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I recently started reading When Religion Becomes Evil by Charles Kimball, the chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest. In his book, Kimball analyzes violent extremist groups from a variety of religions. Using his analysis, he outlines five warning signs of corruption in religion: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the “ideal” time, the end justifies any means, and declaring holy war.

In his chapter on blind obedience, Kimball discussed the religious cult of Aum Shinrikyo which was responsible for attacks using a deadly nerve gas in sixteen Tokyo subway stations in 1995. Although the movement’s beginnings seemed innocuous, Aum began demanding unquestioning dedication to his vision.

This is a pivotal point at which religion often becomes evil. Authentic religion engages the intellect as people wrestle with the mystery of existence and the challenges of living in an imperfect world. Conversely, blind obedience is a sure sign of corrupt religion. Beware of any religious movement that seeks to limit the intellectual freedom and individual integrity of its adherents. When individual believers abdicate personal responsibility and yield to the authority of a charismatic leader or become enslaved to particular ideas or teachings, religion can easily become the framework for violence and destruction.

I find this quote challenging on a number of levels. From a personal standpoint, it rings true with me. My faith reached an utterly new level of realness when I began to allow myself to question some the basic assumptions and absolute truth claims that I had been taught.

I dismantled the framework of my youth and set out on a journey to make my faith my own. When I was unable to reconcile what I knew in my head and felt in my heart about God, I engaged both in order to reconcile them on an issue. Sometimes the process required me to readjust my thinking toward a particular issue. At other times a change of heart was required.

Either way, I was left with a strong sense that my honest questioning and seeking was one of the most important tasks to which I could dedicate myself. I have known others to encourage “honest questions”… so long as I arrive at the right answer. Yet, I believe that honest questioning cannot presuppose an answer. If one may question so long as one arrives at the “correct” answer, then one does not have the free will to choose an answer. If a questioning person must arrive at the right answer, the questions become rhetorical and the person is blindly obedient. Only when a one is free to choose whichever answer one wants is the questioning process conducted honestly.