In this series of articles, we’ve looked at the five reasons corruption effects religion, from Dr. Charles Kimball’s fascinating recent book When Religion Becomes Evil.
Dr. Kimball, an historian, professor of comparative religion, chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest University and an ordained Baptist minister, concludes his book with a call for all people to recognize those five reasons for religious corruption, and act to understand and correct them:
Whether one is a true believer or a die-hard secularist, it remains necessary to take the next step from the knowledge of these factors that predict when religion becomes evil to a clear understanding of how religion can remain true to its authentic sources and a force for positive change. …As people of faith look to the future…we would all do well to focus on the twofold mandate to love God and to love our neighbor. – p. 187; p. 213.
But is it possible for a corrupted religion to somehow renew itself, to recover its original authenticity, power and influence? Can an ancient Faith somehow go from a state of decay, with its hidebound, inflexible and immutable dogmas and doctrines, its corrupt clergy and the antithetical or even fanatical behavior of its followers miraculously changed for the better?
In this series of articles we’ve cited and studied the groundbreaking recent book When Religion Becomes Evil, by Dr. Charles Kimball, which lists five major causes of problematic religious conflict and violence: absolute truth claims; blind obedience; establishing the ideal time (or triumphalism); and “the end justifies any means”. In this essay, we’ll consider what Kimball calls the worst religious evil of all – holy war:
…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… Declaring war “holy” is a sure sign of a corrupt religion. In fact, at the center of authentic religion one always finds the promise of peace, both an inner peace for the adherent and a requirement to seek peaceful coexistence with the rest of creation. – p. 156.
Many westerners associate the idea of holy or religious war solely with Islam – but that is a serious historical mistake. The Arabic word jihad, which many in the West believe means holy war, actually is literally translated as to strive or to struggle to do the right thing. Islam certainly spread initially “by the sword,” as expansionist wars conquered territory and converted populations – but several other faiths did the same thing during that dark and contentious period in history. Unfortunately, in today’s usage by extremists, the word jihad has come to be known as denoting only an armed struggle against others of different faiths.
The historical record, however, shows that Christianity itself waged many if not most holy wars. The church recognized warriors who fought in the name of God as the Milites Christi, the warriors (or knights) of Christ. Those “holy warriors” and their armies fought the Crusades, a 200-year-long series of pitched and bloody military battles against the Moslems. Later the Church launched Crusades against other religious targets, including the Albigensian Crusade against the gnostic Cathars in Southern France, and the Northern Crusades to conquer and convert the Baltic countries. To justify these violent excursions, in 1095 the Catholic Pope, Urban the Second, issued a papal decree that completely contravened the teachings of Christ and raised the level of “acceptable Christian” war from bellum justum (“just war”), to bellum sacrum (“holy war”).
Kimball says that this long record of mutual hostility and violent savagery has corrupted the heart of Christianity and Islam:
Both Christians and Muslims claim that peace lies at the heart of their religions. Both Christianity and Islam, however, have a long and checkered history in which their respective adherents fought for causes declared holy. Many of those conflicts, moreover, involved fighting each other. Not only are these the two largest and most geographically dispersed religious communities, they also head the list of those who have corrupted the heart of their religion by linking it confidently to war. – p. 157.…
For most of us, authentic religion focuses on the transcendent. True religion links loving, kind and compassionate relationships with others on this plane of existence to the growth of the soul and an eternal life in the next.
But some people — especially those who focus fanatically on a single component of their belief system – discard loving, kind and compassionate relationships in favor of an expectation; some hoped-for “sacred” outcome or end that justifies any means for its accomplishment.
This basic human moral question, explored in detail by Immanuel Kant and just about every philosopher since, asks “Can the ends ever justify the means?” In other words, “Does it matter how I get what I want, as long as I get it?” Or “Is it OK to do something wrong or immoral to achieve a positive end?”
