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When Religion Becomes Evil- A book review by Sutton

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When Religion Becomes Evil:     

Five Warning Signs: 
Revised and Updated

By Charles Kimball

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey W. Sutton


In the aftermath of 9/11 and during the onslaught of religion-damning missives from the ‘‘evangelical atheists’’ Dawkins (2006), Hitchens (2007), and Harris (2004), Kimball provides a ‘‘gentle introduction to the critical study of comparative religion’’ (p. vi). In seven chapters, he outlines five critical ways that religion can lead to tragic, even violent outcomes, and offers suggestions that may promote better relationships between people of different religious traditions. In the end, he argues for respect for diverse faiths and traditions. Kimball is uniquely qualified to write this informative work. He is an ordained Baptist minister and a professor of comparative religion at Wake Forest University. He obtained his doctorate from Harvard University in comparative religion where he specialized in Islamic studies.

Kimball helps readers focus on what is good in religion before pointing out the evil. He reminds us of the rich cultural ways people of different religions mark life events and guide acceptable behavior for their adherents. Then he offers the following warning.
‘‘...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’’ (p. 47).
Here are Kimball's five warnings.

1. Absolute Truth Claims
The possibility of evil and violence exists when an interpretation of beliefs requires conformity to the extent that people are held hostage to textual literalism. Often, the zealous focus on preaching their interpretation of truth and ignore those texts that speak of compassion.

2. Blind Obedience
A common example of the potential for destruction is the group led by James Jones, a charismatic leader who preached about nuclear destruction and held faith healing services. Eventually, Jones led his group to Guyana in 1974 where he established Jonestown and functioned as a god to his followers. California congressman, Leo Ryan flew to investigate Jones' group, but he and those with him were murdered. The next day, Jones led his followers in suicide. Protesters were shot. Altogether, 638 adults and 276 children were murder-suicide victims.

3. Establishing the 'Ideal" Time
Kimball gently lays out the problem of hope gone awry. For example, some Christians have preached about the "End Times." When disasters occur, it is easy to refer to texts that talk about disasters happening near the end of the world. When this preaching encourages people to act to advance their idea of God's will in a violent manner, humans can bring about a disaster.

4. The End Justifies Any Means
  Kimball begins this chapter with an example of violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Unfortunately, such violence continues. His point here is: "The end goal of protecting or defending a key component of religion is often used to justify any means necessary." (p. 140).

5. Declaring Holy War
 Following the horrific attack on the United States known as 911, president Bush used religious language reminiscent of the biblical devil when he called bin Laden "the evil one" and his followers, "evildoers." The US led a "war on terrorism" to combat bin Laden's "holy war." The topic of war and peace appears important to Kimball as he focuses the chapter on ways to promote peace such as seeking repentance and forgiveness, advocating for human rights, and promoting religious liberty.


I think Kimball offers a reasonable balance to offset the assault of the atheists against "bad faith." People of integrity must confront that which is destructive in their own faiths if we are to live in a peaceful world--at least one free from religious strife and violence. His points seem reasonable and are well supported by more examples than I included here. It's easy to see why this was the "Top Religion Book of the Year" according to Publisher's Weekly.

Related Posts

The God Delusion

The Case for God

Caught in the Pulpit


Dawkins, R. (2006). The god delusion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Harris, S. (2004). The end of faith: Religion, terror, and the future of reason. New
York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. New York,

NY: Twelve.

Kimball, C. (2008). When religion becomes evil: Five warning signs. New York: HarperCollins.

Sutton, G. W. (2010). [Review of the book When religion becomes evil” Five warning signs: Revised and updated by C. Kimball]. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 12,78-80. doi 10.1080/19349630903495616.  Accepted 09-01-2009.  ResearchGate Link  Academia Link


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Selected Quotes from When Religion Becomes Evil

"Being sincere doesn't exempt people or groups from critical scrutiny." p. 7

"Although many of us have been taught it is not polite to discuss religion and politics in public, we must quickly unlearn that lesson." p. 7

"When you are standing on the edge of a cliff, progress is not defined as one step forward." p. 7

" Religion is at the heart of what matters most to the vast majority who inhabit this planet." p. 13

"Understanding religion requires reflecting on how adherents of the religion understand and interpret its elements, for religion does not exist in a vacuum; it exists in the hearts, minds, and behavior of human beings." p. 21

"Identifying common characteristics among religions is not the  same as saying all religions are the same. Clearly, they are not. In fact, one religion is not the same from one century to the next or from one continent to the next or from one town to the next or, for that matter, from one worshipping community to another one across the street." p. 24

"If diversity exists within one religious community, it exists as well within each member of that community." p. 25

"If all religions are not the same, neither is it the case that all religious worldviews are equally valid." p. 25

"When zealous and devout adherents elevate the teachings and beliefs of their tradition to the level of absolute truth claims, they open a door to the possibility that their religion will become evil." p. 52


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