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?

Article continues below

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.

So, Eberstadt has good reason to say that the West has "lost God" in some way. But she's not careful enough in spelling out what that means—for, as she herself makes clear, the secularization of the European social imagination that historians like Duffy detail is perfectly compatible with a rise in church attendance. In fact, that's basically what happened, until church attendance started to drop off in the 20th century. Explaining what happened requires telling a story that can account for this complexity, and that's where Eberstadt falls short.

The Family Factor

Eberstadt agrees that any explanation worth its salt needs to have a "theory of variation," as Rodney Stark puts it—basically, some way of accounting for the fact that secularization hasn't followed modernity's rise in any straightforward way. Eberstadt thinks she has the answer: It's the "family factor," the relative strength or weakness of the natural family, ignored by all other accounts but in fact the key to most (though not all) of religion's rising and falling.

To make her case, Eberstadt first looks at various other explanations on offer, and finds them all wanting. The rising tide of modern science and Enlightenment rationalism, she argues, doesn't wash as an explanation—as evidence, she points out statistics that show the more educated you are in America today, the more likely you are to believe in God and attend church. The two World Wars don't go far enough either; she notes that WWII was followed by religious growth rather than decline.

Article continues below

Only the family factor does the trick. As sociologist Brad Wilcox has shown, about a third of the recent decline in American adult church attendance can be "explained by the fact that fewer adults are now married with children." Eberstadt thinks this insight can be extended to much of European history, pointing out for instance that the French birthrate began declining as early as the late 18th century. The relative buoyancy of the American family, by contrast, likely explains why America has long been more religious than Europe. It is finally the birth control pill, which in the 1960's made contraception widespread and detached sex from marriage, that did religion in—as birthrates went down and divorce rates went up, church attendance went into freefall.

Eberstadt offers up some good reasons for why family and faith are connected. The miracle of birth, she argues, gives people a strong push toward the transcendent, and raising children points us toward the self-giving agape love that Christians believe is the heart of God. The fundamental question—what do we teach our children?—propels people to think about the sources of truth and goodness, and so to God and religious community.

The Rest of the Story

No doubt, there is much truth in such observations. But there is also much to question. Charles Taylor cites a passage from Dostoyevsky, contrasting one man's wide-eyed wonder at the miracle of a newborn child with the very different reaction of the midwife, who only sees "a further development of the organism." The miracle of life was really there, Dostoyevsky meant to say, but there was something about the social imagination of 19th century Russia that made it possible for some people to block it out.

It is this something, what Taylor calls the modern "social imaginary," that Eberstadt in the end does not adequately account for. Her treatment of the role played by the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modern science is deeply inadequate, greatly discounting their importance. She fails even to mention the intellectual roots of these shifts in late-medieval theology, as the theologian John Milbank and others have argued for.

Taylor and Milbank, by contrast, tell a story that goes something like this: Once upon a time, everyone lived in an enchanted world, filled with spirits and magic. In the West, the rise of Judaism and Christianity began to displace the spirits—only the one true God was almighty, and the spirits were either worthless idols or weaklings in the face of the Lord's power. Christ, as it were, began to cast out the spirits from the world. But the ancient and medieval church's sacramentalism kept the world enchanted, only now with the grace of God. This began to retreat with the Reformation, when God's presence shifted from the sacraments and the priests to the Word alone. Nothing was enchanted now, except the Word.

Article continues below

This Word marched forth, carrying with it a powerful drive to reform European society after its demands. To a large extent, it succeeded, but at the same time religious conflict unleashed years of bloody war. Many became skeptical that the Word could really bring about reform, but gained confidence that we could reform the world ourselves. For the first time in history, it became possible to conceive of an "exclusive humanism." Secular politics, science, and technology became humanism's tools, and as time went on these took hold of more and more of human activity and imagination. God became a hypothesis that society had little need for.

Meanwhile, the post-Reformation churches had some success at mobilizing believers, in a new world in which faith was no longer simply part of everyday social life. But the church all too often allied itself with fading political regimes, discrediting it in the eyes of many. The First World War's senseless violence shattered for a generation the old Christendom synthesis of church and state, and Europe's churches have never been the same. The church held on in America, since the war did not shatter us like it did the Europeans, and because our churches were not in any case allied so tightly with the state. But the 1960s began to change that, as the civil rights movement and Vietnam began to topple the confidence of many in the American Establishment, and insofar as the "mainline" churches were viewed as part of the status quo. The American social imagination split in two, and ever since then has been characterized by culture wars, with most of religion on the conservative side.

By not telling this story, Eberstadt has left out the lion's share of "how the West really lost God." No doubt, her "family factor" played its part, and she is at her most convincing when she shows how family decline was part of a broader trend toward modern individualism. She never claims that family decline is solely responsible, but she claims far too much for it. It is an odd story of Western secularization that leaves to one side most of what Western culture has thought and imagined in its common life about God.

Jordan Hylden is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School.

How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Book Title
How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization
Templeton Press
Release Date
April 24, 2013
Buy How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization from Amazon