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When Religion Becomes Evil*


G. Richard Wheatcroft**


The author states that religion is arguably the most powerful and pervasive force in human society and that religions, although they differ from each other, converge in teaching both a orientation to God or the transcendent and compassionate, constructive relationships with others in this world.

However, religion can also become evil, by being used to motivate and justify harmful, destructive, violent human behavior. And not one of the major religions of the world can escape the charge that it has been and is being used in evil patterns of action.

Focusing on Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this book is devoted to a presentation of five warning signs, which point to the misuse of religion and suggests how people can remain faithful to the authentic sources of their religion and be a force for positive change.

The author is well qualified for the task. He is professor of religion and chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest University. He is an ordained Baptist minister. Specializing in Islamic studies, he is the author of three books about religion in the Middle East. He has served as director of interfaith programs for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and as director for the Middle East office at the National Council of Churches.

The first sign to look for is absolute truth claims. Kimball writes, When zealous and devout adherents elevate teachings and beliefs of their tradition to the level of absolute truth, they open a door to the possibility that their religion will become evil. This sign can be seen clearly in what he calls the abuse of sacred texts. Texts are abused when they are read selectively and interpreted by authority figures as literal, and therefore, absolute truths. The first sign can also be seen in religions which are missionary, sharing their good news, which can be pursued in constructive and non-coercive ways. But when missionary activity is driven by absolute truth claims, it will become destructive and even violent to the people who are targeted for conversion.

The second sign is blind obedience. Kimball says blind obedience can take three forms: One can be involved in a religion that seeks to limit the intellectual freedom and individual freedom of its adherents. One can also abdicate personal responsibility and yield to the authority of a charismatic leader. And one can become enslaved to particular ideas or teachings. When one or more of these forms of blind obedience occur, religion becomes evil.

The third sign is establishing the ideal time. Every religion is founded on the presupposition that the something is wrong with the human condition and that a future ideal time is possible when what is wrong will be made right. The vision of an ideal time, this-worldly or other-worldly, is normal and good. Such a vision can be a challenge and motivation for people to strive for the establishment of a this-worldly ideal time or be faithful while waiting for an other-worldly hope. However, establishing the ideal time can become a source of evil. Kimball writes, When the hoped-for ideal is tied a particular religious worldview and those who wish to implement their vision become convinced that they know what God wants for them and everybody else, you have a prescription for disaster.

A fourth sign is the end justifies any means. This occurs when one important component of a religion, for example the Bible, functions like an absolute truth, and zealous believers become blind in their single-minded defense of it. In defense of the one component, which is the end, any means can be used and justified and all other components ignored. When this happens in any religion it becomes evil.

The fifth sign is declaring holy war. Kimball explores three approaches toward war and peace found in the Christian tradition: pacifism, the just war doctrine, and the Crusades. He also explores the approach of Islam to peace and war and the meanings of Jihad. And he acknowledges that there are legitimate bases for the use of military force. It is when war is justified by a religion and called holy that a religion becomes evil.

Finally, after showing how religions can become evil, Kimball offers a framework for a clear understanding of how religion can remain true to its authentic sources and be a force for positive change. He believes that it is possible, for example, for one to embrace religious pluralism, and still be loyal the Christian tradition, by choosing an inclusivist position which affirms both the saving presence and activity of God in all religious traditions and the full, definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ. His conclusion and challenge is that an inclusive faith rooted in tradition is the only way to go into the future and actively avoid the five corruptions of religion.

This book is a reliable guide to help distinguish between religion which remains true to its authentic sources and religion that has been corrupted and become a source of evil.

*** *** ***

* Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, Harper San Francisco, 2002, 237 pp.

** Review for Nevertheless, a Texas Church Review.



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