Author discusses religious zealots

Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003 — Some of the most destructive acts committed throughout the centuries have been done in the name of religion, says writer Charles Kimball.

Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs (HarperSanFrancisco, $22.95), was the featured speaker Wednesday at a reception for the Palm Beach Fellowship of Christians and Jews held at Palm Beach Day School.

Jack Thompson, chairman of the fellowship and headmaster of the Day School, called Kimball “articulate, intelligent and provocative” in his introductory remarks.

An expert on religion and Middle East politics, Kimball said religion is a powerful force that has been used too often to justify evil behavior. On Sept. 11, 2001, the world learned that it doesn’t take many people to wreak destruction of massive proportions, Kimball said.

“The people who perpetuated those horrific acts did not have chemical, nuclear or biological weapons,” Kimball said. “They had a clever plan and box knives and took over commercial airplanes and turned those into weapons of mass destruction.”

There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world and the vast majority of them are horrified by the acts of violent extremists, Kimball said. But Kimball warned there are millions of people who are angry and frustrated throughout the Muslim community and “can easily be driven into the arms of the extremists.”

Some of the warning signs of religious extremists include claims of absolute truth, blind obedience and the idea of living in an ideal time, Kimball said.

He explained that absolute truth claims deal with someone who to know what God is thinking.

“I’m not saying there’s no such thing as absolute truth,” Kimball said. “I just believe it rests with God and not with us. Be very careful of absolutist claims, particularly when it’s linked to violent behavior.”

Blind obedience is Kimball’s term for the behavior of people who follow charismatic leaders such as David Koresh in Waco or Jim Jones in Jonestown.

“When you see the people who follow these people blindly, you ask, ‘What were they thinking?’ And part of the answer is they weren’t. … The answer to blind obedience is to remember we are always responsible for ourselves. Anytime you let anyone do the thinking for you, you’re in danger,” said Kimball.

Within every religious tradition is rooted the idea that something is wrong with contemporary society and that we don’t live in the ideal time, Kimball said. In every religion, “there is a symbolic future hope out there,” he said.

“The problem comes when you cross that line and people become convinced they are God’s agents to make that future a reality and it involves violent, destructive behavior,” Kimball said.

Kimball said the answer is to “Love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself. You find that variation in the heart of all the major religions that have withstood the test of time.

“You can’t say, ‘I love God,’ and fly an airplane into a building,” he said. “The corollary to loving your neighbor as yourself is the Golden Rule. Imagine if Osama Bin Laden had to run his daily checklist past the Golden Rule test. How different that list would have to look.”

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