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. William

    Religion like guns do not kill anybody. People kill other people. They just use guns as the tool and religion as the reason. Neither religion or guns are capable of killing anyone. A lot of people in this world just need to grow up and accept the fact that they are not the center of the universe. Once again the media is continuing to brainwash people.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • tony

      Guns unique capabilities

      The only widely available machine that can kill several victims who are running away from you is a gun.

      The only widely available machine that can kill one or more victims seeking safety by locking them selves in their car is a gun.

      The only widely available machine that can kill one or more victims who merely happen to be driving nearby is a gun.

      The only widely available machine that can kill one or more victims from a passing nearby car is a gun.

      The machine that cannot protect a victim from being surprised and shot at, is a gun.

      As an ex-military sniper, I know I could kill ANY unarmored enemy, or small group, using even a simple rifle, from up to half a mile away. And it wouldn’t matter how many, or what types of guns they were carrying. I’d get a whole bunch them before they would have a chance to use their own guns or figure out where I was.

      Obviously, Americans really, really, really need to all have guns so that they can utilize these important characteristics.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • Duh

      Yeah, because the last time a religious fanatic killed someone with a gun he yelled "Gun is Good"! LOL

      April 28, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • sqeptiq

      @william. By "brainwash" you apparently mean "tell them something they don't agree with."

      April 28, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  2. MagicPanties

    "1. I know the truth, and you don’t."

    That is the basis of pretty much every major religion around today.

    My invisible pink unicorn is praying that all ya'all believers get a clue.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  3. luvlar

    “Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence what so ever.”
    ― Sam Harris

    April 28, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  4. VoReason

    Everyone thinks they are right and others are wrong. Already in this thread you see Atheists calling those who are not Atheists evil, which is one of the signs in the article that show they are dangerous. Read through this thread again. Dozens of times those of supposedly "non-religious" are calling anyone who believes anything other than Secular Humanism/Atheism evil. Also, the Atheists (not the Christians or Muslims in this thread) are saying they have the absolute truth. That happens to be sign number 1 in the article that people should beware. The hatred I see toward people of faith from Atheist who post in threads like these is very telling. It makes me think that if they weren't such a minority they would be very dangerous - possibly even try to stamp out all religion like secular China has for many years through persecustion. Atheists have no tolerance for religion at all, and view all religion as evil (something to be destroyed). So Atheism is just as extreme as any other group who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth, and yet they shake their heads and smirk at anyone who might disagree with their views. Kettle, hello pot.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • There. Are. No. Gods.

      An atheist would not call anything evil as there is no such thing as evil, there is no such thing as good either. The thing you are missing is that if there are gods as your thousands of religions would insist there are, where is your proof? You religious fruitcakes never have any definitive proof that any gods exist. There is no actually evidence to support that jesus ever existed either, but than again why have evidence when you can just make statements that you never will be called to support? That is the flaw with religion and why I have such a problem with it. Million of people killed under religious pretenses and absolutely no evidence to back up any claims that their deity ever existed. Religion is non-sense and you know it, because there are no gods and you know it.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • Johnny L

      Very well said. I personally think it takes more faith to be an atheist than to believe in God. Most atheists I have met have had a very bad experience with either a religion or a supposedly religious person, and that is the "root" reason as to why they are an atheist. A purely subjective reason. Most of them love books like The God Who is not There and spout its reasoning so that they sound like they are atheists for objective reasons. And they have convinced themselves they are atheists because of objective reasons. But their bitterness against those "religious" people who have wronged them in the past goes deep and makes them "fanatical" and, as you said, potentially dangerous.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Point out a single instance where an atheist claimed believers will suffer eternal damnation for their belief and I will buy part of your argument. Your stated belief that non-belief is the same thing as belief is absurd on its face.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  5. Name*Mike

    If there really were a benevolent, omnipotent God, do you think we would have all the problems that we have?

