Reviews

When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball

Harry H. Long

It has been said that a country gets the government it deserves; perhaps the same is true of religion. Pass the Kool Aid, please.


When Religion Becomes Evil

Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco
Length: 256
Price: $13.95
Author: Charles Kimball
US publication date: 2003-09
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Although the idea reeks of something from a bad infomercial, Charles Kimball's creation of Five Warning Signs in When Religion Becomes Evilnot only provides a method of organizing his argument but also gives the reader a handy checklist:

Absolute Truth Claims
Blind Obedience
Establishing the "Ideal" Time
The End Justifies Any Means
Declaring Holy War

In the infomercial these would be preceded by an announcer ominously inquiring, "Does your religion exhibit any of the following?"

Perhaps an infomercial wouldn't be such a bad idea given that various polls tell us fewer and fewer people read. I further suspect that the people most in need of reading Kimball's cautionary work -- this edition of which was released almost two years ago but remains as relevant to this moment as any -- are those least likely to pick up a book whose title links "religion" and "evil." After all, as the bumper sticker says, "The Bible says it. I believe it. And that settles it." There are surely equivalent stickers available ascribing the same infallibility to the Torah and the Koran.

At the heart of any religion that has turned evil is a disrespect of other faiths based on the belief that one's own is the only true one. When that is compounded with the belief that one can ignore the strictures of one's faith to promote it, the evil is complete. Despite the author's creation of five warning signs, all really boils down to a lack of respect for the faith of others.

(Curiously all strictly fundamentalist beliefs also have a shared disrespect of women, though that observation is not part of Kimball's text. Consider that in stricter Jewish and Islamic cultures women must pray separately and are not even allowed into certain holy sites; the same held true with the Puritans and latterday fundamentalist Christians are the driving force behind returning women to the kitchens. Under leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh women were reduced to chattel.)

When that lack of respect is played out on the world stage, trouble really begins, as witness the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Interestingly the most severe conflicts between faiths are -- and always have been -- between the three derived from a common source: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In their essentials, each religion is nearly identical; the latter two even incorporate the writings of the first into their sacred texts; they merely disagree on who the foretold prophet is or whether he has actually come at all -- relatively minor issues, really. The latter two also include an implicit missionary component that may well be at the bottom of much of the world's strife. Even if one removes extremists from the equation one is left with two proselytizing religions -- unlike Judaism, Taoism, Bhuddism, Shintoism, etc. -- whose goal is converting unbelievers, not letting them worship in peace.

Kimball's book scrutinizes and criticizes the zealots of those three faiths equally (after all, when was the last time you heard of a Buddhist-Taoist holy war?). The televangelists of the U.S. are as denounced as much as the radical mullahs and rabbis of the Middle East for their xenophobic pronouncements and for deliberately ignoring the tenets of their own faith. The mullahs promise their suicide bombers -- be they in automobile or airplane -- a special place in paradise while extremist Christians ignore the sixth commandment even while claiming to enforce it by murdering abortion clinic workers.

Significantly all these leaders demand blind obedience to their claims which, again, contravenes their religious traditions. The Jews have a long history of challenging the most fundamental of their precepts and even debating their god. Jesus followed in that tradition, teaching through enigmatic parables and the Socratic question-and-answer method. Muhammed welcomed honest questions, as did Buddha. Jones, on the other hand, demanded blind obedience; in his case that meant there was little chance of establishing a faith that would persevere for centuries. Compare that with Buddha whose deathbed advice to his followers amounted to "Think for yourself". Perhaps some of our current religious leaders should give closer thought to the obedience vs. longevity issue.

So, too, should some of our political leaders and pundits. Recall that Ann Coulter termed Republicans who questioned the president "misguided" while Democrats who did so were "traitors". Kimball praises George W. Bush for not utilizing generic anti-Arabic rhetoric in the days following 9-11 (how could he? His principal business backers in his pre-politics days were Arabs) but fails to note in much of its behavior since that our current administration displays all of the five warning signs. A report by Doug Thompson, the publisher of Capitol Hill Blue, notes, "In meetings with top aides and administration officials, the President goes from quoting the Bible in one breath to obscene tantrums against the media, Democrats and others that he classifies as 'enemies of the state'." A number of White House staffers talk off the record of Bush declaring his decisions are "God's will," according to Thompson, and anyone who disagrees with the president is characterized as disobedient and fired. The report further postulates that departed Attorney General John Ashcroft was close to Bush because of religion. "They both believe any action is justifiable in the name of God", an aide is quoted as saying in the report. Other off-the-record sources have been quoted in numerous post-9/11 stories to the effect that the fundamentalist Bush sees himself as God's instrument in bringing about the Biblical prophecy of Armageddon in Revelations.

Disturbingly enough, blind obedience over thinking for oneself may be what the citizenry of the U.S. increasingly prefers. In a recent study high school students were read the full text of the First Amendment to the Constitution and the majority proclaimed that it went too far. They declared they would prefer receiving news that has been censored by the government and that news media should not have the right to probe into any matter as deeply as it wanted.

It has been said that a country gets the government it deserves; perhaps the same is true of religion. Pass the Kool Aid, please.


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