by Brendan Beery
At a press conference in Ferguson, Missouri, Ben Carson was asked whether he had a position on the avalanche of tickets and warrants under which so many people and communities find themselves smothered. He had no position. In explaining why he had no position, Carson emphasized the need to study the issue so that he could base his position on evidence. He even said, “That’s the beauty of medicine,” his former profession: it’s “based on evidence.”
So says the man who denies climate change, evolution, and the historical stakes through the heart of his fact-free belief in American constitutional theocracy.
But let’s not fault him for wanting evidence. We can at least applaud him for knowing (or saying) that beliefs should be based on evidence, even if he doesn’t apply this principle to his political views. Old law profs like me know that getting someone to undertake application is the steep hill up which we push a styrofoam boulder called the rules. But alas, if one can regurgitate a rule, at least there is a boulder to push. And about this rule, Carson was right: policy must be undergirded by evidence. (As Rick Perry might put it, “A broken clock is right once a day.”)
Wordnik.com defines evidence as “[a] thing or things helpful in forming a conclusion or judgment” or “[s]omething indicative; an outward sign.” The Law Dictionary (online) defines objective evidence as “quantifiable information that can be verified through the use of analytical tools and other forms of research.”
So we should be basing our policy choices on things that outwardly signal information that can be verified (and indeed observed in the first place) with reliable tools and research. Right, then.
As an example, humans have developed a useful and reliable tool called a thermometer. These gadgets – thermometers – can be placed inside other tools called buoys, which float and bob on water. When thermometers are married to buoys, scientists can use these tools to observe measurable and verifiable information, like, for instance, ocean temperatures and depths. With this information, they can form conclusions and judgments, as, for example, that the oceans are getting warmer and (thanks to melting ice caps) ocean depths are increasing. That’s called global warming. And since scientists know how to measure both the quantity of manmade carbon emissions and the effects of those emissions on the atmosphere, we can also reach conclusions and judgments as to whether human activity contributes to global warming (here’s a hint: yes).
Biologists have a useful and reliable tool called a petri dish. In that dish, they can put viruses. They can then observe the behaviors of those viruses and watch as, through a series of random mistakes (not design), viruses adapt to their environments through what might best be called “survival of the luckiest mutation.” From these observations, biologists can reach conclusions and judgments, like, for example, that life is in a continual process of adaptive change. This is called evolution.
Historians (not fiction writers like David Barton) like to base their conclusions on observable facts, too. For example, when they want to know what George Washington thought about religion, they prefer to analyze the writings of Washington himself and Washington’s own behavior. There is good evidence that Washington attended church services, but also good evidence that he had the habit (grating to some religious overlords) of leaving before communion. What is inescapable from the evidence is that Washington kept his spiritual beliefs and practices mostly to himself. He never mentioned Jesus in public speeches or writings, and was even loathe to use the word God, preferring the less sectarian terms Creator or Great Author.
The best one can say about John Adams is that he was ambivalent about religion in general. Religious fundamentalists are right to cry foul when Atheists quote John Adams as having said, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated April 19, 1817 (that would be pretty good evidence), “Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it …”
In point of fact, Adams did write that, but to cite that quotation alone is to ignore its context; in the very same letter, Adams wrote, “Without Religion, this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.” But the same fundamentalists who decry this context-free sleight of hand will themselves quote Adams as having said, “Without Religion, this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell” without pointing out that in the very same letter, he wrote, “Twenty times, in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it …” One must conclude about Adams that, thinker who he was, he played opposites against each other without lapsing into dogmatism. As to fundamentalism, Adams was overtly hostile, saying of religious extremists that, were they not restrained by law, they would “whip and crop, and pillory and roast” their compatriots.
Thomas Jefferson was bad news for theocratic revisionists, which is probably why so many right-wingers advocate his extirpation from American history texts. After all, Jefferson is the guy who extirpated everything from the Bible that he found to be hokus pokus, after which precious little remained. A deist who did believe in an intelligent designer, Jefferson regarded Jesus as a philosopher – and a good one. But Jefferson would have nothing of the Bible’s supernatural mythology. In fact, in a letter he penned to John Adams in 1823, he said of the virgin birth, “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
Those who, like Ben Carson, say that the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation, if they mean that in any historical sense involving our forefathers, are left to explain why none of our first three presidents ever put pen to paper – or parchment – to say as much
As to our governing charter, aside from a passing reference to “blessings” in its flowery preamble, what does it say about religion? Precisely three things: 1) there should be no religious test for holding public office; 2) the government may not establish religion; and 3) the government may not interfere with the practice of religion. That is called a secular republic.
Evidence. Carson wants some. Oh that he — or those likeminded — would heed some.
We CONCUR with the conclusions and judgments of scientists and historians and DISSENT from Carson’s views on climate change, evolution, and constitutional theocracy.
Please file your concurring or dissenting opinion in the Comments section below.