by Mary Eberstadt
Templeton Press, 2013, 268 pp., $24.95
t would be a stretch to claim, either in elegy or triumph, that Christianity lies in ruins in the West. But it is undeniable that Americans and especially Western Europeans increasingly regard it with bemusement or hostility, even to the point that some intellectuals deny its founding influence on Western civilization. Whether one thinks Christianity is pernicious or socially nourishing, there should be near universal agreement that its cultural decline in the West has transformed politics, public education, the arts and academe, and—perhaps most prosaically yet also most profoundly—the family.
It is easy for us today to assume that only officious clergymen policing our bedrooms led most people to accept the drudgery of wedlock and family life rather than the siren songs of eros and self-fulfillment. But as Mary Eberstadt argues in How the West Really Lost God, it wasn’t just the authoritarian whip of the Church that kept men and women marching lockstep into marriage and babymaking until Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” of 1963. The Church’s dwindling social power alone can’t explain why the bonds of kinship are arguably less important than ever before in human history.
Yet that is the fact of the matter. Across America and Europe, people live alone for such great portions of their lives, and in such unprecedented numbers, as to be unfathomable to our ancestors. These changes reflect altered social patterns rising from greater prosperity and freedom. But they also have a darker side, revealed, as Eberstadt writes, in
the aging, childless people who must now rely on friends or institutions for company, rather than on family members, when they get sick; the children of older and smaller families who will spend most of their adulthood with no immediate biological relatives and who will never know a robust extended family, for better or worse; and perhaps above all, the many children who will never know what most people previous to us could take for granted, namely, the presence in the home of two biologically related parents, and the persistence of those same two individuals through the generation.
Eberstadt’s core argument is that the fraying family is not a simple after-effect of attenuated Christian authority, because in this case as in most, causality does not run only one way. Rather, family fragmentation and the consequent, relentless thinning of social capital have both predated and powerfully driven the decline of Christianity in the West. Eberstadt invites us to imagine Christianity and the natural, intact family as a double helix: The two are interdependent, such that if one strand is pried from the other, each fails to reproduce as it used to.
Eberstadt is not playing the contrarian’s part for its own sake. In reply to the stock sociological dictum that believers have more babies because their faith tells them to, she is merely pointing out that faith and family-bound fertility form a dynamic partnership, rising and falling together in different places and historical periods. The sexual revolution didn’t occur simply because mainline Christianity ceded ground to hedonism. Rather, that revolution changed attitudes and behaviors associated with love, romance, marriage and parenthood even as religious principles and norms remained unchanged—at least for a time. It was only when non-marital sex, out-of-wedlock childbirth, adultery and divorce levels and, eventually, open homosexuality, reached critical mass—when the gap between behavior and social ideals yawned too wide to ignore or explain away—that taboos crumbled and people left the churches in droves. Many of those churches, in turn, scrambled to soften their stances in such areas. But that forfeiture of authority only seemed to hasten the flight from their pews.1
hese observations, though not unique to Eberstadt, more than justify her 2007 Policy Review essay. But why write a book if these facts of social life are already so obvious and entrenched? Eberstadt answers that we need to understand more fully how the West “lost God” because the details bear on whether the West’s drift from religion is insuperable and benign (as arguments from rationality and prosperity would have it), or unsustainable and therefore temporary.
Eberstadt’s historical survey shows that Christianity has waxed and waned in cultural power over time; its current ebb tide doesn’t necessarily point to ineluctable decline. Likewise, family breakdown has occurred many times into the deep past, but some sort of organic correction has usually set matters aright before long. It is at least plausible to think that popular appreciation for marriage culture and the natural family will experience a resurgence, and in turn strengthen respect for the religious institutions that shore up their associated norms and needs.
Eberstadt takes pains to make clear that How the West Really Lost God is non-prescriptive and not a work of apologetics. But it does have something in common, at least methodologically, with her earlier piece of fiction titled The Loser Letters, modeled after C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Eberstadt’s protagonist, a young follower of the “new atheists”, reveals the truth of Christianity in rejecting it, just as Lewis’s demon did in instructing his nephew in the art of poaching souls. Similar to that work’s apologetics-in-reverse, How the West Really Lost God argues by negation. It starts with an unwieldy, overgrown mass of all the contending notions about the whereabouts and vital signs of God and patiently whittles it down, revealing in the process how each is not persuasive, not sufficient, not relevant. And when she has rendered all the lofty academic theories into so many wood shavings on the floor, what’s left is a disarmingly simple truth: Family life (meaning, specifically, what now we call the “traditional” family) triggers, inspires and strengthens belief and participation in religious community. Eberstadt’s method is thus broadly anthropological, and it is by studied indirection that it indicts a reliance on sociology in adjudicating cultural disputes. Sociological studies cannot determine “the good” empirically, but given certain premises an engaged anthropology can.
