In the name of religion, a great deal of good has been done in this world. And, as the recent shootings in Paris remind us, so has a great deal of evil.
Every religion is a spiritual inkblot test. Its adherents read into it whatever they're predisposed to see. For some, faith is a prod toward generosity, mercy and love. For others, even within the same tradition, faith may justify stinginess, wrath and hate.
While the worst religious violence these days is committed in the name of Islam, no group is exempt from raging, mindless extremists.
It hasn't been long since Protestant and Catholic Christians were blowing each other to smithereens in Northern Ireland, to cite one of innumerable sectarian conflicts. There are crazy-mean Jews and Hindus as well.
These days in our own nation, for whatever cultural reasons, the anger, narcissism and paranoia that sometimes find suckle in Americanized faiths usually don't result in bloodshed.
Earlier, they did. In colonial Virginia, Anglicans regularly flogged and imprisoned Baptists. In August 1855, Protestant Know-Nothings murdered nearly two-dozen Catholics right up the road in Louisville.
Presently, our own distorted religions result more often in spiritual bondage than gunfire; they create emotional enslavement to bad ideas. They're about mind control. They're about demagogic leaders bullying gullible churchgoers.
But that also is a type of violence, which scars souls even if it doesn't draw blood.
For what it's worth, here are my 10 warning signs your church, synagogue or mosque may be more abusive than benevolent:
■ It defines where you can live, who you can socialize with, how you can spend your money.
I'm not talking about the pastor who suggests that, because you're struggling with cocaine addiction, you might ought to avoid your crack-dealing friends, or says that since you just filed bankruptcy for the third time, you might need counseling to help curb your compulsive shopping. That's practical, common-sense advice.
I'm talking about leaders who forbid you to make friends outside your congregation, or insist you cut yourself off from your family, or want you to sign over all your assets to the church.
■ It offers four (or three or seven) simple solutions to all of life's problems. And if you've tried the Four Steps or Eight Propositions and you're still suffering with your illness or unfaithful spouse, it's your fault; you somehow sinned. It's never, ever that the sect or its leaders erred; it's always, always, always you.
■ It claims its holy book is inspired and accurate down to the last semicolon and exclamation mark and that, as a result, all other holy books are merely packs of lies.
■ It wants to run the government. Anytime religion becomes intertwined with the state, it tends to corrupt both religion and the state. Jesus, my own favorite spiritual figure, famously said, "My kingdom is not of this world." Beware any religious group that demands and feels entitled to temporal power.
■ It tells you those who don't understand the cosmos the way your group does are possessed by Satan, motivated by evil or less important to the Lord than you are.
■ It has a bunker mentality. Fear drives it. It's terrified of God's wrath, terrified of the IRS, terrified of Hollywood, terrified of competing religions. It majors in fear rather than hope. It views everybody outside as a conspirator in a vast plot to destroy the faithful.
■ It defines itself by what it's against rather than what it's for, and it's against almost everything, no matter how inconsequential. Anything fun must be a sin.
■ It doesn't allow you to ask pertinent questions or express doubts. The leaders may say things that appear to make no inherent sense, but become threatened and combative when you ask calmly and reasonably for clarification.
■ It forces you to be dishonest about who you are, to become a hypocrite, to pretend you're morally perfect, to claim you believe things you don't.
■ It concentrates near-absolute authority in a handful of leaders, or even a single leader. The leaders insist they're accountable to no one but God. To oppose them on any issue is to oppose the Lord Almighty and invite divine wrath.
I've probably overlooked a danger sign or two.
And possibly a congregation might act in one or two of the ways I've mentioned, but have perfectly legitimate reasons for doing so.
Still, if you kept seeing your church pop up on the list above, point after point, I'd consider getting the heck out of there. Religion doesn't have to be abusive. It should be nurturing and even joyful. It should glorify God and simultaneously uplift your heart.