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Mar 12

Part 3 of Religion – The Most Harmful Agency on the Planet?

When Religion Itself Becomes Evil

David Langness

David Langness

The well-known religious scholar and chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest University, Charles Kimball, published a landmark book a few years ago, called When Religion Becomes Evil.  Dr. Kimball doesn’t dislike faith, and he is no atheist – in fact, he’s an ordained Baptist minister – but the book describes what he sees, after a lifetime of research, as the five warning signs of corruption in religion:

  1. Claims to absolute truth
  2. Requirements for blind obedience
  3. Establishing the “ideal” time
  4. The end justifies any means
  5. Declaring holy war

In the following five articles in this series on the harm that religion can cause, we’ll explore those warning signs and investigate what the new Baha’i teachings say about each one.

Kimball’s persuasive, penetrating analysis in When Religion Becomes Evil outlines a growing realization that has begun to reach across Faith groups, nationalities and classes around the globe:  that religion, which he calls “the most powerful and pervasive force on earth”, can turn corrupt, destructive and dangerous:

As human institutions, all religions are subject to corruption.  The major religions that have stood the test of time have done so through an ongoing process of growth and reform, a process that continually connects people of faith – Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and others – with the life-sustaining truths at the heart of their religion. —When Religion Becomes Evil, pp. 38-39.

war-conflict-rape-in-drcongoBut, Kimball tells us, regardless of the language they use or the principles they promote, it is the actions of people of faith that truly define them:

Whatever religious people may say about their love of God or the mandates of their religion, when their behavior toward others is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering among their neighbors, you can be sure the religion has been corrupted and reform is desperately needed. – Ibid, p. 39.

Baha’is have a unique understanding of this dynamic, because the Baha’i writings put the historical cycles of the rise and fall of the great Faiths into a broad, logical and realistic perspective. This quote from Abdu’l-Baha, from the era that immediately preceded World War I, summarizes that perspective:

We can no longer live according to the laws and customs of former times.

Everything is transformed. The existing government of France cannot adapt itself to the requirements of the middle ages. As everything evolves, so also does religion – as witness the doctrines that are losing their influence today. All religious rites and ceremonies, when adhered to, become the cause of destruction and struggle. Look at the war in the Balkans. Can you imagine anything more terrible? Men have arisen against their brothers and both armies think they act in accordance with principle. If each side would put into practice the true principles of its own religion, there could be no further strife.

This is the day when dogmas must be sacrificed in our search for truth. We must leave behind all save what is necessary for the needs of today, nor attach ourselves to any form or ritual which is in opposition to moral evolution. — Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 67-68.

rainbow religious symbolsThe term “moral evolution” succinctly describes the Baha’i concept of progressive revelation, which sees religion as a single system, with each of the Founders of the great Faiths as consecutive moral teachers for all humanity.  Understood that way, with God as the supreme educator of us all, each successive religion forms a link in the great chain of being, a rung on the ladder of consciousness, a grade in the school of spirituality.  And understood that way, religion – like any other living thing – has a natural life cycle, a circle of seasons and a sequential purpose in the evolution of humanity.

With that concept in mind, the Baha’i teachings look at the rise and fall of religion as a naturally-occurring, organic process:

From the seed of reality, religion has grown into a tree which has put forth leaves and branches, blossoms and fruit. After a time this tree has fallen into a condition of decay. The leaves and blossoms have withered and perished; the tree has become stricken and fruitless. It is not reasonable that man should hold to the old tree, claiming that its life forces are undiminished, its fruit unequalled, its existence eternal. The seed of reality must be sown again in human hearts in order that a new tree may grow therefrom and new divine fruits refresh the world. By this means the nations and peoples now divergent in religion will be brought into unity, imitations will be forsaken and a universal brotherhood in the reality itself will be established. Warfare and strife will cease among mankind; all will be reconciled as servants of God. For all are sheltered beneath the tree of His providence and mercy. God is kind to all; He is the giver of bounty to all alike… — Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 225.