Somewhere past the halfway point in How the West Really Lost God we are clear that something about how an individual decides whether and when and how to have a family will strongly influence how much time and energy he or she devotes to church. Having finished enumerating what she doesn’t argue, and having made clear what isn’t so, Eberstadt finally describes what this “something” is. This way of proceeding can get a bit tedious, especially for readers well versed in the subject. Along the way she repeatedly begs the reader’s patience. It’s a rather cloying habit, which also suggests a defensive anticipation of many readers’ reluctance to accept the primacy of marriage, childbearing and biological parenthood amid cultural trends that de-privilege all three. This contributes to the general sense that this slim book contains more padding than is justified by the payoff. Indeed, Eberstadt’s 2007 essay stands as a more compelling account of the “family factor.”
Nevertheless, the book does take us some distance further than the essay. What exactly is it about marriage, pregnancy, childbirth and kinship that make individuals more open to the supernatural, specifically of the Christian variety? The simple answer is that for most people community fosters enduring belief better than a personal encounter with the divine (which, let’s be honest, many of us are ill suited to experience, like radios tuned to the wrong frequency). Contemporary forms of “new age” spirituality encourage a kind of egotism, but traditional faith, especially when intertwined with parenthood, pulls people in the opposite direction, for reasons both pragmatic and poetic.
As to the pragmatic reasons, parents often seek out similarly situated couples, easily found flocking around coffee and donuts in the church basement. With grandparents these days often unavailable to help, they need external support for their child’s upbringing, and in rough times they need access to marital counseling. Aside from filling in as an ersatz village, churches also tend to accomplish the often difficult task of binding a man more closely to the domestic sphere. It’s not coincidental that men are more likely than women both to wander from the family and to fall away from church when left to their own devices.
And what of the poetic reasons? For starters, nothing obliterates the ego so swiftly as new parenthood—especially for the mother, whose body is no longer her own. Even a cerebral, celibate monk is likely to credit his path toward God as having begun in a humble realization that he was not the sovereign of his own little life. The Christian phrase “God is love” might strike an atheist as a cheesy bumper sticker slogan, but for many people creating new life and ushering it into the world is the most heartbreaking, and back-breaking, kind of love they will ever experience. “Love” is changed from a mere illusion wrought by hormones and the wild firings of brain synapses. In Eberstadt’s lovely phrase, the newborn is suddenly understood as “something only a Creator could have made.”
And it’s more than just the child that naturally alters one’s perception of the importance of religion; it’s also the various people the child connects you to. As you write a check to the wayward brother-in-law or invite the frail great-aunt to move in, your actions are “fully consonant”, Eberstadt tells us, “with the emphatic Judeo-Christian call to . . . care for the sick and weak—meaning that Christianity might make more sense, or perhaps seem more appealing, to people engaging in those kinds of sacrifices.”
Such love is not easy to live out, so religious communities build a scaffold around life events: circumcisions, baptisms, first communions, confirmations or bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. The institutional church provides ritual punctuation and solemnization for all the important turning points in life. By creating a social-ritual envelope, faith communities cannot guarantee that life has meaning, but they can affirm that life has value. That seems to be enough for most people.
ust as participation in family can be a conduit toward belief, the absence of strong family ties can become an emotional and intellectual barrier to it. After all, the Christian story, as Eberstadt reminds us, is told through the prism of the human family. Not only is God presented as a “wise, protective, loving, ever-present male parent”, but Christian theology is replete with metaphors of nuptials and fertility. The Trinitarian dynamic of giving, receiving and new life reoccurs throughout creation. Salvation begins with Mary’s humble acceptance of pregnancy and the formation of the Holy Family (both of which sound discordant to modern ears used to hearing of “reproductive choice” and “family diversity”).
Clearly, many Westerners now find such notions not only unintelligible but insulting. The “family factor” in its present incarnation seems to encourage secularization. How can an adolescent abandoned by his father find emotional resonance in paternal images and metaphors? With the increasing animosity between men and women in an often ruthless sexual marketplace, how can young people avoid becoming cynical about Christian ideals of dignity and self-gift in sex? Eberstadt wonders, “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?” As ties between relatives, lovers, parents and children disintegrate, Christianity becomes less and less comprehensible.
Eberstadt marshals as evidence for the “family factor” several well-documented phenomena, situating the waning and waxing of belief in the life cycle. Children raised in the Christian faith tend to stray when they leave home, but not necessarily because they embrace newfound freedom. More often, they stray because they are suddenly alienated from the family rhythms that make faith meaningful. Thanks in large part to the Pill, today’s young adults can prolong that family-free period indefinitely, and are thus more likely to dismiss Christian sexual ethics and the emphasis on family life.
