Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Book Review: When Religion Becomes Evil

When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning SignsIt is difficult, living in our world today, not to be aware of the many examples of religion turning evil -- particularly in the acts of violence perpetrated against others whether they be by Islamic extremists (terrorism) or Christian fundamentalists (blowing up abortion clinics). There are many subtle (and not so subtle) ways that religion can become evil. Charles Kimball, in his book When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs suggests five signs, any one of which indicates the corruption of religion. Kimball is a professor of religion and an ordained Baptist minister who has spent much of his life travelling in the Middle East and is a specialist in Islamic studies. In this book, he draws on his wide experience and provides examples from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to illustrate each of the warning signs he discusses. They are:
  1. Absolute truth claims -- the idea that an individual or group has access to absolute truth and that all others are wrong;
  2. Blind obedience -- the requiring of unquestioning conformity to a set of rules, practices, or commands;
  3. Establishing the "Ideal" time -- the belief that an individual or group has been raised up by God to bring to an end the current era and introduce a new one that conforms to an ideal.
  4. The end justifies any means -- when individuals or groups use methods that their religion actually prohibits to gain power over others or to bring about radical changed believed to be supported by God, e.g., extremists who use violence to bring about "peace" or remove what is perceived to be evil.
  5. Declaring holy war -- the use of just war theories or declarations of holy war to justify attacking individuals or groups who are alleged to be against one’s religion or to purify the world of evil.
Kimball deals with each of these signs in a separate chapter bracketed by a discussion of whether religion is inherently the problem and an exploration of genuine religion which he describes as ’an inclusive faith rooted in a tradition’. When Religion Becomes Evil is a very important book and demands consideration even if we imagine that our own religions or denominations don’t engage in religion corrupted by evil. It seems to me that many Christian denominations may fall into the danger of the first two warning signs. And these may be subtle rather than overt. It is essential that we consider the possibility that our approach to religion is free of arrogance and coercion (#1 and #2). And groups that take an apocalyptic perspective might find it useful to examine the possibility that elements of #3 might have crept in to ones worldview. #4 deals with the issue of integrity -- are we living out the principles of our beliefs as we seek to persuade others that they are worth believing? And, finally, do we approach evangelism and its associated activity as though we are engaging in a war with others (#5)? For those of us within mainstream religions, it might be difficult to admit that elements of these warning signs exist in our communities. But given the world in which we live, we cannot afford to put our heads in the sand, believing that we are free from these tendencies. Kimball affirms the positive side of religion, but he also reminds us that there is a very dangerous dark side. Love is a core teaching of all the major religions. We need to call on God to give us the willingness and the ability to eradicate hatred from within our ranks and to love all as God has loved us. Love -- genuine deep love as taught by the majority of Christians, Jews, and Muslims - must be the golden compass (to use a phrase from a popular movie) that guides us in our relationships and dealings with our fellow human beings. Click on this link to buy: When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs


  1. Hi Steve

    Looks like an interesting book and he certainly makes a number of valid criticisms.

    My comment is this: too often the media, anti-Christian and I think anti-religious people just love to point out the wrong use of religious belief. It reminded me of watching Richard Dawkins talk to the pastor in the USA who advocated murder against people working in abortion clinics.

    The only other comment I would say is I have never heard of a violent Buddhist (thanks to my dad for that idea). Not sure if this is covered in the book!


  2. Hi Robin

    Thanks for your comment. The author of this book is definitely not in the league with Dawkins! He is a Baptist pastor, obviously a committed Christian, had extensive experience with all of the religions he writes about, and his final chapter talks about what he believes is good religion. So it is a very positive book. He is really discussing those times and the minority of people in religions when religion becomes evil. So his argument is definitely not that religion per se is evil.

    Re: the issue of Buddhist violence: ALL religions have their dark sides. You might like to check out