“Culture Of Disbelief” Spells Trouble For Unbelief by Annie Laurie Gaylor (March 1994)

The Culture of Disbelief:
How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion

Stephen L. Carter, BasicBooks, 1993

After President Clinton plugged Stephen Carter’s book, Culture of Disbelief, at a “White House Prayer Breakfast” last August, Carter, a professor of law at Yale University, became an instant celebrity scholar. Clinton repeated his remarks against “freedom from religion” and his plug for Carter’s book at the National Day of Prayer Breakfast on February 7.

Clinton’s approval of Carter should be cause for alarm. Culture of Disbelief is not a scholarly work, but a polemic. Carter’s stated premise is that religion has been unfairly “banished” from political debate, out of a misguided concern over the religious right, which in turn is forcing the devout into second class citizenship, and is trivializing religion. What often passes for state/church separation today, he avers, is “tyranny.” His underlying message is to squelch free inquiry into religious debate. He carries society’s rule that “It isn’t polite to criticize religion” to new heights of absurdity and mind-control, postulating a code of what might be called “religious correctness” for speech, law and conduct.

Carter lists a number of grievances supposedly showing that religion in our country is experiencing “trivialization.” His very first example? That a “disgruntled reader” dared to write a national magazine complaining when it devoted a cover story to “an investigation of prayer.” (Pass the smelling salts–an atheist got a letter to the editor printed!)

This is very revealing, for it is typical of Carter’s apparent paranoia over any rational criticism of religion, even by one individual complaining about the uncritical promotion of prayer by a major newsweekly. Apparently this letter of complaint should have been censored by the newsweekly, out of deference to sensitive religious feelings. The obvious never occurs to Carter, that this cover story, and many others like it, are actually evidence of insensitive cultural bias against freethought and in favor of religion. Carter reacts like most religionists: he is threatened by the very existence of individuals who use reason in analyzing religion.

Carter’s list of “religiously incorrect” items is mind-boggling. Some typical examples:

  • That people made fun of Oral Roberts when he made his famous ultimatum that God would “call him home” if people didn’t send him more money.
  • That the National Council of Churches passed a resolution after the 1992 GOP convention saying, “Any partisan use of God’s name tends to breed intolerance and to divide.”
  • That, using the Lemon test, a federal court, “missing the significance of America’s civil religion,” ordered the removal of a “Motorists’ Prayer” from North Carolina maps.
  • That the mass marriage of 25,000 strangers to each other by “the Reverend” Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church was treated unreverentially.
  • That Pat Robertson is criticized for promoting “faith healing.”
  • That our society unfairly characterizes the Catholic church and Orthodox Judaism as treating women as “inferiors” for denying them the priest- or rabbi-hood.
  • That two Catholic students came up to him after a speech at Notre Dame, and told him they had been “mocked” by other students for opposing abortion on religious grounds.
  • That Khomeini’s order to kill Salman Rushdie was criticized on religious grounds when we should only have criticized it as “censorship.” Never mind that Khomeini issued a religious death order as the recognized Muslim leader of the world, on the charge of “blasphemy,” invoking the Koran!
  • “And,” Carter writes, “in a widely reported instance that I would like to think apocryphal, a woman who addressed a feminist conference in California and described herself as a Jewish atheist received a ringing ovation, as though by purging herself of religiosity she had somehow accomplished a great good.” (I guess atheists who clap are an offense to religion.)

    Do you get the message? Belief is good, disbelief is bad. Freethought is even worse. Using reason to analyze religion is a sacrilege. Religions are never to be considered harmful or irrational! Perish the idea that a religious belief should be subjected to rational scrutiny! “. . . the jump from disbelief in the supernatural aspects of witchcraft to disbelief in the supernatural aspects of mainstream religion is a very small one,” he warns.

    Carter would extend his intellectual thought police to the law. He rejects the three-pronged Lemon Test, which, he jeers, “is a lemon.” He misrepresents the “purpose” prong as “motivation,” repetitiously lambasting anyone for analyzing the “motivation” of bills or political activists.

    Convinced that religion was completely responsible for the success of the civil rights movement, Carter worries what would have happened had lawmakers subjected civil rights legislation to “motivational” scrutiny: “Did the legislation enacted at the behest of the religiously motivated civil rights movement have a secular purpose?” Who could argue that the 1964 Civil Rights Act has a “religious purpose”? Or the Voting Rights Act? Or the 14th and 15th Amendments?

