How the West really lost God…

How West Lost God

Post-Christian is a term commonly used to describe American culture.  Our culture is no longer shaped in any substantial way by the Christian faith.  This obviously doesn’t mean that Christianity has disappeared.  But it does mean that the cultural role of Christianity has diminished to the point of being insignificant.


How we got to be post-Christian is the subject of considerable debate.  Many thinkers hold that the development of the modern world included several cultural forces that would inevitably lead to the disappearance of religion—education, urbanization, industrialization, rationalism, science, and economic prosperity.  And they also thought that a decline in religion would in turn lead to changes in social arrangements such as the family.  Religious decline causes family decline.


But this commonly held interpretation has been challenged recently by Mary Eberstadt in a book entitled How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization.  She argues that the secularization thesis is incomplete since the opposite is also the case—“family decline breeds religious decline.”  In an interview with the Gospel Coalition blogger Justin Taylor, she offered this explanation.


People are social beings. They learn religion the way they learn language: in communities, beginning with the community of the family. And when family structure becomes disrupted and attenuated and fractured, as it is for many Western people today, many families can no longer function as a transmission belt for religious belief. In addition, many people become insulated from the natural course of birth, death, and other momentous family events that are part of why people turn to religion in the first place.


Moving the discussion back one step, Eberstadt offered a brief survey of the cultural forces that “led to the family itself becoming unstable?”


The Industrial Revolution, historians agree, disrupted family life as never before. It uprooted people from the countryside and sent many into the cities looking for work. This both split people off from their extended families and created new pressures on family formation, because—for reasons detailed in the book—urbanization arguably makes family formation more difficult.


So industrialization and urbanization are part of the answer to the question of why Western families began to fracture. To those forces one also has to add the sexual revolution of the 1960s and beyond, which splintered the family unit as never before, again for reasons examined in the book.


By no coincidence, religious practice in many Western precincts declines dramatically exactly alongside rising divorce rates and cohabitation rates and fertility decline and other proxies for the sexual revolution. Again, religious decline and family decline go hand in hand and operate as a double helix, as spelled out in the book.


In another interview, this one with Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online, Mary Eberstadt provided a fuller explanation of the impact of the 60s sexual revolution.


Without doubt, the Sexual Revolution is the paramount challenge of this age for traditional Christianity. That’s so for several reasons, some more obvious than others. What interests me most, and what the book spends some time dissecting, are the subtle ways in which the sexual revolution and its fallout put new barriers between some modern Western people and the likelihood of their belief in God.


First, insofar as it contributes to broken, scattered, and atomistic homes, the revolution makes it harder just to tell the Christian story itself — because it’s a story saturated throughout with familial images and ideas.


How, for instance, do you explain the idea of God as a loving, benevolent Father to someone whose experience of men in the home is a series of Mom’s boyfriends? How do you get across what’s so theologically central, say, about Mary’s absolute acceptance of her role in the divine plan of birth to secular men and women living in a post-abortion age who think that every birth is negotiable? How do you explain what’s so miraculous about the idea of God coming into the world as a baby — in fact, how do you explain what’s so miraculous about babies, period — to an adult who has never even held one?


Those are just a few examples of how the way we live today might make it harder for some people to grasp some of the basics of the Christian religion — or as believers would say, to hear the voice of God. …


But surely resistance to Christianity in this age has a lot to do with [this] one phenomenon, the Sexual Revolution — even more than is widely understood, more even than anyone has yet mapped.


My hope is just to try and clarify what’s happening. Pace the new atheists and the condescending secular piety according to which secularization is just the logical result of humanity growing up, what’s keeping many Western people out of church today isn’t Philosophy 101. They’re not lying awake at night mulling transubstantiation or the problem of theodicy, say, and then checking “none of the above” on a Pew survey. No, what’s helping to drive secularization for many people is something a lot less cerebral: the widespread desire to keep biting that apple of the Sexual Revolution — which traditional Christianity wants to put out of their reach. It’s a head-on collision, for sure.


The future—what about the future?  Here are some Mary Eberstadt’s closing comments to Justin Taylor on what might be done to strengthen the family.


To offer just one pragmatic implication of the book’s argument, pastors and others in charge of the churches need to understand that “the family” is not some abstraction to be praised here and there, but rather the very backbone of their institutions. For example, churches can’t afford to be indifferent to the question of whether people procreate, because without religious families, there will be few people sitting in the pews ten or twenty or fifty years hence—as has already happened in some denominations that have inadvertently demonstrated the double helix of family and faith by their own unwitting diminishment.


Most important, people concerned about the family might want to consider exactly what makes it easier for young people, especially, to have families in the first place. This boils down to grassroots efforts involving one home and church at a time: like organizing help such as carpools, or meal drop-offs when there’s a new baby in the house, or creating rotating prayer groups that double as social hours for moms, and related efforts.


These may seem pedestrian ideas, but they’re also the very sorts of initiatives that can sometimes make the difference between having a family or walking away from it. After all, families are a lot of work. But they’re also reminiscent of what Winston Churchill once said about democracy: the worst system, except for all the others.



How the West Really Lost God is an expansion and book-length development of an essay published a few years ago in Policy Review, a publication of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  That early essay by Mary Eberstadt is available here. 


Justin Taylor’s interview, “How the West Really Lost God: An Interview with Mary Eberstadt,” can be found here. 


Kathryn Jean Lopez’s interview with Mary Eberstadt, “God and Family in the West,” is available here.



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