The Problem With Monotheism

Why the world's two largest faiths, Christianity and Islam, have a tendency to 'turn evil.'

Charles Kimball is a religion professor at Wake Forest University who was director of the Middle East Office at the National Council of Churches from 1983-90. He made more than 35 visits to the Middle East and has for the last 20 years worked with Congress, the White House and the State Department. From this perspective, he wrote When Religion Becomes Evil in the months after September 11 and leading up to the Iraq War. The book outlines warning signs of when a religion is "turning evil," while also describing corrective measures that religions can take, particularly now, with the world worried about an Islamic-Christian "clash of civilizations."

How does a religion become evil?

Well-intentioned people can do things and justify behavior that contradicts what's at the very heart of their religious tradition, and it can descend into cruel and violent behavior.

One example is a belief in absolute truth. People who believe they have God in their pocket and know what God wants for them have proven time and again that they're capable of doing anything because it's not their will but God's will being carried out. You see this most obviously in a suicide bomber-someone who is convinced he or she knows what God wants, and can end up doing the most horrific things to innocent people.

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Another example is blind obedience to a leader. When people become so convinced of a particular person or charismatic leader that they blindly will follow that person, it can lead to

Jim Jones and Jonestown

. It can lead to the Buddhist group

Aum Shinrikyo

in Tokyo in 1995 that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. There's a pattern in sects, and also in local churches, where power is concentrated in too few hands with not enough checks and balances. And you can have a charismatic leader who gets out of control.

One of the scariest examples is the belief that the end justifies any means. Every religion is predicated on the notion that something in the world is terribly wrong. If we weren't ignorant we wouldn't need the Buddha to enlighten us, and if we weren't sinful we wouldn't need Jesus to save us, and if we weren't forgetful we wouldn't need Muhammad to guide us. The presupposition that something is wrong is premised on rectifying that wrong, overcoming obstacles, and moving toward a more hopeful future or meaningful end, whether that's heaven or nirvana or whatever. And often that has a component of making life more just and peaceful. That's normal.

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