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Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part IV - Faith in Society

Ben CarsonThis entry is part of a series looking at Ben Carson's stance on political issues. For this series, I'm mostly looking at the issues identified on Carson's own website in the section, Ben on the Issues. I figured that was a good way to pick the issues he himself found most important to discuss, without anyone being able to accuse me of cherry-picking Carson's worst stances. An index of all the issues can be found on the first post in the series, Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part I.

This entry addresses Carson's stance on Faith in Society. I've covered this topic in more detail in several other blog entries, with one particularly relevant one being a Response to an Editorial by Pat Boone.

Here's how Carson started off this section on his website.

The United States of America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. We can and should be proud of that fact. It served us well for almost 200 years.

The principles upon which the U.S. was founded were largely Enlightenment Ideals, not anything specifically Judeo-Christian. First, consider the founding document of our government, the U.S. Constitution. It has no religious references other than the convention of using 'Year of our Lord' for the date. Consider also a comparison of the First Amendment with the First Commandment. The Amendment is all about freedom to worship however you see fit. The Commandment is all about worshipping one god and one god only. Those are not the same values. (Other Commandments, like don't steal, or don't murder, are universal to nearly all societies, and not specific to Judaism or Christianity.) There are plenty of other examples in that blog entry linked to above.

One particularly interesting example that I've brought up before is the Treaty of Tripoli. It was signed in 1796, just 8 years after the Constitution was ratified, by Senators who could rightly be considered Founding Fathers. And even though it was only a treaty, the circumstances surrounding it illustrate the mindset of those early U.S. politicians. When it was presented to the Senate, it was read aloud in its entirety, so that all present knew the entire contents. It was then confirmed unanimously by all of the members present (23 out of 32). Not only that, but in a somewhat unusual practice, the vote was recorded. To clarify, it wasn't so unusual for a vote to be recorded (this was the 339th time), but it was very unusual for a vote to be recorded when the vote was unanimous - this was only the 3rd time. So what is it about the treaty that makes it so interesting in a discussion on religion? Article 11 (emphasis mine):

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

After the treaty was passed by the Senate, President John Adams issued a statement that he "accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof." Like I said, it was only a treaty, but the politicians of the time seemed to go out of their way to support it and make their support known. If these politicians had any objections to the statement that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion", they certainly didn't act on them.

Carson went on to write.

However, we need to reverse the recent trend of secular progressives using activist, federal judges to drive faith out of our society. Anyone who wishes to practice their faith, for example by praying privately, can and should be able to do so. Equally, the rights of someone to abstain from private prayer should also be jealously protected.

Other than the first sentence, this passage isn't too bad, but also not very provocative. How many places in the U.S. are people being stopped from praying privately? Nearly every example I can think of that the religious right gets upset about is where religious people can't force their prayers in government venues, such as city council meetings or classrooms (or the recent example of Kim Davis trying to abuse her government position and enforce her religious principles on the citizens of her county). There are only a very few isolated cases I've heard of where people really were being stopped from praying privately, and these were usually the results of people misunderstanding the law and have usually been resolved pretty quickly (examples: ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression).

The first sentence is where I disagree. First of all, 'activist' judges are not being used to drive faith out of society in general. Judges are properly interpreting the First Amendment, and using it to keep religion and government separate. The fact that Christianity has had special privilege for much of the history of this country due to the majority of citizens being Christian does not change the fact that many of these instances of special privilege were in violation of the Constitution. Now that Christianity is losing its grip on the country (between 2007 and 2014, Christians fell from 78.4% to 70.6% of the population - Pew), I expect these types of challenges will become more common. And like I said, these legal challenges are usually only where church and state are improperly entangled, not for people privately practicing religion.

Here's the last excerpt from Carson I'm going to discuss.

The First Amendment enshrines our freedom to practice whatever faith we choose from any government intrusion. Our Founding Fathers never meant for the First Amendment to be used to drive prayer out of the public square.

Here are two statements by a very prominent Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government," as well as, "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." There's also the very famous passage from his letter to the Danbury Baptists about "building a wall of separation between church and State." Granted, Jefferson was only one of the Founding Fathers, but he was certainly no fan of organized religion, and very clearly wanted religion kept separate from the public square. Consider also the discussion above about the country being founded on Enlightenment ideals, and it seems pretty clear that the founders did indeed intend for the government to be secular.

Outside the legal sphere, it's no secret I'm no fan of faith. I have an entry, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, listing examples of the harm caused by religion*. Now, I would never advocate for the government to try to suppress religion, since only totalitarian governments try to dictate beliefs, and regimes that have tried this in the past have in effect made the state a new religion. But I would like for society itself to change to the point where admitting belief in gods was no longer automatically seen as a virtue.

I've previously mentioned a study by Gregory S. Paul, Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies. Here are two graphs from that study. (Click to embiggen. I modified this figure somewhat to combine these two graphs into one image, but didn't change anything about how the data was plotted.)

Graphs from Gregory S. Paul's Study

This shows a clear correlation between religion and societal dysfunction. Granted, correlation is not causation, so it's possible people turn to religion for comfort in dysfunctional societies, rather than religion causing dysfunctional societies, but it's certainly clear that less religious societies for the most part are better off than more religious ones.

A related previous entry of mine is A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle, looking at Carson's misinterpretation of the Establishment Clause, and a truly idiotic claim about religious neutrality promoting atheism.

On to Part V, Taxes

Image Source for Ben Carson: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

*To clarify, I don't think religion is universally harmful. There are many varieties of belief, even among 'one' religion like Christianity. On the balance, I think religion as currently practiced does more harm than good, but that's painting with a very broad brush, and could change in the future depending on how religion itself changes. As I wrote in another entry, Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo, "If religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, religious debates could be mainly academic and philosophical. As soon as religious people quit causing so much trouble in the world, atheists will quit getting angry about religion."

To clarify further, I definitely don't think religious people are usually harmful. Most people are on the whole good, regardless of what religion they practice. Society wouldn't have survived if they weren't. But many otherwise good people do bad things because of religious influences, like continuing to fight against marriage equality, or murdering doctors who perform abortions. To quote Steven Weinberg, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Updated 2015-09-23: Added section & figures on correlation between religion & societal health. Added parenthetical note about many Commandments not being rules specific to Judaism or Christianity.

Updated 2015-09-24: Added footnote clarifying difference between religion and religious people.

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