Thursday, November 12, 2015

Ben Carson's Overlapping Magisteria

by Michael Dorf

Dr. Ben Carson's ascent to front-runner or (depending on the poll) co-front-runner status in the Republican presidential field has brought with it intensified scrutiny of his past statements. I don't have a view on the extent to which his prior claims about West Point are exaggerations or how they might bear on his fitness for the presidency, nor do I have an opinion about the stabbing claim--which seems mostly grist for comedians. I do want to try to think through the implications, if any, of Carson's reaffirmation of his view that (some of?) the ancient Egyptian pyramids were built as grain storehouses pursuant to the plans for surviving seven lean years by the Biblical Joseph in his role as adviser to the pharaoh. To frame the discussion, I will assume that Carson's view is demonstrably false by the standards of archeology because there is overwhelming evidence that the pyramids (which are not hollow) were built as tombs (hundreds of years before the time the Bible places Joseph in Egypt).

Suppose that you have thus far supported Carson for president because you are very wealthy and, while you realize that he can't possibly run the government on a flat-tax of 10% tithe, as he proposes, you think that he is the candidate most likely to lower your taxes by the most. In other words, let's suppose that you are a generally rational person who had previously concluded that Carson was your candidate, but you are now concerned by his erroneous views about the pyramids. How concerned, if at all, should you be?

One answer might be "not at all." It's not as if any presidential decision will depend on the reasons the pyramids were built. At worst, these beliefs might slightly complicate some diplomatic relations with Egypt, but there are so many more pressing issues with respect to U.S. policy in Egypt and the Middle East, that it's hard to see this remote possibility as registering as more than a blip. Carson's belief about the pyramids seems just about completely irrelevant to what kind of a job he would do as president.

But perhaps that's taking too narrow a view of the matter. If Carson holds demonstrably false beliefs about the pyramids, you might worry that he also holds false beliefs about other matters--some of which are related to policy choices he would need to face as president. Just as his views about the authority of the Bible lead him to accept unscientific views about the pyramids, perhaps he will disregard the scientific consensus on matters that relate directly to public policy. Believing in Biblical cosmology, perhaps he will discount a NASA prediction that an asteroid will destroy life on Earth unless diverted. Or whatever.

Carson's claim that he has been subject to unprecedented scrutiny is, to put it mildly, absurd, as Trevor Noah nicely illustrates with some excerpts of the coverage of Barack Obama's media vetting in the last minute of this clip. Still, there is something to Carson's claim that the scrutiny to which he is now being subject is connected to the gap in perception between religious people like himself and the secular culture. That's an exaggeration, of course. So many Americans in all walks of life are religious, even deeply religious, that it is inaccurate to say that we have a secular culture. Nonetheless, I think it fair to say that the conventions of modern public life require some sort of commitment to what the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould called "non-overlapping magisteria." As I explained the concept in a post last year, if you accept that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria, then you think that science tells us "how the heavens go," whereas religion tells us "how to go to heaven."

The idea of non-overlapping magisteria is attractive but wrong, because even today, most mainstream religions make truth claims that overlap with--and contradict--the evidence-backed truth claims of science. Belief in miracles is one example. Belief in the efficacy of intercessory prayer is another.

In American life, people make faith-based truth claims all the time, as when an athlete gives thanks to God for scoring a winning touchdown. I personally find these sorts of claims somewhere between silly and offensive: silly insofar as they suggest that of all the ways in which God might intervene in the natural order, He would choose sides in a football game, especially when athletes on both teams have typically sought Divine assistance; offensive insofar as they imply that, while God can't be bothered to answer the prayers of people facing genocide, famine, war, and more, He is a fan of the Baltimore Ravens.

I can't speak for other not-especially-religious sports fans, but my own inclination when hearing an athlete give thanks to the Almighty for guiding the ball is to wait it out. Eventually, he will mouth some sports cliche ("We never gave up," or "I'm just trying to help the team") or even say something insightful ("They were only rushing three, so we knew we had time to get open"). In any event, the thanks to the Lord end up becoming just so much filler.

But here's the thing: That's not how such statements are usually intended. Many of the people who thank God for answering their prayers by supporting their sports team rather than the opponent really think that God interferes with the laws of physics to help them win because they really believe in the power of intercessory prayer. Carson's view that the pyramids were built to store grain is likewise based on his belief in the authenticity of the Bible as a factually accurate record of events, although, to be fair to the Bible, it doesn't say that Joseph had the pyramids built to store grain. That's on Carson (and on St. Gregory of Tours, who popularized the pyramids-as-granaries idea in the 6th Century).

