By Jana Riess
By now it’s commonplace to remark that more violence than good has been committed in the name of religion. The terrorist attacks of September 11 and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian strife confirm this age-old aphorism. Wake Forest religion professor Charles Kimball has made something of a career out of speaking about the ways in which religion becomes evil.
Every religion has the capacity to work either for good or evil, and in When Religion Becomes Evil he contends that there are five warning signs that we can recognize when religion moves toward the latter. Whenever a religion emphasizes that it holds the absolute truth—the one path to God or the only correct way of reading a sacred text—to the exclusion of the truth claims of all other religions and cultures, that religion is becoming evil, he says. Other warning signs include blind obedience to religious leaders, apocalyptic belief that the end time will occur through a particular religion, the use of malevolent ends to achieve religious goals (e.g., the Crusades), and the declaration of holy war.
Religion can resist becoming evil by practicing an inclusiveness that allows each tradition to retain its distinctiveness while it works for the common good, he writes. Kimball’s clear and steady voice provides a helpful guide for those trying to understand why evil is perpetrated in the name of religion.
According to Jewish-Christian tradition, the first time that death appeared in the world, it was murder: Cain slew Abel. “Two men,” says Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most widely read writer on the Holocaust, “and one of them became a killer.” The book of Genesis goes on to record that Cain was banished from Eden. He subsequently founded our first city—in the land of Nod, east of Eden—and named it Enoch, after his firstborn son. Through Enoch, Cain’s line continued and prospered. Thousands of years later, we all can be considered the children of Cain. At the very least, we bear the taint of the violent legacy he ushered into the world when he killed his brother.