in the small minded and petty religions of the world. Atheists tend to look at the world in a scientific manner and realize that religion plays no part except a negative. Religion holds the world back, and gives people a false since of hope that isn’t factual.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      You do not understand the meaning of the words cult or atheism.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • The real Tom

      "Atheism is a SELF-WORSHIP cult that doesn't care about anything or anyone except for those who agrees with them."

      First of all, you witless idiot, a cult doesn't have the ability to "care about anything or anyone", period. PEOPLE care. And atheists are no more likely to worship themselves than are believers. Atheists give to charity, pitch in with Habitat for Humanity, give blood, rescue animals, adopt children, help their families, and do everything else that believers do. And they do it without the threat of damnation being held over them.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Atheism=religion the same way alive=dead.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  15. sparky

    Any religion or sub-religion that hates those of different opinion is just a political movement for losers.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:24 am |
  16. I Am God

    And yet again I see another religious bigot attempting to cloud the religious violence by stating that Hitler (WHO WAS A CHRISTIAN, STUDY YOUR DARN HISTORY), Stalin, and so on and so forth committed genocide through Atheism. Truth is they did NOT. They committed their actions through Communism which is for political reasons not Atheism. Stop believing the lies you are being told through extreme religious blogs.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Sue

      And a lack if any sense of moral responsibility allowed them to kill for communism.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • I Am God

      Sue morality doesn't come from believing in religion. I suggest you get an education.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  17. Mike

    Step-1 Believing in things without evidence.
    Step-2 There is no step two.

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

      "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 10:23 am |
  18. Nietodarwin

    "God loves us all", or "God orders me to kill" are pretty much the same thing, different flavors of the same DELUSION of "faith."

    “What I have a problem with is not so much religion or god, but faith. When you say you believe something in your heart and therefore you can act on it, you have completely justified the 9/11 bombers. You have justified Charlie Manson. If it's true for you, why isn't it true for them? Why are you different? If you say "I believe there's an all-powerful force of love in the universe that connects us all, and I have no evidence of that but I believe it in my heart," then it's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that Sharon Tate deserves to die. It's perfectly okay to believe in your heart that you need to fly planes into buildings for Allah.”
    _ Penn Jillette

    April 28, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  19. Winslow Sarduci

    Isaac Bonewicz has a 15 question form that gives the answer as to whether or not a sect/religion is a bad cult. All questions are yes/no. This questionnaire has been available on line for years.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  20. Thomas

    Most of the warning signs also apply to atheists too. In fact, Atheistic government murdered 169 million in the 20th century and no religion ever did that. Watch out for people that do not think they will be held account able by their God even more than any religious fanatic. The "I know the truth, and you don’t" idea is what most people think. "The ends justify the means" is progressives in a nutshell. Progressives are married to the idea that the earth's population needs to be reduced. How might you do that? Murder.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • Just Me

      Well said, Thomas!!

      April 28, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • Sane Person

      Oh brother. Stop with the invisible boogey man nonsense already.

      April 28, 2013 at 10:30 am |
    • Big Sky Humanist

      Secular morals are just as good or better than religious morals. The bible tells people they are born sinners and must be saved. Humanists believe most of us are good people and we are not born bad. Belief in a Heaven or Hell is demeaning to human consciousness.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:04 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.