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. Socalpimp

    laughable that you would choose the Branch Davidians as your example...The Federal Govt attacked them as they attacked Mormons back in the day. Horrible example...

    April 28, 2013 at 11:12 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      It was the religious beliefs of the group that forced the government to act. It could have been resolved peacefully had the members abided by the law.

      April 28, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  2. Willa45

    Everyone of us is born with a blank slate so to speak. Where questions about our origins or moral codes are concerned, we all come into this world seeking answers from the same points of reference until the "brainwashing" begins.
    So what makes these 'educators' smarter, wiser and more informed than the rest of us?...the answer is arrogance, plain and simple!

    April 28, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      We are not a blank slate. There is programming in your DNA...instincts, the ability to use your body and senses without training, the fight or flight response, etc. etc. etc.
      We gain these things from our animal ancestors. They do all of the same things we do. Love, self sacrifice, sharing, co-operation, creating societies...all are no different than the animals we have evolved from, but we are far from a blank slate when we are born.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Education is what makes them more knowledgable than you! Duh!

      April 28, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  3. Thomas

    It is very interesting that there is a picture of David Koresh's compound being burned to the ground on an article about religious fanaticism. Regardless of how much you disagree with David Koresh, he is not the one that started that fire. The ATF did it intentionally, which was shown by the FBI using inferred cameras from aerial views.
    Summary children killed:
    ATF killed 19 children
    David Koresh killed zero children. <-- religious fanatic killed no children
    Which is worse?

    Adam Lanza killed 20

    April 28, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      Which is worse...killing children or $exually abusing them. He did $exually abuse children...and did it by reason of his version of faith.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • IRTom

      Infrared = above red in terms of wavelength, a longer wave length than visible light but shorter than microwaves and radio waves. Originally called Calorific Rays, discovered by Sir Frederick William Herschel in 1800. At least you didn't call it infored as did the Austin American Statesman a few years ago.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  4. John P. Tarver

    At least the Moslems have finally learned to set off PETN, you can't just set your underwear on fire.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  5. A Dose of Reality

