The Decline of the Family and the Death of Faith

An interview with Mary Eberstadt, author of How the West Really Lost God

Traditional theories of secularization maintain that religious decline led to the deterioration of the family. Not so, argues Mary Eberstadt in her new book How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press, 2013). Eberstadt is a leading cultural critic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. Her books include Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution (2012); The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism (2010); and Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes (2005). Recently, Catholic World Report caught up with Eberstadt and discussed the book and the theory of secularization it presents.

CWR: Why did you set out to write this book—what initially triggered your thinking on secularization in the West? 

Mary Eberstadt

Eberstadt: Like other Americans who’ve travelled to Europe, I’ve been impressed repeatedly by how secular and non-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian the Continent has become. Empty pews and sparsely attended Masses; cathedrals that house far more tourists than pilgrims; elderly altar-servers in childless churches: these are just a few snapshots of what some call the ongoing de-Christianization of Europe.

The question of why this dramatic decline has happened seemed worth some time and thought, so I started looking into it. And the first interesting fact to emerge was that the standard ways of explaining secularization don’t hold up, as the opening chapters of the book go to show.

Affluence alone doesn’t drive out God, for example, and neither does education or rationalism or other purported causal factors that don’t hold up upon inspection. The very phenomenon of secularization came to feel more and more like a great and intriguing jigsaw puzzle. How the West Really Lost God is an attempt to re-arrange the pieces into a better fit.

CWR: Your argument is essentially that faith and family make a double-helix and that traditional theories of secularization in which religious decline leads to the deterioration of the family are neglecting large pieces of the puzzle. Can you expand on this?

Eberstadt: The double-helix image is meant to signal a new idea: that family and faith are intricately connected, and that each requires the other to reproduce. That’s why times of family decline—like our own—are times of religious decline; and conversely, why times of religious flourishing are also times of family revival.

Let’s start with some uncontroversial facts that point toward just such a relationship. Married people are more likely to go to church than single people. Married people with children are significantly more likely to do so, especially if they’re men. Similarly, social science documents that across the world, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to have families of size; fertility and religiosity are tightly linked, any way the numbers are run.

The point is to ask why these things are so. It’s not satisfactory to answer by saying “well, that’s just what religious believers do.” 

One new way of looking at these relationships is to see that there is something about living in families that inclines at least some people toward religiosity in general, and toward Christianity in particular. This fact is a hidden engine of both secularization in some circumstances, and religious revival in others.

CWR:  Some have argued that secularization does not even exist outside of Europe—after all, America still seems pretty religious, just more diverse. What do you make of these arguments?

Eberstadt: It’s true that for many years, religious believers looking over to Western Europe have consoled themselves with the notion that the Continent is just a special case. But that’s a Pyrrhic consolation.

First, the kind of family trends associated with increased secularization—primarily low fertility and low marriage rates, and rising numbers of births to unmarried people—are all continuing apace across the West, including in the US. We’re now where Denmark and Sweden were a couple of decades ago, for example: 40 percent of all American births are to unmarried people.

So we’re moving in the same direction as Europe, only at a somewhat slower pace. If family and faith are as intricately connected as they appear to be, as the book argues, then these continuing familial disruptions don’t bode well for the Church.

Second, the Continent is not a special case after all, as it turns out. Secularization and related family trends are also on the rise outside the United States and Europe—even in Pope Francis’s homeland of Argentina, where the number of people professing “no religious affiliation” continues to rise, especially among the young, just as it does here.

So pace those thinkers who see secularization as some boutique European thing, I think there’s evidence instead that it’s potentially an everybody thing, at least among populations that are adopting European family trends.

CWR: In zeroing in on the family factor as essential to the promotion of faith, you contend—and lament—that the family as an institution has less power over its individual members than it used to have. Why is that?

Eberstadt: The gravitational pull of the family is weaker than it ever was before for several reasons.

For one, changing Western legal codes have made it easier for people to view “family” as an optional arrangement based on voluntary association, rather than as a permanent institution formed by elemental biological ties. Once upon a time, whoever was your sister-in-law remained your sister-in-law for life. Today she might be replaced at any time by other sisters-in-law or sister-in-law-type people, depending on her and your brother’s intentions. That’s a new and potent social fact.

Then there’s the complicated and under-attended relationship between the family and the state, which the book also examines because this too is a critical part of the modern picture. On the one hand, the welfare state has stepped in as a family substitute of necessity, picking up the pieces of the fractured family; on the other, its doing so has effectively bankrolled family fracture in turn, and hence encouraged it.

