An interview with Mary Eberstadt on How the West Really Lost God.

book cover imageThe University Bookman is pleased to present this interview with Mary Eberstadt about her new book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. Mary is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D.C.

Thanks for joining us. Tell us the thesis of your new book.

How the West Really Lost God opens with a review of the conventional arguments for Western secularization and observes that those arguments don’t adequately explain the decline of Christianity in certain parts of the Western world. If that’s correct—if, pace the new atheists and other secular thinkers, material progress and education and rationalism alone have not caused secularization—then what has?

My book argues that the great puzzle of secularization has been missing a critical piece: the family, and the ways in which changes to the Western family have in turn affected Western Christianity. For reasons that are laid out in several chapters, I believe that these two institutions are best understood as a double helix—that each is only as strong as the other at a given moment in history, and that each requires the other to reproduce.

This is a new way of understanding what’s been happening out there, a firm departure from the standard post-Enlightenment secular script about what Nietzsche and others have called the death of God. Under the influence of that script, many people seem to have decided that religious decline is simply inevitable. But that’s not what the record shows.

Your book helpfully analyzes the varied effects that modernity has had in different parts of the world. You note that modernity and loss of religion need not always go together. In your view then, what caused the secularization of Europe?

Western Europe is more secular than the United States, and Scandinavia in turn is the most secular territory of all. So let’s consider Scandinavia as one petri dish for the book’s theory. Who pioneered the unmarried Western family and its close ally, the welfare state (whose arguably critical role in secularization is also part of this picture)? Scandinavia. What is arguably the most atomized place in the Western world today, as measured by, say, the number of people who don’t even live in a family at all? Scandinavia again. Almost half of Swedish households are now singletons, for instance.

I believe these trends aren’t occurring in a vacuum. Scandinavia is an excellent case in point of the book’s thesis: religious decline and family decline—as measured by proxies like fertility, marriage, divorce, and cohabitation—go hand in hand. They’re causally related.

You write of the “Family Factor” and “the effect that participation in the family itself appears to have on religious belief and practice.” Can you explain the relationship?

Conventional sociology has just assumed that religious decline leads to family decline—that people first lose their Christianity, and then change their habits of family formation. I think that’s too narrow an understanding, and that the causal relationship between the two institutions is far more dynamic.

For instance, we know that if people are married, they are more likely to go to church. We also know that if they are married and have children, they are far more likely to do so. Sociologists looking at that connection have hitherto assumed that going to church is just something that married people “do.” They haven’t asked whether things like getting married and having families might be causal forces in their own right—inclining some people toward increased religiosity.

What the big picture shows, I think, is that there is something about family life—actually, more things than one—that are driving people to church in the first place: things like the desire to situate their children in a moral community; or the fact that birth is experienced by many people as a cosmic, sacred event; or the fact that Christianity ratifies the kind of sacrifice involved in family life as no secular creed does; and other factors that I get into in the book. Again, family and faith seem to be operating on a two-way, not one-way, conceptual street.

What data did you find that connected the decline of the family with economic or sociological woes?

There’s plenty of data to connect family strength with economic benefits—and conversely, to connect family decline with economic trouble.

By now a whole library could be built to house the social science on family breakup, for instance, including the fact that broken homes statistically raise the odds that children will have educational, behavioral, and other problems that might impede their success in life; or that the quickest road to impoverishment is to become a single mother; or other unwanted truths that are nonetheless firmly empirically established. As the late great social scientist James Q. Wilson once quipped, there’s so much data testifying to the benefits of family that by now even some sociologists believe it.

In the book, I also try to look at kinds of fallout that are less familiar but also apparent on inspection—especially the ways in which family decline helps to power religious decline.

But aren’t family structures just arbitrary? Why is a “natural” family important?

