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.