How the West Really Lost God
By Mary Eberstadt
Templeton Press 2013, 208pp
Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre and a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers such as First Things, Public Review, the Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal. She has also written a number of books including Home-Alone America and Adam and Eve after the Pill.
I somehow missed How The West Really Lost God when it was published in 2013 which makes me think that other Catholic Weekly readers may also have missed it. It is a very thoughtful and accessible book which I thoroughly recommend.
In this book Eberstadt develops a new theory to explain the secularisation of the West which takes a fresh look at the relationship between the traditional family and religion. Many researchers have identified the fact that religious people tend to have more children but Eberstadt sees the strength of the traditional family as one of the key foundations to the strength and growth of religion – and to Christianity in particular.
While this book is not short on statistics and analysis it has been written for a popular readership and it is very readable. Eberstadt looks at the history of the family and at the history of religious revivals and religiosity in the West and finds clear evidence of a symbiotic relationship. She describes the thesis of her book in this way: “[F]amily and faith are the invisible double helix of society – two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.”
In short, her analysis demonstrates that when family life is strong, religious faith is strong. She suggests that the family – the birth and upbringing of children, the relationships within a family and decisions which need to be taken by parents about how to bring their children up, where to educate them and what moral values to pass on to them – may be what drives religiosity rather than the religiosity of those who marry being the motivation for family. Essentially Eberstadt argues that “the family is not merely a consequence of religious belief. It can also be conduit to it”.
Speaking of Christianity, Eberstadt makes some observations which really make a lot of sense. Just as family is central to the Christian story, it stands to reason that the more people enjoy an upbringing within a loving and stable traditional family, the more they will relate to Christianity.
Those who have experienced an enjoyable family life will see symbols in their own family life of the Holy Family, of the relationship of Father and Son and of love, sacrifice and forgiveness. Eberstadt does not suggest that only those who have had a joyful and stable childhood will be drawn to religious faith but she does identify the greater challenges in identifying with some of the central themes and teachings of Christianity for those who have never known a father, whose parents are unmarried or have divorced, who have been brought up in unstable relationships, or who have only known family life to be dysfunctional or violent.
To such persons the moral teachings of Christianity and the key characters of the Christian faith may be seen as a challenge or criticism of the relationships which they experience on a day to day basis at home. Within these pages Eberstadt explains that Marx’s view that “religion is an opiate of the masses” is demonstrably wrong. She illustrates this by examining religious practices in the United States. In that country, religiosity is strongest among the better educated and wealthier members of society and weakest in the poor, the poorly educated and the working classes.
She mentions, in particular, the 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study of the beliefs and practices of America’s Mormons which found the highest levels of religious commitment (84 per cent) among college graduates, followed by those with some college education (75 per cent) compared with those with a high school education of less (50 per cent).
She also considers the gender imbalance in favour of women among religious observers in the West. Her views on why this might be are very interesting and include the unique role that women perform in bringing new life into the world and in nurturing and caring for such lives in many ways which men cannot or do not enjoy.
Eberstadt also explodes the view that religion is losing favour as the secular view of personal autonomy and freedom gains ground. As she explains, the religions and the faith traditions which are proving to be most popular today are those which have continued to retain traditional moral principles and values rather than those who have sought to adapt their teachings to the prevailing moral values of the society around them.
While many have identified the impact of the sexual revolution and the spread of acceptability of contraception, sterilisation and abortion on demand on Western populations before, Eberstadt’s contribution is to identify in those trends, not only a decline in the traditional family and on family sizes, but also their impact on the extent of religious belief in the West. As Eberstadt explains, part of the decline in religiosity in the West has been brought about quite simply by the decline in the size of families.
Eberstadt concludes her book by setting out a series of arguments in favour of seeking to reverse the trends away from family and away from faith.
She argues that Christianity is a force of good in society for reasons which include the greater contributions to charities and to “social capital” made by believers, the longer life spans, health and happiness of believers and the fact that believers are less likely to commit crimes.
She also argues that the family is the partner of society, progress and the state because “social science has … established that children do best when they grow up with married, biological parents in the home, and that children who do not enjoy that advantage are at a higher risk of a large number of problems … Adolescent delinquency, adult criminality, illness and injury in childhood, sexual abuse, school problems, emotional troubles, early sexual behaviour – all rise with the fatherless home (or, for that matter, generally speaking, the home with the stepfather rather than the biological father).”
In How The West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt has made a valuable contribution to the causes of Western secularisation. Her view that the influence of the strength of the traditional family on a society’s religiosity is compelling and important to reflect upon given the continuing attacks on marriage and the traditional family in Australia today.