How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization
by Mary Eberstadt
Templeton Press, West Conshohocken, Pa., 268 pages
How does one explain the rapid decline of Christianity in the West since about 1960? The usual suspects are Enlightenment rationalism, the scientific worldview and urbanization. To all of these, argues Mary Eberstadt of Stanford University’s conservative think tank, the Hoover Institution, must be added a vital ingredient: “the family factor.”
Eberstadt’s book explores the connection between what she calls the “two momentous trends of modernity,” the decline of religion and the family in the West. In a carefully reasoned argument, which relies heavily on sociology, she makes the case that the conventional wisdom that the decline of religion has led to the decline of the family is inadequate and, in fact, ought to be reversed. Rather it is the decline of the traditional family that has sent the membership roles of Western churches into free fall.
The traditional argument, she avers, is true to the extent that beliefs precede actions, that ideas have consequences. Hence a society that rejects Christianity may also — perhaps inevitably — reject the moral and social values of that religion, which traditionally include a rigid sexual code, inviolable marriages, and strong traditional families.
Yet the decline of the family in recent decades is due to more than the rejection of Christianity. Eberstadt notes many causes, but key to this phenomenon seems to be the watershed decade of the 1960s, which began with the introduction of the “pill” and proceeded to the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism. These inevitably led to the breakdown of traditional families and the rise of single-parent families, “blended” families and a large increase in the number of single people with no immediate family at all.
Eberstadt speculates that various aspects of the experience of family — the miracle of new life, for one — lead directly to a belief in God and a desire to participate in a religious community. The connection between family and faith, she argues, is particularly true for the Christian religion because it is based on the story of a family. Conversely, those without a traditional family experience may be unmoved by the Christian story.
The simultaneous decline of the family and religion, Eberstadt admits, does not necessarily mean that one has caused the other or that they are mutually reinforcing. As sociologists often point out, correlation does not prove causation. Her case, therefore, is built on considerable circumstantial evidence but no incontrovertible proof. She says it comes to, not a “smoking gun,” but at least a “smoldering gun.”
Her assessment, I think, is a fair one. Scholars will no doubt be sifting the evidence and weighing the arguments for some time to come, but if Eberstadt’s insights prove accurate, one of her conclusions will be particularly troubling to thoughtful Christians: the doctrinal changes made by the mainline churches over the past three generations regarding divorce, contraception and, yes, homosexuality have been terribly and ironically self-destructive. By relaxing age-old standards on sexual morality, the churches have inadvertently undermined the foundations of the traditional family, thus precipitating their own demise.
MICHAEL PARKER is professor of church history at a Presbyterian seminary in the Middle East.