When Religion Becomes Evil

  • Charles Kimball
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Kimball, Charles When Religion Becomes Evil. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2002. xi + 240 pp. Hardback. ISBN 0-06-050653-9.

The Crusades. The Inquisition. September 11. The mere mention of such words immediately evokes thoughts of "hatred," "evil," and "religion." The former two terms seem to be at odds with the third, in fact, one could say that if hatred and evil are thoughts associated with religion, then the religion itself is corrupt. Charles Kimball, professor of Religion at Wake Forest University, in his book When Religion Becomes Evil, not only highlights examples of corruption within religion, but gives warning signs that will signal a religion's march toward corruption. Kimball also provides insights for religions to embrace so that they will flourish in today's pluralistic world. Unfortunately, his benevolent motives are fraught with logical inconsistencies, exegetical fallacies, and theological misconceptions. A brief summary of his thesis will be followed by a response.

Kimball posits five "warning signs" for a religion becoming corrupt: absolute truth claims, blind obedience to a leader, the establishment of an "ideal" time, using the end to justify the means, and holy war. He gives each sign its own chapter as he illustrates how it contributes to religion becoming evil. The chapters give multiple examples of atrocities or bizarre occurrences committed in the name of religion, some of which are: the Crusades, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, and Hindu-Muslim conflicts in Kashmir. In each instance, Kimball contends that corruption within the religion is the cause for such evil acts, for if the adherents were true to their religion's foundation, then nothing evil would ever take place in its name. The final chapter of Kimball's book proposes an approach to religion in which peace and harmony would prevail. He suggests "an inclusive faith rooted in tradition" (the chapter's title), which implies that any exclusivist claims in religions need to be either reinterpreted or abandoned, while at the same time clinging to distinctions within each religion. Kimball asserts that at the heart of each major religion are the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12) and the Greatest Commandment (Matt. 22:37-39 [39]). If all were to understand and embrace these core doctrines, then we will all head to the same destination together, in a peaceful, loving manner (191)-as long as the "God" which Jesus commands to love is viewed symbolically and is not concretely defined (51).

My response to Kimball's efforts will focus on his views of truth claims and Christianity. He rightly asserts that truth claims are present in every religion (41); however, he constructs a dichotomy between truth claims, and "absolute" truth claims, the latter of which are dangerous (44). Kimball is not opposed to truth claims, but he suggests that when they become rigid and dogmatic, they mutate into "absolute" truth claims. Hence, one should be aware of the inherent dangers of this breed of truth. Like most pluralists, one might imagine that Kimball holds a relativistic view of truth, but this is not the case. He does not grant that the truth claims of all religions are equal; on the contrary, only those religions that have stood the test of time and have pragmatic value should be considered valid religions (25). Yet he is not a pure pragmatist either, since he believes that there are objective criteria for evaluating value judgments within religions, although he does not give any (25). Nevertheless, Kimball might be considered a skeptic, because he views the attainment of an objective knowledge of truth as impossible, due to the subjective nature of humans (67). However, Kimball's approach to truth does not preclude him from making dogmatic assertions on how one should interpret scripture (whether it be the Bible or the Qu'ran [58]); nor does it interfere with his rather sweeping condemnations of people and events that are "evil" (105), both of which imply an objective standard.

An ordained Baptist minister and a self-identified Christian, Kimball bases his moral standard upon the teachings of Jesus, yet as mentioned above, his definition of God is less than orthodox (51). He is unwilling to identify God in a manner that any particular religion would identify with, but instead suggests that God is a direction on a compass that every religion is pointing towards (191). Moreover, to illustrate the "truth" that the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are one and the same, he denies the Trinity. He sees the doctrine of the Trinity as contradictory and confined within the gospel of John - which is so theologically-laden, that an accurate interpretation is impossible (58, 59). Kimball also suggests that the more exclusivist passages of the New Testament (such as Acts 4:12 and John 14:6), should be interpreted within the "community of faith." This allows Jesus to be the only means of salvation for Christians, but not for those outside the community of Christian faith (69). Kimball denies that his "experience of God" exhausts all possibilities (209), while at the same time admits that the truth claims of other religions do not compel him to reject Christianity (208). Considering the aforementioned errors, it is puzzling that Kimball rejects Christianity as objectively true, and yet grounds his ethical claims in a standard devised by the one who claimed to be the only means of salvation (Matt. 11:27, Jn. 14:6)-a claim that Kimball is forced to reinterpret. Heterodox in every regard, Kimball's views of truth and Christianity fit in well with pluralistic postmodernity.

Although his religious epistemology is highly dubious (209), his hermeneutics lacking (79), and he consistently caricatures Christianity throughout, there are some positive notes to Kimball's thesis. One such is that people should rationally analyze and evaluate their religion and the demands that it places upon them (95). Also, despite his own inconsistencies, Kimball argues for adherents to be consistent in their worldview. Of course, this requires an understanding of one's faith that is rarely found today. And perhaps the most appealing aspect of his book regards the steps and efforts that we should all make to ensure peace for humanity, taking note of Jesus' "blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt. 5:9).

Notwithstanding those positive aspects of the book, the reader should be aware of the fundamental differences between religions, as well as have an understanding of the nature of truth, in order to critically respond to Kimball's thesis. Although his motives are admirable, Charles Kimball does not provide a viable alternative for contemporary religious thought. Religions are defined by their truth claims; any attempt at revision inevitably results in eschewing primary doctrines which in turn eliminates demarcating features between religions. Professor Kimball may not like it, but truth and religion are, by their very nature, exclusive. For even Jesus the peacemaker, when teaching on the cost of discipleship said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34). Such is the reality in which we live; all efforts to circumvent that will inevitably fall short.

David Hyams
Philosophy of Religion Student
Denver Seminary