    April 28, 2013 at 10:57 am |
  6. Chedar

    The only way to truly get enlightened is Meditation。

    April 28, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  7. Big Butch Napolitano

    We'll roll over you with our 1.6 billion rounds of ammo and one of our 2,800 19-ton armorred vehicles(right after we take away your guns of course). Why? Because we're the DHS and we're here to put a stop to the Christian evangelical. We'll put you in a camp to re-educate you-or kill you.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  8. Phaerisee

    Loving God and reflecting that love to others is a good thing. Blowing people up in the name of God is not.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  9. muslim2012


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

      This is war buddy, army mixed with civilians? Why would these roads be open for civilians in a war time?

      April 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  10. achepotle

    religion is bad.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  11. Thaddeus McCheese

    Having religious "beliefs" and "being religious" is nothing more than putting yourself in a mild state of psychosis in order to better deal with those aspects of life and reality that you cannot handle psychologically. Of course, the problem is that there is no defining boundary between a "mild" and a "severe" psychosis. It's just a matter of degree that is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately measure. And of course the religious folks will say that I'm the crazy one, because their psychosis demands that that be the case. The irony in all of this is that, without the state of mild psychosis, most of these people would go completely insane, because their psyche simply cannot handle reality – and in that way it is defective. There, I said it – religious people have a defective psyche. So sue me.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • mohamedislamlibya

      You are what the article is talking about. You know what is "right".

      April 28, 2013 at 11:52 am |
  12. sam

    This has nothing to with religion and everything to so with another 9/11 set up. By the way- when you post anything against the gov't on these web sites the "tap and click " your computer and record everything you do and say for at least 6 months. HI GUYS !!

    April 28, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • Bill

      Feel like your not in the mainstream and cool now? Guess whats not mainstream... believing in what actually happened.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  13. Sanjaya

    n this 21st century, we are adhering to the same religion having ambiguous foundation and are waging war in the name of religions ....

    April 28, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  14. Debbie

    Just described the Religious Right Evangelical Movement. Family Research Council. Mormon church. Catholic Church. All drifting into fanaticism.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  15. Thomas

    According to The World Factbook atheists were an estimated 2.01% of the world population in 2010.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  16. aspblom

    Do we remember when the adherents of atheism in the Soviet Union and China murdered millions in the name of their religion of Revolution and when followers of the religion of 60's revolution in the US, Italy, and Germany ended up killing and destroying with pipe bombs.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • oOo

      you're mixing apples and oranges

      April 28, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  17. sam

    Stop believing everything your govermment says- that's the first step. Stop drinking the Kool Aid. This was all a set up- and the morons in boston are eating it all up. For a city that is supposed to be intellignet and well educated- they have to be the stupidest people on earth. Now they want to being in drones for the next marathon- how much you wanna bet those drones will be packing hellfire missles and at least one of them will be shot at a "suspect". PS Our congress passed a law allowing our gov't to use drones for anyone "suspected" of anything- without being arrested- tried or even having evidence against them. How does that make you feel?

    April 28, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • The real Tom

      Since you're a nut-job, your post makes me feel like laughing.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Makes me feel fortunate to not be a nutcase like you.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  18. muslim2012


    April 28, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  19. William House

    When religious beliefs become evil?


    The World's Largest Per Capita Prison Population, due to bigoted drug wars, is a sign of Evil Religious Inquisitions.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  20. mama k

    One sect calls homosexuality an abomination while the next one (over 4,000,000 members) in the same denomination is already performing gay marriage.

    One sect, the Westboro Baptist Church believes Americans are being killed at war because America is too kind to "fags".

    One sect believes women to be subservient, while another sect in the same denomination promotes equality between the sexes.

    One sect believes that Jesus and Satan were brothers and that Christ will return to Jerusalem AND Jackson County, Missouri.

    Some believe the Pope is the Anti-Christ. Some believe Obama is the Anti-Christ.

    Some believe that celibacy is the only option for certain people, or for people in certain positions. Many of the people from these same institutions advocate against abortion, but pretend not to understand the realistic benefit of the morning after pill or even basic contraception; their unrealistic wishful thinking is causing the death of many at the hands of disease.

    Those are just some of the conflicts among Christians in the U.S. ALL religions have conflicts and extreme components subjecting the non-religious in their cross-fire. Thankfully, keeping religion's hand out of government was one of the highest priorities for the key framers of the Constitution who were mainly moderate Deist Christians.

    April 28, 2013 at 10:50 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.