    A few questions should help shed light on the relationship between religion and rational thought.
    The completely absurd theory that all 7,000,000,000 human beings are simultaneously being supervised 24 hours a day, every day of their lives by an immortal, invisible being for the purposes of reward or punishment in the “afterlife” comes from the field of:
    (a) Astronomy;
    (b) Medicine;
    (c) Economics; or
    (d) Christianity
    You are about 70% likely to believe the entire Universe began less than 10,000 years ago with only one man, one woman and a talking snake if you are a:
    (a) historian;
    (b) geologist;
    (c) NASA astronomer; or
    (d) Christian
    I have convinced myself that gay $ex is a choice and not genetic, but then have no explanation as to why only gay people have ho.mo$exual urges. I am
    (a) A gifted psychologist
    (b) A well respected geneticist
    (c) A highly educated sociologist
    (d) A Christian with the remarkable ability to ignore inconvenient facts.
    I honestly believe that, when I think silent thoughts like, “please god, help me pass my exam tomorrow,” some invisible being is reading my mind and will intervene and alter what would otherwise be the course of history in small ways to help me. I am
    (a) a delusional schizophrenic;
    (b) a naïve child, too young to know that that is silly
    (c) an ignorant farmer from Sudan who never had the benefit of even a fifth grade education; or
    (d) your average Christian
    Millions and millions of Catholics believe that bread and wine turns into the actual flesh and blood of a dead Jew from 2,000 years ago because:
    (a) there are obvious visible changes in the condiments after the Catholic priest does his hocus pocus;
    (b) tests have confirmed a divine presence in the bread and wine;
    (c) now and then their god shows up and confirms this story; or
    (d) their religious convictions tell them to blindly accept this completely fvcking absurd nonsense.
    I believe that an all powerful being, capable of creating the entire cosmos watches me have $ex to make sure I don't do anything "naughty". I am
    (a) A victim of child molestation
    (b) A r.ape victim trying to recover
    (c) A mental patient with paranoid delusions
    (d) A Christian
    The only discipline known to often cause people to kill others they have never met and/or to commit suicide in its furtherance is:
    (a) Architecture;
    (b) Philosophy;
    (c) Archeology; or
    (d) Religion
    What is it that most differentiates science and all other intellectual disciplines from religion:
    (a) Religion tells people not only what they should believe, but what they are morally obliged to believe on pain of divine retribution, whereas science, economics, medicine etc. has no “sacred cows” in terms of doctrine and go where the evidence leads them;
    (b) Religion can make a statement, such as “there is a composite god comprised of God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, and be totally immune from experimentation and challenge, whereas science can only make factual assertions when supported by considerable evidence;
    (c) Science and the scientific method is universal and consistent all over the World whereas religion is regional and a person’s religious conviction, no matter how deeply held, is clearly nothing more than an accident of birth; or
    (d) All of the above.
    If I am found wandering the streets flagellating myself, wading into a filth river, mutilating my child’s genitals or kneeling down in a church believing that a being is somehow reading my inner thoughts and prayers, I am likely driven by:
    (a) a deep psychiatric issue;
    (b) an irrational fear or phobia;
    (c) a severe mental degeneration caused by years of drug abuse; or
    (d) my religious belief.
    Who am I? I don’t pay any taxes. I never have. Any money my organization earns is tax free and my own salary is also tax free, at the federal, state and local level. Despite contributing nothing to society, but still enjoying all its benefits, I feel I have the right to tell others what to do. I am
    (a) A sleazy Wall Street banker
    (b) A mafia boss
    (c) A drug pusher; or
    (d) A Catholic Priest, Protestant Minister or Jewish Rabbi.
    What do the following authors all have in common – Jean Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and Blaise Pascal:
    (a) They are among the most gifted writers the World has known;
    (b) They concentrated on opposing dogma and opening the human mind and spirit to the wonders of free thought and intellectual freedom;
    (c) They were intimidated by the Catholic Church and put on the Church’s list of prohibited authors; or
    (d) All of the above.
    The AIDS epidemic will kill tens of millions in poor African and South American countries before we defeat it. Condoms are an effective way to curtail its spread. As the Pope still has significant influence over the less educated masses in these parts of the World, he has exercised this power by:
    (a) Using some of the Vatican’s incomprehensible wealth to educate these vulnerable people on health family planning and condom use;
    (b) Supporting government programs that distribute condoms to high risk groups;
    (c) Using its myriad of churches in these regions to distribute condoms; or
    (d) Scaring people into NOT using condoms, based upon his disdainful and aloof view that it is better that a person die than go against the Vatican’s position on contraceptive use.

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

      Do you read great walls of text?

      A. Yes
      B. no

      April 28, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • A Dose of Reality

      And Poltergiest is TOO lazy and remains ignorant.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • Know What

      @A Dose of Reality,

      You really could make that piece a bit more user-friendly (I think that the original was more so) - you know, paragraph breaks and maybe some bullets or question numbers.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  6. TLORop

    It seems to me that there are more christian extremists on this board than there are Muslim extremists.

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

      Violence to enforce control is the natural evolution of all religions

      April 28, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  7. muslim2012


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

      That's gay!

      April 28, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  8. American

    and CNN is always trying to make sound like all religions are POS.. Christianity doesn't call for slaughtering people where ever you find them, but if you decide to do that, that's your own choice. On the other hand, when a religion calls for that, then we're having a problem.

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

      There are several passages in the bible where "God" calls on the isrealites to slaughter every man, woman, infant child, and goat.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • American

      Yeah, If you are a muslim and repel, you die. Is this the case in Christianity?

      April 28, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  9. John P. Tarver

    Waco was a sign that Janet Reno is evil, not religion.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • The real Tom

      Oh, bullish!t. As usual from the font of manure, JPTard.

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

      I agree. Janet Reno intentionally killed 88 people including 19 children to end the standoff sooner. She had no mercy and got away with it.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • The real Tom

      Sure. Because Koresh was so good to the children in the compound, right? Idiots.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • musings

      Amen to that

      April 29, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  10. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”
    -Steven Weinberg (American, Nobel-prize winning physicist)

    April 28, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • The Dude

      Didn't Physicists give us atomic bombs? Just wondering....

