Friday, December 12, 2014

Book Review: When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs by Charles Kimball

When Religion Becomes Evil

Author: Charles Kimball
Publisher: HarperCollins
Date of Publication: October 13, 2009
Pages: 304 (Nook Edition)

    This author currently is the Presidential Professor and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK. Previous to this he was the Chair of the Department of Religion and the Divinity School at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.  He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and earned an M.Div. degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is an ordained Baptist minister and also received his Th.D. from Harvard University in comparative religion with specialization in Islamic studies.  The reader also learns from this book that Professor Kimball has served as Director of the Middle East Office of the National Council of Churches and has traveled extensively in the region in that capacity.  He has met personally with the Ayatollah Khomeni during the Iran Hostage Crisis and is regarded as an expert on Islam and conflict in the Middle East.  He has more than adequate credentials to write this book.

    This edition is a re-issue of the original book which was published shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks.  Kimball has updated sections and included new examples of problematic religious practice.  This book is an excellent overview of religious fanaticism.  In the forward to this new edition the author addresses the current problem of widespread information which is without a coherent frame of reference for understanding and interpretation.  He attempts (and generally succeeds) in correcting that flaw and even better gives the reader "a gentle introduction to the critical study of comparative religion."  He also spends some time discussing "evangelical atheism" (Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, etc...) and the thought that religion is the underlying problem to most of the world's ills.  These authors argue that religious world views are anachronistic and that religion itself is, therefore, irrelevant.  The author retorts that within religious traditions  "one finds the life-affirming faith that has sustained and provided meaning for millions over the centuries"  and therefore should not  be so summarily dismissed.  He also cites various authors including theologian Houston Smith and journalist Thomas Friedman. The author acknowledges that at the same time, there are corrupting influences that "lead toward evil and violence in the world."  The remainder of the book explores five major warning signs of human corruption of religion.  He notes that the inclination towards these corruptions is strong in the world's two major religions (Christianity and its 1.8 billion adherents as well as Islam with its 1.3 billion).  

     Kimball is very careful not to call any group evil.  His objective is to illustrate the warning signs that alert us to the potential for evil human behavior within the framework or justification of organized religion.   As he states: "The more effective we are at identifying dangerous patterns of corrupted religion the more likely people of good will can avert disaster inspired or justified by religion."  So what are these dangerous patterns we should look out for?

    The first is "Absolute Truth Claims":   "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."    A contemporary example the author uses for this is when anti-abortionists support murder.  The author also notes that rigid truth claims, particularly in times of conflict, are the basis for demonizing and dehumanizing those who differ.    

     Secondly, we should be wary of the abuse of sacred texts.  Sacred texts, according to Kimball, are the most easily abused component of religion.  Further, "Manipulative exploitation of revered texts can lead to violent zealotry."  He notes that a highly selective reading and interpretation of the Qur'an is the foundation for the exceedingly powerful and destructive phenomenon of suicide bombings (including the 9/11 attacks). 

    The third red flag is the demand for blind obedience, often seen in religious cults and sects.  The author uses the example of the Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan which was responsible for the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system in 1995.  Kimball notes that all religious traditions began as what we today would call a sect or a cult.  These sects and cults often follow a charismatic authority figure who demands blind obedience ("Exhibit A" being Jim Jones and The People's Temple which resulted in the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana). 

    The fourth signal is when religion tries to establish "the ideal time".  All religions, Kimball says, state that we are not living in an ideal time and that we should strive to identify what that is and how to attain it.

    Finally, religions can turn evil when they resort to an "end justifies any means" mentality.  This can come in response to defending a sacred space (The Crusades) or reinforcing group identity against "outsiders."  This can lead to racism, classism and sexism.  Protecting "The Institution" at all costs has led to such grievous events as The Inquisition and, more recently, the suppression of the sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. 

    The author uses the rest of the book to explain and define the "Just War doctrine", especially as this might apply to the contemporary war on terror.  He also uses the end of the book to defend Islam as a religion of peace and explains the true meaning of jihad (striving or struggling in the way of God).  The concept of jihad has been corrupted by radical Islam in all of the ways Kimball has explained in the previous chapters in the book.    The author also takes one more opportunity to warn the reader that we must continuously pursue peace with justice and be wary when political leaders seek to justify policy on religious grounds.  He gives further advice on how religious people need a new paradigm both for the ways we function both within existing traditions and for our more contemporary multicultural and interfaith engagement.  He suggests that we think of God as a direction rather than an object, much as Stephen Covey has described God as a compass.  He also encourages us to embrace diversity as enriching rather than threatening and approach our fellow humans with the basics of faith, hope and love.  Kimball states: "As people of faith look toward the future in the Middle East and in their own communities, we would all do well to focus on the two-fold mandate to love God and to love our neighbor."

     This book is an excellent look at the frightening issue of evil in the world waged in the name of organized religion, told within the framework of the study of comparative religion.  The author does a great job of not singling out any particular religion for the spotlight.  Instead, he points out that all of the world's religions are human constructs and, as such, are equally susceptible to the corruptions he defines which lead to evil and horrific consequences. 

     When Religion Becomes Evil is an excellent introduction for individuals wanting a better understanding of radicalism within established religious traditions.  It also lends itself well to group study and discussion.

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