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A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle

Ben CarsonBen Carson has apprently just won a GOP straw poll in Indiana, getting a whopping 67% of the votes (see Christian Post - Ben Carson Wins Polk County, Iowa GOP Presidential Straw Poll by a Landslide; Says ISIS Must be Dealt With). His next closest rival, Ted Cruz, only received 7%, with Rick Perry in third with 4%, followed by a scattering of of several other potential candidates. I know it's awfully early to start taking these types of polls too seriously, and I suppose it's somewhat good news that Cruz and Perry weren't in the lead, but Carson isn't a whole lot better.

I've mentioned Carson on this blog once before in the entry, Local University Invites Creationist to Give Commencement Address (with the local university being Midwestern State University, an otherwise respectable institution). I made note of some extremely ignorant statements Carson had made about evolution, as well as his well-known bigoted remarks against homosexuals.

With Carson's recent straw poll win making headlines, I decided to Google his name just to see what else he was up to, and came across an article he'd written about the recent Navy Bible kerfuffle, Atheists forgetting the meaning of freedom: Nonbelievers seek to impose their values by banning Bibles. For anyone unfamiliar with this issue, the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, has a pretty good article, After Atheists Blow the Whistle, U.S. Navy Says Bibles Must Be Removed from Base Hotel Rooms. Basically, hotels run by the Navy had Bibles in the night stands, which may seem fairly standard given that practically every hotel room in the U.S. has a Gideon's Bible, but the Navy is a government institution, and per the Establishment Clause, isn't supposed to endorse religion. The Freedom From Religion Foundation got on the case, and the Navy originally agreed to remove the Bibles, but seems to have backtracked for the time being (as detailed in verse by the Digital Cuttlefish, Armageddon Gets Results; Navy Puts Bibles Back In Hotel Rooms).

Now, while it would be nice to see the Navy keep Bibles out of hotel rooms, out of all the issues in the country today, this one's a pretty low priority. But you can guess that certain right wing Christians were outraged when the Navy first removed the Bibles, which brings us back to Carson's article. I'll start off with the quote that ties in most closely to politics, and the fact that Carson just might be a potential presidential candidate.

We must also go back and read the Constitution, including the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion. It says nothing about freedom from religion and, in fact, if you go back and look at the context and the lives of those involved in the crafting of our founding documents, it is quite apparent that they strongly believed in allowing their faith to guide their lives.

Yes Dr. Carson, we are guaranteed the freedom of not having religion imposed by the government. To quote the Constitution since you brought it up, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." That has been repeatedly interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that government cannot endorse religion. And putting the holy book of one particular religion in a government run facility is endorsing that religion.

I don't doubt that many of the Founding Fathers were Christians and deists who were strongly motivated by their faith in how they lived their lives. But that's separate from how they framed the government. It's very telling that there is no mention of God in the Constitution (other than the convention of the date - year of our Lord). Even more explicitly, there's the Treaty of Tripoli, unanimously approved by the Senate in 1797, which contained the phrase, "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..." The majority of the founders wanted a secular government, keeping religion and government separate so that neither would interfere in the other (more info - Response to an Editorial by Pat Boone).


This next passage is the worst one from the article, and what motivated me to write this entry.

This last sentence may seem out of place if you don't realize that atheism is actually a religion. Like traditional religions, atheism requires strong conviction. In the case of atheists, it's the belief that there is no God and that all things can be proven by science. It is extremely hypocritical of the foundation to request the removal of Bibles from hotel rooms on the basis of their contention that the presence of Bibles indicates that the government is choosing one religion over another. If they really thought about it, they would realize that removal of religious materials imposes their religion on everyone else.

That is just plain idiotic. If lack of religious materials imposes atheism, then I'm surrounded by atheist propaganda, from the weather report on the 10 o'clock news, to the donut shop on the corner, to the stop light on my way home. If they don't hang a crucifix at the intersection, they're shoving atheism down our throats!

If the FFRF were demanding copies of Why I Am Not a Christian, The God Delusion, or God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, then Carson could claim that they were imposing their beliefs on everyone else. But as it is, they're simply asking for religious neutrality.

He also seems to paint with a pretty broad brush in saying atheists believe "all things can be proven by science". Heck, I'm rather scientific minded myself, but even I wouldn't go that far. 'Science as the most reliable method of answering questions with objective answers?' Sure (see my article, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge). But it's not magic that will answer any and all questions ever posed. And there are plenty of atheists who aren't necessarily of a scientific bent (see for example, Massimo Pigliucci's article, On the scope of skeptical inquiry).


The FFRF even offered what seemed to me a good compromise, making Bibles available to the guests that wanted them, along with other religious materials for other guests. Carson didn't seem to like that idea.

Some atheists argue that there should be a library or cachet of religious material at the check-in desk of a hotel from which any guest could order a Bible, Torah or Koran for their reading pleasure. No favoritism would be shown through such a system, and those who reject the idea of God would not have to be offended. This is like saying there shouldn't be certain brands of bottled water in hotel rooms because there may be guests who prefer a different type of water or who are offended by bottled water and think that everybody should be drinking tap water. The logical answer to such absurdity would, of course, be that the offended individual could bring his own water or simply ignore the brand of water that he does not care for.

Except that choosing bottled water isn't a Constitutional issue like the Establishment Clause. Really, this type of complaint by Carson just drives home how much this issue is about privelege, and not freedom of religion. The FFRF offered a solution that still made Bibles available to Christians. Not only would a Christian have the right to 'bring his own water' in the form of a Bible, but the front desk would even have extra Bibles on hand for the Christian who forgot their own personal copy. If that's an unacceptable compromise, then you're really arguing for special treatment, not just freedom.


Here's a quote I couldn't resist turning around on Carson.

As a nation, we must avoid the paralysis of hypersensitivity, which will allow us to get nothing done because virtually everything offends someone. We need to distribute "big boy" pants widely to help the whiners learn to focus their energy in a productive way.

I agree with the sentences, but not what Carson meant by them. Some books were taken out of hotel rooms. No one is stopping you from taking in your own Bible to read. Put on your 'big boy pants' and get over it.


This final quote came from near the start of the article, but considering how the situation has turned out, I figure it goes better here at the end of this entry.

The surprise is not the hypocritical stance of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, but rather the fact that an established bulwark of American strength and patriotism caved to a self-serving group of religious fanatics.

I wish I could say I was surprised "that an established bulwark of American strength and patriotism caved to a self-serving group of religious fanatics", but that's the special treatment Christians seem to get in this country.


I wasn't impressed by Carson last year when MSU invited him to give the commencement address, and this recent article has only hurt his reputation in my eyes. If this is the best hope for a Republican presidential candidate for 2016, I sure hope the Democrats come up with somebody electable. (Maybe I'll just vote for Kodos.)

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Updated 2014-09-10: Added link to my Confidence in Scientific Knowledge essay.

Updated 2014-11-17: Added note about the Treaty of Tripoli.

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