Study Guide

The Culture of Disbelief

by Stephen L. Carter

The Culture of Disbelief Essay - Critical Essays

The Culture of Disbelief

“Our public culture,” writes Yale University legal scholar Stephen L. Carter, “more and more prefers religion as something without political significance, less an independent moral force than a quietly irrelevant moralizer, never heard, rarely seen.” In zealously preventing the imposition of religion, Carter believes, Americans have silenced public expression of religion too much for their own good.

As Carter understands religion, it finds its primary location in traditions of group worship. Religion is essentially a social and public activity, not just a private and individualistic matter. Religion assumes the existence of a reality—most, but not all, Americans would call that reality God—which is more than human. In Carter’s view, this reality is not bounded by the observed principles and limits of natural science. Even more important, this reality and the traditions it inspires make demands on their adherents.

Religious belief and practice require acting in some ways and not in others; they entail convictions about right and wrong, good and evil, that must find public expression. Those convictions must do so because no person’s life is ever a purely private affair—we all live in public—and because the demands that religion enjoins rarely, if ever, are purely private matters, either. Thus, Carter fears trends that he sees: Americans endanger both religion and the ideal of democratic liberty to the extent that their suspicions about imposing religion escalate into positions that restrict American religion from informing and influencing the public dialogue on which the health of democracy depends.

Naturally, Carter’s concerns direct his attention to the U.S. Constitution and its central role in establishing boundaries and protections for American expressions of religion. His jurisprudence underscores that “the metaphorical separation of church and state originated in an effort to protect religion from the state, not the state from religion. The religion clauses of the First Amendment were crafted to permit maximum freedom to the religious.”

Sources for Further Study

ABA Journal. LXXIX, October, 1993, p. 114.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 15, 1993, p.13.

Commonweal. CXX, October 8, 1993, p.22.

The New Republic. CCIX, September 13, 1993, p.4.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, September 19, 1993, p.15.

The New Yorker. LXIX, October 18, 1993, p.127.

Newsweek. CXXII, September 20, 1993, p.56.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, July 26, 1993, p.55.

U.S. News and World Report. CXV, September 20, 1993, p.20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, October 3, 1993, p.8.