    Carter, of course, is a great accommodationist, considering it “a form of affirmative action.” He never divulges whether he thinks “affirmative action” should apply to Christian Scientists who watch their children die without seeking medical care.

    Most seriously, Carter criticizes Justice Hugo Black for writing in Everson v. Board of Education (1947): “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”

    Carter writes: “There is nothing wrong with the metaphor of a wall of separation. The trouble is that in order to make the Founders’ vision compatible with the structure and needs of modern society, the wall has to have a few doors in it.” (And fissures, gates, windows, gaping holes, and tunnels, if Carter had his way!)

    He makes the indefensible blanket statement: “. . . we know that for most members of the Founding Generation the idea of separating church from state meant protecting the church from the state–not the state from the church.”

    James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance “frames the argument principally as a protection of the church, not as a protection of the state,” he claims. Yet Madison’s chief argument against an establishment of the Christian religion was that religion “must be left to the conviction of and conscience” of the individual. Madison wrote: “We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” Carter’s thesis is the polar opposite: that religionists are being continually offended by the lack of recognition for religion in civil society.

    Carter dismisses Thomas Jefferson with two brief, misleading paragraphs. Carter’s theory of the intent of the Establishment Clause is at complete odds with Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state.” Carter says the “evident purpose of this first word [ respectingan establishment of religion] was to prevent the Congress from interfering with state establishments of religion.” To “support” his claim, he quotes another legal author, Harold Berman, who says the Establishment Clause should be read to permit “government support of theistic and deistic belief systems more nearly comparable to the government support which is permitted to be given to agnostic and atheist belief systems.” This is the paranoid school of religion, which interprets “neutrality” to mean “hostility” to religion, therefore concluding neutrality supports atheism.

    Carter’s most convoluted criticism is leveled at the Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) Supreme Court decision, declaring unconstitutional a law requiring schools to teach scientific creationism. Carter maintains the court ruled it unconstitutional “because most of its supporters were religiously motivated,” a blatantly prejudiced reading. He harps on this decision, for most of two long chapters, saying the Court’s vote was “correctly, if perhaps tragically” decided. While rejecting creationism as “bad science,” he repeatedly reproaches the intellectual critics of creationism. Creationists are cast as a noble breed, “independent thinkers who insist on a right to their own means for seeking knowledge of the world.” He even compares the demand to teach creationism with interest in multiculturalism! With friends like him . . . who needs the religious right?

    Much of this book is painful reading: repetitious, digressive to the point of self-indulgence, poorly organized, and, often, pathetically reasoned. For instance, examine this statement: “To the extent that creationism is the result of the application of the hermeneutic of inerrancy to the opening chapters of Genesis, it is certainly rational.” Any Philosophy 101 student knows that if you start with an irrational premise, what will follow, in any logic syllogism, is an irrational conclusion. That makes creationism an example of bad, not good, deductive reasoning. Apparently Carter can’t tell the difference.

    Disarmingly, Carter paints himself as a moderate. A prayerful man, he says he understands why daily prayers don’t belong in public classrooms, supports the teaching of evolution with no “equal time” for Genesis in the classrooms, calls himself “moderately pro-choice,” supports the ordination of women in his own church (Episcopal) and refers to the “scary religious rhetoric of the 1992 Republican Convention.” Hallelujah, the man unequivocally agrees that nativity scenes do not belong in public places.

    When he elaborates on his moderate positions, however, he talks himself into trouble. Carter is ambivalent over the Weisman decision of 1992 which extended the constitutional protection against imposed prayer to public school commencements. “It is possible, of course, to carry this concern to extremes . . . ” Nor does he appear to support the Jaffree ruling against a school-prayer law in the guise of meditation. After all, the justices argued that the only purpose of the law was religious, and Carter will not hear of courts determining purposes (“motivations”). He argues there is no good reason why the public should not fund a religious drug treatment program employing prayer, if it works.

    It is chilling to contemplate the influence Carter’s book might have upon future appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is a testament to how degraded the Establishment Clause has become in our society that Stephen Carter could be touted as “among the nation’s leading experts on constitutional law.” The publication of his book in the same year that the truly great Establishment Clause scholar Leo Pfeffer died is a bitter irony. Those of us who wish to honor Pfeffer’s memory, as well as to protect the Jeffersonian “wall of separation,” need to vigorously challenge Carter’s book, his Establishment clause misinterpretations, and his anti-freethought code of “religious correctness.”

    The writer is editor of Freethought Today.

Freedom From Religion Foundation