When Religion Becomes Evil

Frank L. Pasquale

When Religion Becomes Evil, by Charles Kimball (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002, ISBN 0-06–050653-9) 240 pp., including Notes and Selected Bibliography. Cloth $21.95.


It seems to come as a perennial surprise to many that religious faith gives rise to terrible beliefs and acts. The lessons of human history do not seem to dispel the widely held conviction that, since God represents and religion espouses the good, anything evil1 cannot be associated with (true) religion. From this premise proceed many corollaries regarding evildoers who are apparently acting on religious beliefs or motives—they are not true adherents of a religious faith even when they profess to be, they improperly interpret or pervert sacred texts, they use religion as a deceptive mantle for their manifestly ungodly acts, and so on. Many repeat the compelling mantra that “Neither my God nor my faith espouses evildoing, even as unacceptable means to desired ends. I would not be an adherent if they did. Therefore those who do evil in the name of my faith are not true adherents, or what they call religion is not true religion.”

On the one hand, in When Religion Becomes Evil Charles Kimball is to be applauded for attempting to challenge such notions by unflinchingly describing many of the ways that religion can and does give rise to evil. On the other hand, he himself succumbs to a sophisticated version of the “If it’s bad, it isn’t really religion” premise, and this limits his analysis in important ways.

Charles Kimball is chair of the Department of Religion at Wake Forest University and an ordained Baptist minister. In When Religion Becomes Evil, he readily acknowledges that “[r]eligious ideologies and commitments are indisputably central factors in the escalation of violence and evil around the world.” But, he asks, “[i]s religion itself the problem? No . . . and yes.” “To say that religion is the problem may capture part of the truth, but it is ultimately an unhelpful response . . .” (pp. 4–5). What is needed, he suggests, is “a more nuanced response”— one that rests upon a distinction between “authentic” and “corrupted” religion—for within “the religious traditions that have stood the test of time, one finds the life-affirming faith that has sustained and provided meaning . . . over the centuries” (p. 5). These traditions “converge in teaching both an orientation toward God or the transcendent and compassionate, constructive relationships with others in this world” (p. 39).

In Kimball’s words, “authentic religion” “engages the intellect as people wrestle with the mystery of existence and the challenges of living in an imperfect world” (p. 72); “encourages questions and reflection at all levels” (p. 89); and actively dismantles corruptions that lead to violent and destructive behavior (p. 39). It “cannot be coerced through aggressive missionary tactics or protected by prohibiting free inquiry or punishing anyone who deviates from the norm” (p. 65), and so on.2

Authentic religion, however, can be “corrupted.” This, for Kimball, is not what religion truly is or was meant to be; when corrupted, “religions cease to serve the purposes for which they were intended” (p. 32). Corrupted religion is not really religion at all: it is people operating “under the guise of religion” (p. 1). It occurs “[w]hen particular understandings become rigidly fixed and uncritically appropriated as absolute truths” (p. 46); when “people presume to know God, abuse sacred texts, and propagate their particular versions of absolute truth” (p. 46); and “when people take direction uncritically from religious authorities” (p. 84). It results from “selective reading” or “[m]anipulative exploitation of revered texts” (p. 56, 53); from “[a]rrogant confidence in one’s own tradition coupled with condescending dismissal of others” (p. 27); and from “absolute truth claims that define sharply who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’” (p. 64). It often involves “coercive pressure tactics designed to keep members in line” (p. 83).

In fact, Kimball identifies five signs or symptoms of “corrupted religion”: (1) absolute truth claims; (2) blind obedience; (3) beliefs in an ideal time (past and/or future, but not present) that justify extreme measures here and now; (4) any use of ends to justify evil means; and (5) commitment to holy war. He repeatedly admits that such tendencies seem inherent in many religious traditions, resulting in violence: “tribalism” and “rigid exclusivism” (p. 28); “cultural imperialism” (p. 62); “zealous fervor and . . . mob mentality (p. 37).3

Kimball admits that “[r]eligion that requires adherents to disconnect their brain [sic] is often a big part of the problem” (p. 29). And yet, perhaps not surprisingly, he concludes that “people of faith offer the best hope both for correcting the corruptions leading to violence and for leading the way into a more promising future” (p. 187).

The complicity of religious persuasions in global conflicts today is undeniable, but understanding this complicity requires that we clearly grasp the difference between what we have called corrupt forms of religious commitment and the authentic forms that offer hope. (p. 186)

Again, the Reverend Kimball is to be commended for seeking to describe and foster less extremist, absolutist, and violent forms of religion. Clearly, we all would be better off if all religion looked like his “authentic religion,” but it doesn’t—and it doesn’t, in part, for reasons that lie beyond his analysis. With respect to religion as faith in God or belief in the supernatural (as he himself speaks of it) there is a critical difference between the arguments that:

•Religion is intrinsically good in nature and effect, but can be altered, distorted, misused, or corrupted, turning it into something-other-than-religion, which is bad; and

•Religion exhibits certain intrinsic characteristics that inevitably tend to give rise to unreasonable or extreme ideas and behavior, as well as good and reasonable ones.

When Kimball suggests that the solution to our religion-based ills is to learn “how religion can remain true to its authentic sources” (p. 187), he fails to acknowledge that the very “sources” and nature of religious belief itself may inevitably yield many of the ills he so ably documents.

Nor does Kimball acknowledge the priority of common moral decencies and ethical commitments, whether religious or nonreligious, in addressing human social ills. He speaks of the importance of mutual respect among religious traditions, “ecumenical and interfaith cooperation,” theological pluralism, and “inclusivism” rather than “exclusivism.” But by restricting this to “people of

faith,” he only reinforces an “exclusivist” division between moral insiders and outsiders, based on their metaphysical membership cards. This is quite different from the approach, for example, of the Dalai Lama, who repeatedly takes the position that “whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be [sic] a good human being.”4At one point, Kimball presents Jesus’s “greatest commandment” as a “clear requirement . . . [a]t the heart of all authentic, healthy, life-sustaining religions” (p. 39):

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . . (Matthew 22: 37–40)

Given Kimball’s background and approach, the possibilities that Jesus may have had his priorities woefully reversed, or that the first of these commandments, by its very nature, will tend to yield violations of the second, remain beyond consideration. Although he is to be sincerely commended for so forthrightly considering why and how religion gives rise to evil, as it stands, When Religion Becomes Evil provides only part of the answer.

Notes

1. I am among those who have serious misgivings about the word evil, but its use is unavoidable here.

2. It cannot escape notice that many features of Kimball’s “authentic religion” sound like religious humanism, including, elsewhere, rejection of theocracy as a viable form of government.

3. Kimball does not play favorites with examples of such “corruptions” or their consequences. He finds these in the histories of most major world religions and many sects and cults.

4. His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), p. 19.


Frank L. Pasquale, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist doing research and writing on religion, humanism, church-state separation, morality, and ethics.

Frank L. Pasquale

Frank L. Pasquale, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist doing research and writing on religion, humanism, church-state separation, morality, and ethics.


When Religion Becomes Evil, by Charles Kimball (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002, ISBN 0-06–050653-9) 240 pp., including Notes and Selected Bibliography. Cloth $21.95. It seems to come as a perennial surprise to many that religious faith gives rise to terrible beliefs and acts. The lessons of human history do not seem to dispel the widely …

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