A Question for Our Times


The question wouldn’t come up here at the Intergalactic Nerve Center of the Rancid Raves Wurlitzer were it not for the Danish Dozen in early 2006. The horrific events arising from the publication in a Danish newspaper of twelve cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad are described and discussed in Ops.178 and 179 (followed by a history of Islam in Op.180). Until that brouhaha, religion and cartooning were very nearly separate universes and never met. Now, we’re not so sure anymore.

            And having sidled up to the subject by way of a cartooning corridor, we can now slip into an otherwise completely alien discourse. But first, a short apostrophe about my religious beliefs.

            I’m not undertaking any evangelical enterprise here. My attitude about religion is pretty much to let everyone believe and practice whatever sets them free. I don’t care what kind of spiritual life you have as long as you don’t try to foist it off on me. Live and let live, I say. Everyone probably needs some sort of belief in something, but it varies from person to person, and that’s fine with me. These days, however, religious questions loom larger than ever before. We can hardly ignore the increasingly vitriolic role religion is playing in human affairs.

            The Mideast is aflame with brutal warfare rooted in differing religious beliefs. In France and other European countries Muslims are second class citizens because they wish to practice their faith in the public square as well as in private. Here in the happy United States where church and state are ostensibly separated, politicians must wear their faiths on their sleeves—particularly in the Republican Party presidential campaigns in which evangelical Christians make up 25 percent of the primary voters.

            “Posturing is predictable,” said Lou Dubose in The Washington Spectator, August 1, 2015. Reporting on the national conference of Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition at the end of June where 13 of the GOP candidates for President showed up to make speeches and appeal to the party’s base (which believes “their religious values are under attack by their government and by business forces they cannot control”), Dubose observed that “Lousiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s three-minute prayer after other speakers had observed only a moment of silence was followed by a public testimony that he gave himself over to Christ at six years of age.”

            Probably a cartoonist has no business messing about in such matters, and, as I say, if it weren’t for the Danish Dozen, I probably wouldn’t bring any of this up. I could still avoid the subject, I realize; but I don’t want to. So here we go.

            Many of the world’s most pressing problems at present, not to mention political discourse in the U.S. and the nation’s predicament in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East , seem to stem from differing religious views, so the obvious question is: Is Religion the Problem?

            Charles Kimball lobs a few answers at the question in his book, When Religion Becomes Evil. The book is about the most dispassionate, objective thing I’ve read on these matters. I was surprised, pleasantly. Surprised and somewhat illuminated. Kimball is an ordained Baptist minister but he is not at all shrill or doctrinaire in his examination; in fact, were it not for the biographical blurb inside the book, it would be difficult to say with certainty what religion Kimball espouses.

            He has a Th.D from Harvard in comparative religion, with an Islamic specialty. His paternal grandfather was Jewish, one of nine children, who, with a brother, had a successful vaudeville career. Kimball was involved in the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979 and was one of few to meet the Ayatollah Khomeini in attempting to get the hostages released. Kimball was director of the Middle East office of the National Council of Churches for seven years and is now chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest University.

            He begins his book with the question that headlines this essay. And his answer is: Yes and no, depending. If we contemplate religion in terms of its fundamental purposes, it is not the problem. All authentic religions, he says, “converge” in teaching an orientation toward God or the Transcendent and in fostering compassionate, constructive relationships with others in the world. In other words: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Matt. 22:37-40. Religion is NOT the problem when it keeps these two purposes foremost.

            But religion can be corrupted by its human adherents, and when it is corrupted, it can become evil, fostering behavior that is contrary to and destructive of its fundamental purposes. Awash as we are in posturing politicians who use religion for electoral purposes, it might be helpful if we could devise ways of knowing which of these guys are phonies, which of them use religion for purposes essentially contrary to the fundamental purposes of religion. Which of them are corrupting religion. Kimball says there are five clear signals of corruption either happening or about to happen:


            When a religion claims to be in possession of the absolute truth

            When a religion fosters blind obedience

            When an “ideal time” is identified and all else is subordinate to reaching that state

            When the end justifies any means

            When holy war is declared and waged


Each of the chapters of Kimball’s book deals at great length, in turn, with these signs of degeneration, drawing heavily from history as well as from contemporary events. I’ll review some of his key points, chapter by chapter, but I’m merely skimming the surface of his argument, which he presents in lucid easy-going prose—nothing decorative or declamatory, just clearly wrought.   