And of course the greatest social force battering the family, as many secular researchers would agree, is the sexual revolution, which has altered relations between the sexes—and within the family—in unprecedented ways.

CWR: You return to some of the arguments from your previous book Adam and Eve after the Pill, where you note that widespread embrace of birth control has forever altered the natural family unit and relationships between the sexes. Has the birth control pill really been that influential a factor in western secularization? 

Eberstadt: Yes, the Pill really is all that—though “forever” is an open question.

Contraceptive technology has disrupted the elemental rhythms of birth and death and family as has no other historical force: almost everyone would agree to that. And now that so many people, especially Western people, live in fractured or non-existent families, they are less likely to be found in Church for various reasons explored in the book.

And, of course, the Pill also contributed to the decline of Western Christianity in another way: demographically. The current plight of Mainline Protestantism, for example, was brought on in part by the embrace of contraception. There’s a chapter in the book called “Assisted Religious Suicide” detailing exactly that.

CWR: How then has the neglect of other Christian teachings on matters such as abortion, marriage, divorce, and homosexuality influenced secularization trends? Wouldn’t it make sense that as some Christian churches lighten up on these requirements, faith then becomes more appealing? 

Eberstadt: In the short run, we all want to be told that it’s fine to do whatever we choose. In the long run, though, the experiment of Christianity Lite generates insurmountable institutional problems of its own—including but not limited to the demographic one mentioned earlier.

Yet there’s another and perhaps deeper reason why trying to lighten up the Christian code hasn’t resulted in institutional success. The very strictness of the traditional code is part of what brings some human beings to the Church in the first place—because they believe that for all its demands, Christianity resonates with truth and human dignity in a way that pagan conceptions of humanity do not.

From the very beginning, after all, the Church has stood as a sign of contradiction for so many things that pagans could have and Christians couldn’t: infanticide, artificial contraception, abortion, and the rest. And from the very beginning, insistence on that strict code has not only made some people hate the Church (though of course it has). It’s also made other people love the thing, including some of the finest converts in history.

That’s why the attempt to have Christianity without the Christian code is a non-starter: because it ignores the fact that these currently unpopular yet perennially powerful teachings are among the most potent forces drawing people to the Church in the first place.

CWR: You argue that families—particularly the experience of bringing children into this world—makes individuals more receptive to religion, and specifically Christianity. How so?

Eberstadt: There are many ways in which families “drive people to church,” and one particular chapter in the book tries to bring some of them to light.

For one thing, childrearing is an enormous responsibility. So many mothers and fathers seek to situate their children in a like-minded moral community—i.e., church. That’s one quotidian but real and forceful way in which something about just having children motivates some people toward the pews.

Then there are the more ephemeral but also powerful ways in which family life raises the idea of God. The experience of childbirth, for starters, rather obviously inclines some fathers and mothers—maybe even many—toward a transcendent frame of mind that gets translated into religiosity.

We modern people have less familial experience than those who came before us. We have institutional substitutes for the family from cradle to grave, daycare to nursing homes.

That’s part of why Western society is less religious than it used to be, I believe—because if it’s hard to be an atheist in a foxhole, it’s also hard to be one in the nursery, say, or when contemplating an open grave. The fact that so many Western people are alienated in different ways from these primal experiences is part of what’s going on in so-called secularization.

CWR: If you are right—that the decline of the family means the decline of Christianity—this is pretty bad news for religious folks. Is there any reason for optimism?

Eberstadt: There’s always room for optimism!

In the first place, if the book’s argument is broadly correct, then there’s an immediate take-home that believers especially should find encouraging. It’s that the conventional way of looking at secularization—according to which one or another aspect of modernity has made Christian decline inevitable—has gotten that big story wrong. 

The Church isn’t permanently on the wrong side of history, as some of its detractors claim; that’s a historicist fallacy, and it’s also not what the timeline shows. History shows instead that Christian belief and practice ebb and flow.

Religious revival happens. It happened in the lifetime of some people reading these words, in fact—during the years between the end of World War II and the early 1960s, which saw a remarkable pan-Western increase in churchgoing. To say that it can’t happen again is to ignore empirical fact.

Similarly, the fractured family may seem to us a constant companion of modernity. But the fallout of the fractured family is something that Western societies are only just beginning to understand. It took decades of research and thought to convince people of the empirical fallout of tobacco smoking, for example. Why should the fallout of today’s family experiments be different?

Down the road, there will be second thoughts about where Western societies are now, and whether that’s a good place to be—or not. And the fact that people do learn from history and experience offers a special kind of hope in its own right.

About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.