      April 28, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • MagicPanties

      What a great quote!
      Hadn't heard that before, thanks.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:11 am |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Were physicists responsible for the actions of politicians/generals who used such weapons?

      April 28, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • JC

      There was no intent to create or have the technology used as an atomic bomb. Religious extremists intend the results that occur. The act to make those results happen.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • Melanie Richard

      It's weird. I'm getting the impression these are just sick people using the cloak of "religion" to wreak havoc on innocent people's lives. They are not "religious" at all. "Beware of wolves in sheep's clothing!"

      April 28, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • SImran

      Dear Dude,
      It seems you were sleeping the day they taught physics in high school.

      While you talk of nuclear bombs, why dont you also read how the fact that you are using your computer and this internet, you are already paying your homage to several physicists who have made it possible.

      Care to read:


      April 28, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  11. observer1776

    The usual secular pseudo-intellectual propaganda. Never does the writer mention how much of Islam is at war with us.
    The writer also equates Jesus with Muhammad, which shows that he is an atheist. He tries hard to make his piece ant-Christian.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • CA Liberal

      Well you sound like a true believer. The guy that knows the real truth. Everybody else is an atheist. You better get your AK-47 and whip them all into shape.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  12. joe

    "I know the truth and you don't."?
    That's the basis for most major religions. This is true, if you don't believe it, you're wrong and it's my job to fix you.

    I think what you're trying to say is that a religious fanatic is anyone who -really- believes what they -say- they believe. someone who actually submits their rationality and judgment to the commands of their holy book. (not just a coincidence that this is the meaning of "islam")

    April 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  13. hisgoodteenr

    Gods don't kill people. People with gods kill people.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  14. allenwoll

    So many of the psychotic have enthusiastically jumped right in here to display their psychoses and attempt to retail them to others, even after being clearly warned ! ! !

    April 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  15. Infidel_Inside

    "The problem is not to take Islam out of the debate but to use Islam to counter Islamism.”

    Stopped reading after that .... Funniest thing I ever heard. LoL

    April 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  16. mikeinsjc

    Dismissing all religions because of the actions of some of their adherents is like refusing to buy a car because of the way some people drive.

    April 28, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • MagicPanties

      ...or like not believing in Santa Claus just because he doesn't exist.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • allenwoll

      mike, See NorthVanCan below ! !

      April 28, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  17. NorthVanCan

    Big step for CNN to head line the question of religious evil .
    One day soon we will be examine religious evil on many different levels . I hope .

    April 28, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • The Dude

      One Day I will hope that CNN will examine genocide of secular states...Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler

      April 28, 2013 at 11:12 am |
    • sqeptiq

      CNN is not the History Channel. Those regimes have been done and done and done again. CNN deals with today, not yesterday.

      April 28, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  18. Atheistically Yours

    Religion, is and forever will be, the most MONSTEROUS, pathetic, obscene, profane, abdication of the human mind ever perpetuated! NO GOOD can EVER come of it! None ever has! None ever will!

    April 28, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • observer1776

      Human organized religion yes.
      It's too bad that you don't know Jesus.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • tony

      Until a real god turns up, the only knowledge of religion that we have came from earlier humans. As it does today.

      April 28, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  19. Religion

    Religion is the cause of so much hate, war, and suffering, that it could not possibly have anything to do with "God".

    April 28, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Sebastian2

      Couldn't agree more!

      April 28, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  20. Mark Yelka

    Wow, those 4 points remind me when I was a Mormon...

    I know the truth, and you don’t – Yup, it is the #1 thing that is taught to members of the Church.
    Beware the charismatic leader – Yup, there is a Prophet of the Church whose word is law for members of the Church.
    The end is near – Yup, after all the name of the Church is, indeed: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
    The end justifies the means – Yup (to a degree), the Church is more than willing to fund "anti" measures for those things it is intolerant of.

    And, while the Mormons fall into this camp, so do lots of other so-called Fundamentalist religions.

    At their core, most religions are highly intolerant of others. It's what makes for multiple religions.

    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.