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Ben Carson's bizarre theory about the pyramids, explained

On Wednesday, BuzzFeed uncovered old footage of Ben Carson making some unusual comments in 1998: He rejected the widely held belief among archaeologists that most of the pyramids were built to serve as tombs for pharaohs, and suggested that biblical figure Joseph built the pyramids to store grain in preparation for a massive famine.

"My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids in order to store grain," he said. "And all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs' graves. But you know, it would have to be something awfully big, if you stop and think about it. And I don't think it would just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain."

This is totally unsupported by the historical and archaeological evidence. As Carson acknowledges, his belief defies what most archaeologists believe to be the purpose of the pyramids. Despite this, Carson told CBS News on Wednesday that he still believes his idea to be true: "It's still my belief, yes."

But more than just being bizarre, the remarks reveal the depths of Carson's personal faith. And more broadly, the remarks expose the rift between science and the stated beliefs of several top Republicans, even top-polling presidential contenders like Carson.

Carson's theory forces history into a biblical context

Carson made the remarks about pyramids during a 1998 commencement speech at Andrews University, a Michigan school associated with the very conservative Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Carson was addressing a religious audience, and he knew it. (Some of the audience members even shouted, "Amen!" toward the end of his filmed remarks.)

In front of this audience, Carson told a story that would reflect his faith — and that's where the pyramid story comes in. In the Old Testament, Joseph rises to become a top aide to an Egyptian pharaoh after being sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. At one point, the pharaoh has a dream vision that Egypt will fall into a great famine, and Joseph advises the pharaoh to store a lot of grain — a move that eventually helps Egyptians survive.

Carson does not read this as a mere allegory about God's grace (since God was willing to provide a vision to save so many people), but instead interprets the story literally. So he believes that this grain had to be stored somewhere, and that the structure would have to be very big and sturdy — certainly strong enough to last to this day. The structures that naturally fit into that view, according to Carson, are the pyramids.

Carson also argued that the advanced engineering the pyramids required can be explained by divine intervention. "And various of scientists have said, 'Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge and that's how' — you know, it doesn't require an alien being when God is with you." (For the record, scientists do not believe that aliens taught the Egyptians how to build the pyramids.)

Carson defended his views on the pyramids to reporters on Wednesday, stating, "The pyramids were made in a way that they had hermetically sealed compartments. You wouldn't need hermetically sealed compartments for a sepulcher. You would need that if you were trying to preserve grain for a long period of time."

To someone else, these remarks can seem very bizarre. Although some medieval chroniclers suggested the pyramids were Joseph's granaries, it's now widely believed — not just among archaeologists, but also the general public — that most of the pyramids were built specifically as tombs for pharaohs. And John Darnell, professor of Egyptology at Yale University, told BuzzFeed that the story of Joseph is supposedly set in the time of Egypt's Middle Kingdom, five centuries after the pyramids of Giza were built.

But to Carson, they signify his profound belief in the Bible — a faith so strong that he's willing to disregard what historians and scientists say.

The comments reflect Carson's strong religious beliefs

Carson, himself a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, is a creationist, so he rejects evolution and the Big Bang entirely.

In a 2012 speech at an event called "Celebration of Creation," Carson shared his views on evolution: "I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the Adversary." (The Adversary is another name for the devil.)

In the same speech, Carson also called the Big Bang theory a "fairy tale," and compared belief in the Big Bang to a religious belief: "Here's the key, I then say to them look, 'I'm not gonna criticize you, you have a lot more faith than I have.' I couldn't, I don't have enough faith to believe that."

As Slate's Phil Plait explained, this is a terrible misreading of the science:

The Big Bang is not something you believe in. It's a scientific model, supported by a truly vast amount of evidence. It doesn't take faith, it takes science (and, despite Carson's claims, science is not faith-based).

Creationists who dismiss the Big Bang usually do so because they think the Earth is young, 6,000–10,000 years old. This belief is, to put it simply, wrong. We know the Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old, give or take a few million years. The evidence for this is overwhelming.

We also know the Universe itself is old; a huge number of independent lines of evidence make this clear. It doesn't take faith to think the Big Bang is true, it takes a profound dismissal of all of science to think it isn't.

And it's not just the Big Bang or the pyramids; Carson largely takes very conservative religious views, and applies them to much of the world. He suggested as much in an interview on Meet the Press: "I find a very good measure of correlation between my religious beliefs and my scientific beliefs. People say, 'How can you be a scientist, how can you be a surgeon if you don't believe in certain things?' Maybe those things aren't scientific; maybe it's just propaganda."

But Carson's status as a GOP frontrunner shows the broader rift between science and Republican beliefs

A sensible question in face of all of Carson's previous comments is how he became the leading candidate for the Republican race. The answer is a bit tricky, since voters look at more than a candidate's religious views — they also might like Carson's opinions about race, his outsider persona as a doctor, and his qualifications as a neurosurgeon. But it's also true that Carson's dismissal of science in a few instances meshes with much of the Republican Party.

There is, however, no good polling on whether most or even any Republicans would agree with Carson's theory about the pyramids. It seems unlikely, as the idea that the pyramids were meant to act as tombs is so widely accepted — and Carson's theory is very obscure.

But Republicans are more likely than Democrats to accept views that go against the scientific community. For one, Republicans are more likely to reject the concept of evolution than their Democratic counterparts. As the Pew Research Center found, a plurality of Republicans in 2013 rejected evolution altogether.

Pew Research Center

These sorts of beliefs can spill over into areas that affect policy. Carson, for instance, doesn't put much stock in the scientific evidence that humans are contributing to global warming. He told the San Francisco Chronicle, "There is no overwhelming science that the things that are going on are man-caused and not naturally caused." (Although he also said that humans should take care of the environment and planet, and previously advocated for clean energy — but this is far from the norm, as Mother Jones noted, among Republicans who don't think global warming is real.)

Again, Carson's views on this are mostly in step with his party: Republicans are far more likely to deny climate science than Democrats, Pew found.

Pew Research Center

Although the dismissal of global warming doesn't always have religious undertones, it does generally speak to the broader willingness among people who vote Republican to reject scientific concepts.

So while Carson's theory may just seem bizarre, it also reflects a trend among religious conservatives that can seriously impact policy.

Watch: The third GOP debate, in 2 minutes