By “natural” family, I mean simply the form of family that other forms can imitate but never replicate: that is, the fundamental form based on irreducible biological ties of mother, father, children, and the rest. This form of family is the one on which Christianity has historically depended, and it’s this form of family that shows up in the pews of traditional Christian churches.

The fate of the natural family is also important to the fate of Christianity in another way: because the Christian story itself is saturated with familial characters and metaphors and meaning. This is a religion, after all, that begins with the birth of a baby. It has a Holy Family. It understands the very concept of God as that of a benevolent, loving Father.

So what happens if we live in a world, as we Western people do, where more and more people have less experience of these very things? The point is that the splintering of the family introduces new complexity to relaying certain features of the Christian message. How do you explain God the Father to someone who has grown up without a male parent in the home? Or how do you get across what’s so sacred about a baby to people who—in a time of falling birthrates and other familial changes—may never have held or cared for one?

These problems aren’t insurmountable. But they are problems that didn’t exist before. Again, family change and religious change go hand in hand.

Why should we care about the decline of Christian belief in the West?

It’s a contention of the book that everybody has a dog in this fight—secular people as well as believers—because Christianity is a net plus in the modern public square.

There’s an entire chapter devoted to the data demonstrating just this proposition. It’s hard to capture it in a sentence without sounding reductionist, but just for starters, religious believers as a whole are happier, healthier and significantly more charitable with their time and money than are secular people. Of course we can all think of exceptions, but these are still generalizations borne out by perfectly secular social science.

That’s one example of how believers at their best “give back” to the rest of society. There are others too. Traditional Christianity tries to encourage strong families, for example, and to the extent that it succeeds, this institutional priority too is of clear social benefit. One can argue that the large and growing welfare state itself would not exist without the fracturing of the Western home, because much of what the welfare state does is to serve as a father and provider substitute—to do the sorts of things that used to be done by self-sufficient families.

What effect have the new Islamic immigrants to Europe had on your analysis?

The book limits its analysis to Christianity, which is already more than enough for one volume. That said, it may well be that the thesis of the book applies to faiths other than Christianity.

Across the globe, for instance, higher fertility is associated with higher religiosity; the more religious people are, the more likely they are to have children, and deeply religious people are far more likely to have large families than are other people. It’s the double helix at work again, and the Muslims of Europe exemplify it too.

That said, it’s obvious that what makes the bustling of the mosques in Europe so obvious is the silence of many churches—because they’re empty.

Do you think there is anything that can be done to reinvigorate one or the other of the “double helix” of faith and family you describe?

There’s always something to be done. Part of the answer lies in the grassroots. If people understand that “the importance of the family to faith” is not just rhetoric but rather a profound organic connection they need to pay attention to, then re-invigoration happens one church and congregation at a time.

Having families in any day or age is hard work, so those people concerned with the family as an institution might think of all the things that make it easier for people to live in them—things like meal drop-offs when babies are born, or organized babysitting co-ops, or mothers’ prayer groups that double as social hours—small but meaningful things like that.

Churches naturally do some of these things, but arguably they could be done better or more vigorously. Again, it’s tempting to have the welfare state take up the slack for what small institutions like churches can actually do better and more sensitively and more efficiently—and that’s a temptation that needs to be resisted if the churches are to build more vibrant communities. In effect, churches have to compete with the state by offering better community services.

Beyond the grassroots, the largest question on the horizon may be what will happen to that modern welfare state that has both contributed to family decline and also emerged as an expensive substitute for the family. Is the cradle-to-grave caretaking state as we know it sustainable—or is it not? Demographic and economic trends, especially in parts of Western Europe, suggest that the answer in the long run might just be negative. And if the welfare state as we have known it were to be reigned in or even to implode, it’s hard to see how any institution but the family could emerge in the resulting vacuum.

In the book, I offer two chapters—one on the case for optimism, and one on the case for pessimism—so that readers can decide for themselves. Even so, revival of both institutions has happened before in history, as the book often notes. It’s not hard to imagine either renascence happening again.