When a Religion Claims to Be in Possession of the Absolute Truth

All religions are founded on truth claims. But when particular interpretations of these claims become propositions requiring uniform assent and are treated as rigid doctrines, corruption is likely. When a truth becomes Absolute, it’s on its way to being a corruptive influence.

Historically, people armed with Absolute Truth are closely linked to violent extremism, charismatic leaders, and various justifications for acts otherwise understood to be unacceptable.

            The source of such truths is likely to the religion’s sacred text. But sacred texts are not infallible: all written language is symbolic and therefore subject to misinterpretation. Language is a pointer at best. When adherents lose sight of the symbolic nature of language about God, the text can easily be misinterpreted.

            For example: the Christian Bible says nothing about abortion per se, so zealous opposition to abortion is usually based upon the Sixth Commandment, and it fosters an absolute conviction that abortion is legalized murder. Most vocal opponents of abortion allow the practice in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother. Not the extremists. They have demonstrated that they are willing to do murder to prevent murder.

            Suicide bombing is instance of a sacred text being misinterpreted. Over the years, the validity of suicide bombing as a tactic has been established, but how do you recruit the bombers? You do it by referring to a provision in the Qur’an that says those who die striving in the way of God will go directly to paradise instead of to a celestial waiting room where they’ll stay until the eventual Day of Judgment. Other texts justify violence when the religion itself is threatened. But this highly selective reading overlooks texts that prohibit killing women, children and noncombatants—and suicide. Extremists, however, have appropriated those parts of the text that serve their purpose.

            Kimball wrote his book after 9/11, and much of his discourse deals with Muslim belief and how that may, or may not, influence the course of events in the Middle East. But he points out that both Islam and Christianity have an inherent tendency to corruption.



The Missionary Mistake. Based upon a conviction that theirs is a superior culture and religion, Christianity and Islam are the only two of the world’s largest religions with a missionary imperative to proselytize. This can lead to political and/or military coercion. Kimball sites the California mission system established up and down the coast in the late 1700s as an example of noble intention gone awry, resulting in unwitting genocide.

            It would be better, Kimball says, to envision mission as a matter of bearing witness to the love of God as manifest in the ways people relate to others, particularly those that are hungry, thirsty, or freezing to death after an earthquake in Pakistan. Bearing witness is the most powerful and persuasive form of missionary activity.

            At the end of this chapter, Kimball asks if it possible to embrace and affirm religious truth without defining truth for others. By way of answering, he quotes from Wesley Ariarajah, a Methodist minister (in italics):

            When my daughter tells me I’m the best daddy in the world, and there can be no other father like me, she is speaking the truth, for this comes out of her experience. She is honest about it; she knows no other person in the role of her father. But of course it is not true in another sense. For one thing, I myself know friends who, I think, are better fathers than I am. Even more importantly, one should be aware that in the next house there is another little girl who also thinks her daddy is the best father in the world. And she too is right. ... No one can compare the truth content of the statements of the two girls. For here we are not dealing with the absolute truths but with the language of faith and love. ... the problem begins when we take these confessions in the language of faith and love and turn them into absolute truths.



When a Religion Fosters Blind Obedience

Kimball cites Jim Jones and David Koresh as charismatic leaders who demanded blind obedience in their followers. Charismatic leadership is not inherently bad: Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were both charismatic but did not demand total obedience.

            Dangers abound when people take direction uncritically from religious authorities. Doctrinal positions supporting otherwise unethical behavior must always be challenged. Religions that demand blind obedience signal trouble. “Ethics” may be determined by consulting the two purposes of religion. Think for yourself; ask questions.

            Kimball quotes the Buddha on his deathbed (in italics):

            Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. ... Be ye lamps unto yourselves. ... Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the very topmost height.



