When Evil Masquerades as Religion

December 9, 2010 at 6:11 pm Leave a comment

Ingram Publishing

In 2002 a professor of comparative religion at Wake Forest University published a book purporting to identify the red flag signals that a given religion is in danger of exploding into violent fanaticism. According to the favorable critique I read, the author bases his conclusions on some bold claims about religion in general. Since I knew I couldn’t choke down the book itself, and reticence not being one of my virtues, I felt strongly moved to respond to the review. More accurately, I was agitated into a state in which I had better respond or I just might blow out some essential anatomical gasket – a scene I didn’t want my loved ones to have to witness. My counterpoint follows. Please feel free to join in on the discussion.

Not having read the book in question, I’ll refrain from a blanket assertion that the author fails utterly to demonstrate that the conditions he notes lead religious followers down the path to sheer evil, but my gut and my brain are screaming in unison that the cited excerpts ring false as a tin bell. 

More wars have been waged, more people killed, and more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history,” claims author Charles Kimball in his book When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs. My first quarrel with this centerpiece statement is in its description of all religions as “institutional forces.” In defining religion as any institutionalization of theological (or pseudo-theological) beliefs, the author equips himself with a very broad brush indeed. 

In fact the very term “religion” is problematic, with its multiple applications in the modern world. At the end of the year 2000 there were an estimated 88,320 denominations within the Christian faith alone. Do we really want to describe the motivating force behind Mother Teresa’s life’s work with the same term that we use to analyze the murderous deeds of Hezbollah or the hostile philosophy of the Wahhabis? More significantly, does true religion become evil or do corrupt individuals – lusting for power and control – abandon faith and commit themselves to a set of contrived precepts which reinforce that drive? 

“Religion,” according to Webster’s, is “a belief in a divine power to be worshiped as a creator.” As an abstract concept, it doesn’t possess the animus to embody evil until mankind imbues that creator with a dark nature. Further, the term “divinity” is defined as “supreme goodness.” Belief in goodness cannot jibe with fomenting hatred, unless believers start making things up and pervert the concept to justify violence as a means to their self-serving ends. In the spotlight cast by 9/11, even intellectuals such as law professor David Forte contend, “What drives bin Laden is not a religious faith of any traditional kind; it is, rather, the all-too-familiar phenomenon of murderous revolutionary ideology politicizing religion for its own purposes.” 

The “More wars…” statement may provide a vent for anger in a world gone mad that has finally reached our doorstep, but it is not founded on facts. A careful look at history reveals political and nationalist ideologies as the primary forces behind most attempts by one group to dominate, subdue, or defend against another. In his article It’s Not About Religion, Vincent Carroll cites the instances of brutal ethnic rivalries in modern Africa and conflicts in Sudan as examples of explosive violence unrelated to religious animosities. While the Sudanese clashes may have been fueled in part by religious differences – a far different thing from being ignited by those differences – it is very difficult to imagine that the traditionally militant groups involved would have been immersed in blissful coexistence had they shared a common theology.

British sociologist David Martin also observes that the degree of conflict among Turks, Iraqis, and Kurds remains fairly constant regardless of which mix of Moslem sects are involved. They can and do, in his words, slaughter one another “with an enthusiasm entirely unaltered by the presence or absence of religious differences.” 

Even a cursory review of history yields a long list of notorious wars in which religion wasn’t even a peripheral factor: World Wars I and II; Korea; Vietnam; the Russian Revolution; the French Revolution; the American Revolution; the Civil War. And, to quote Dave Shiflett, author of Christianity on Trial, it is irrefutable that religious zealots have not in fact been the biggest butchers in history: “The body count of corpses from the two great secular barbarisms of the 20th century, Communism and Nazism – both of which were hostile to the religions in their midst – runs to well over 100 million.” Stalin was, indeed, no man of faith.

Yet because it sounds so reasonable in a climate of despair over suicide bombers primed to do the unthinkable at the command of their messianic leaders, and because a person can’t specifically condemn such insanity without being accused of racial profiling or – horror of horrors! – cultural insensitivity, it is facile to express frustration in vague generalities. Safer, too. 

But editor and columnist Carroll further counters that while the “religious fanatics are the worst fanatics” concept has become conventional wisdom and religious enthusiasm probably does cause wars, it also prevents quite a number of them. In reality, it is religious conviction that has done much to impose humane rules of conduct on war and to insist upon immunity for noncombatants and many prominent opponents of war, persecution, oppression, and slavery in the history of the West have been driven by religious conviction.

Considering even the most infamous examples of so-called “holy” bloodletting, no reasonable person can deny the huge role that secular motives played in those, from the drive for imperial conquest which impelled Oliver Cromwell to suppress the Irish to the desire to weaken political opposition to Catholic Monarchs during the Spanish Inquisition to contemporary massacres resulting from a mix of ethnic and territorial rivalry.

As for author Kimball’s condemnation of those who think they have a “monopoly on truth,” and the inherent risk of that presumption feeding the weaknesses that lead to wickedness, well c’mon now. The word “faith” is defined as unquestioning belief, we don’t place belief in that which we perceive to be false. This may be one person’s “lack of flexibility” but it is another person’s set of convictions. 