 Next:  Religious Claims to Absolute Truth

 

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About the author

David Langness

David Langness writes and edits for BahaiTeachings.org and is a journalist and literary critic for Paste Magazine. He and his wife Teresa live in the Sierra foothills in Northern California.

1 comment

  1. Stephen Kent Gray

    Those five categories are good summaries of five problems in religion, but aren’t that extensive a list.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_religion

    1. Criticism of religious concepts
    2. Hard to categorize as a specific one, but I would guess harm to society
    3. Corrupt purposes of leaders
    4. Harm to society
    5. Harm to society

    I was trying to categorize the five warning signs according to the Wikipedia list.

    1. Criticism of religious concepts
    2. Explanations of non divine origin
    3. Harm to individuals
    4. Harm to society
    5. Morality
    6. Corrupt purposes of leaders

    Sections 3 and 4 do have noteworthy counterargument sections.

    David, I found the book on Amazon. I also found other books by him.

    When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs (Plus) by Charles Kimball (Feb 26, 2008)

    Also, will there be another series on his other book, When Religion Becomes Lethal?

    When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Charles Kimball (Apr 12, 2011)

    I have just added the books to my shopping cart and will buy them soon. I will also add other books as well based on Amazon’s computer analysis recommendation thing.

    Religion and its influence on society can be shown by the World Values Survey.

    Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. People who embrace these values also reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride and a nationalistic outlook.

    Secular-rational values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values. These societies place less emphasis on religion, traditional family values and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia and suicide are seen as relatively acceptable. (Suicide is not necessarily more common.)

    Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance.

    Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.

    Societies that have high scores in Traditional and Survival values: Zimbabwe, Morocco, Jordan, Bangladesh.
    Societies with high scores in Traditional and Self-expression values: the U.S., most of Latin America, Ireland.
    Societies with high scores in Secular-rational and Survival values: Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Estonia.
    Societies with high scores in Secular-rational and Self-expression values: Sweden, Norway, Japan, Benelux, Germany, France, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Slovenia, and some English speaking countries.

    Most Secular Rational: Japan
    Most Traditional: El Salvador and Puerto Rico
    Most Self Expression: Sweden
    Most Survival: Iraq

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Values_Survey

    The data from the World Values Survey cover several important aspects of people’s religious orientation. One of them tracks how involved people are in religious services and how much importance they attach to their religious beliefs. In the data from 2000, 98% of the public in Indonesia said that religion was very important in their lives while in China only three percent considered religion very important. Another aspect concerns people’s attitudes towards the relation between religion and politics and whether they approve of religious spokesmen who try to influence government decisions and people’s voting preferences.

    A somewhat simplified analysis is that following an increase in standards of living, and a transit from development country via industrialization to post-industrial knowledge society, a country tends to move diagonally in the direction from lower-left corner (poor) to upper-right corner (rich), indicating a transit in both dimensions.

    This analysis focuses on societies changing from traditional survival to secular rational survival to secular rational self expression. It fails to explain traditional self expression societies like America, Ireland, and Latin America.

    Back to religions, in all societies some religious people advocate a return to traditional survival values and trying to get to that lower left corner or as close as possible for their societies. People dislike that evil and lethal tendency to do so. Religious groups and their values are all over the map just like societies. Social issues and culture wars are also results of this.

    Religious organizations tend to forget that they are private organizations and part of the voluntary sector and want the public institutions and the coercive sector to reflect their views on morality by enforcing it through social policy. Western, Orthodox, Islamic, African, Latin American, Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, and Japanese civilization blocks differ as examples of these trends.

    That is why I regularly donate to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Secular Coalition for America, Military Religious Freedom Foundation, American Atheists, American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, Camp Quest, Council for Secular Humanism, Freedom For Religion Foundation, Institute for Humanist Studies, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, Recovering From Religion, Secular Student Alliance, Society for Humanistic Judaism, Universal Life Church, Unitarian Universalist Association, etc. I view myself as a religious Humanist, but donate to the above groups because of the good work they do (for the not religious one as an explanation, but the religious ones are explained by said religious Humanism).

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