God and Family in the West

Published May 30, 2013

National Review Online

“The fracturing of the family combined with the sexual revolution has put a great many people in the West on a collision course with certain fundamental teachings of the Christian faith,” Mary Eberstadt writes in her new book, How the West Really Lost God. “Church officials often wring their hands about getting out the ‘positive’ side of those teachings, and one can understand why. But what is less clear is how many understand the deeper reason for their difficulty: that the unprecedented proliferation of weakened natural families and nontraditional quasi-families has left a great many individuals resistant as they never were before to fundamental features of the Christian moral code.” Eberstadt, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the reality and the future of God and family in the West.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Has the West really lost God? We prayed after the Boston Marathon bombings, after all. Is this “tsunami of secularism” stuff overblown?

MARY EBERSTADT: It’s hard to survey Western societies today and not see that many people have turned their backs on the Judeo-Christian God — including in places that were once Christian strongholds.

Across Western Europe, church attendance has gone over a cliff. Just last week, a report made headline news across Britain, because it showed that self-professed Christians will be a minority of the population there even sooner than supposed — in fact, within the decade.

Nor is this just a Protestant thing. Something like 15 percent of the population of “Catholic” Venice attends Mass every Sunday — which is particularly emblematic since Catholics are taught that missing it for any but the gravest of reasons is a mortal sin. “Catholic” Spain doesn’t measure up much better. On it goes across the Continent and into Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and more — including the United States, where a steady rise in “none of the above” has been documented, especially among younger Americans.

Beyond just showing up — or not — there are other measures of secularization to consider too: the commercial success of the new atheism, the growth in public animosity toward Christianity, changing legal norms, and other examples touched on in the book.

There are interesting and even ingenious arguments to the effect that Western secularization is not the same as the decline of Western Christianity. I review those arguments, because they harbor important insights. And it’s also true, as believers in particular like to point out, that in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, Christianity is vibrant and growing at a fast clip.

But to keep our eyes fixed on the West, to the exclusion of the rest, is to see that something profound is underway. A lot of people have stopped going to church, have stopped feeling as if they ought to go to church, and have even stopped thinking that the churches have anything to say to them at all. That’s not a shifting current but a sea change — and one that conventional secular thought hasn’t navigated correctly, which is one of the reasons for the book.
LOPEZ: Why do you liken faith and family to a double helix? And why is this so crucial to examine and reflect on?

EBERSTADT: In a way that hasn’t been well understood so far, it appears that the great jigsaw puzzle of secularization has been missing a critical piece. Religious vibrancy and family vibrancy go hand in hand. Conversely, so do religious decline and family decline: where you see one, expect the other.

In the book, I try to explain why these trends don’t appear to be mere coincidences. What’s the most secular territory on Western earth today? Scandinavia. Who pioneered the postwar unmarried Western family and its close ally, the welfare state (whose arguably critical role in secularization is also part of this picture)? Scandinavia. What is arguably the most atomized place in the Western world today, as measured by, say, the number of people who don’t live in a family at all? Scandinavia again. Almost half of Swedish households are now singletons, for instance, and in Norway it’s something like 40 percent.

The book argues these things are related — that family is a driver of faith, not just vice versa — and enumerates the reasons why this might be so.

That’s just one example of the “double helix” at work. What’s happened in the Scandinavian family is also affecting the Scandinavian churches. The causal relationship isn’t only the other way around. Each institution needs the other to reproduce.


Looking at it this way makes the “puzzle” of secularization less of a puzzle — and also casts doubt on the going secular notion that the fall-off in religious observance is just a matter of people progressively coming to their senses about the God racket. That caricature is what many secular people believe, but it’s not what the record shows.

LOPEZ: Why are the hows, whys, and whens of secularization so important?

EBERSTADT: What’s critical is this fact: Western secularization has not happened on the timelines predicted for it, and it also has not happened for thereasons commonly offered to explain it.

So, for instance — and contrary to what many otherwise sophisticated people have uncritically supposed — education and prosperity alone have not driven out God; to the contrary, there are examples cited in the book, including in the United States today, of the opposite pattern. Similarly, as British historians have shown, the relatively bustling churches of Victorian London, say, were peopled largely by the upper classes, not the lower ones.

These are just two examples that contradict stereotypes about who’s going to church. So much for “poor, uneducated, and easy to command,” as a hapless Washington Post reporter immortally — and incorrectly — dubbed Evangelicals ten years ago.
LOPEZ:  Why are you so interested in finding out why married people with children are more likely to go to church?

