HOW THE WEST REALLY LOST GOD: A NEW THEORY OF SECULARIZATION
By Mary Eberstadt
Templeton Press, $24.95, 268 pages
Friedrich Nietzsche famously announced the death of God more than a century ago. Scholars and sociologists alike have been trying to prove him right — or wrong — ever since. Regardless of religious affiliation, just about everyone agrees that God has been on the wane in the West for quite some time. The suggested reasons for the loss of God and religion — especially Christianity — in Western society range from modern man’s “enlightenment” to rampant materialism to the havoc wreaked by the 20th century’s wars. Ultimately, though, all of these theories fall a bit flat.
In her deeply insightful new book, “How the West Really Lost God,” Ethics and Public Policy Center scholar and author Mary Eberstadt suggests that there is a more fundamental cause underlying the cultural loss of religion — a cause that all the previous research has mistaken for just another effect. What if the decline of religion is integrally connected to, and perhaps even a result of, the decline of the natural family?
Sifting through the hypotheses for God’s demise put forward by scholars from Sigmund Freud to Karl Marx to Max Weber, Mrs. Eberstadt argues that “scrutiny of these theories points beyond them to this conclusion: whatever else has happened in the world, the projected diminishment of the Christian God appears either not to have happened for exactly the reasons it was supposed to, or not on the timeline that was set for it — or both.” In short, the puzzle is still missing an imperative piece.
Mrs. Eberstadt argues that piece is what she dubs “the Family Factor.”
Most critics agree that the decline of religion has had devastating consequences for the family. We see it all around us: Single-parent homes are on the rise; in parts of England, to take just one example, they’re the majority. Divorce rates haven’t simply climbed, they’ve skyrocketed in just the past 50 years, with roughly half of all marriages in the United States ending in divorce, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People are marrying less and less, too: the Pew Research Center reports a dismal 51 percent of American adults were married in 2011. Many of those who do get married aren’t having children. There’s even a name for these couples: DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids).
Familial relationships have also taken a turn for the worse: Elderly parents spend their final years in retirement homes, while children grow up in day care, school and after-school programs. Blame it on the increase in commuting, the rise of women — specifically, mothers — in the workforce, grown children moving far away from childhood homes, or anything else, but the family as it once was has taken some severe hits. Take a closer look, argues Mrs. Eberstadt, and you’ll see marching in lockstep with the family’s decline has been the undeniable decline of religious practice in the West.
In short, faith and family constitute a package deal, and if one falters, the other falters, too. Comparing the relationship between the two to the structure of DNA, Mrs. Eberstadt writes, “Family and faith are the invisible double helix of society — two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.” Moreover, the “short rods that join” family and faith “can only be religious teaching and doctrine, or church itself. The stronger (or more coherent) those rods are, the better connected are the two spirals.”
It’s a powerful argument, and one that answers questions other theories simply can’t. How, for example, does the theory that the world wars caused religion’s decline account for the sudden uptick in religious fervor that occurred in the 1950s? “What happened in the 1950s was not simply a religious boomlet, period. What happened was a religious boomlet — in conjunction with a much better known demographic phenomenon, the baby boom.” In short, “More children equal more God. More marriage equals more God.”
Mrs. Eberstadt admits that her argument is little more than hypothesis, but it’s a hypothesis supported by a surprising amount of evidence. Moreover, if correct, it places the increasing lack of religion in our society squarely on the doorsteps of homes across the developed world. Ultimately, of course, no explanation of the decline of religion can account for all the reasons why people stop going to church. How does this hypothesis explain, for example, children of religious parents in traditional families who still abandon the faith, often while living at or near home? Still, the overall trends appear to run just the way this book says they do. The question then becomes, in a society that’s losing its sense of what family even ought to look like, can we reverse the trend of religious decline?
The book offers a glimmer of hope: As history has proven time and again, “The more an age forthrightly rejects the Christian code, the more does the forceful insistence that there is a right and wrong exert a gravitational pull all its own.” It is the constantly unrecognized power of Christianity to reassert itself in a world that has constantly tried to extinguish it. Currently, we see the unexpected vigor of Christianity throughout the developing world, and there is plenty of reason to hope we will see it again in the West, even as all the trends point to its “inevitable” demise.
Mary Beth Baker is a writer and editor in Northern Virginia.