How and why has Christianity come to decline in many countries in the West? This is the central question of Mary Eberstadt’s latest book, “How the West Really Lost God,” (Templeton Press).
Many studies have shown that belief and practice of the Christian faith has diminished in almost every European country and the percentage of those who do not believe has also risen in the United States.
Diverse opinions exist as to the cause of this decline in religiosity: urbanization, industrialization, technology, etc., and while Eberstadt does see a relationship between such changes and secularization, there is one vital factor not normally taken into account – the family.
It is often postulated that family decline is a consequence of a weakening of religion, but the thesis proposed in this book is that a weakening of family life contributes to religious decline.
We are perhaps the freest people in the history of humanity, Eberstadt noted, but we are also more deprived of the bonds of family and faith familiar to previous generations.
After a couple of initial chapters that examine the process of secularization and some of the common arguments that seek to explain it, the following chapters provide the evidence for her theory regarding the interplay between family and religion.
Eberstadt starts by examining the empirical evidence for a relationship between faith and family. Citing various studies, she observed that fewer children in households results in lower church attendance. For example, a married man with children is over twice as likely to go to church as an unmarried man with no children.
As well, cohabitation has a strong negative impact on the practice of religion.
“In other words, what you decide to do about your family – whether to have one, whether to marry, how many children you will have: are strong predicators of how much time you do (or do not) spend in church,” she concluded.
Why does this connection exist, Eberstadt goes on to ask. She acknowledged that religiosity is associated with higher levels of marriage and having more children. Instead of assuming, however, that religion comes first and family second, she argued that there is something about larger and stronger families that makes people more religious.
The argument that people have families just because they are religious does not explain why many Christians whose churches allow contraception and abortion have larger families compared to non-believers.
Eberstadt conceded that correlation does not prove causation, but the conventional belief that secularization led to changes in family life also relies on an implied causation.
Over time in many Western countries fertility rates dropped, more people started living together instead of marrying, and many people stopped going to church. These trends reinforced one another, she commented.
Urbanization and industrialization are frequently cited as being factors in a weakening of religion, but Eberstadt noted that they are also associated with a weakening in family life and fewer children. This change in the family may we have been an intermediate step in the loss of religion, she affirmed.
More children and more marriage means more God, Eberstadt concluded after describing a number of demographic changes in recent history.
Allowing a role for the family in determining religiosity does a better job of explaining some changes than other theories, one of the book’s chapters argued. For example, the fact that women have a higher rate of religious practice than men.
Explaining this difference based on female inferiority isn’t going to work, Eberstadt said. Maybe what accounts for the difference is that women’s experience of family and children is more immediate than for men.
Family and faith
What are some of the factors linking family and religion? Eberstadt cites several. One is that having children drives parents to church due to a need to find a place for education and community. Family love, she argued, gives people an added incentive to contemplate eternity.
As well, Christianity is a story told through the prism of a family from 2,000 years ago. In an individualized society with many broken families it becomes more difficult to make sense of a religious tradition that is based on familial dynamics.
Eberstadt also argued that people do not like to be told they are wrong or that those whom they love have done wrong. Christianity cannot help but send such a message without abandoning some core precepts in an age of non-traditional families.
On a somber note Eberstadt observed that the family trends that are subversive of Christianity show no sign of abating in the West. She did, nevertheless, also put the case for an optimistic outlook, arguing that a turnaround in family life could occur. Christianity also has a history of coming back from difficult situations and adapting to new circumstances, she added.
In conclusion Eberstadt asserted that Christianity and functioning families are a strong plus for society. The question remains as to how and when the negative trends of recent decades can be reversed.