I have been reading Mary Eberstadt’s How the West really lost God (Templeton Press). Published in 2013 and sub-titled “A New Theory of Secularization”, the author, a heavyweight American academic, throws new and persuasive light on an old question. If you had asked me before I read this book what the answer to the question was, I would have answered with the conventional reasons given by most people who have thought about it: the advent of the Enlightenment, the huge impact of two world wars in the last century, industrialisation, increased prosperity and so on.
Eberstadt doesn’t discount these reasons and analyses all them carefully in her book. But she does put centre-stage another element as a crucial factor in the decline of religious belief and practice: the decline of the natural family. As she points out, in the western world families are much smaller than in the past, more scattered, less bound by traditional marriage, more “blended” and with more working parents. This leads to her central argument: where there is more marriage and stable families, there is more religion; where there is less, ditto.
Eberstadt poses some important and intriguing questions: Is there something about being married and having children that makes the adults in those situations more inclined towards Christianity? And, does having larger or stronger or more connected families make people more religious, at least some of the time? She thinks, contrary to received wisdom, that flourishing families are not just a consequence of religious belief, but also a conduit to it. The experience of childbirth and having children is the nearest some couples get to having a mystical experience, which in turn can lead to them asking the bigger questions about the meaning of life. This experience has in fact been dramatically described by a former atheist, Jennifer Fulwiler, in her book Something Other Than God.
What is incontrovertible, as Eberstadt shows, is that family decline and religious decline are linked together. Again, she asks the question that other social commentators have also raised: why has there been such a seismic lack of religious belief since the 1960s? She thinks this is due to the changed role of women; freed from pregnancy by the advent of the Pill and encouraged to have careers, this has had a knock-on effect on family bonds – and thus a corresponding weakening of religious belief and activity. Faith and family, she argues, are inextricably joined together and it is the decline of the family than is the crucial factor in the decline of religion.
In contrast to the pagan society of ancient Rome, the new religion of Christianity was strict about sexual morality. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and beyond has clashed inexorably with Christian morality; as Eberstadt suggests, “The unprecedented proliferation of weakened natural families and non traditional quasi-families has left a great many individuals resistant as they never were before to fundamental features of the Christian moral code.”
In a chapter “The Future of Faith and Family: the Case for Pessimism” Eberstadt lists the modern features striking against the family (and therefore weakening Christian practice): fewer people are getting married; fewer people are having children; and fewer people who are having children are sustaining intact two-parent homes for them to grow up in.
With all this doom and gloom the forthcoming Synod on the Family will have much to discuss. But is the future of Christianity – in the West at least – a lost cause? Eberstadt thinks not. Her final chapter is entitled “The Case for Optimism” and I am about to read it. It will be the subject of my next blog. Meanwhile, I think this thoughtful, carefully argued book should be read by anyone interested in the future of the family – and thus the future of the Christian faith.
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