When Community Withers, Faith Dies…

When Community Withers, Faith Dies… January 5, 2009

Few topics fascinate like fertility. This Mary Eberstadt piece about children and religion continues to draw comment, and it is always worth revisiting. Below the fold are the comments of blogger “Irenaeus,” a professor at an evangelical college close to Catholic conversion (and who unfortunately runs a non-public site).

In brief, it is not only possible but highly plausible that many Western European Christians did not just stop having children and families because they became secular. At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families. If this way of augmenting the conventional explanation for the collapse of faith in Europe is correct, then certain things, including some radical things, follow from it.

And bingo. The missing link. Reading Eberstadt’s piece got me thinking: basically, it seems to me a lot of theorists, being theorists, after all, assume that action follows from thought, and thus family decline followed from loss of religiosity following from a secular sensibility. But what Eberstadt suggests (and here I am interpreting) is that we are all default Aristotelians: belief follows action. She says that people stop having families and then stop believing in God. Now why would that be?

Eberstadt’s work is largely sociological. I want to go in a theological direction with it. I’m reminded of something the lovely and talented Petra said here recently in a comment:

Incidentally, I learned today that one of my colleagues, a person I like very much, is expecting her first baby. She’s a lapsed Catholic, unmarried, cohabitating for many years. I’m praying very much that this experience of someone growing inside her, someone she is responsible for, will make her more open to God. I’m also praying for their marrying and for the baby getting baptized…

I was very moved by the news and it has struck me how a pregnancy is similar to the Christian life: getting to know someone we don’t see but we know is there… [emphasis original]

Similarly, Eberstadt writes:

…there is the phenomenological fact of what birth itself does to many fathers and just about every mother. That moment — for some now, even that first glimpse on a sonogram — is routinely experienced by a great many people as an event transcendental as no other. This hardly means that pregnancy and birth ipso facto convert participants into zealots. But the sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an elemental bond that is cross-cultural as perhaps no other — a formulation to which most parents on the planet would quickly agree.

This fact of the primal connection between parents and children — this suggestion that such may be the critical foundational bond of human beings — is not just limited to ordinary mortals in the obstetrician’s office, but also echoes throughout numerous of the masterpieces of human history. It is why King Lear is nearly universally recognized as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, whereas, say, Romeo and Juliet for all its pathos is not — because the predeceasing by Lear of Cordelia is the perfect symbol of the worst tragedy life can present, again so far as the mothers and fathers of the world are concerned. It is why the story of Jesus is so similarly universal in its tragic appeal, whether told via that masterpiece of sculpture, the Pieta (whose primary focus, suggestively enough, is Mary, not Jesus), or just via the familiar story that begins with Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to save their infant’s life — one that has resonated among literates and illiterates for two millennia.


Thus does a complementary religious anthropology begin to emerge, grounded on the primal fact that the mother-child and father-child bond, as no other, appears to push at least some people toward an intensity of purpose they might never otherwise have experienced.

Makes great sense, no? If the natural world teaches us about God in general, and if (as part of the natural world) the family teaches us about God in particular, then it makes sense that the demise of the family would precipitate the demise of faith in God, and the triune God in particular.

Remember that Augustine taught that sex is intimately related to the Trinity. The mutual love of Father and Son is the Holy Spirit, the bond of their love, in the same way that the love of husband and wife produces a baby. Got that? The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (in the West) in their mutual love, just as a baby proceeds from husband and wife in their mutual love.

Thus, when you stop having children, you stop emulating the inner workings of the Trinity. And it is no wonder, then, that faith will collapse.

Eberstadt’s Hypothesis also explains why women are generally more religious than men:

The proposed religious anthropology which I have sketched as a complement to Nietzsche’s has another advantage: It ties up another theoretical loose end that should be troubling to the secularizationists, despite having no apparent standing in their discussion. That is the well-known fact — one that is curiously unmentioned in the latest vogue of atheism as well — that women as a whole are more observant than men. This difference in practice is not only verifiable through studies, it is also easily observed by walking into just about any North American or European church.30

In the differing dedication that men and women generally show toward religion, we have another fact that seems to fit that theory. Why? Perhaps women who are mothers tend to be more religious because the act of participating in creation, i.e., birth, is more immediate than that of men. Perhaps that fact inclines women to be more humble about their own powers and more open to the possibility of something greater than themselves — in brief, more religiously attuned. Or perhaps for both mothers and nonmothers there is something about caring for the smallest and most vulnerable beings, which is still overwhelmingly women’s work — after all, even power mommies employ women to do it — that makes it easier to believe in (or hear, depending on one’s personal belief) a God who stands in a similar all-caring relationship to relatively helpless mortals of every age. Maybe the general sex differences in religiosity have something to do with explanations like these.

