Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)
The story of Western Christianity’s decline and secularism’s rise has been inadequately told and understood, according to author and Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow Mary Eberstadt. On May 30 at a talk hosted by The Heritage Foundation about her new book, How the West Really Lost God, Eberstadt said the “conventional story-line of secularism, although full of truth in certain ways, [has] gotten something pretty big wrong.”
The complex story of an entire civilization rejecting the very foundation upon which it was built presents “one of the most interesting intellectual puzzles in the world,” Eberstadt stated. The evidence of secularization – particularly in Western Europe – is all around us, despite the reality that “our laws, customs, arts, literature, etc. owe more to Judeo-Christianity than to any other single tradition.” She explained how “industrialization, modern science, rationalism, feminism, family change, new atheism, urbanization,” are all “separate forces [that] fit into the big picture of secularization.”
But the popular explanations for West discarding religion run into serious problems when closely examined, she said. For example, the theory that people are less religious the more wealth and education they have is contradicted by reality. Save for isolated pockets such as academia or science, data shows that despite popular stereotypes, social class and education are not predictors of religiosity, Eberstadt explained.
Further, these theories do “not describe the reality of Christianity’s persistence in the world,” the author pointed out. “Modern sociology can tell us many things,” she continued, “but about the elemental question of why people go to church, let alone why they stop, the going theories have come up short.” Also, “evidence suggests that secularization is not inevitable and neither is it a linear process … Rather, and crucially, religion waxes and wanes in the world. Strong one moment and weaker the next for reasons that demand to be understood,” Eberstadt said.
Instead, Eberstadt argued a more fitting explanation lies close to home. The years following World War II “saw a remarkable revival of Christianity across the Western world … [and] this revival applied to the vanquished as well as the victorious, the impoverished as well as the affluent,” she explained. Coeval with this religious revival was “the baby boom, which was itself preceded and accompanied by a marriage boom.”
“Living in families … that are married and with children is an important part of what drives many people to church,” Eberstadt said. Throughout history, Christianity has been “only as strong as the family on which it depends,” as “family and faith are the invisible double helix of society, dependent on one another for support and reproduction,” she explained.
Eberstadt pointed to Ireland and Scandinavian countries as clear examples of this complex relationship. Countries like Sweden and Denmark have led the West in secularization, with only about 5% of the population regularly attending church. Fertility rates in those countries are also shockingly low, Eberstadt said, demonstrating that “societies where more and more people stop marrying and having babies and living in families, are societies where more and more people stop going to church.”
The writer pointed to Ireland as another example, as “Catholic Ireland was a place where Catholics lived like Catholics longer than they did in most of the rest of Europe.” But later in the 20th century when secularism came to Ireland, Eberstadt explained their “remarkable religious collapse did not occur in a vacuum … Fertility and religiosity collapsed simultaneously and at similarly radical rates.”
She speculated about what drives families to church, considering factors such as childbirth being a uniquely transcendent experience for many mothers and fathers, and parents’ desire to raise children in a morally rooted community. But perhaps most significant is the self-sacrifice inherent in family life and the Christian faith. Eberstadt said Christianity validates the sacrifices we make in daily family life “in a way that no other worldview does.” Thus it should be little wonder, she said, “that people who live in families are more likely to go to church when everything about the story of Jesus resonates with their everyday experience of sacrifice.”
“The human family, in short, appears to have been the symphony through which many people have heard God’s voice,” Eberstadt said. She concluded: “[G]iven the state that the family is in today … it’s not surprising that some people find it harder to hear the sacred music anymore.”