"Whatever religious people may say about their
love of God or the mandates of their religion, 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. When religion becomes evil these five
corruptions are always present. Conversely, when religion remains true to its authentic sources,
it is actively dismantling these corruptions ... "
Religious persuasions are indisputably central factors in the escalation of evil and violence on
the global scene, and hence a growing subject of popular concern and debate. Many argue that
religion is the chief source of problems in the world today. Central to this debate is the need to
distinguish between "corrupt" forms of religious expression and the "authentic" forms that offer
real correctives and solutions to this global threat.
Religion Becomes Evil
Is Religion the Problem?
Religion is a central feature of human life. We all see many indications of it every day,
and we all know it when we see it. But religion is surprisingly difficult to define adequately.
To illustrate the complex, multidimensional nature of religion, I sometimes present students
in my Introduction to Religion course with the following assignment on the first day of
class: "Take the next few minutes and write a brief definition for religion." What happens
next is predictable. After excitedly removing paper from a backpack or notebook and placing
pen in hand, the confident facial expressions begin to give way to awkward puzzlement.
Some smile nervously; many avoid eye contact. Clearly, these bright students know what
religion is. Many seem to be embarrassed by their inability to articulate a cogent definition.
The Problem of Definitions and the Limits of Our Perspectives
The problem of defining religion is a good point of departure for this book as well. The word
religion evokes a wide variety of images, ideas, practices, beliefs, and experiences -- some
positive and some negative. Putting these disparate elements into a coherent frame of
reference is no small task. It takes some effort. It forces us to step back and reflect on our
presuppositions. Most people, for instance, assume that religion involves human thinking
about or engagement with God, gods, or some less personal understanding of ultimate reality.
They might well envision individual or communal responses to the transcendent, such as prayer,
worship services, rituals, moral codes, and so on. Some people naturally think immediately of
the life and teachings of Jesus or the Buddha when they think of religion; others might picture
the pope or Billy Graham or Mother Teresa in their mind's eye. To complicate the picture further,
personal experiences factor in as well. An individual may think of her confirmation or his bar
mitzvah. If she or he has had some negative personal history with "organized" religion, then
that, too, will surely figure prominently into the presuppositions.
The word religion also conjures up images of destructive or even cruel behavior.
Assumptions about religion now include violent actions rooted in intolerance or abuse
of power. During the year following the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Americans
were inundated with media images of Islamic suicide bombers, Hindu fanatics attacking
Muslims (and vice versa) in Northern India, and Christian clergy being arrested and
escorted to jail on charges of criminal sexual misconduct.
Many of our current associations with religion are changing, in part because our vantage
point is significantly different from that of the generations before us. Although the world
has always been religiously diverse, we have a much more conscious awareness of
religious pluralism today. Unlike a nineteenth-century Christian living in Europe or the
United States, who may only have heard or read about people called Jews, Muslims,
and Buddhists, a twenty-first-century Western Christian experiences their presence through
social interaction and television images that pour in daily. Put another way, Rudyard Kipling's
famous line "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" may have made
sense in the nineteenth century but not today. North and South have joined East and West
in a system of globalization Kipling could not have imagined.
Whether or not we have wrestled consciously with issues of particularity and pluralism, at
some level we are aware that religion is a complex component of human life. We know that
religion encompasses much more than our own particular tradition or personal experience.
Like the students passed on culturally in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Putting the diverse
elements into a broader framework for understanding, however, turns out to be more
challenging than most people expect. Many of us don't make a concerted effort until we feel
the need to do so. Frequently, we operate instead with a kind of "detailed ignorance" about religion.
The field of economics provides a good analogy for our understanding of religion and its role
in the world. Many of us know a fair bit about economic realities. We invest enough time and
energy, hopefully, to avoid making poor economic decisions about homes, investments, and
retirement plans. Few of us have PhDs in economics, however. Few of us are able to make
sense of the daily onslaught of economic numbers and at the same time place those in a larger,
global, economic context. When something destabilizing occurs, it may force us to look again at
how we have allocated our retirement funds or whether it is wise to buy a new house or car in a
volatile market. Uncertainty exposes the gaps in our understanding, and so we tend to pay more
attention, to ask more questions, to think more broadly about the economic realm and how it affects
us personally. We may not become experts, but many of us will certainly make a concerted effort
to learn enough about the details and the bigger picture so we don't make costly decisions unwittingly.
World events at the outset of the new millennium provide an impetus to take a step back and
think more broadly about religion and the turbulent forces connected with religion in our world.
Regardless of one's personal views about religion, the comparative study of religion offers
an effective way to tackle the problem of detailed ignorance.
When Religion Becomes Evil, by Charles Kimball.
September 3, 2002, Harper San Francisco