Why my professor grandpa believes Ben Carson's pyramid theory

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Earlier this week, BuzzFeed released a video of GOP presidential frontrunner Ben Carson giving a commencement address to the graduates of Andrew University in 1998. He offered the young audience an interesting theory: The Egyptian pyramids were not built by the Egyptians as tombs for dead royals, as archaeologists have repeatedly proven, but built by Joseph to store grain.

The next day, Carson defended his comments and confirmed his beliefs, saying, “I think that's a plausible explanation to how they got built…I happen to believe a lot of things that you might not believe because I believe in the Bible.”


Twitter was quick to pounce on Carson, decrying him as an uneducated moron who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But Carson isn’t stupid. Wrong—but not stupid. Dr. Carson graduated from Yale. He has an M.D. He was an accomplished brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the top hospitals in the nation. The fact is that there are incredibly smart people who believe in incredibly incorrect things, solely because of the Bible.

One of them is my grandfather.

Dr. Robert O’Bannon is one of the smartest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. He graduated with multiple degrees, including a PhD in Nutrition from the University of Florida and a Masters of Divinity, too. He is now in his late seventies and suffering from the worsening effects of Alzheimer’s disease. A man who once weaved through topics of theology, philosophy, and science with ease is now unable to remember names of his grandchildren (including me), cannot eat or get dressed on his own, and has almost zero short-term memory retention.


But prior to his Alzheimer’s, he was a professor at the evangelical college Lee University (my alma mater) for 40 years. They even named a boys’ dorm after him. He taught anatomy, biology, life science, and nutrition classes. But perhaps the course he was most famous for was called “Science and the Bible,” a class required by all science majors to graduate.

In it, he hammered away at literalist theories of the Bible, especially Genesis. He taught new-earth creationism, the belief that God created the world in seven days and that the earth is around 6,000 years old. He taught that dinosaurs were alive at the same time as humans. He believed that Noah’s flood covered the earth and killed every living person not in the ark. He believed the flood caused the Pangaea continent divide, taking one massive continent and splitting it into seven distinct continents.

And of course, he very much disliked Charles Darwin and any theory of evolution.

To most modern Millennials, this sounds absolutely nuts. Even though I used to believe in it myself, I now grasp at straws trying to imagine how I ever could have believed in theories that go against the basic principles of science and observational proof. But, as it does with Carson and my grandfather, it all goes back to the Bible.


Carson describes himself as a “not real religious” Seventh-day Adventist, a denomination that believes the Holy Sabbath is on Saturday, not Sunday. Andrews University, the school at which he gave his now-infamous pyramids speech, was a Seventh-day Adventist school. Funnily enough, the Southern Adventist University is only a few miles away from Lee University, the Pentecostal university from which my family hails.


While there are many differences between the two denominations, they both share a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, which means they take each word literally and apply it to their lives directly. When Carson says he believes Joseph built the pyramids for storing food, he’s referring to Genesis 41. The story goes that Egyptian Pharaoh dreams of seven fat cows and seven thin cows, which Joseph interprets as seven years of abundant harvest followed by seven years of famine. So Joseph encourages the Pharaoh to store grain during the period of abundance so that there will be enough during the famine.

At no point does the Bible ever mention the pyramids, but because fundamentalists take things so literally, they piece together every historical fact and theory to support the Bible. When you believe in a literal Joseph, you have to figure out a literal place where that much grain (for all of Egypt) could have been stored. So, to them—why not the pyramids? Bible literalists are able to piece together unrelated phenomena and vaguely related historical details in order to weave webs of “truth” based on Biblical text. That isn’t easy to do. In fact, it’s pretty clever.


Biblical literalism is actually a recent development. In Judaism, many of the stories in the Torah (much of which is included the Christian Old Testament) are taken as fables. The morals of the stories are what is important, not their historical accuracy. Debate over scriptural intention was common among philosophers and theologians for centuries, who rarely saw contradictions between science and the Bible as a worrying threat to their faith (with a few notable exceptions, of course).


But in October 1978, the religious right was just beginning to gain considerable influence in the political sphere after the Roe v. Wade decision. More than 200 leaders from various evangelical Christian denominations gathered in Chicago to sign what would become the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which stated that they believed the Bible was the authoritative word of God and to be taken completely and totally literally.

Meanwhile, the Moral Majority was gaining power, and suddenly the ideas of politicians and theologians were overlapping in a powerful way that led to the downfall of the evangelical left (like President Jimmy Carter). With the marriage of the Republican Party and evangelical Christianity, the stronghold over issues of morality became intertwined with a rejection of any scientific theory that would contradict the supposed inerrancy of the Bible.


This is why today 46% of Americans believe in a literal interpretation of creationism. And even more disturbing, this is why the Republican Party is able to take advantage of evangelical Christians by exploiting the issues of abortion and homosexuality. Since the 1970s, the GOP has been able to convince them that their age-old Christian values to defend the poor, welcome immigrants, and love their enemies are no longer necessary. It might not be a coincidence that in that same time period, we’ve seen the wealth gap rise so dramatically.

In a majority of today’s evangelical churches, the conventional wisdom is if you don’t literally believe in every word of the Bible, you’re not a real Christian. Your salvation and faith are at stake. That kind of spiritual pressure, placed upon church members at a young age, can twist and warp the minds of even the smartest people to eloquently proselytize their own misguided theories. As a child, I had no idea that there were religious people who believed in evolution, because the two were so incompatible to me. Once, at a private Christian school that I attended in middle school, we had a guest speaker during chapel who told us that there were still pterodactyls alive in Afghanistan—and I believed him.


The rejection of science by fundamentalist Christians has nothing to do with intellect. It has everything to do with the evangelical right’s indoctrination of their extreme theologies. And that should be alarming. Because no one should have to sacrifice logic in order to maintain her faith.

Jennifer C. Martin is a writer based in Richmond, VA. Her work has previously been featured on Gawker, UPROXX, xoJane, and Time, among others.