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Opening minds and hearts

08 August 2018 By James A. Beverley

Avoiding toxic forms of religion


James A. Beverley ( is professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary. Find more of his columns at

When you think about whether religion is good or bad, keep Nov. 18, 1978 in mind. That’s the day Jim Jones led more than 900 followers to "drink the Kool Aid" in their Peoples Temple compound in the jungles of Guyana. Ironically, their death ritual was known as the White Night. The suicides and killings made cults a household term.

The year of Jonestown was my first year as a professor. Hired at the ripe age of 24, I agreed to teach a course that dealt with cults and knew enough to stay one class ahead of the students. After Jonestown there was no end to invitations to speak about cults. Their study became one of my specialties, as regular readers of this column will know.

Back in 1978 I naively believed the Jonestown debacle would help people around the world be much more careful about religion, and that there would be few repeats of such disasters. How wrong I was. The four decades since Jones did his dirty work have given undeniable evidence for the claim of the great theologian Karl Barth – "Religion is unbelief."

Think of the following. In the mid-1980s Rajneesh leaders poisoned more than 700 of their neighbours in rural Oregon (see the Netflix series Wild Wild Country). In 1993 the followers of David Koresh chose to die in the fires at their compound in Waco, Texas. In 1995 Lisa McPherson died while under Scientology care in Clearwater, Florida. In 2007 William Kamm (who predicts he will become Pope Peter II) was sentenced to ten years in prison for aggravated sexual assault. In 2011 Warren Jeffs, the polygamous Mormon leader, received a life sentence for sex with underage girls. For more recent data ask your search engine, "Why is NXIVM in the news and its founder Keith Raniere in jail?"

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.

While these are all small groups, tragic and dark realities happen in larger groups. Think 9/11 and radical Islam. Think of the pedophile crisis in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Think of the manipulations in various Protestant denominations, whether liberal, evangelical or fundamentalist. (By the way, Jim Jones was a leader in a respected denomination.) Think of name brand Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim, New Age and atheist leaders who have abused their positions of power.

Well, isn’t it only stupid people who become victims of bad religion? Not in the ordinary sense. Highly intelligent people can be fooled. Jon Atack, author of Let’s Sell People a Piece of Blue Sky (CreateSpace, 2013 [1990]), is one of the smartest people you could ever meet, but he fell prey to the charms of Scientology. He now uses his experience and learning (he left the religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard) to manage the Open Minds Foundation in its goal to help people recognize manipulation in all its forms (

Well, shouldn’t we just deprogram victims of bad religions or bad religious experiences? Not if that means kidnapping people. People could get away with this tactic (and make $25,000 per attempt) after Jonestown and during the early years of "the cult scare," but now you risk major jail time. If deprogramming simply means witnessing, sharing, reasoning and loving to help people escape from bad scenes, fine, go for it. I practise these moves all the time. (Remember, of course, that some people will want to help you and me leave Jesus.)

Barth’s claim that religion is unbelief must be understood in context. He was coming from his experience of watching Catholic and Protestant leaders capitulate to Hitler and Nazism. For Barth, the gospel judged all religions, including Christianity, and sometimes especially Christianity. His approach is very significant, although we don’t want to overdo it. I understand the impetus behind saying, "Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship," but even Christians who say this would probably check off Christianity on a quiz about what religion they belong to.

In a 1996 column I gave three principles about protecting ourselves from toxic faith: (1) Never give up your freedom to "test the spirits," (2) be sure to look beyond appearances and (3) don’t confuse intelligence with wisdom. In more recent years I suggested three guards: (1) Guard your mind, (2) guard your money and (3) guard your body. The warnings here find justification in Jesus’ command, "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15).

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