A related thought: Eberstadt doesn’t mention urbanization very much, except to dismiss it as insufficient to explain secularization (the burden of her essay lies elsewhere), but I wonder if there’s more here, and if urbanization doesn’t play into the decline of the family and thus the collapse of faith. To wit: rural folk are more religious than urban folk. Why? Probably because (as in the case with pregnancy and family) it’s easier to perceive God in the natural order. Even with anhydrous ammonia and irrigation and all sorts of modern technological innovations, at the end of the day most farmers are at the mercy of the elements, which are subject to the Creator’s continuous will. Seeds grow by God’s grace; farmers merely nurture them. It’s similar to right-thinking physicians who recognize that they don’t heal their patients; at best they create the conditions that allow God to heal the body. In the rural situation, even today, God is in charge. You can feel him in the wind in the wheat.

In the urban situation, however, man is in charge. Nothing really grows of its own accord; the concrete, the skyscrapers, the asphalt — these things are artificial. If anything works “naturally” in the urban environment, it’s the Market, that which many Christian thinkers (like Harvey Cox) see as supplanting the place of God. Economists have become the new theologians. Starbucks (it seems) is the same yesterday, today and forever, and only the New Arians amongst us (heretics like the neo-agrarian Rod Dreher) can remember that there was a time when the Starbucks was not.

Put simply, Eden was a garden, Babel and Sodom are cities. (Of course, it’s too simple, because the New Jerusalem is a city…but at least it’s pithy.)

Being that as it may, it would seem to me that the decline of the family and urbanization are mischievous handmaidens that conspired, as it were — due to market forces! — to bring about the demise of faith in the West. Perhaps urbanization led to smaller families, but let’s not quibble. What I’m thinking is that the rise of the Industrial Revolution brought labor from the fields into the cities. Cities thus grow and are crowded, and wages are limited. On a farm, you generally eat what you produce, trade some, sell a little — at least back in the day. But in a city, you’ve got a cramped living space, at best, and a generally limited wage, both of which conspire to limit family size, and, assuming Eberstadt’s Hypothesis and combined with the absence of Nature’s God in the new urban jungle, voila — the death of faith. On a farm, kids are both blessing and burden, in economic terms: sure, they’re more mouths to feed, but the more of them there are, the more work that can get done and the more assurance one has of being taken care of in old age. In a city, kids are just more mouths to feed.

And now that I think of it, that’s not all. Agrarian life is community life of large intermarried families, whereas urban life produced the nuclear family, generally more cut off from other families. Sure, neighborhoods were communities back in the day (Bronx, Little Italy, Brooklyn), but you never had to help your neighbor raise a barn. You might lend her a cup of sugar or him a hammer. We who are Catholics know that our faith is not an individual thing, but a matter of community (and goodness knows, some have learned that lesson TOO well. *ahem*). It would also seem to me that when community withers, faith dies.

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  • jh

    I think that is a very interesting article. Though I am not sure Urbanization is linked. FOr instance look at the situation of New Orleans. Though New Orleans was a tad different because it was the mercy of the elements. FOrtress Catholicism was very strong in the urban areas.

    I am not sure how the situation is in Europe but I do wonder if the “Burbs” and the explosion of the burbs might be more the culprit than city life.

  • radicalcatholicmom

    Very interesting piece.

  • A piece of the puzzle. It could also be that having children and religiosity are themselves symptoms of something deeper.

    It is a distant memory that many children did not survive infancy and childhood, that quite often a mother or father would die before children reached adulthood. Let’s also keep in mind that the average marriage today lasts twice as long as the average marriage of 150 years ago.

    Doing good sociology means that once you’ve examined one factor (fertility) you have to place it in context of the big picture. The author didn’t mention Christian nations in Eastern Europe. Poland would add something to this discussion. Likewise what’s happening in Orthodox Christianity. How did television, the suburbs, and two world wars influence religiosity? How might technology, global warming, and political instability influence the present or near-future?

    Articles like this one linked always leave me disappointed. It’s like having the oboe play its part when I want to hear the whole orchestra.