Family and Secularization

Christian scholar Mary Eberstadt has a new book entitled How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. From the editorial description at Amazon:

In this magisterial work, leading cultural critic Mary Eberstadt delivers a powerful new theory about the decline of religion in the Western world. The conventional wisdom is that the West first experienced religious decline, followed by the decline of the family. Eberstadt turns this standard account on its head. Marshalling an impressive array of research, from fascinating historical data on family decline in pre-Revolutionary France to contemporary popular culture both in the United States and Europe, Eberstadt shows that the reverse has also been true: the undermining of the family has further undermined Christianity itself. . . .

Her conclusion considers this tantalizing question: whether the economic and demographic crisis now roiling Europe and spreading to America will have the inadvertent result of reviving the family as the most viable alternative to the failed welfare state—fallout that could also lay the groundwork for a religious revival as well.

From an interview with John Hawkins:

One of the core ideas of your book is that declines in Christianity and the disintegration of the American family are strongly connected. Can you talk about that, especially in light of the fact that birth rate/religion don’t always seem to be tightly connected in every circumstance?

…In Western Europe you now have historically low rates of church attendance and religious affiliations and in the United States, which although it’s more religious than Western Europe, you’re starting to see the same sort of patterns. A lot of people looking at this say, “Well, this makes sense because religion will inevitably decline as people get more educated, more sophisticated and more prosperous.” And that, John, is the storyline that has been handed down since the enlightenment. The idea is that Christianity will inexorably go away. The problem with the story is that it’s not correct. If you look at the historical timeline, you do not see inevitable decline. What you see is that Christianity has been strong in some places and times and weak in other ones. When I examined those cases where it was strong, it looked as if what was always going on at the same time was some kind of family bubble — and let me give you a very concrete example.

In the 1950s, well, in the years following World War ll and leading into the early 1960s there was a religious revival across the western world not only in the United States but in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Australia — and this is well documented and there’s a lot of data in the book in the footnotes about this. If that religious revival was not foreseen by demographers or economists, what else was going on during those years?

Well, the interesting thing is that there was another kind of revival simultaneous with this one which was the much more noted baby boom. The baby boom was itself preceded by a marriage boom and so you see a situation where these things are all going hand in hand or rather in the image of the book, they are a double helix dependent on one another for a successful reproduction.

I examined other historical instances in the book and came to the same conclusion; the family and family structure are not just a footnote to religious decline, which is the way conventional sociology has had it. They’re intricately connected to it and in the book, I explore various reasons why this might be so. . . .

Now on the related part of this book, we’re talking about birthrights and we’re talking about the decline of the family. There’s always been a balance in our society between helping single mothers and discouraging other women from becoming single mothers. At this point it almost feels like we’re so focused on helping single mothers that we’re almost encouraging that. Do you think that’s the case?

I think most of the stigma is gone for sure and one result of that is that the state has had to step in and be a father figure in many homes, be a provider, et cetera. A lot of the welfare state is actually picking up the pieces of the fractured western family. Now here we get to another really interesting scenario, I think, because if you read the financial pages, it looks as if the welfare states of the West cannot be sustained forever; just as a demographic matter there are too few taxpayers to go around.

Over in Europe where the birthrate’s been lower than ours for awhile now, you’re really starting to see the effects of this. So to play futurist, what will happen down the road if these welfare states prove to be incapable of doing what they’re doing now, namely providing cradle to grave help for the fractured family?

That I think is the biggest question facing us and on one reading of the facts, which I think is probably the most accurate, the cataclysm of the imploding welfare states will itself bring about a family and religious revival because in times of adversity, people turn to what’s organically connected to that — and they turn to their families, they turn to their churches. We saw this after 911 when people who had not set foot in a church or synagogue in many years were suddenly doing it again.

So the, what, what’s going to happen with the welfare state is the biggest question mark that’s looming over all of this and it, it very well could power a revival that no one has seen coming any more than the baby boom and the marriage boom and the religious boom of the 50s was predicted.

via An Interview With Mary Eberstadt On Her New Book “How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization”.

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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