Dr. Ben and the consequences of religion

People sometimes ask me, “Why do you pick on religion? What harm is there if people believe in God?” Well, look at Ben Carson.

I don’t think there’s any question that Ben Carson is an intelligent man, at least as far as his natural intellect is concerned. Yet here he is in the news again for saying dumb things. He proudly refuses to believe in evolution. He thinks the pyramids were built to store grain to feed the nation during times of famine. And, it turns out, some of the stories he’s told about his own past aren’t necessarily factual, in the usual sense of the word.

I don’t think these things are the result of lack of intellect on Carson’s part. I don’t even think they’re part of any particular moral failure (though some might argue that point). I think what we see in Ben Carson is a classic case of the mental corrosion you get from too much religious thinking.

The thing about religion is that it emphasizes belief over everything else, including factual accuracy. One could even say especially factual accuracy. If you want the respect and admiration of your fellow believers, you can’t allow anything to take precedence over your belief in the shared narrative promoted by your religion. The minute you start agreeing that religious beliefs have to measure up to some kind of objective, verifiable standard that has the potential to disprove anything, you’re as bad as a skeptic, which is the exact opposite of being a believer.

The power of religion is that virtually anybody can be an authority. Nobody knows what you believe better than you do, and that makes you the expert regarding your own faith. In return for this authority and prestige, all you have to do is support and/or improve the religious narrative you share with your fellow believers. And that means putting the narrative above everything else, and doing everything for the good of the story.

This is no less true for those who are smart enough to know better, and in fact for intelligent people it can be even worse, because they can devote their energy and intellect to the goal of embellishing and rationalizing the narrative, instead of trying to bring it down to earth and making it conform to mundane reality. Dr. Ben could find out the truth about the pyramids if he wanted to. But, because of the influence of his religion, he’s prevented from wanting to. He’s invented a story that supports the Genesis myth of Joseph and Pharaoh, and that, to him, is more important than knowing what Egyptian pyramids were really for.

I suspect that this habit even leaks over into his personal life. He doesn’t report the facts of his early years, he reports the narrative he’s worked up. When your definition of “truth” is defined (by your religion) as “whatever makes the narrative better,” then every time he tries to tell the “truth,” he’s going to feel like the narrative is the right thing to say, even when fact checkers can go back and point out the differences between the narrative and the fact. He can’t help it. His religion has totally programmed him to think that way.

That’s why I say religion is something to be wary of, and not taken seriously. As a myth, as a role-playing game, as almost anything else, we could enjoy the narratives of religion as harmless fantasies, distinct from genuine, real-world truth. But the moment you let religion dictate your definition of “truth,” it becomes toxic. Ben Carson is just one case in point. He’s smart, and he could be wise too. But his religion won’t let him.


  1. polishsalami says

    I don’t think “intelligent” is a label that can be handed around will-nilly. I consider a small percentage of the human population intelligent, and Carson definitely isn’t in that minority.

    • wirenutt says

      I really don’t think many people would not consider Dr. Carson as intelligent. He has separated conjoined twins, and he’s a renowned surgeon. I think by any definition of “intelligent” he qualifies.

      A person with average intelligence has an IQ of 100. I know a lot of people, and an IQ of 100 is nothing to brag about. By definition, half of all people are smarter than that. The people I know who I consider average are people who I know could never graduate medical school, for example.

      I also know very intelligent people who believe in the supernatural. It is very hard for me to conceive of smart people who believe in ghosts, psychics, and the nonsense religion teaches. But I see it all the time, my own wife being a perfect example. Very smart woman, but falls hook, line, and sinker for psychics, because, I think, she just wants to. Her mom died relatively young and she never had closure, so she so badly wants to communicate with her mom that she ignores all evidence that psychics are frauds. I’ve even showed her video of how they do it, and she just gets angry with me.

      Carson is similar. Smart man, but he’s stuck in the circle jerk of religion, and has never been questioned on it or called out for it. The guy is getting a rude dose of reality that he’s never had to deal with before.

  2. Robert,+not+Bob says

    The pyramid thing is doubly stupid, since it isn’t at all necessary to believe the Joseph story. Creationists make up lots of silly stuff: an ice shell in space around Earth, space-traveling antideluvians (yes, some people somehow believe both), dinosaurs being genetic engineering experiments… but they’re meant to prop up Genesis. This-which doesn’t need esoteric scientific knowledge to be debunked-is pointless. Why?

  3. Jockaira says

    “…he reports the narrative he’s worked up.”

    In other words, he’s reporting an illusion. And this is the guy that many believe should be our next president. I wonder what will happen when he enriches his narrative by beginning to believe that a massive ICBM attack is on its way?! By that time it may be too late to try to talk sense to him, and the only cure will be a bullet in the head from one of his Secret Service guards.

  4. dannorth says

    In a post on Patheos a former Evangelical describes her then husband witnessing in front of the congregation about having had a dissolute life before being born again: sex, drugs, alcool and maybe even Satanism.

    The thing is she knew none of it was true. She had known him from his teens and he had always led the life of a devout young man.

    But as she explained such narratives were highly valued in her church: the greater the depravity the greater the salvation. Such stories were a staple of services and after her husband performance she couldn’t take them at face value.

    This the same phenomenon as with Ben Carson: the value of the story is how it inspires faith not factual thruth so I’m much inclined to agree with the post.

  5. Nick Gotts says

    He’s invented a story that supports the Genesis myth of Joseph and Pharaoh, and that, to him, is more important than knowing what Egyptian pyramids were really for.

    Apparently, far from being his invention, it’s been around for many centuries, at least back to Gregory of Tours (6th century CE), and was generally believed in medieval Europe. So when Carson says it’s his “own personal theory”, arguably he’s just lying or fantasizing again.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Or it could be that he’s unaware of the history of that particular belief, and derived it independently (and ignorantly).

    • says

      Or maybe he just means “the theory that I, personally, believe.” It’s not as if he’s overly concerned with accuracy. Judging from his statements on other subjects, he’s a very sloppy thinker.

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