Ben Carson’s elevation to number two clown in the Republican presidential hopeful clown car earlier this week, at least according to the Iowa polls, was a sad reminder of how Emory University has been complicit in helping to turn this accomplished right-wing neurosurgeon into a politician of national stature.
Carson was awarded an honorary degree at Emory’s 2012 commencement, in spite of the fact that he rejects the theory of evolution. The University stood by its decision in the face of much criticism from members of the Emory science community, who thought that the award was a bad idea, although they never asked that it be rescinded.
Their line of attack had to do with the the incompatibility between Carson’s kind of creationist thinking and a valid understanding of the fundamentals of modern medicine. They felt that awarding Carson an honorary degree only encouraged division in the long-settled debate about evolution and that it set a bad example for science students as well.
Although I didn’t like the fact that Carson was creationist, that didn’t, in my mind, automatically disqualify him for an honorary degree of some sort. After all, he was an innovative pediatric neurosurgeon who put his skills in service to a number of humanitarian causes. Surely there was some honorary degree category that suited him.
If the degree under consideration for Carson had been in the sciences, then he would have been disqualified out of hand. That wasn’t an option. Perhaps an honorary degree in medicine would have been a better fit. Although some medical practitioners are scientists, that hardly is a requirement for people to participate in the healing arts. Carson is certainly not alone in being a very good doctor who rejects the theory of evolution. Universities should have some sort of honorary degrees for these fine, if wilfully ignorant, people.
But it turns out that the degree that Emory awarded Carson was honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.
Humane in this context refers to the humanities, those fields of study that are intended to have a civilizing or refining effect on people. The point of such study is to cultivate humanism. And by that we mean an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to humanity rather than divine or supernatural matters.
Carson is, by no stretch of the imagination, a humanist.
To bring this point home, it should be noted that, although Carson believes that it is possible to accept evolution and still live a moral life, he is insistent that atheists, because of their rejection of God and, consequently, a God-given moral code, are incapable of behaving morally.
To make matters worse, his opinions about homosexuality are anything but humane. Although he has backed off from comments he made comparing homosexuality with bestiality, Carson remains adamantly opposed to gay marriage. And, once again rejecting the scientific consensus, Carson has also claimed as recently as March 2015, that homosexuality is a choice, drawing on the transformations that imprisonment has on inmates’ sexual practices as proof.
Given the positions held by Carson it is high time that Emory withdraw his honorary degree of humane letters. As far as I’m concerned, the fellow can believe whatever he pleases about evolution, but his religious intolerance and homophobia demonstrate incontrovertibly his lack of humane regard. Emory’s honorary degree is a fraud.
Marc Merlin is an Emory alum from the Class of 1975. He lives in Atlanta.