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How the West really lost God

The decline in the family has driven a decline in religious practice, says an American journalist.
Tom Ascik | 15 October 2013

family 1950sThe first social grouping is the family. As Aristotle has it, we are social animals, and as the book of Genesis has it, it is not good for man to be alone. For all three great monotheistic religions, the experience of worship is social. Religion fosters the family; the family finds its natural place in religion; and the family depends on religion.

In her recent book, How the West Really Lost God, A New Theory of Secularization, American journalist Mary Eberstadt proposes that religion, especially Christianity, depends on the family. “More children,” she says, “mean more God.”

A Pew Research poll in October last year reported that, “Nones,” those with no religious affiliation, are now 20 percent of the population and the fastest-growing “faith group” in America. Among Millennials (those born between 1982 and the early 2000s), 30 percent had no religious affiliation.  These figures became even more noteworthy when exit polls in the 2012 elections showed that Nones were 12 percent of voters.

Weekly church attendance in the US is only 37 percent – and this figure may be too high because both churches and individuals tend to exaggerate in favor of religiosity.  Since 1955, church attendance has remained in the low 40s. But for Catholics, it has declined dramatically from 75 to 42 percent. In short, our country is more secular today than it was after World War II.

What can account for this? Four reasons are often cited by sociologists.  

The Enlightenment, with  its replacement of faith by reason and science and other-worldliness by worldliness. But if this were true, observes Eberstadt, the most educated would be the least religious. But in Western countries, this is not true.  “Christian socioeconomic patterns of belief do not look the way the theory says they should.” (In other parts of the world, it is the poor and less educated that are more religious.)

The devastation of World War I and World War II. But Eberstadt shows that after the wars, there was an increase in religious fervour. People did not give up their belief in a benevolent God. Significantly, it was not the Greatest Generation but their children who retreated from God in the 1960s.

Materialism.  For both Right and Left, the economy, the “good life” is at centre stage. As Eberstadt pithily puts it, “more stuff means less God.” But if this is the case, why is the US more religious than Europe? And why are women more religious than men? 

Industrialization and urbanization. During the industrial revolution, county folk flocked to the cities. There they were exposed to sceptical, anti-religious lifestyles, materialism and better education. 

While acknowledging that all of these factors play a role in secularization, Eberstadt advances a “family factor” which underlies all of them. It is “practically an iron law of demography” that religious people tend to have more children. Taking the idea that “faith drives family” one step further, she argues that “family drives faith.”

In the West, family decline has accompanied religious decline for 300 years. Eberstadt cites The Making of Revolutionary Paris (2002), in which David Garrioch documents the decline in religion, the decline of fertility, and the rise of illegitimacy in 18th century Paris. Garrioch attributes some of the decline to birth control, perhaps surprising to us who tend to think that birth control is entirely a product of modern chemistry.

In a way, religious decline does have a lot to do with urbanization, but through its effects on family ties. “Moving to cities made them less likely to have and live in strong natural families – and that intermediate, unseen step may have been what really started them down the road toward losing their religion, at least some of the time.”

But why are faith and families inextricably linked? Eberstadt doesn’t provide a conclusive answer, but she cites American sociologist Bradford Wilcox who says that “children drive parents to church.” When children come along, adults see the need for the meaning and moral direction provided by religion.  Perhaps that also explains why women are more religious than men: “the act of participating in creation, ie, birth, is more immediate than that of men.” For both women and men, separation from the natural family is separation from creation, specifically, “one’s own creation,” thus, “making it harder to see the Creator.”

A vivid image sums up Eberstadt’s fascinating and well-documented argument: “family and faith are the invisible double helix of society – two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.”

Tom Ascik lives in North Carolina. Link to Amazon.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | book reviews, family size, religion
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