How the West Really Lost God, by Mary Eberstadt – a Review

This review is part of the Patheos Book Club, which last month was reviewing Mary Eberstadt’s “How the West Really Lost God”. My review is a little late, due to my moving across the country. Other responses can be found here.

In How the West Really Lost God sociologist Mary Eberstadt offers a new theory of secularization, offering to explain why developed nations have become increasingly secular in recent decades. The theory, though often touted by its author as new and groundbreaking, is rather mundane: Eberstadt posits that part of the reason (Christian) religious observance has declined in the west (it is clear she is talking about Christianity throughout the book, despite the broader purview suggested by the title) is that the structures of family have changed in the west (she calls this the “collapse” of the family – one piece of evidence for Eberstadt’s conservative agenda which comes through frequently in the value-laden terms she uses to describe social change throughout the book – more on that later).

Eberstadt’s Basic Theory

Eberstadt argues, in essence, that conventional theories of the relationship between the family and religion have the causal relationship the wrong way round – at least some of the time. While it has been assumed that something about being religious encourages certain people to get married and have more kids, Eberstadt suggests that there is something about being married and having a large biological family which makes you more religious: in her words, “the family is not merely a consequence of religious belief. It can be a conduit to it” (p. 101). If this were true, she claims, then when people stop having so many kids, and get married less often, then they would become less religious – and since this has indeed happened, this (partly) explains secularization.

This seems to me both a plausible and an unsurprising theory. It is clearly the case that families are one of the primary mechanisms by which religious belief and observance are transmitted across generational lines, and therefore if  the nature of families has changed significantly we can expect that to have an effect on the transmission of religion as well. If it is true that this link has not yet been explored, as the author claims, then it is worth exploring, and I applaud Eberstadt for looking into it.

Lack of Genuine Evidence to Support a Causal Relationship

Sadly, the arguments Eberstadt provides in favor of the hypothesis are insufficient to establish it. She does a good job establishing that secularization is a genuine trend in the west, and that there are problems with each of the most common arguments as to why this has occurred. But when she seeks to establish the causal link between large families with married parents and religious belief, she stumbles.

Consider the following flawed reasoning: Eberstadt notes the strong relationship between having a large family and being more religious, and notes that we tend to explain large families partly as a result of being religious (Christians are exhorted to multiply, and sometimes discouraged from using birth control or having abortions, so the argument makes sense). But, Eberstadt notes, members of Christian groups with no prohibition on birth control still have bigger families. Why so? Eberstadt concludes that this is “one more piece of circumstantial evidence that cause and effect are in fact working the other way, at least sometimes – i.e., not only that religious people are inclined toward the family, but also that something (or more than one something) about the family inclines people toward religiosity” (p. 100).

This is not a conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence offered, however, because there is always the possibility that other variables are affecting both the factors we are considering. Eberstadt fails here to investigate the possibility that a third variable – itself neither family size or religiosity – is affecting both family size and religiosity. This is quite a startling omission, because it has the potential to completely undermine the book’s central thesis – yet nowhere is it addressed directly. Eberstadt tries to protect herself against such criticism in a preemptive strike against readers with statistical training, by claiming that the (true) statement that “correlation does not prove causation” is used “more often than not…to dismiss any new proposed way of looking at things” (p. 105). This seems to me to border on dishonest: though it may be frustrating to see one’s theory, based entirely on correlations, to be challenged on the grounds that evidence supporting a causal relationship is not presented, the challenge is entirely valid and not used simply as an attempt to dismiss a new viewpoint. Rather, it is a principled request for better evidence and more explicit causal theorizing.

Eberstadt offers no compelling evidence to support her preferred causal theory. While she overlays numerous historical trends which show strong correlations between declines in certain forms of family life and (some rather dubious) indicators of religious belief, she never addresses the problem that all these correlations could equally support the hypothesis she is seeking to critique as well as they could support her own. Perhaps declining religiosity leads to changing forms of family life; perhaps changing forms of family life lead to a decline in religiosity; perhaps both participate in a mutually reinforcing process (her preferred metaphor is a “double helix”) – perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. What Eberstadt seeks to demonstrate in this book is that one of these hypotheses in particular has useful explanatory power, and that requires forms of evidence she does not offer.

Such evidence is, in principle, available: scholars of religion have attempted to find relationships between certain life-events and religiosity, for instance investigating how getting married, having children, and getting divorced affect religiosity. For some reason Eberstadt fails to investigate any of this literature in depth, even though some of it directly relates to aspects of her hypothesis: this study, for instance, found no statistically significant effect on religiosity due to couples getting divorced or children leaving the home (though there was a small positive effect on religious behavior when couples had kids). Addressing this literature could have shed valuable light on her hypothesis, and its absence is baffling.

