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Fall 2013

Forget the Enlightenment—Focus on the Family

book cover imageHow the West Really Lost God
by Mary Eberstadt.
Templeton Press, 2013.
Hardcover, 268 pages, $21.

A. W. R. Hawkins

The influence of Christianity is noticeably waning throughout the West. As a result, Judeo-Christian tenets and principles that have long been in force are steadily—and in some cases, rapidly—disappearing from the public square and from our minds.

And while certain regions stand as exceptions to this fading influence, the claim that Christianity has come down in authority is demonstrable.

How did we get here? How did the West let go of its Christian moorings? These are the questions Mary Eberstadt tackles in How the West Really Lost God.

Early in the book Eberstadt writes:

Some time back, the great majority of people living in what can still broadly be called Western civilization believed in certain things: God created the world; He has a plan for humanity; He promises everlasting life to those who live by His word; and other items of faith that Judeo-Christianity bequeathed to the world.

Today—especially, though not only, in Western Europe—no great majority continues to believe in all such particulars.

She goes on to make two points to which she returns again and again:

1. As religion has declined, so too has the family.

2. As the family has declined, so too has religion.

She convincingly argues that the two—Christianity and the family—are mutually dependent factors that play a role in the rise or fall of the other.

Eberstadt examines the relationship “between religion and one [central] aspect of the family: decisions about having babies.” She finds that where religion flourishes so too do birth rates. And where secularization flourishes, there is a “profound negative impact” on “human fertility rates.”

In other words, “More God means more babies; less God means fewer of them.”

She explains how this works through “empirical truths” about the relationship between religion and family: “Vibrant families and vibrant religion go hand in hand. Conversely, not having a wedding ring or a nursery means that one is less likely to be found in church.”

Ebestadt then focuses on America in particular. She quotes from a study by sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox which shows, “The recent history of American religion illuminates what amounts to a sociological law: The fortunes of American religion rise with the fortunes of the intact, married family.”

And as American church or synagogue attendance has dropped “from 41 to 31 percent” over the past thirty years, Wilcox’s study shows a drop in the number of adults that “are now married with children” over the same period.

Eberstadt also cites the growth in government as a contributing factor in the decline of religion in the West. For as government grows, taking on more and more of the duties that were once handled by the family, the need for tight familial relations is diminished, and with it the draw of religion, Christianity especially.

How the West Really Lost God provides a solid contribution to the historical understanding of Christianity’s vibrancy by taking on those who claim today’s growing secularization is simply the outworking of the freethinking, atheistic goals of the early eighteenth-century Enlightenment. These say Christianity’s decline is not a loss but a victory—a victory of reason over superstition that was embraced by the most educated in society centuries ago.

Eberstadt meets these claims by showing that for the majority of last two hundred and fifty years the most educated have tended most toward “rational” Christianity. She does this by pointing to British historian Hugh McLeod’s The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750-2000. That work shows that “eighteenth-century elites were actually more likely to be rational Christians than they were atheists or free thinkers.”

In other words, of all the forces arrayed against Christianity that may be credited for the decline currently witnessed, the Enlightenment does not rank as high as the decline in the family and the constant expansion of the government’s role in everyday life.

Eberstadt believes there is hope that the downward trend of Christianity might be reversed. And ironically, her optimism is based on a pessimistic view of current Western economies.

Citing sociological studies that consider economic factors, she shows that an economic downturn that results in “diminished affluence” and government cutbacks may spark the one thing we so desperately need—a “[revival] of the institution of the family.” In turn, history shows a revival in Christianity will be prone to follow the family’s reemergence as well.

These things are important because the decline of Christianity does not simply hurt Christians—it hurts everyone. As Eberstadt puts it, “The fate of Christianity matters even to nonbelievers, because Christianity on balance is a force for good in modern society.”

As the family goes, so goes the church. As the family flourishes not only the church, but the larger society, flourishes as well.  

A. W. R. Hawkins is senior opinion editor and writer for the Alliance Defending Freedom and adjunct professor of history at Norwich University.

Posted: October 27, 2013

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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