EBERSTADT: You can scroll through the works of great modern thinkers who had plenty to say about religion — Durkheim, Marx, Comte, Freud, and more — and find little attention given to this very interesting question.

The reason that’s such an interesting question is this: We do know, indisputably and thanks to social science, that strong correlations are there. See the work of sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, among others, who’s really gotten under the hood of those relationships, or the late sociologist Steven L. Nock. Men who are married are more likely to go to church. Men and women who are married with children are far more likely to go than are singles. And so on. More marriage and more children add up to more God.

The conventional way of explaining that connection — to the extent that anyone’s tried to explain it — is to say that it’s a one-way street: Religious decline causes family decline; religious belief comes first and affects the family.

That’s only part of the story, though. There’s also evidence for reversing that causality, and for concluding that family decline also breeds religious decline. That evidence is at the heart of the book. If it’s right, then we need to revisit the accepted wisdom about secularization from Nietzsche on down.

LOPEZ: “More Pill equals less time in a family. More time in a family equals more time in church. Therefore more Pill equals less God.” Is the Sexual Revolution really that closely related to secularization?

EBERSTADT: Without doubt, the Sexual Revolution is the paramount challenge of this age for traditional Christianity. That’s so for several reasons, some more obvious than others. What interests me most, and what the book spends some time dissecting, are the subtle ways in which the sexual revolution and its fallout put new barriers between some modern Western people and the likelihood of their belief in God.

First, insofar as it contributes to broken, scattered, and atomistic homes, the revolution makes it harder just to tell the Christian story itself — because it’s a story saturated throughout with familial images and ideas.

How, for instance, do you explain the idea of God as a loving, benevolent Father to someone whose experience of men in the home is a series of Mom’s boyfriends? How do you get across what’s so theologically central, say, about Mary’s absolute acceptance of her role in the divine plan of birth to secular men and women living in a post-abortion age who think that every birth is negotiable? How do you explain what’s so miraculous about the idea of God coming into the world as a baby — in fact, how do you explain what’s so miraculous about babies, period — to an adult who has never even held one?

Those are just a few examples of how the way we live today might make it harder for some people to grasp some of the basics of the Christian religion — or as believers would say, to hear the voice of God.

LOPEZ: “Many sophisticated people do not believe that the churches have any authority whatsoever to dictate constraints on individual freedom.” That’s the case, isn’t it, even for some self-identified religious believers, who may attend services and accept much of the teaching

EBERSTADT: Christianity is full of hard teachings, as the disciples themselves were the first to complain. And people have always rebelled against religious teachings of all kinds. Otherwise, preachers and prophets would be out of a job.

But surely resistance to Christianity in this age has a lot to do with one phenomenon, the Sexual Revolution — even more than is widely understood, more even than anyone has yet mapped.

My hope is just to try and clarify what’s happening. Pace the new atheists and the condescending secular piety according to which secularization is just the logical result of humanity growing up, what’s keeping many Western people out of church today isn’t Philosophy 101. They’re not lying awake at night mulling transubstantiation or the problem of theodicy, say, and then checking “none of the above” on a Pew survey. No, what’s helping to drive secularization for many people is something a lot less cerebral: the widespread desire to keep biting that apple of the Sexual Revolution — which traditional Christianity wants to put out of their reach. It’s a head-on collision, for sure.

LOPEZ: If there is “something about living in families” that “makes people more receptive to religiosity and the Christian creed”? Are you saying that God is dependent on the family?

EBERSTADT: Let’s get back first to some uncontroversial points.

Married people are more likely to go to church than single people. Married people with children are significantly more likely to do so, especially if they’re men. Social science documents all that — and then moves on as if there’s nothing to see here.

Similarly, social science documents that across the world, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to have families of size; fertility and religiosity are tightly linked, any way the numbers are run.

So why don’t we stop right here and ask why these things are so? It’s not satisfactory to answer by saying “well, that’s just what religious believers do.” That’s tautological. No, the more logical conclusion to draw is that there is something about living in families that inclines at least some people toward religiosity in general, and toward Christianity in particular — and that this fact is a hidden engine of both secularization in some circumstances, and religious revival in others.