Authentic religion always answers that question with an emphatic “No.” …
The idea of triumphalism – that any particular religion will one day prevail, dispatch the “heretics” and conquer the world – has plagued humanity for centuries. In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, Dr. Charles Kimball explores the concept of triumphalism, in which some faith groups see the ideal time for their certain triumph as inevitable and desirable:
Some religious communities place a great deal of emphasis on a this-worldly hope…. When the hoped-for ideal is tied to a particular religious worldview and those who wish to implement their vision become convinced that they know what God wants for them and everyone else, you have a prescription for disaster. — p. 105.
Wikipedia defines it this way: Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that a particular doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior to and should triumph over all others.
This concept of inherent superiority has several negative consequences, especially when religious belief becomes triumphalist. It creates an in-group and an out-group, often judging those in the out-group as “evil”. It makes it very difficult for people who belong to the in-group to objectively view the overall morality or value of the group’s actions. It stifles innovation and change within the in-group. It produces a sense of isolation and distance from others. And it generates a will to conquer and dominate others by imposing the in-group’s ideology and belief systems on them.
Triumphalism, then, is nothing more than a severe prejudice — the mistaken notion that my belief is somehow more substantial, correct and Godly than your belief. …
Authentic religion engages the intellect as people wrestle with the mystery of existence and the challenges of living in an imperfect world. Conversely, blind obedience is a sure sign of a corrupt religion. Beware of any religious movement that seeks to limit the intellectual freedom and individual integrity of its adherents. When individual believers abdicate personal responsibility and yield to the authority of a charismatic leader or become enslaved to particular ideas or teachings, religion can easily become the framework for violence and destruction. – Dr. Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, p. 72.
Everyone has heard of religious groups that require blind obedience, shut off the intellectual freedom of their adherents or imperil their individual integrity. All we have to do is read the headlines:
Aum Shinrikyo Cult Releases Nerve Gas in Tokyo Subway (March 20, 1995)
Burmese Buddhist Monks Goad Mobs to Kill Muslims (July 14, 2013)
Fanatical Christian Assassinates Planned Parenthood Physician in Church (May 31, 2009)
Thousands of Innocent Muslims Killed by Hindu Fanatics in Gujarat (November 2, 2002)
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin Assassinated by Fanatical Zionist (November 4. 1995)
World Trade Center Suicide Missions Kill Thousands (September 11, 2001) …
No Faith is Final — Religious Claims to Absolute Truth
When a religion claims to have access to the absolute truth, religious scholar and writer Dr. Charles Kimball explains, those rigid truth claims can form the basis for demonizing and dehumanizing those who differ:
A human view of truth, one that is dynamic and relational, enables religious people to embrace and affirm foundational truths without necessarily solidifying the words into static, absolute, propositional statements. Conversely, religious convictions that become locked into absolute truths can easily lead people to see themselves as God’s agents. People so emboldened are capable of violent and destructive behavior in the name of religion. — When Religion Becomes Evil, p. 70.
We’ve all seen this concept play out gruesomely in the modern world, as fundamentalist and overzealous “believers” wage war on each other, become terrorists who randomly kill innocent people and insist, through violence, intimidation and “holy war” that they are right and everyone else is wrong. This kind of divergence from the originally peaceful and loving teachings of faith can happen to any religion, and fundamentalist sects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all fallen prey to such religious violence and terror. …
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:
Claims to absolute truth
Requirements for blind obedience
Establishing the “ideal” time
The end justifies any means
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. …
A whole host of atheist philosophers, thinkers and commentators have written influential books and essays during the past few decades, each one saying that religion has become a force for hatred, violence and evil in the world.
Writers like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have all published popular atheist manifestoes. Most of their books, as in this quote from Harris’ TheEnd of Faith, contain some variation on the idea of religion as “merely an accident of history,” where “it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your prayers, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.” …
Editorial note: We’d like to welcome guest blogger David Langness and his nine part series that takes a look as religion’s rap as the most harmful agency on the planet. David is the host of Bahaiteachings.org and is a member of the Bahá’í community in my old stomping ground up in Nevada County, California. So, without further ado … take it, David!
My friend the historian and I had a long discussion about religion the other day. When he learned about my belief in the Baha’i Faith, he challenged me by saying “I think religion has been responsible for most of the problems of humanity throughout history.”