Art Pelayo and sons Andre, 6, and Alexander, 2, sit in Immaculate Conception Church in Stayton, Ore. (CNS photo/Gerry Lewin, Catholic Sentinel)
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 bookwhat
initially triggered your thinking on secularization in the West?
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 declinelike
our ownare times of religious decline; and conversely, why times of religious
flourishing are also times of family revival.
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
point is to ask why these things are
so. It’s not satisfactory to answer by saying “well, that’s just what religious
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 Europeafter all, America still
seems pretty religious, just more diverse. What do you make of these arguments?
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
First, the kind of family
trends associated with increased secularizationprimarily low fertility and low
marriage rates, and rising numbers of births to unmarried peopleare 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 Europeeven 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
CWR: In zeroing in on the family factor as essential to the
promotion of faith, you contendand lamentthat the family as an institution
has less power over its individual members than it used to have. Why is that?
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
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
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 sexesand within
the familyin 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
Yes, the Pill really is all thatthough “forever”
is an open question.
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?
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 ownincluding
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 placebecause
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
CWR: You argue that familiesparticularly the experience of bringing
children into this worldmakes individuals more receptive to religion, and
specifically Christianity. How so?
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 communityi.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 mothersmaybe even
manytoward a transcendent frame of mind that gets translated into religiosity.
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
part of why Western society is less religious than it used to be, I believebecause
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 rightthat the decline of the family means the
decline of Christianitythis is pretty bad news for religious folks. Is there
any reason for optimism?
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 secularizationaccording to which one or another aspect of modernity
has made Christian decline inevitablehas
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 factduring
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 beor
not. And the fact that people do learn from history and experience offers a
special kind of hope in its own right.