Proposed Causal Mechanisms are Problematic

Perhaps this is too harsh, though: strictly speaking, only controlled experiments can offer solid causal data, and those are extremely difficult to perform when dealing with broad sociological trends. Perhaps the best a sociologist can offer is provocative correlations plus a plausible and well-justified causal model which would explain how their causal theory would work. Eberstadt certainly provides much correlational “support” for her theory (though some of it is problematic, as I shall explain), but sadly the causal mechanisms provided do not convince.

How is it that Eberstadt believes that being part of what she calls a “natural family” (married, lots of kids) drives people toward the Christian faith? First, she posits that the experience of childbirth might itself drive women to religion, “the experience of having them [making] parents more willing to believe” (p. 158). I don’t find this a totally preposterous notion, but it requires empirical support that is not offered and which would be relatively easy to collect (for instance, the hypothesis suggests that women who have more children are likely to get more religious as they have them. This is testable).

Second, she suggests that the self-sacrifice involved in family life (caring for ill relatives, staying together for a long time etc.) parallels aspects of the Judeo-Christian call for one to be self-sacrificing, and therefore that “Christianity might make more sense…to people engaging in those kinds of sacrifices” (p. 159). This seems to me a rather absurd suggestion, particularly given the fact that presumably people who are not married also have experiences of caring for beloved relatives and, sometimes, staying with each other for a long time.

Third, she suggests that the love of family is just so deep in married families with lots of biological children that it “may incline people toward religious belief” (p. 159). This line of theorizing enters deeply offensive territory, with Eberstadt suggesting that only biological mothers and fathers “can be counted upon to fear another individual’s death more than their own”, and that only married couples experience the deepest kind of love for a partner they fear they might lose (p. 159). The insensitivity and absurdity of these causal hypotheses is summed up in the following inaccurate and outrageous statement:

“Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too are there fewer inside the nursery as opposed to out of it – and the same for the critical care unit.” (p. 160)

This is an untrue and unfair jab at atheists, an unsupported empirical claim, and a claim which, even if it were true, would not support her thesis – because why would these experiences in the nursery and clinical care unit drive one to Christianity in particular, and not to any other religion? This is terrible argumentation.

Eberstadt’s final causal hypothesis is also deeply problematic: she suggests that the Christian narrative only makes good sense if you understand the nature of a family, and therefore people who have no experience of a “natural family” have less ability to understand the Christian story. This might be true, I suppose, but there is no reason to think that people whose parents are not married, or who are only children, should have any particular problem understanding the relevant aspects of family life such that the Christian narrative makes (some) sense. Indeed, Eberstadt’s idea that living in a “nonnatural family” makes the Christian story “inaccessible” to some people (p. 162) is literally ridiculous, given the nature of the family into which the Christ himself was born: what can possibly be more “unnatural” than a Father giving birth to Himself as a Son to a woman who is already married to another man? If anything, living in an “unnatural” family might give one a better window through which to understand the strange family circumstances of Jesus. Eberstadt is grasping at straws here, and doing so ungracefully: her proposed causal mechanisms are either unsupported by evidence, obviously false, offensive in the extreme, or totally flimsy.

The most compelling evidence Eberstadt mounts, in my mind, is the fact that “boomlets” of religious revival seem to follow periods of increased births within a population. If it could be demonstrated that following periods in which many more children are born, and many more people married, a society then becomes much more religious, that might be evidence for the theory that something about getting married and having children causes people to become more religious. However, even here the evidence is problematic. Eberstadt notes, for instance, that the UK experienced a post-war Christian revival between 1945 and 1958, and points to the fact that there was a baby boom in the UK at the corresponding time. Her own source, however, paints a rather different picture – the baby boom is said to have occurred between 1950 and 1970, beginning after the Christian revival is supposed to have begun, and ending far after it is said to have finished. This strikes me more as evidence for the standard hypothesis that Christian religiosity drives people to have more kids than for Eberstadt’s reversed hypothesis, which would predict (in its simplest form) a rise in childbirths preceding a rise in religiosity.

A closer look at UK birth statistics also shows up Eberstadt’s theory – the UK also experienced a baby boom in 1966, 1987, and 1990, with no corresponding boomlet in religiosity I can identify (you can check for yourself in these delightful animated population pyramids from the UK Office for National Statistics and Indeed, by the author’s own admission, “Western religiosity went over some kind of cliff in the 1960s” (p. 131) – precisely when in both the UK and USA people started having tons of babies. This does not seem to support her theory.

