Interaction and review: Mary Eberstadt’s “How the West Really Lost God”

November 8, 2013

It's not a conspiracy that things fall apart in this world—it is just entropy driven by the force of our sin. We see it everywhere; we walk among the ruins: family, marriage, faith, education and so on. But this decline doesn't happen in a vacuum. For years now, scholars have tried to understand and explain our culture's “slouching toward Gomorrah,” as Robert Bork put it.

Mary Eberstadt's (Senior Fellow, Ethics & Public Policy Center) book, How the West Really Lost God, livens up the prosaic statistics we've read and heard repeatedly, injecting fresh insight and humility into the conversation about secularization theories. But unlike other works, it goes beyond the critique of these theories to a thesis which should move this important conversation forward: Family has just as much influence on religious beliefs and practices, as faith has on family formation and value. Moreover, the decline and fracturing of the family has fed the decline of religion, and Christianity in particular. Eberstadt's succinct statement: “family illiteracy breeds religious illiteracy,” should in my opinion become a driving force and the rallying cry for family oriented institutions. A force driving us to breathe deep and dive back into pouring ourselves into the war for the soul of the family in our nation. 

Eberstadt's thesis is that not only does faith drive people to family but that family drives people to faith. Her metaphor is that family and faith are the two strands of a DNA-like double helix, with the rods bridging the spiral being doctrine or the Church. She gets there by first re-examining secularization theories. Some of those theories include the claim that the comforts of religion are imaginary and that they are lost upon education and prosperity. Others blame the secularization of culture on the Enlightenment, the rise of science and rationalism, the wars, material progress, urbanization, or the industrial revolution. 

In refuting and debunking these secularization theories Eberstadt shows, through the historical record, that conventional accounts have been wrong, and that even in America these patterns undermine the idea that higher education and higher socioeconomic classes are natural enemies of religion. Moreover, and contrary to secularization theory's view, secularization is not a linear process where religion disappears slowly but surely over time; these predictions have been wrong about the decline and death of religion. In actuality, as Eberstadt demonstrates, the rates of religiosity and corresponding rates of secularization wax and wane in particular cycles. So if conventional accounts have been wrong about what is driving people away from the church; if these theories are wrong about the 'what' and the 'why' of religious decline, then what is going on? As Eberstadt has asked, what happened to take a civilization from widely respecting and believing in God to a “civilization that widely jeers him?” Her answer is the Family Factor, “a variable so humble that it has been overlooked.”

She defines the variable of the Family Factor as the effect parents in intact marriages have on religious beliefs and practice. This is what is missing, Eberstadt says, from the scholarly studies on the decline of Christianity in the West. She proceeds to draw out the connection between the health of the family and the health of religion. These, she shows, go hand-in-hand—hence, her double helix imagery. The helix ties the family to faith such that a rise in one gives rise to the other, and a decline in one creates a decline in the other. 

We can all nod in agreement that family plays a role in religious formation, or lack thereof. But what are these driving factors, which act within the family structure and function to propel parents toward faith, and to the Christian faith in particular? One of those factors, Eberstadt says, is that the Christian story tells itself through the prism of the family. Therefore, those raised in fractured or non–traditional homes will have difficulty grasping the holy family and the storyline of the gospel, there is an extra hurdle, so to speak, in their path toward the Christian God. The family teaches us values such as self-sacrifice and service for the good of others—concepts that drive people to better grasp and relate to the Christian religion. Moreover, as she points out, the birth of a child has great potential to drive parents to church—this transcendent experience alone sends mother and father searching for God. There was a time when the need for baptism sent parents to the church doors where they were embraced and taught the Christian faith. For many parents, church was an entity that catechized its young in the moral grammar necessary for participation in civil society. It could also be that parents are seeking a like–minded community within which to raise their family. The need and desire for parental support leads families to church. Perhaps even more, the effect of bringing new life into the world causes parents to probe the deeper, transcendent aspects of life.  Practically speaking, life changes and markers like marriage, birth, communion, catechism and death all used to lead families to the church. With co-habitation, out-of-wedlock births, burgeoning single parent and non-traditional households, even mixed-faith marriages, this family factor has driven the decline in religiosity.