The experience of birth, for starters, rather obviously inclines some people — maybe even many people — toward a transcendent frame of mind that can get translated into religiosity. Whittaker Chambers writes beautifully of just this phenomenon in his autobiography Witness, where he describes how studying his infant daughter as she sat in her high chair one night became the epiphany that eventually led him away from atheism and Communism and back to Christianity. The experience of childbirth lifts people out of themselves, tying them to generations past and to come. Such might be one explanation for why people with children are more likely to end up in church.

And there are other reasons why people who live in families might feel the gravitational pull of the pews more than others, and there’s more talk about those in the book. These are the kinds of causal influences on secularization that have gone largely unexamined.

LOPEZ: Who is Brad Wilcox and why is his work so important?

EBERSTADT: Brad’s work is important for plenty of reasons and it’s one of the reasons I started thinking about the argument of this book. Several years ago, he wrote an essay in First Things about the statistical relationship between children in the home and church attendance. He used the phrase “children drive parents to church.”

I kept thinking about that striking phrase. One chapter of How the West Really Lost God, “Toward a New Religious Anthropology,” asks what happens if we radically expand his insight.
LOPEZ: How is that “more families of one equal less God”? Shouldn’t the solitary life mean one has more time for God?

EBERSTADT: Of course the argument isn’t a straight-up numbers game, as if families of twelve are ipso facto more religious than hermits of one, or some related piece of reductionism.

But the interesting thing to zero in on here, I think, is that the call to construct families — and families of size — is all over the Good Book. We’re told straight off in Genesis that it isn’t good for the man to be alone. Later, Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply. Abraham is promised that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, which clearly implies that fecundity is a good thing, and Psalms says similarly that blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children. All this predates the Catholic Church, of course. And there’s more.

This raises another question: Why? Why is it always implied that when it comes to the family, the more creatures, the merrier?

The answer can only be that someone, somewhere, figured out early on that the flourishing of the human family was important to the flourishing of religion, and to Judeo-Christianity in particular.

And you can grasp that much whether you’re the sturdiest of believers or a card-carrying member of the Richard Dawkins fan club. Either God chose to make the human family the medium for many messages — or the crafty humans who made him up did it instead. But somebody, somewhere, understood clearly how critical the family would be to the transmission of the teachings of temple and church. Otherwise, those endorsements of family wouldn’t be all over the Bible.

LOPEZ: You offer both a pessimistic and an optimistic case for the future of family and religion. Which is more likely?

EBERSTADT: Readers will have to make up their own minds about which of those chapters resonates more; the choice is theirs.

But I do believe that the wonderful contrarian sociologist Rodney Stark and a few other like-minded thinkers are on to a critical point: The shape of the family tomorrow will depend at least in part on what happens to the modern welfare state.

After all, it’s the welfare state that has bankrolled the fracturing of the Western family and acted as a family substitute during the lifetimes of most people reading these words.

Will the shrinking taxpayer base cause the welfare state to implode and drive people back to more organic connections such as family and church? It’s a radical thought.

LOPEZ: “It appears that the natural family as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many . . . and the gradual but now recognizable muffling of that symphony is surely an important and overlooked part of the story of how certain men and women came not to hear the sacred music anymore.” How do we get the orchestra back together and playing to a packed house?

EBERSTADT: We can’t know what to do until we first know how to think.

The point is that the social forces that have been supposed to make Christian decline inevitable — prosperity, urbanization, education, rationalism — don’t really explain secularization, as many people supposed.

And why does that point matter? For starters, it means that the idea of the inevitability of decline goes out the conceptual window. A central tenet of secular thought since at least Friedrich Nietzsche — i.e., the notion that something about modernity will ultimately wipe away Christian religious belief — has proved unsustainable. That alone is news.

If you study the historical timeline, you do not see the straight downward decline predicted by historicist sociology, but instead something much more interesting: Christianity comes and goes in the world. And if you look more closely at those times when it is strong — the Victorian era in England, or the 1950s religious renaissance not only in America but across the West, including in countries that became remarkably secular only a few decades later — what you see is the double helix of family and faith.

And that’s exactly why the future might be full of surprises, at least when measured against the secularization we see today. In the historical scheme of things, the world hasn’t known today’s rates of family fracture and atomization for long — or their attendant downside.

As evolutionary biologists are the first to understand, human beings are social creatures. Down the road, that widely underestimated fact might yet become the starting point for a recreation and rebuilding of the most elemental social connections of all — ones that men and women of the future, with the benefit of hindsight, might come to cherish more highly than some of their secularized Western ancestors-to-be do today. In the end, tough-minded optimism might win the day. Anyway, it has a shot.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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