Further problems abound. Eberstadt notes, for instance, that older adults frequently become more religious (a well-attested statistical fact). In an attempt to use this evidence to provide what she calls “speculative rhetorical” support for her thesis (is this really wise in any case? One ideally wants non-speculative, non-rhetorical support for one’s theses), she wonders whether older people might become more religious because “older age for most people means more experience of the rhythms of birth and death and family” (p. 103). This is an exceedingly odd suggestion – I am not entirely sure what it means, to be honest. Is Eberstadt claiming that older people tend to move back to live with other family members? That they suddenly experience more births in their vicinity? That they see more of their family members dying? (this last seems to be an argument against her core thesis, surely?) Whatever she means the argument is neither explained nor given any empirical support whatsoever.

Further Minor Problems with the Scholarship

These problems are compounded by minor errors with the scholarship which are enough, in my mind, to raise a question as to the author’s level of personal investment in her preferred outcome. Some errors are truly small, but reveal a personal bias: the idea that “new atheists prefer to designate themselves as “Brights”” (p. 63) is used to support the idea that some writers of secularization are condescending toward the religious, despite the fact that in years of atheist activism I have very rarely encountered anybody who uses that self-description. It is certainly not the “preferred designation” of new atheists, as any cursory investigation of the subject would have revealed. Likewise strange is the way the Christopher Hitchens’ massively successful anti-religious book is mis-titled “God is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything” – all true nonbelievers know that, in Hitchens’ mind, religion poisons everything.

Whole sections of the book make claims for which no evidence is provided – even when such evidence exists. The first section of the fifth chapter makes much of the fact that the US has much higher marriage and fertility rates than Europe, using this fact to support the theory that marriages and babies make people more Christian. Yet I can find no citation anywhere in this section which supports the core contention that marriage rates are indeed higher in the US than across Europe. These small errors do not make the book seem particularly carefully researched.

Other flaws are more substantive. Eberstadt calls a “fact” the idea that “”donor children”…are now so plentiful that roughly half of them worry about unintentional incest with a romantic partner in the future” (p. 19) – a claim so absurd on the face of it that I followed the footnote to the source. What I found was disturbing: this “fact” was supported only by a controversial report from the Institute for American Values so problematic that it provoked a “Read with caution!” response in UK science blog BioNews. The professors writing in BioNews note their “serious misgivings about the report”, before going on to note numerous false claims, overstatements, and oddities – including the fact that “ethical review for [the] study was not obtained”. After detailing a sample of the problems with the study (“Space limitations mean that we can provide only illustrative examples”, they state ominously), they conclude:

“judged on its own merits, this report is seriously flawed and the authors’ analysis should be treated with extreme caution.”

Eberstadt did not treat the study with caution, citing the reference without any cognizance of the multiple problems throughout. While this may be an isolated incident, it leaves this reader wondering how carefully other sources are checked – particularly ones which fit the author’s preferred theory of familial “breakdown” leading to religious decline. How many other poorly-sourced claims flattering to the book’s hypothesis are scattered throughout the text?

That the book has an ideological motivation is made even clearer by the ways in which a particular model of family life is repeatedly described in glowing terms in comparison to modern forms of family. Eberstadt claims that “Vibrant families and vibrant religion go hand in hand”, before lamenting that “Conversely, not having a wedding ring or a nursery means that one is less likely to be found in church.” The only implication that can be drawn here is that a “vibrant” family is one with kids and married parents – a conservative normative notion of family snuck into the text and demeaning to those with different forms of family. So restrictive is the author’s notion of “family” that the term “family” is frequently used as a simple synonym to “married with kids”.

This normative agenda is fully revealed in the last chapter, which asks why the decline of Christianity should matter to anyone at all. Eberstadt predictably argues that it matters because Christianity makes people nicer in all sorts of ways: Christians are healthier and happier, commit less crime, and build social capital, she argues. The fact that some of the same authorities she cites in support of this idea are at pains to point out that these civic benefits of religion are due to religious practice and attendance in religious institutions, not due to religious belief (see my review of Putnam and Campbell’s American Grace for more on this), seems to have passed Eberstadt by as she merrily paints her conservative narrative in which married parents with biological children are led, through the miracle of childbirth and the magical love only married people can have for each other, to Christ.

This book is bad. Not because the hypothesis it advances is outrageous or even necessarily false, but because it is poorly supported by evidence, advanced in an offensive and cavalier manner, and sloppily researched and proofed. The “Family Factor” Eberstadt outlines in How the West Really Lost God may well play a role in encouraging people to be Christian, but it will require a surer champion than she if it is to be vindicated.

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