When an “Ideal Time” Is Identified

and All Else Is Subordinate to Reaching That State

For many of the so-called Christian Right in the U.S., the Rapture is the Ideal Time. Some believe that we are in a “time” before the final dispensation. A key development in a divinely ordained sequence of events is the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple on the site Muslims call Noble Sanctuary. While adherents to this view may not advocate the use of force to destroy the Dome of the Rock to make room for the Temple, they link the fate of Israel to the sacred sequence leading to the Day of Judgment, and they therefore support Israel uncritically, regardless of how bellicose Israel’s leaders became towards Palestine.

            The impulse towards identifying an Ideal Time is the conviction that the Present is not desirable, that something has gone very awry.

            For nearly 800 years, the Muslim world led civilization in mathematics, chemistry, medicine, philosophy, navigation, architecture, horticulture and astronomy. When the Muslim empire of 700-1500 fell apart and into the hands of outside powers, the catastrophe begged for explanation, and the explanation, eventually, created in Afghanistan the Taliban, who explained the Muslim collapse by saying that people had been distracted from the authentic faith. They demanded the return to “true religion” and the rejection of Western influence. The Taliban brand of Islam became the state religion and that, in turn, created at least two classes of citizens: any state in which rights and status are tied to a particular religious tradition will relegate some of its citizens to second and third-class status.

            The Religious Right in America is not so far from the Taliban of Afghanistan. They share a religious conviction that the perceived ideal has been lost and must be restored through institutions of the state—say, by establishing prayer in schools, by posting the Ten Commandments, and the like. These reconstructionists seek to remove the political and institutional barriers to God’s law, believing that God’s rule must prevail against the principalities and powers controlled by Satanic forces. For them, the end justifies the means.

            The role of religion in a state is always problematic. In the case of Israel, the problem of religion as national policy is exacerbated with respect to the Palestinians. Any accommodation with Palestinians that involves making them citizens of Israel will inevitably mean Jewish citizens will, eventually, be outnumbered. And so this avenue to a settlement in the area seems forever closed off.

            In some cases in the Middle East, an interim may be imagined where religion is intimately involved in the state. Iran, for instance, where the basic governmental structure is parliamentary democracy, with a powerful role for the clergy.

            Any religion that justifies any action by invoking an imperative to reach an Ideal Time is signaling its internal corruption. Authentic religions live in the present and do not pine for an Ideal Time. Nor, as a result, do they seek to become the official state religion.


When the End Justifies Any Means

Here, Kimball cites the riots in India in March 2002 between Hindus and Muslims, resulting in widespread destruction and death in the civilian population—all brought about by a desire to defend a “sacred place” from defilement by infidels. Ditto the Medieval Crusades, which produced so much horrific savagery on an immense scale in the Middle East.

            When people are called upon to do violence to their neighbors in the service of a righteous cause, they should know that something is dreadfully wrong.

            In Europe after Christianity became joined with state power, attitudes and behavior toward Jews deteriorated because devotees desired to protect their religious community from outside influences or corruptions. These convictions lead to ethnic cleansing and protection of group identity—which in some Muslim communities has lead to reinforcing group identity at the expense of women, ostensibly in the name of their honor. In Europe, protection of the Christian faith in the Middle Ages resulted in the horrors of the Inquisition.

            The need for institutional structures to protect the status quo leads to churches and church hierarchy, which, as in the case of the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church of recent times, can lead to efforts to preserve the institution at the cost of the religious purposes.

            Sacred space, institutional structure, communal identity—none are the ends of religious life.



When Holy War Is Declared and Waged

Declaring “holy war” is a sure sign that a religion has been corrupted. In the history of Christianity, there have been three distinct attitudes about war:


1. Pacifism, which prevailed for the first 300 years

2. The Just War Doctrine, which came about once church and state were united under Rome’s Constantine in the early 300s.

3. Holy War


There are four basic criteria for determining a “Just War”:


1. Must be proclaimed by lawful authority

2. Cause must be just

3. Belligerents should have a rightful intention to advance good or to avoid evil

4. Must be fought by proper means


The problem is that there is in this catechism no way, actually, to determine if a war is just: it was by definition just if the authority figure declared it so. Moreover, the doctrine also has no obvious connection to the Christian faith. But these ideas became powerful weapons during the centuries when the behavior of many Christians was furthest removed from the teachings and example of Jesus: the era of the Crusades—the third attitude about war—when Christianity declared a “holy war” on Islam and Judaism and committed unspeakable atrocities in the name of that purpose.

