Book: When Religion Becomes Evil Five Warning Signs by Charles KimballThis is a magnificent book. There are some typos and minor errors, such as the repeated misspelling of Hal Lindsey's name, but that is understandable for a first edition. There is quite a lot to ponder and savor within its relatively brief length (213 mid-sized pages) and it makes its points and justifies them while remaining easy-to-read. It explains the core tendencies that corrupt religion and provides a clarion call for more inclusive, honest, and dynamic religion in this new century.
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 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 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. 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. Kimball focuses primarily on the three major Western monotheistic religions, although his examples also include new religious movements such as the People's Temple, Aum Shinrikyo and the Branch Davidians. Religion can resist becoming evil by practicing an inclusiveness that allows each tradition to retain its distinctiveness while it works for the common good. Kimball's clear and steady voice provides a helpful guide for those trying to understand why evil is perpetrated in the name of religion.
A valid criticism that was raised by another reader is Dr. Kimball's use of the term "authentic" (which means genuine, real, true, undoubted, unquestionable, factual, verifiable) for his sort of religion. That assumes that all religious expression that he disagrees with is "inauthentic." One may argue that one type of religion is better than another in certain specific ways, as the author has, but that does not mean that bad religion is inauthentic. Bad religion is as real as good religion, just as bad politics are as real as good politics. Using the term authentic provides a temptation to use it as a copout. When someone criticizes the bad use of religion, an apologist could reply, "Well, that is not 'authentic' religion. Only good religion is true religion," thus making criticism of religion impossible, because any ills will be brushed aside as "inauthentic" and not due to religion at all. I prefer Dr. Kimball's other adjectives for good religion: healthy, dynamic, honest, etc.
A second valid criticism that was raised is, that while it is true that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all stem from the same root, Kimball goes overboard when he says on page 50 that "There is simply no ambiguity here. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are talking about the same deity." That is an oversimplification. While clerics in these religions are fond of saying they worship the same Abrahamic God, their conceptions of that God are different.
A third criticism that has been raised is that Kimball does not address the issue of the possibility that a religion's "authentic sources" themselves may contain moral and Theological errors that encourage evils. I think this ommission is understandable given the focus of the book. Kimball's book is not a comprehensive discussion of religion, but rather a discussion of the corruptions of mainline religion.
Kimball states that religion is arguably the Most Powerful and persuasive force on earth and that yes, it is the problem. It is the problem because each seems to hold that it alone has the absolute truth, demands blind obedience, and justifies the means used by the end goal (presumably salvation or "right living.") Somehow, Kimball has reinvigorated the often used argument that the basic teaching of the world faith traditions (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist) have been used for corrupt ends, yet are in themselves the seeds for healing. "The complicity of religious persuasions in global conflicts today is undeniable, but Understanding this complicity requires that we clearly grasp the difference between what we have called corrupt forms of religious commitment and the authentic forms that offer hope."
The message of this book, so eloquently and convincingly written, is one that all lay people should embrace. We must hold ourselves and our faith institutions accountable for our actions in the world. For "a segregated group in which the thinking and critical decisions reside with one or a few people, particularly where there is apocalyptic teaching involved, is a disaster waiting to happen."
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