Is Family Decline Behind Religious Decline?
Every pastor knows that having kids has a way of bringing young parents inside the church doors. Or, at least, every pastor used to think so. Today, it's less clear. There was a time when you could almost count on young people whose attendance had dropped off after they left Mom and Dad's watchful eyes to return when they became parents themselves. But increasingly, young people who leave aren't coming back. What's going on?
According to Mary Eberstadt, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, it has a lot to do with the fact that fewer young people are getting married and having kids. And if they do finally settle down to start a family, it's much later than it used to be. For Eberstadt, there's an intrinsic link between faith and family, and the decline of the family in Western society has a lot to do with the shrinking size of our churches. In fact, that's How the West Really Lost God, as the title of her new book puts it. "As the family goes," Eberstadt argues, "so go the churches." In North Atlantic societies, the family has not done well in recent years, and to her mind that's been the single most important factor driving secularizing trends in the Western world.
If Eberstadt is right, it's an argument with "radical implications," as she claims. Social scientists and other observers have tended not to view the family as the chief motor of secularizing trends, but Eberstadt believes her argument "turn[s] the standard account of Western religious decline upside down." Rather than the separation of church and state, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, two World Wars, and the rise of education, prosperity, science, technology, and cities, she contends that secularization has come about largely because the natural family has declined. For Christians who care about the future of their churches, then, it would seem that the best thing to do would be to get married and stay married, and raise a quiver full of kids. But is Eberstadt right?
A Secular Age, After All
For some, the very idea that secularization has taken place is questionable. As Peter Berger and Philip Jenkins have pointed out, religion in the non-Western world is thriving, and Christianity in particular is doing very well in Africa and China. Other observers, such as Rodney Stark, point to the apparently low levels of church attendance in medieval Europe, compared to which the 19th and 20th centuries represent a significant increase. So, which is it? Is "secularization" little more than a self-congratulatory tale that modern-day atheists like to tell, or do we live in a secular age after all?
Eberstadt thinks it's the latter, and in this she surely is correct. In his book A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor makes the point well with a question: "Why is it so hard to believe in God (in many milieux) in the modern West, while in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to?" Eberstadt wisely points to the work of historian Eamon Duffy, whose book The Stripping of the Altars shows in great detail how medieval Englishmen, even if they weren't always to be found in church on Sundays, lived in a world in which Christianity defined their everyday lives and filled their imaginative horizons. We just don't live in that world anymore—for us, it's entirely possible to go to school, find a mate, engage in politics, take part in cultural life, and listen to popular music, all without having to confront God in anything but a peripheral way.