If family drives people to faith, and faith drives people to family, where is the breakdown? The breakdown is in family formation, namely—marriage. Marriage has unraveled. It is here that Eberstadt lays out the reasons for the decline of marriage and family (e.g. easy divorce, the Pill, etc.) At one point she states that the “fallout from the centuries–long tinkering with doctrine that began with the Reformation has had one clear consequence: it has weakened the churches that attempted it. It weakened them demographically, as removing the emphasis on the family and the injunction to be fruitful and multiply has resulted in graying parishioners and empty pews across the Western world.” Although a Protestant myself, there is much to agree with in her critique of Protestant and evangelical culture; though some of her criticisms are hardly endemic to Protestantism alone. Protestant differentiation on certain sexual ethics, coupled with a Catholic laity’s lifestyle rejection of its church’s teaching has moved people away from the traditional moral teaching of the Christian faith.. This breakdown of Christian morality can be seen in people embracing pro-choice, the Pill, and varieties of adultery—“whether same-sex, opposite-sex, multipartner, or interspecies.” And she does a superb job in the beginning of the book to point to statistics both within the Catholic and the Protestant faith showing the decline in faithfulness in both camps. As she says, “there is abundant evidence that religious practice is declining among the West's Catholics as well as among its Protestants—an empirical outcome contradicting the idea that the decline of Christianity in the West is somehow just a Protestant thing.”

With regard to her critiques of the Protestant world, I agree with her assessment that the Protestant church, especially over the last century, has made many concessions to the surrounding culture. She says, “They initiated one doctrinal change after another that further weakened ties between family and church—a process that surely accelerated decline even more.” These changes or “reforms” include loosening the moral code on divorce, contraception—namely, the Pill, ordination of women and other areas of traditional moral doctrines. Eberstadt is also correct to say that much of the movement toward secularization began with countries that were primarily, if not through and through, Protestant (e.g. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and so on). But the slow creep of liberalism and doctrinal shifts have run roughshod over the Christian conception of the family all over the West. Certainly there are swaths of the Catholic Church where divorce and birth control, for example, are soft-pedaled despite official policies that insist otherwise. And the blame for watered–down doctrine on the traditional moral code of Christianity lies equally in both camps of Christendom, whether Protestant or Catholic. Protestants may have shifted their theology, but lay Catholicism bucks its own magisterium, where now, a great number of ordinary Catholics ignore its church’s teaching on sexuality, particularly regarding contraception. After all, it wasn't long after Humanae Vitae that some in the Catholic Church voiced their dissent (e.g. the Winnipeg Statement).

We can take Eberstadt's work in How the West Really Lost God, and use it to move the conversation forward by exploring questions on the historical tides of the Church. I think the variable of the Church itself should be researched as it relates to the family's sway and influence in society. In other words, at which historical points has the Church contributed stronger families to society and at which historical points has the Church allowed the weakening of families? How can Eberstadt's Family Factor help us re-build the institution of marriage and families?

Overall, How the West Really Lost God was a fantastic book with a lot to contribute to our current discussions of faith, family and culture. I highly recommend it. Since finishing the book and contemplating Eberstadt's ideas, my thoughts have turned to Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine. She was a woman in a mixed-faith marriage—her husband was a pagan. A devout Christian woman and a great intercessor for her son, she had the support of Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. We know that Augustine eventually became a Christian under the teaching of Ambrose and was baptized by him. We see, as Eberstadt rightly claims in her thesis, that faith and family are intertwined. Whether in the year 387 or the year 2013, God indeed uses the family to bring mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to the Faith. 

This gives me hope—hope for the future of the family and the Church. After all, the family was created by God for the flourishing of humankind. 

Luma Sims

Luma Simms is an associate fellow of the Philos Project, whose mission is to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East. Her work has appeared in First Things, Public Discourse, The Federalist and many others. Her educational background includes a Bachelor of Science Degree in physics from California State Polytechnic … Read More