Brian Kimball’s excellent book, offers five warning signs for when religion become evil. These warning signs are: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the ideal time, the end justifies any means and declaring holy war. I will quickly present his ideas and then offer a few comparisons to the previous authors I’ve discussed.
Kimball asks, “Is religion itself the problem?” And his answer is two fold: no, and yes. Kimball, like Armstrong distinguishes between authentic religion and traditional, narrow religion. In this way, he is a religious apologist, which makes sense as he is an Baptist minister. However, don’t let this persuade you of the validity of his criticisms and arguments which are sounds and relevant. He begins his book by saying that there has been a collective failure to challenge presuppositions, to think anew and to openly debate religious concerns. This failure, he says, contributes to the disaster we see with narrow, traditional and violent religion. Many traditional ways of viewing the world and relating to others are simply inadequate. “They are becoming increasingly dangerous” (9).
Is religion the problem?
All religions are not the same. As such, not all religious worldviews are equally valid (23). Agreeing with Sam Harris and Ken Wilber alike, he says value judgments of religion are sorely needed. There are objective criteria we can use to make informed and responsible decisions about what is acceptable under the religious rubric. Freedom of religion is a wonderful thing, but equally important is freedom from the religions others wish to impose upon those who differ (25).
Asking ‘is religion the problem?’ completely depends upon our understanding of religion itself. If religion can be summed up as fundamentalist and narrow and literalist then the obvious question is yes! Religion would clearly be the problem. However, religion is more than the holy trinity of atheists makes it out to be. According to Kimball, Sam Harris seems to think there is only one way to understand and interpret sacred texts, and that is a literal understanding. Kimball, in this sense, completely agrees with Karen Armstrong; asserting that fundamentalism is the only valid form of faith is “uninformed and deceitful”. Harris also does not distinguish faith and belief. Believing X, Y and Z, does not sum up religion or religious people. However, Kimball recognizes consistently that there is a growing and dangerous proportion of the population that would fit into this category. Their exclusivist understanding and propagation of religion merely reinforces the argument that religion is indeed the problem (35). In order to answer the question ‘is religion the problem?’ accurately, we need “a broader, deeper, and more inclusive understanding of religion” (38).
Kimball briefly tries to answer his own question by saying that if religious institutions and teachings lack “flexibility, opportunities for growth, and healthy systems of checks and balances” they certainly can be, and usually are, a major part of the problem. Regardless of what people say about their love of god or their need for religion in their lives, or in the public arena, when their behavior toward the other is violent and destructive, when it causes suffering, the religion has certainly become corrupted and is in need of serious reform.
Kimball says “In every religion, truth claims constitute the foundation on which the entire structure rests. However, when particular interpretations of these claims become propositions requiring uniform assent and are treated as rigid doctrines, the likelihood of corruption in that traditional rises exponentially” (49). This creates an environment for religion and religious people to become defensive and sometimes assume an offensive posture towards difference and criticism. Presuming to know god, to have exclusive rights to the correct interpretation of sacred texts, has potentially destructive consequences (55). This absolutism blocks any ability or willingness to perceive the multitude of ways, even in one single tradition, people understand and conceptualize the transcendent.
Truth claims are based on selective readings. Usually people defer to authority figures who define the Christian position on any variety of issues such as human sexuality or the physical age of the planet. Literalism, Kimball says is dangerous for two reasons:
1. Sacred texts are apprehensible and therefore sensible. Despite the notion of original or authorial intent, meaning is determined by what the reader attributes to the author. Thus, “what the reader thinks is there becomes not merely the reader’s opinion but the will of god” (67).
2. Allegories, typologies and symbolic interpretations are avoided in favor of the pure and uncorrupted word; truth and meaning become synonymous. When the symbolic, metaphorical and allegorical nature of sacred texts is lost, and literalism predominates, it is significantly more likely that those who differ will be demonized.
The problem of truth claims is that we take the language of faith and turn them into absolute truths in our craving for certainty. Kimball goes so far as to say that “Christians who take the bible literally are either ignorant or self deluded” (66). I could not agree more. Unfortunately, we are speaking of a very large proportion of Christians and Christianity.
The limitation of intellectual freedom and individual integrity is a sure sign of religious corruption. Kimball says, “when authority figures discourage questions or disallow honest questions, something clearly is wrong” (99). There is usually strong social pressure, and familial pressure, to conform. This pressure is applied more often in terms of how the religious communities define themselves in relation to the larger social network. “Some groups physically withdraw from the perceived corrupt society around them” (100). We can see this in the case of evangelical Christian home schooling, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the like.
It is important to stress that religion and religious communities must be allowed to be bizarre and self-destructive. Religious or not, this occurs all the time. The line is crossed when the sect poses a threat to anyone other than their “freely participating adult adherents” (104).
Establishing the Ideal Time
Following the Millennialism traditions, when a hoped-for ideal is tied to a particular religious worldview and those who wish to implement their vision of the hoped-for time, presume to know what god wants not just for them but for the everyone (115).
Usually, those who can be described in this vain have a very black and white vision of the ideal time. For example, to use a familiar name, Pat Robertson has said
“One is either following god in all aspects of life or not following god at all. One is either engaged in godly politics or is participating in the anti-god structures that now threaten the home, school, and the church” (128). Either you agree with this vision or you do not. And if you do not agree then you are obstructing its fruition. This certainty, for Robertson, and indeed many in the religious right, correlates to our political and economic systems. “He’s [Satan] gone after the government and moved it away from the more free enterprise system we’ve known and turned it into a socialist welfare state” (130). This vision can also create an attitude of exclusivism and bigotry. For example, Pat Buchanan said in 1993, “our culture is superior because our religion is Christianity” (131).
People and groups who have a political and economic blueprint based on divine mandate should be regarded with extreme caution.
The End Justifies any Means
This can be both an external and internal problem and usually results from a religious community or person taking a defensive stance from perceived threats. Externally, stemming from group identity, the “other” can be seen as an object posing a threat rather than as a person. Internally, this can manifest as “discrimination and dehumanization within the group in the form of sexism, classism, racism” (149). Religion, being patriarchal and misogynist warrants its own post and isn’t my, nor Kimball’s focus. But this can be seen in many forms familiar to us such as vigilante style justice, honor killings and female circumcision.
Protecting the institution itself can become the end that justifies any means. For example, Catholic priests and child molestation. There has been little or no recourse to the criminal justice system. These issues have been handled behind closed doors, protecting the institution of the church.
Declaring Holy War
“More wars have been waged, more people killed, and more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history” (168). Of course this can be difficult to separate from various political and nationalistic motivation that have usually come in conjunction with religious motivation. Nonetheless, it’s a solid statement. Declaring holy war is more likely to occur when a community of faith feels threatened by external powers. Sound familiar?
Kimball says we are in desperate need of new paradigms, new ways of understanding particularity and pluralism. At the forefront of this struggle should be men and women of faith. Change must come from within if religion is to stop being used to oppress and dehumanize. Each tradition has its own resources and flexibility to modify its teachings and practices. To bring this change to a more pluralistic context, “believers must ask themselves how they can best function in a world in which most others don’t share the same understanding” (100).
Religious groups should not feel threatened by difference and diversity. They should look at difference as an opportunity to deepen and broaden their view. As Kimball says, “Security” does not come “from having or assuming we have all the answers” but from how one is oriented in the world. It comes from a practical response to confusion, crisis, calamity, and yes, difference. The answer Kimball says, similar to Rodney Stark, is more religion; but real, authentic and transformative religion.