Where does that leave us? For me, the fact that Carson has religious grounds for holding some factually false beliefs is not, by itself, worrying, even on the assumption that he holds those beliefs quite strongly. The athletes who go on television to attribute their success to Divine assistance still play the games, typically extremely well. It's not as if a devout quarterback puts his faith in the Lord and, Jedi-like, closes his eyes and throws. (Insert Tim Tebow joke here.) Likewise, when he was a neurosurgeon, Carson was not simply praying that his patients would get better. He actually performed the surgeries, using the same sophisticated techniques that the best non-believing neurosurgeons used.

Bottom Line: There are plenty of reasons to think that Ben Carson would be a terrible president, but his false belief about the pyramids is not one of them.


Shag from Brookline said...

I disagree with Mike's bottom line as the reasons are cumulative. As a physician, Carson committed to "Do no harm." But I don't see such a commitment from his political campaign. Carson is a soft-spoken Elmer Gantry, except when he's annoyed that people don't question that he was mean in his youth and then saw the light. Carson describes so many things about Obama as the worst thing since slavery. For me, the worst thing since slavery has been Justice Thomas. But Caron would succeed that if by some chane he were elected President. The speech and press clauses of the 1st A are at least equal to the religion clauses, even though they often challenge each other.

Shag from Brookline said...

Mike, off topic:

I understand the policy of comment moderation on posts after several days to lessen troll activity. Today at the Originalism Blog Michael "I'm not Rappaport") Ramsey comments on an update to a post of yours now archived. I went to that post and note two updates that I find most interesting. The Originalism Blog does not permit comments and challenges can readily be made there which could be responded to by comments at your Blog. But the comment moderation is limiting. Perhaps you might consider a new post on the topic addressing Ramsey's responses. It's obvious to me why the Originalism Blog doesn't provide for comments, getting a free ride on defending any and everything that challenges even discarded versions of originalism. There is no "authorized" spokesperson for originalism what with its many intra-mural conflicts (just as there is no "authorized" spokesperson for non-originalists). By the way, I appreciate your point on the "ism" aspect. I understand the luxuries of time limitations. But I have welcomed your posts on Brown and originalism.

Don Smith said...

If Carson were to somehow (beyond rational explanation) become the Republican nominee, he will suffer the same fate as Mitt Romney: underwhelming support from evangelical Christians due to his wacky cultist association. I will admit that Seventh Day Adventists aren't quite the pseudo-Christian cultists that Latter Day Saints are, but both groups were founded by 19th-century con men claiming "divine revelation" restoring "truth" that had been either lost or hidden from the mainstream church for centuries. Carson wants the support of evangelical Christians he doesn't believe are truly Christian since we follow the satanic practice of worshiping on Sunday. Adventists don't want to make the world a better place - they're waiting for Jesus to come and tear it all up - which by their own "revelation" was supposed to have happened 1844, but then they changed their doctrine and said that 1844 was just the START of the process of judgment or some other such craziness. The whole pyramids as grain storage facilities BS is consistent with the general SDA rejection of history in favor of private revelation - and that kind of crazy is just not acceptable in the leader of the Free World.

Joe said...

If you are going to rely on the Bible, at least get the details right. The story of Joseph is pretty good reading actually -- it's a pretty impressive novella at the end of Genesis. But, I'll give even a presidential candidate at least one pass there. He's not a problem simply because of one goofy belief or mythical biographical account or confusion over basic policy questions. It's a cumulative thing.

The long digression on religion is sports doesn't do much for me. I think the best way to see that sort of thing is that the players are religious sorts (hey there Daniel Murphy) and they want to thank God for their success. The idea that God favors a certain team is silly surely. And, some stupid comments can be cited there. Clearly doesn't like some of them though.

Joe said...

One other thing. I think it's fine for those motivated by religious faith to be in politics. Some decent sorts are (religion is not just for conservative trolls contra to the whole 2004 "value voter" = vote Bush business) and we just have to look at their overall record there.

Michael C. Dorf said...

W/r/t Shag's suggestion: Either Eric or I will probably return to the originalism debate eventually. I'm grateful for the engagement by Solum, Ramsey, and others. I can't promise a particular date, since my posts tend to be news-driven.

