Religion and Evil

There’s been a lot of theodicy on this blog so far, and many Oriel theologians have been really getting to grips with how to understand and potentially deal with the theological problem of evil. Ever the contrarian, I have decided to wade into this discussion of evil from a completely different and probably irrelevant religious studies angle. Instead of how the existence of evil fits within a coherent account of the teachings of a particular religion, I will look at the relationship between religion in general as a phenomenon in the world and the existence of evil. Specifically:

Why does religion consistently cause so much evil?

What I mean by religion has already been explored, but what I mean by evil could be a contentious topic given the many different ethical theories flying about. Because of this, I will stick to examples that I’m pretty sure all of us would agree are evil, and luckily for me religion provides plenty.

I will go first into the vital importance of honesty about the existence of religious evil, then look at the psychological mechanisms that exist within religion which make it so perennially conducive to evil, and finally briefly ponder whether all of the above means that religion is a Bad Thing.

I debated for quite a while what to make the headline picture for this post – should I go dramatic with 9/11, topical with Charlie Hebdo, or historical with the Spanish Inquisition – but I finally settled on the current photo of a Zen Buddhist monk. This is to emphasize that all significant religions have been at some point associated with great evil, even ones like Buddhism that don’t have much of a reputation for it. The image is of Harada Daiun Sogaku, the Japanese monk who during the Second World War preached:

If ordered to march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom of Enlightenment. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war now under way.

If this post seems to give quite a one-sided account of religion, that’s because it is only about one side of it – the bad side. I go briefly into the good at the end, and may later write a full post on that.

Coming up: Barack Obama, crazy fundies, and Aztec Jeremy Bentham.


It is commonplace now to try to absolve and act of religious evil from connection to religion. For example, David Cameron was very quick to state that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was “nothing to do with Islam”. Unless by ‘Islam’ here Cameron means something like true Islam – which itself raises the question of what ‘true’ Islam is, and whether Cameron has much idea himself – this claim is patently false, as it is painfully clear that religious beliefs and feelings played a large part in the Kouachi brothers’ motivations, and that they considered their religion to be Islam. This is not of course to say that Islam is inherently evil, and certainly not that all Muslims are evil, but merely to state the obvious – that this particular act of evil had something to do with a particular version Islam, as heretical and inauthentic as we may argue that version of Islam to be.

Even worse, Obama says at the beginning this video that ISIS “is not Islamic – no religion condones the killing of innocents”:

Again, while a very good case could be made that the religion of ISIS is very far indeed from authentic or traditional Islam, but clearly their ideology is a religious one, and one they seem very convinced indeed is Islamic. All major religions have had evil offshoots, and Islam is no exception. Even worse, the statement that ‘no religion condones the killing of innocents’ is utterly, palpably false. Most obviously, many religions have condoned human sacrifice and the concept of a ‘holy war’ is hardly unheard of. It could be claimed that by definition those a religion wants to kill are not innocent in its eyes, but not only does that mean the victims of ISIS are not ‘innocent’ in their view (being either heathens or, if Muslims, traitors) making the statement irrelevant to the context, but also it renders it as a useless tautology. The only possible interpretation of that statement is that Obama is defining religion in such as way as to deny the very  possibility of religious evil. When he goes on to say that “it has no vision except the slaughter of all those who stand in its way”, he is ignoring or ignorant of its quite clearly stated aim to establish a united worldwide Caliphate under strict and brutal Sharia law. This fascinating and terrifying propaganda video released by ISIS gives a first-hand account of what their vision is, and why they are willing to slaughter all who stand in their way. They may not be ‘truly’ Islamic, but they definitely think they are.

I can’t recommend this detailed exposition of ISIS’s doctrine, theology and ideology enough. I was considering attempting something like that myself until I read that and realized my attempt wouldn’t be a patch on it. Shout out to TBJR for putting it up on Facebook for me to discover. If you really want to see the most evil manifestation of religion in the world today, track down some of ISIS’s gorier propaganda videos on the internet – the most recent one is the simultaneous beheading of 21 Libyan Christians. I did and unfortunately can’t recommend the experience for anything other than its educational value.

While I understand the political imperative to downplay potential sources of social tension (such as people blaming all Islam or all Muslims for ISIS), such willful denialism flies so clearly in the face of the facts that few are convinced by it. If we are going to sort out the world we live in, we have to be honest with ourselves about what sort of world it is – and it is a world in which religious evil is rampant.

