P residential candidate Ben Carson’s scientific views might seem out of place for a renowned neurosurgeon. He is uncertain on global warming, opining to Bloomberg: “We may be warming. We may be cooling.” He is strangely agnostic about the age of the earth, but believes it was created in six days and life is recent. In 2011, he told a Seventh-day Adventist audience that he was not “a hard and fast person who says the earth is only six thousand years old. But I do believe in the six day creation.” He added that “the earth could have been here for a long time” before God started creating. On evolution he does not mince words: Darwin’s theory “was encouraged by the adversary,” meaning the Devil, as he told another Seventh-day Adventist group in 2012.
Carson isn’t alone. According to the Pew Research Center, a sizable chunk of the U.S. agrees, with 31 percent rejecting evolution entirely. Even among doctors, typically equated with scientists in the public mind, 22 percent reject evolution, according to a survey from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Regardless of one’s employment, opposition to evolution is driven by religion, and usually by certain readings of the first chapters of Genesis; the fact is, there just aren’t a whole lot of atheists who reject evolution, because the science is so overwhelming. In an earlier study, Pew found that 87 percent of atheists and agnostics agreed with the statement that, “evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life.” The same study showed that 58 percent of Catholics, 77 percent of Jews, and only 35 percent of Protestants agreed. Clearly, religious belief is not an impossible barrier to acceptance of evolution.
Carson’s faith has been coming up on the campaign trail, due both to Carson’s expression of Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) beliefs and to Donald Trump, who has cast aspersions on them. A Presbyterian himself, an affiliation that he described as “down the middle of the road,” Trump engaged in fear-mongering of sorts: “I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about, I just don’t know about.” Indeed, few know about Seventh-day Adventism, which was officially organized as a distinct denomination in 1863. Taking its name from the emphasis on worshipping on Saturday (the seventh day) instead of Sunday, its roots were in the Millerite movement, best known for its failed predictions of Jesus’ return, known as “the Great Disappointment.” Today, Seventh-day Adventism counts 18 million followers globally, most of them outside the United States. Raised by an Adventist mother, baptized SDA at age 8, and then again at 12 by his own request, Ben Carson has been an Adventist virtually his entire life. And his religious inheritance puts him close to the sources of the creationist movement.
Many believing scholars today argue that the first of two creation accounts in the biblical book of Genesis, with its familiar structure of days, took its current form around the sixth century BCE. As a minority group in Babylon after the destruction of Israel, Israelites were pulled in two directions: cultural assimilation or divergence. In writing Genesis 1, Israelite priests split the difference, reshaping Israelite creation traditions in Babylonian ways to demonstrate their respectability, while simultaneously arguing against Babylonian religious ideas about polytheism and the nature of humanity. In spite of its seven-day structure, this priestly remix of creation had no interest in the age of the earth or the length of creation; they just wanted to survive by appealing to their cultural and political overlords while keeping as much of their religion as possible in a foreign land. Many believers have little problem squaring this with their beliefs. C.S. Lewis, for example, once wrote that he had “no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of Creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical.” The important takeaway is that Genesis 1 did not represent Israel’s earliest or only understanding of creation, nor was its particular mode of expression completely without human context.
Today, Genesis is understood a variety of ways, some taking significant account of that human context, and others none at all. In the latter category was an interpretation provided by Ellen White, one of the founders of Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist church. A charismatic visionary, in 1864 she published a vision wherein she “was carried back to the creation and shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.” This and other authoritative prophetic commentary by White locked the SDA tradition into reading the early chapters of Genesis as scientific history, with life only recently present on earth and a worldwide flood. Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, published only five years before, was not yet well known. White’s commentary, by contrast, was published and republished among Adventists and Bible readers.
