Mary Eberstadt. How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2013. 272 pp. $19.96.
One of the most important issues in social science today is the debate over “secularization.” Should we expect the world to become less religious as it modernizes? Or is the more important phenomenon a pluralization of religious life within modern societies, as “secularization theory” dissenters contend? Is it actually true that the world as a whole, or some parts of it, is becoming less religious? What are the social consequences of secularization and/or religious pluralization?
In How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, Mary Eberstadt offers a provocative observation about the debate. Most people addressing this topic treat the decline of marriage and childbearing in Western societies as resulting from their secularization and/or pluralization. Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, proposes that we view the decline of the family as a cause of secularization, in addition to a result. Rather than a top-down relationship where family structure is merely the result of a society’s religious status, she invites us to imagine religion and family as a “double helix”: two threads circling endlessly around one another, rising and falling together, since they’re joined in the middle by numerous connections.
I expect this book will have a significant effect on the field. Eberstadt makes a valuable contribution by exposing and challenging a major blind spot in the secularization debate. She also demonstrates, to devastating effect, that most of the scholars writing about secularization literally don’t know what they’re talking about; they have a dramatically insufficient understanding of what religion is, why people believe, and how they practice their beliefs. This, as she suggests in a stimulating epilogue, is the chief reason their blind spot concerning the role of the family has survived so long without challenge.
Reframing the Debate
Although she uses the language of “secularization,” Eberstadt actually reframes the debate in a way that sidesteps the question of whether it’s secularization or pluralization that’s occurring. Adherents of secularization theory hold that religion is declining, while critics hold it isn’t; Eberstadt, however, points out that both parties agree Christianity has lost its normative status in Western cultures. This displacement of the specifically Christian God from authoritative cultural status is what she’s referring to when she says the West has “lost God” and family decline causes “secularization.”
Eberstadt demonstrates some serious deficiencies in existing secularization theory. We’re routinely asked to believe modernization leads to secularization because (take your pick) religion is merely a consolation for suffering, and modern life is too easy and comfortable to require such escapism; religion is merely optimistic naiveté, and modern life is too horrible to permit such Pollyannaism; religion is merely ignorant superstition, and modern people are educated; religion is only for poor people, and the modern economy makes us rich. As Eberstadt shows, all these theories are refuted by the actual behavior of religious people.
The underlying point is that existing secularization theories have taken for granted, without acknowledgement or examination, a certain anthropology of religion. This anthropology holds that individuals adopt religious belief in response to their personal psychological needs—whether conscious or not. However, as Eberstadt shows, once this submerged anthropology of religion is pulled to the surface and examined, it doesn’t withstand much scrutiny.
The key aim of How the West Really Lost God is to expose and challenge another submerged assumption in secularization theory: that the decline of marriage and family is only a result of secularization. Eberstadt proposes a series of reasons why the decline of marriage and family could also be causing secularization. For example, unchurched young people join churches after they have kids because they want moral formation for their children. Getting married and having children helps people understand and relate to the Bible’s familial images of God (God as Father, Jesus as Son) and its narratives. Conversely, once people have cohabitated, gotten divorced, or had extramarital children, they have a strong natural incentive to tell themselves Christianity is false. So do their loved ones, who might prefer to avoid judgment and conflict.
These are plausible theories, and by proposing them Eberstadt exposes a critical omission in the existing debate. On the other hand, though, there’s not much in the book in the way of argument or evidence in the book to support them. She often reminds us she’s offering her view on the role of the family as a speculative hypothesis, not a settled conclusion. This lack of constructive analysis in the book is disappointing, given Eberstadt’s obvious talent and wide reading in the relevant scholarly literature.
An equally plausible case could be made that the traditional view is mostly right—that religion drives family more than family drives religion. Why do people turn to religion when they want moral formation for their children? Couldn’t this suggest religion is the more primary social reality? And to what extent does biblical religion first make the family plausible before the family makes biblical religion plausible? Eberstadt ought to have wrestled with these questions.
She presents a great deal of empirical data that she seems to think provide support for the hypothesis that family decline causes religious decline. However, for the most part her data only show that family and religion tend to rise and fall at the same time; they don’t provide insight on whether family influences religion as much as religion influences family. Two intriguing exceptions are the religiosity of women and the mid-century Baby Boom. Eberstadt points out that women are consistently more religious than men, across both time and cultural boundaries. She also notes that the sharp increase in babies born in the second half of the 1940s as soldiers returned from World War II was followed by a mini-boom of religious activity in the 1950s—not just in the United States but in several countries. These data are easy to explain if childrearing increases religious activity, but hard to explain if it does not. I wish Eberstadt had spent more time investigating these promising trailheads.
Looking for Causes
Eberstadt’s hypothesis naturally drives her to ask: if religion and family rise and fall together, what’s causing them to decline? One factor she points to is the rise of the welfare state. Here she is onto something vitally important and expresses the truth with admirable cogency and clarity:
As the state has expanded to take on duties once shouldered instead by those nearest and dearest, the incentives to do the hard work of keeping a family together have increasingly elicited the tacit response, why bother? After all—so it seemed for a while, at least, though we now know otherwise—the pension remains the same. In this way, one can argue, the expanded welfare state competes with the family as the dominant protector of the individual—in the process undercutting the power of the family itself. (16)
However, Eberstadt also points to two less plausible factors: the Protestant Reformation, which she says destroyed Christian social influence by creating disunity in the church; and birth control, which she says makes family decline inevitable by disconnecting sex from marriage and family. She supports her attack on the Reformation by presenting an inaccurate, amateurish history of the 16th century. Some scholars have made a serious case against the Reformation on these grounds, but Eberstadt is out of her depth here. As for birth control, the pivotal transition away from Christianity in the central institutions of American culture occurred in the first two decades of the 20th century, long before the invention of the pill. And if birth control makes the breakdown of sexual morals inevitable, what do we make of evangelical Protestants—whom Eberstadt identifies as agents of resistance to the breakdown of sexual morals—without mentioning that they almost universally accept and practice birth control?
Any important contribution to the secularization debate is worth praising. A book that exposes a major blind spot in this important field and presents a plausible theory for what ought to fill it is a significant accomplishment. At the same time, I wish Eberstadt had set the bar a little higher for herself. She’s shown us that scholars who study religion and society must take on the task of seriously investigating whether family decline actually is causing, rather than just resulting from, religious decline; but the task itself remains to be performed.
Greg Forster is the editor of Hang Together and the author of five books, most recently The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God's Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love (Crossway, 2012).