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.