As Don Smith's points, I know very little about the theological claims of Seventh Day Adventists but I'll say two things: (1) Religions founded in modern times will tend to seem odder to non-believers than religions with more ancient roots, because the evidence to contradict the claims of the more ancient religions is no longer readily available; and (2) I have a soft spot for Seventh Day Adventists because many of them are vegan:

David Ricardo said...

I join Shag in his dissent. The problem with falsely arguing that the pyramids were used for gain storage, citing biblical infallibility as the rationale is not that this issue is relevant. No one is going to turn the pyramids into silos because of the Bible. But there is among conservatives a biblical based belief that says global warming is not a problem, will not take place and that since God told Noah and others He/She will not harm the Earth, we have nothing to worry about and should do nothing.

A policy regarding the environment and climate change based on religious rather than scientific beliefs can do great harm, even catastrophic harm. That Dr. Carson may well believe that climate policy should be based on religious faith makes him incredibly dangerous, and makes his statements about the pyramids highly relevant as indicators of how he would formulate policy. One cannot dismiss him and his pyramid fabrications as easily as Mr. Dorf does.

Shag from Brookline said...

I was christened/baptized shortly after my birth in 1930 and I don't recall giving my consent, assuming I legally could at the tender age of a few months. I have not been particularly religious, what with membership in a small christian group of very long standing. But I grew up in Catholic Boston respecting all religions as well as those who chose not to be religious. At Boston English High School (class of '47, thank you) I became aware of religions besides my own and Catholicism. I had a classmate, a negro (as was the reference back then), who was a hurdler of note on the track team. I used to attend a lot of the high school track meets as that was a popular sport back then. An important meet was scheduled for a Saturday, and this classmate declined to participate since he was an Adventist. He was a nice kid, very polite, didn't swear, a little different than most kids. While many were disappointed, I was struck by his principle back then. As a baseball fan, I had been familiar with Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg's refusal to plan on a high holiday, when I didn't know that much about high Jewish holy days. Greenberg was a proud American who joined the military sooner than most ballplayers during WW II. It was a few years later when I learned more about Jewish high holy days when Sandy Koufax declined his turn in rotation for a key game. Again, I respected his principle.

In between high school and the Sandy Koufax situation, I had been enchanted by a co-worker at a job I had before college. We got along well at work and finally I had the nerve to ask her out on a date. She was an Adventist and I met her family. I enjoyed her company very much on that one date, but learned of the obstacles that a non-Adventist would have with an Adventist on a social basis, as there were quite a few limitations that I did not have as a lapsed Christian. I think back of her from time to time as a nice, kind person. She knew her commitments and wanted me to be aware of them. (Maybe she just wanted to dump me.) So I haven't thought of Adventists that much since leaving that job for college. But now we have Dr. Ben Carson.

Coming from MA, I of course knew all about the Catholic John F. Kennedy, his family and political career when the 1960 presidential campaign was in play with JFK as a candidate. The question was raised concerning the impact of Catholicism upon his serving as President. JFK addressed this, even though Catholicism had long been around in American politics, but not regarding the presidency other than Al Smith. As noted by one commenter, Adventists have not been around as long as Catholicism. I'm not aware of Adventists in political office. At some point Carson will have his JFK moment. Based upon my limited experience with Adventists, including their Saturday obligations, it isn't clear to me that an Adventist can be a 24/7 President. Mitt Romney had to address the impact of his being a devoted Mormon in his run for the presidency. And keep in mind that Carson had some negatives about an American who is a Muslim serving as a president. So while no religious test is required by the Constitution, voters may address the faith - or lack of faith - of a candidate. JFK said he could abide by a separation of church and state and was elected in the 1960 campaign. At some point Carson has to confront what JFK faced. Back in the JFK timeframe, I was aware of the issues that had been raised primarily by non-Catholics. But I, as well as much of the public, may not be aware of obstacles an Adventist might have to address. Perhaps it is too early in the process, as Carson my fall by the wayside.

Shag from Brookline said...

Over at Balkinization Richard Primus' post "Madison's Journal and the Appeals of Originalism," a follow up to an earlier post by Heather Gerken on Madison's Journal (tie-ins to Mary Bilder's book), makes good reading in anticipation of future posts here on originalism and biblical stories per Ben Carson referred to in this post and comments. Perhaps we can expect the Originalism Blog to counter Primus. But it's good to have more non-originalists making their voices heard. It may take a theory to beat a theory. But many of these are more hypothesis than theory.