You cannot, then, have faith in some changing set of world views; that just becomes a personal philosophy. And while Kimball insists that truth must be flexible, I say the notion of flexible truth contradicts itself. A mutable truth is no truth at all – which requires of the conscientious believer a scrupulous, ongoing, studious approach to understanding the foundations of his or her faith. 

And to address some of the group traits outlined by Mr. Kimball as veritable petri dishes in which evil can germinate…-Yes, there should be checks and balances within any institution made of up human beings, but moral and religious absolutes can serve to bind these imperfect souls together in harmony and mutual accountability, and inspire them to reach goals that transcend in a beautiful way the classic limitations of humankind. Such examples as the sexual exploitation of children or the fact that – theoretical physics aside – water on earth will always boil if brought to a sufficiently high temperature make this point. 

– Speaking of rigid claims of absolute truth, they do not, Mr. Kimball, “open up sacred writings to reinterpretation,” they discourage reinterpretation. If you mean to say that they give cynical people with an inflated sense of their own moral wisdom an excuse to reject them, you’re probably right. But straying from the absolute truths of shared moral conscience serves to undermine societies, not strengthen them. For evidence of this, just tune into an episode of Jerry Springer when you have an hour to flush down the toilet. 

-Then there’s the marrying of the term blindto the term obedience,” by means of which you concoct an irredeemable negative definition, with a picture of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers popping up in the brain right next to it like an encyclopedic reference. But it is what one is obedient to that is the most significant element in this concept. Does the term “faithful obedience” have any room in your view of Religious Man, Professor Kimball? It should. As in the goal of faithful obedience to the Ten Commandments as pursued by Orthodox Jews, for example. 

The impulse to withdraw from society, again, is a contextual danger sign: Are you withdrawing because you are nursing a hatred for those who don’t agree with your doctrines? Not good. But a withdrawal in order to insulate oneself from the onslaught of ungodly trends in contemporary culture doesn’t necessarily breed evil little malfeasants with murder and mayhem on their minds. An example would be the totally self-sufficient Shakers, whose unfortunate commitment to a celibate lifestyle led to their eventual extinction through attrition, or the more realistic Quaker, Amish, or Mennonite sects, all of whom have reputations for being peaceful to a fault and not particularly interested in a militant imposition of their beliefs on others. 

Charismatic leadership, I concede, is neither a necessary nor sufficient qualification for religious leadership and can yield bad results when worshipers of God become devotees of His mortal representative instead. But this misplaced allegiance is not born out of traditional religious doctrine but out of the neurotic needs of tortured souls who invite exploitation and domination. Jim Jones in Guyana and David Koresh in Waco were handed just such unrestricted power by their followers, but the doctrines they taught were apostolic socialism and a cult of self based on psychotic delusions, not reverence for a higher power. Martin Luther, by contrast, was properly horrified when those who supported his challenge to the corrupt Roman Catholic Church of the 16th century wanted to name themselves “Lutherans,” and argued mightily against that designation on the very grounds that he was not to be venerated above other mortals. 

-The notion that an unswerving commitment to ideas provides fertile grounds for the growth of evil gives me a rash and cold sweats just pondering it. I have an unswerving commitment to a lot of ideas (and ideals) which ultimately serve to protect the health and safety of my fellow human beings. Content and context, Mr. Kimball; how can you so consistently sweep these aside with generalizations? Anything a fanatic fixates on an be dangerous, even cleanliness – just interview a tormented obsessive-compulsive personality for proof of that – and fixation on wicked things is of course a source for concern. But you can’t heap all brands of “unswerving commitment” on this dung pile. It simply doesn’t pass my smell test. 

Devotion to a sacred place is something alien to my personal religious experience, but devout Jews praying at the Wailing Wall cause me little concern, and those who trek to Lourdes by the thousands have never, to my knowledge, trampled anyone to death in the process. 

-And finally, conflict over the time or date of the resurrection as fodder in the compost pile of steaming evil really has me stumped. I am not aware of any, say, Conferences of Evangelical Christians which have bubbled into cauldrons of physical violence when the keynote speaker offered a controversial take on these matters, but I do have an open mind and would be eager to be directed to any existing news reports citing same. 

I’ll conclude by confessing that I have no intention of heeding Buddha’s deathbed declaration to summarily reject all of the following: what I hear by report from trusted, like-minded others; tradition; statements found in sacred texts; or the teachings of scholars of those texts. I’m just pretty darned careful who and what I choose to trust as I ask the God of my faith to lead me to His Truth. 

I truly have concern for those who heed the review-writer’s advice to “rely on themselves only” to “reach the very topmost height.” It doesn’t work in the physical world – try getting on a tall steed without asking your friend for a leg up – and life experience convinces me unequivocally that it doesn’t work in the metaphysical world, either. I can only conclude that, if the risk of committing wholeheartedly to religious tenets frightens Mr. Kimball, then the concept of making gods of ourselves terrifies me!

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