This man is not an atheist.
This man is not an atheist.


So religion is indeed responsible for a lot of evil throughout human history. But why? What is it about what claims to be the best thing in the world that so often makes it the worst? In other words, is there anything inherent in religion that makes it such a potential cause of evil? I would argue that there is. Below I examine a few of the perennial psychological mechanisms by which religion can cause evil or make it more likely. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and none of them are necessarily unique to religion, but they are what I believe to be the most consistent and powerful causes of religious evil.


After the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan are the most iconic image of tribalistic hatred we have. While religion is not the essence of their ideology as it is with ISIS, it has a place as a kind of tribal marker. This disconcertingly jaunty recruitment song brings out the links they make between religion and a tribal sense of identity:

The Bible calls for glory to
Our symbols of the man
A sword, and water, rope, and hood
Portray our noble Klan!

In search of peace and liberty
We pledge our hearts and hands
We must defeat the Communists
To save our Christian Land!

The ideology of the Klan is basically an aggressively tribalistic one. Their role, as they see it, is basically to defend the identity and purity of their tribe – which consists of people who are American, Protestant, traditionalist and above all white – the “Christian land” mentioned in the song. While ISIS could be said to have a truly religious ideological motivation for their evil (which does itself induce a very strong sense of sectarian tribalism), for the Klan religion is just one aspect of a tribal identity which motives them to violently persecute those outside their tribe. While Christianity features in the Klan’s self-identity to a surprising extent – their most famous ritual is seen not as a destruction, but an ‘illumination’ of the cross – the internal logic of their ideology is to do with ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ rather than as religious duty per se, in contrast to ISIS who clearly and explicitly link their political goals and actions to theology. Needless to say, of course, as much as they want to present themselves as carrying out the seemingly understandable goal of defending a culture and identity, in practice their activities have been tribalism of a much cruder kind as their racial hatred has motivated them to carry out innumerable horrific crimes. If race hate is dressed up in rhetoric about religious identity, it is easier to sell to those outside the group and easier to rationalise for those inside it.

The red drop symbolises the blood Christ shed for the Aryan race. I don't think they've read Galatians.
The red drop symbolises the blood Christ shed for the Aryan race. I don’t think they’ve read Galatians.

The Ku Klux Klan is just one of many examples of the link between religion and tribalism – one closer to home is the Protestant/Catholic sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. As there are diverse religions, religion is something that divides as well as unites people. Just as it contributes strongly to someone’s sense of who they are on an individual level, it does so for identity on a group level . While anything that distinguishes different groups from one another could be come a tribal marker, the inherent extra potency of religion for this is basically in that people tend to care so much about it. The fact that religious dividing lines often coincide with racial, national, linguistic or cultural dividing lines adds to this potency. When other tribes are perceived as evil or threatening, violence and evil can easily ensue. Religion, in this case, is just one particularly powerful marker of difference and identity among many.


The Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz wrote in his memoirs the following description of the religion of the land he had conquered:

On these altars were idols with evil looking bodies, and that every night five Indians had been sacrificed before them; their chests had been cut open, and their arms and thighs had been cut off. The walls were covered with blood.They strike open the wretched Indian’s chest with flint knives and hastily tear out the palpitating heart which, with the blood, they present to the idols. They cut off the arms, thighs and head, eating the arms and thighs at ceremonial banquets. The head they hang up on a beam, and the body is given to the beasts of prey.

This strikes us as not only morally repulsive, but so viscerally and obviously so that it is hard to imagine any other response to it. Mel Gibson’s graphic recreation of Mayan sacrifice in Apocalypto is a product of Hollywood, but there is no reason to suppose the real thing was any less savage and bloodthirsty:

How could people bring themselves to go against every one of what we think are universal moral instincts, showing no compassion whatsoever as they brutally kill their helpless victims in the name of religion? Even if our specific ‘moral instincts’ might be more culturally conditioned and less universal than we think, surely the sheer gruesomeness of the ceremony would disgust anyone on an instinctive level?  As hard as it may be to fathom, this is really just another manifestation of the principle that ‘strong beliefs lead to strong actions’. In my previous post, I described religious belief as claiming to refer to the most important things in existence. In the case of the Aztecs, it was their sincere religious belief that if the gods were not fed with human blood, the sun would stop rising. If this doctrine were true, even a western utilitarian like Jeremy Bentham would have to start hurriedly sharpening his obsidian knife – the continued rising of the sun is simply more important than the lives and suffering of the small percentage of people who became sacrificial victims. By suppressing any instinctive revulsion they might have had in order to act in accordance with what they believed to be the greater good, Aztec priests were simply doing what made sense given their picture of the world. This doesn’t explain of course how a belief requiring such violence originated, or which way the causality is – whether the belief was a rationalisation of the ritual the ritual was a response to the belief – but it does explain how, once established, the belief could perpetuate the ritual and make it continually possible. Religion is a belief system so particularly good at making people do this precisely because religious beliefs by their very nature refer to what is more important than anything else.

It could happen.
It could happen.


The video below claims to be taken ‘word for word from Christian fundamentalist forums’. Even if its sources are inauthentic, it does give good examples of the patterns of thought used by the most blinkered and dogmatic of religious believers. It is also very, very funny:

For fundamentalists, all their conclusions are foregone conclusions. No matter how much evidence to the contrary they are shown, thy will always believe that evolution is false and that Adam and Eve literally existed 6,000 years ago. One, Pastor Peter LaRuffa even said “If somewhere within the Bible, I were to find a passage that said 2 + 2 = 5….I would believe it.” They believe in the priority given to the Bible as a source of knowledge so strongly that no other source can challenge it on any point whatsoever. This is another example of what I described in my definition of religion: epistemic privilege. But as I pointed out then, all religions involve some kind of epistemic privilege. As much as we might talk about faith being something like an attitude of trust in and reliance on God, it does also involve believing things that could not be thoroughly demonstrated or shown to be probable with human reason alone. The way this principle enables religious evil is that it puts the epistemically privileged source beyond question and criticism, including when the epistemically privileged source is commanding evil. The figure of speech ‘drinking the Kool Aid’ means to accept dogma without question. This is a very apt encapsulation of what happened at the People’s Temple cult in 1978 when 920 people knowingly committed suicide by drinking poisoned Kool Aid at the request of their leader, Jim Jones. Below is a dramatisation based very closely on the original audio recording discovered at the site:

What is truly incredible is the calm, unquestioning and almost serene way in which his followers obey to their deaths. While unquestioning obedience is hardly unique to religion, that the very nature of religion involves accepting claims that couldn’t be reached with reason (‘natural theology’) alone from those things or people in positions of authority gives it a particular tendency towards this kind of thinking. At the experiential level, Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ can often involve a ‘feeling of absolute trust’, and when that trust is abused, the consequences are dire. This doesn’t mean that trust in religious authority is always a bad thing, but it does place a great duty on those in positions of religious authority (I’m looking at you, future ordinands) to be very careful to use it benevolently:

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Uncle Ben, Spider-Man, 2002


So, having gone into its extraordinary potential to cause evil and suffering, the logical next question seems to be:

Is religion overall a good thing or a bad thing?

Despite all I’ve written above, I’m still inclined to think the balance lies more with the good than with the bad. Needless to say, if any religion is true then that one must be a very good thing due to many souls it will have saved! But even from an atheist perspective, it seems religion has caused more good than ill in its few tens of millennia of existence. It is also true that some religions are better or worse for the world than other religions – only the absurd doctrine of strong cultural relativism could avoid this conclusion, but I still get the feeling that statement will be controversial.

But as for religion in general: it provides motivation for good just as powerful as its motivations for evil, makes individuals happier on average (a very consistent empirical finding in the psychology of religion), gives a sense of meaning and purpose to people’s lives, gives a strong justification for altruism, encourages ethical behaviour of at least some sort, gives social cohesion by shared values and identity, gives a sense of affiliation and community, causes the most profound and fulfilling experiences it is possible for humans to have, inspires works of art that would never be as powerful if they concerned a subject with less inherent charisma and somehow keeps the kind of people who do theology degrees in employment.

If there were no religion, there would be no Oriel theology. End of.
If there were no religion, there would be no Oriel theology. End of.

2 thoughts on “Religion and Evil

  1. Great post. Big fan of the blog: but can somebody add an ‘archives’ tab so one can get back easily to previous entries?


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