In the wake of the second anniversary of 9/11 and ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, we wonder how such havoc can be waged in the name of God.

Religion is a great force for good, and yet it can be a powerful force for evil. Men fly airplanes into buildings with the phrase “God is great,” and a Christian minister is executed in Florida for murdering an abortion doctor, saying he expects a great reward in heaven. These are not isolated incidents or recent phenomena. They are the spoiled fruit of an overripe understanding of God.

Charles Kimball’s recent book, When Religion Becomes Evil, identifies five early warning signs for where religion is on the verge of turning evil.

Absolute truth claims. Most religions look to sacred texts for the revealed knowledge and the will of God. Whether the Bible or the Koran, say, it is Holy Scripture to those who believe. To say they deliver straightforward truth, though, is to ignore careful study. Terrorists use scripture for justifying murder. Some want Genesis 1-2 to undergird biology curriculum in high school science, addressing the “how” as well as the “who” of it all. Religious truth concerns the meaning of life and the proper living of it before God. This leaves room for more than one interpretation, and it should keep us humble before the task.

Blind obedience. If there can only be one interpretation of truth, then there must be an inerrant interpreter who is to be obeyed without question. Whether Osama bin Laden or the pastor of my church, whoever demands such loyalty is leading sheep away from the true Shepherd.

Establishing the “ideal” time. Much religious lament is framed in longing for a lost golden age, whether New Testament times or early America or David’s reign or Mohammed’s day or the good-old 1950s. At no time since the Garden has virtue ruled undisputedly. Now is the time of salvation. Make the most of it.

The end justifies any means. Doing right is only right when doing right rightly. Good does not beget evil or evil, good. So do what is good and resist the urgency of those who would take shortcuts to heaven.

Declaring holy war. Since sin lurks within me as much as anyone else, I cannot draw clear lines of who are the holy and unholy. We leave that for God to sort out. We’ve had more than enough religious wars; it’s time for religious peace.

Religious fervor is a good thing when wisely directed. When standing on the edge of a cliff, one bold step of faith backwards is forward thinking.