And why are women more likely than men to pray often, to say faith is important to them, and to participate in church communities? Not, as some have assumed, because they are more credulous or inherently more obedient to authority. Eberstadt thinks it has something to do with the fact that women tend to play a more intimate and immediate role in family caregiving—for children, for the elderly, for “the least of these”—which makes them more attuned to “a God who stands in a similar all-caring relationship to relatively helpless mortals of every age.”
Older people also tend to be more religious, not because they tend to complacently embrace hidebound notions of sexuality, and not simply because they are more sensitive to the mysteries of approaching mortality. Rather, they are more likely to have structured their identity around the realities and responsibilities of family life.
Throughout all this, Eberstadt employs a humble style of argument, coaxing her most hard-headed reader along with phrases like, “Is it not at least possible that…”, “Couldn’t we imagine that…”, and the like. This excessive display of intellectual modesty happily gives way as she more assertively counters some unofficial but near-universally believed sociological premises: religious people are motivated mostly by belief to marry and have children, and as soon as societies lose religion they do less of both. In France, for example, a sharp rise in illegitimacy and decline in fertility began well before the Church took a brutal blow from the French Revolution. The latest of all the European countries to experience the twin collapse of family and faith, this time with unprecedented speed, is Ireland, where, like France, the family fell first and affected the church afterward. Victorian England, by contrast, saw a boomlet of familialism and Christian orthodoxy within its own era.
Likewise, taking a similarly cross-cultural view, urbanization and industrialization have advanced secularization wherever they have hit. But such sociological rendering leaves out an important part of the story. Eberstadt asks, “How does one get from abstractions like these—these mass movements of people and things—to the human reality of one man and woman after another ceasing to attend Mass or pray to God or baptize their children?” These coupled forces first bludgeon the family, and as it reels individuals stray from church. She invites us to imagine the farmer turned factory worker who discovers in the newly sprawling city that a wife is harder to find; children are more expensive and less useful; and his newfound anonymity makes all manner of vice easier to indulge in. In other words, city life in itself doesn’t make people allergic to God. Rather, it makes them less likely to live in strong natural families, which gradually weakens their hold on religion. For sociologists bound by the strictures of causality, this is a lot to skip over.
berstadt ends with a case for optimism. If society depends so much on the health of the natural family, and thus on the thoroughly secular importance of men and women raising the children they create together, current trends will eventually reverse, and Christianity will revive with them. Even in our own time, perhaps the sense of brokenness people feel in the fallout from divorce, parental abandonment and even romantic disappointment will lead some to see the supposed “absolutism” of Abrahamic morality as expressing common sense, not just censure.
Still, there’s a deeper, more stubborn and pervasive cultural disposition that feeds hostility to Christianity in the West, independent of its effects on family formation. From gay weddings to women in combat to the aspirational egalitarian marriage in which mom is the breadwinner and dad changes the diapers, we inculcate beliefs that would have seemed bizarre not long ago. Our culture increasingly teaches, with almost fanatical dedication in many cases, that gender is an entirely social construct; maleness or femaleness is irrelevant to a person’s essential self; and men and women are interchangeable save for the birthing of babies (perhaps a challenge for science to overcome?).2 Genesis, meanwhile, introduces humanity with the words “male and female He created them”, and says that He did so in “His image.” First Jews, and then Christians and Muslims, have long held that there is something about our division into two equal but different and complementary ways of being human that mirrors some aspect of the divine nature. The intertwining of male and female to make a unity and to create new life implies, too, that body and soul are intertwined in a parallel complementarity, as is the material world with the transcendent God. Early Christianity contended with and explicitly rejected the Platonic division of soul and body, and also the gnostic division of a fallen world from an incorruptible divine.
These interlocking ideas, as common to Judaism and Islam as to Christianity, are beyond the scope of How the West Really Lost God, but the secular Western aversion to them constitutes a formidable challenge to Eberstadt’s optimism. The affirmation of radical androgyny in law and culture, and the nagging discomfort with the gendered nature of the human body and the limitations it imposes on individuals, will prove far more stubborn than the undervaluing of traditional family bonds. Yet they undermine Christianity as powerfully as the dynamics of family fragmentation Eberstadt has documented here. Given her imagination, wit and gift for the artful rendering of simple truths, let’s hope she will pen a sequel.
1See Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012).
2Eberstadt touches on some of this in her recent essay collection, Adam and Eve After the Pill (Ignatius Press, 2013).