In the wake of White’s vision, a young enthusiastic Adventist named George McCready Price took it upon himself to defend his inherited SDA interpretation of Genesis, namely, that it described a normal week, and life was therefore only recently on the earth. White’s writings were both his motivation and his source. Addressing an SDA audience in 1927, he said, “Every thinking man among us must acknowledge that our safety and immunity in this respect is due to our faith in the simple bible narrative, supplemented by the writings of Mrs. E. G. White.”
For Price, the crux of evolutionary theory was not biology but geology. He once wrote that “all turned on its view of geology, and that if its geology were true, the rest would seem more or less reasonable.” Evolution required millions of years for its adaptations, which geology overwhelmingly seemed to show. Disappointingly, geology also failed to demonstrate a worldwide flood within the last few thousand years. To defend his understanding of the Bible, then, all Price had to do was completely rewrite geology. In spite of little formal education and none in geology, Price developed the view that geology did not demonstrate the great antiquity of the earth, but was proof of a recent worldwide flood. This was his “flood geology.” Beginning in 1902, his books carried titles like Illogical Geology (1906), The New Geology (1923), and Evolutionary Geology and the New Catastrophism (1926). Reviews by actual geologists were quite negative. Although geology has made ninety years of progress confirming Price’s errors, Carson has echoed Price’s geological arguments as recently as 2011.
One non-geologist who read Price’s books made them quite public. Two years after The New Geology, John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution in public schools. William Jennings Bryan served as prosecuting counsel. After the legally odd maneuver of putting Bryan on the stand, opposing counsel grilled him about the Bible, science, and scientists. Bryan named Price as one of two “scientists” who supported his anti-evolutionary views, giving a boost to Price’s books and unfortunately embarrassing Bryan in the process.
The Scopes trial increased public visibility of Price’s publications. Although most rejected his so-called “flood geology,” evangelical student John C. Whitcomb embraced Price wholeheartedly in the 1940s. Whitcomb had become an evangelical Christian at Princeton, then received a divinity degree from and taught at Grace Theological Seminary. Disturbed by “liberal” interpretations of Genesis, and against the forceful counsel of his evangelical advisors, Whitcomb focused his dissertation on “The Genesis Flood.” He wanted to publish, but needed a scientist to lend credibility. He teamed up with Henry Morris, an evangelical with a Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering. Together they wrote The Genesis Flood based on Whitcomb’s dissertation, which drew heavily on Price’s “flood geology” from decades earlier. (They were, nevertheless, careful to excise specific SDA references.) When conservative Moody Press backed out of publication at the last minute, a smaller publisher was found. To everyone’s surprise, the 1961 book sold like crazy, eventually selling several hundred thousand copies in multiple languages, and spreading the “flood geology” and literalist creationism.
The result, largely through SDA prophetess White—then SDA Price, and evangelicals Bryan, Whitcomb, and Morris—is that millions of Christians today are convinced that the only way to be faithful to the Bible is to believe in the recent appearance of life on earth, a historical weeklong creation, and a recent worldwide flood, which leave little room for millions of years of evolution.
Today, the Seventh-day Adventist church acknowledges the difficulties presented by science to its interpretation of Genesis, but its official statement nevertheless reads, “We affirm the historic Seventh-day Adventist understanding of Genesis 1 that life on earth was created in six literal days and is of recent origin.” In this respect, Carson echoes SDA doctrine exactly.
Should his views exclude him from office? Certainly not. I happen to be a Mormon, and given the recent history of Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and other LDS politicians, I’m sensitive to any hint of a religious litmus test for public office. That said, Carson’s election to high public office would provide increased visibility of creationism and certainly embolden the anti-evolution crowd. Moreover, because of some of his scientific views, Carson may not be the right candidate to steer national science and research funding, as presidents are able to do. Ultimately it is not Carson’s religious beliefs per se that prove problematic, but what they and his simplistic biblical interpretations reveal about his breadth of knowledge beyond the realm of medicine. He may be a brain surgeon, but to be president Carson needs critical thinking skills outside the operating room.
Ben Spackman studies Hebrew, science, and American religious history. He writes occasionally at timesandseasons.org.