            In the U.S. during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, most religions objected on the grounds of the first Christian attitude about war: war was simply bad; pacifism was the best course. By this time, most religions have rejected the Just War Doctrine altogether.

            September 11 is often seen as the commencement of the jihad, or holy war, against the West. But this is a perversion of Muslim text. For Islam, as for all authentic traditions, the goal of religion is to save the human soul and consequently establish justice and peace in society so that people can live virtuously and live and die in peace. The popular conception of jihad—and the extremist application of the notion—is counter to the fundamental meaning of the term. Jihad in the Muslim tradition refers to the struggle to do the right thing, to do good works on behalf of others and for the betterment of society. The “greater jihad” is the inner struggle to overcome selfish and sinful desires, the wrong tendencies that inhibit us from doing what we know to be right. It can also refer to military action taken to defend Islam—or to expand its influence.

            While church and state were wed in Christianity in the fourth century, they have always been together in Islam. As adherents of a missionary religion, Muslims sought to spread their message and societal system through proclamation, diplomacy, and force of arms.

            [Muhammad’s career went through each of these stages by turns. When he fled Mecca to Medina, he took with him the followers he’d won by proclamation and diplomacy, but when the Muslim community needed food and supplies, Muhammad led his followers into the desert to raid passing caravans. These were bound for Mecca, and the raids provoked the Mecca merchants to retaliate. But Muhammad proved an adroit field commander and won his battles. His victorious progress convinced others that he was, indeed, the messenger of Allah, and so they joined his community.—RCH]

            This bellicose history makes it easy for Muslims to be seduced into the current jihad, that and the miserable kind of life so many Muslims are forced to live in the autocratic regimes that prevail in most of the Muslim world.

            But the U.S. and its allies in the present struggle against terrorism are no better, often supporting totalitarian regimes because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” instead of pursuing policies and practices by peaceful means. Authentic religion demands that we be peacemakers, not war mongers.




Under the heading “blind obedience,” Kimball examines the careers of Jim Jones and David Koresh. In the “ideal time” chapter, he takes up the relationship between evangelical Christianity with its expectation for the Rapture and how that impinges upon our attitude toward Israel. He sees the Religious Right in this country as not so different from the Taliban in its desire to create a theocratic state. About prayer in schools, he says: “As long as there are math tests, there will be prayer in schools.”

            Under the “end justifying the means,” he cites ethnic cleansing and the Inquisition in Medieval Europe as ways of protecting group identity. He outlines the conditions for “a just war” in the chapter on “holy war” but concludes that the Crusades and September 11 invalidate the criteria.

            At the end of the book, he offers several things that we may do to foster peace. Ultimately, Kimball looks to religion to provide not a road map to a better world, but a compass. He argues that there are fundamental and universal human truths embodied in authentic religion—a desire for fairness, integrity, honesty, human dignity, service, growth, patience, nurturance, and encouragement, as well as faith, hope, and love. These he sees as not only self-evident but innate in the human condition. These are the compass. He thinks of God not as an object or being but as a direction. And he also argues for a religious orientation that embraces diversity and pluralism, ultimately a serene tolerance of all other beliefs.

            Quite apart from the political aspects of his discussions on Islam and the war on terror and related issues in contemporary American, I think the book goes a good distance towards answering the question of how one lives as a religious person in a world in which numerous religions all demand adherence. How can you be tolerant an still be devout? Kimball provides a thoughtful and rather comprehensive examination of the question, based in history and comparative religion study. And he does not excuse his religion for its historic tendency to fall prey to corruption.

            I am relieved to realize that none of the U.S. politicians running for President in either party have signaled their intention to corrupt religion to serve some larger purpose than just getting elected. In terms of worldwide jihad (in the extremist and false sense), these folks are not even petty criminals as yet. But I’m glad to have Kimball’s criteria for determining when they turn corrupt so I can recognize it when it starts happening.


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