How the West might find God again

Western society is increasingly secularised. Therefore people are not marrying and having children. Marriages are breaking up. Only a Christian revival can save the family. Right? Maybe, but in an essay in Policy Review, the journal of the Hoover Institution, research fellow Mary Eberstadt recently explored the intriguing idea that, at least some of the time, things happened the other way around. In this interview with MercatorNet she explains what lies behind her theory.


MercatorNet: Many people believe the family is in trouble because religion has declined, but you suggest the opposite -- family decline may have led to secularisation. What is the hard evidence for this?

Mary Eberstadt: First, one caveat. My essay, How the West Really Lost God, was not an exhaustive survey of changes in family formation and the simultaneous decline of religion in Europe during the past two centuries. I wish someone would do that kind of survey because it would be invaluable to have. But the interesting fact is that no one has, in part because -- I would argue -- conventional thinking on the subject of how religion declines is entrenched, blinkered, and in the end, stultifying.

The problem for conventional secularisation theory is that it amounts to a one-way street, a one-way description of how religiosity waxes or wanes. That description at its briefest goes something like, "I think, and what I think about religion goes on to determine other things I do," like having a family. But why should we believe that belief dictates practice all of the time -- that people lose faith and then tailor their behaviour accordingly? My essay was an attempt to open this very inquiry -- to ask whether some behaviours, in particular religious practice, might also have an effect on belief, rather than just vice versa.

Survey evidence does bear out one's common sense on this issue. It tells us that many people are driven to church by marrying, or by having children, including people who were not much interested in religion before that.

A second kind of evidence, which I find extremely suggestive, is this: if we take fertility as an indicator, we see that two very dramatic examples from two sides of the European spectrum -- France on one side, and Ireland on the other -- shared a pattern: fertility declined sharply in both before a dramatic fall-off in religious practice.

One could examine many other countries on this point, and again, I wish someone would. I happened to choose these two because they represent opposite sides of the trend: secularism has been a ferocious force in France for centuries now, whereas it has only recently come to Ireland. So I was struck to see the same pattern in each. Maybe it isn't the case, as secularisation theory has it, that people become less religious and then have fewer children. Maybe, as these examples suggest, something about having fewer children makes some people less religious.

MercatorNet:To define the term, what is the natural family?

Mary Eberstadt:The simplest and most elegant definition I have seen comes from constitutional scholar Gerard V. Bradley, who says the natural family is that whose formation can only be imitated by others -- as it is, and increasingly. Anyone can have a mother figure, for example; but each of us has one and only one biological or natural mother. This form of family is based on sexual activity between a man and a woman bound together legally and otherwise that results in biologically related children, who are then raised by those parents -- and in an extended family context, perhaps others. Historically, some version of this "natural family" has been near-ubiquitous, from illiterate tribes in the Amazon rainforest to the civilizations of Mesopotamia and on up to poor, much-maligned, but very clearly in the human majority, Ozzie and Harriet.

MercatorNet: How would family life make people more religious?

Mary Eberstadt: My answers are speculative, but again, they appeal to one's intuitions and general knowledge of the world. In the first place, the sheer act of attempting marriage to one single person for the duration of one's life is heroic, not to say incredible. Perhaps something about that feat in itself puts one in a transcendent state of mind in which other forms of transcendence, especially religious forms, are more appealing and make more sense.

Secondly, that effect is doubly strong when there are children. How many people do you know who have gone back to church or synagogue because of having children? It is so common as to seem unremarkable, but why does it happen? I speculate that children, too, incline people toward the infinite -- in part because the love their parents bear them is too intense for many parents to believe it has a cold, finite end.

Secularisation theorists imagine the individual poring over books in his study and deciding in that way whether God exists or religion is do-able. Maybe some people do settle the question that way, but I believe people generally learn in groups -- beginning with the first social group they encounter, the family. And what people learn in the natural family seems to open them to others, the Other.

MercatorNet: Does this explain why women tend to be more religious than men?

Mary Eberstadt: Now that is a really interesting question, because that difference in religious practice between the two groups is verifiable through survey evidence as well as through walking into just about any Christian church in the West. Yet to my knowledge almost no one has ever asked why that sex difference in religious practice exists.

Well, in this feminist-sensitive day and age, it would be hard to put it down to the relative docility of women, or argue that they are stupider and more easily led than men. For one thing, today's women -- who compete alongside men in practically every field, and who, in contests apart from physical strength, are often said to have the advantage -- are hardly docile and easily led. Second, as a matter of established fact, women are indeed as smart as men; I.Q. is evenly distributed between the sexes.
So if women's greater religiosity can't be attributed to factors like these, what else might explain it? I speculate that there might be several other factors at work.

Mothers may tend to be more religious because their act of giving birth is a more immediate participation in creation than men's. Or, perhaps for both mothers and non-mothers there is something about caring for the smallest and most vulnerable beings -- which is still overwhelmingly women's work,  since even power mommies employ women to do it -- that makes it easier to believe in a God who stands in a similar all-caring relationship to relatively helpless mortals of every age. Maybe for these kinds of reasons, some or many women are just more religiously attuned -- closer to having perfect spiritual pitch -- than many men.

MercatorNet: In 20 years' time, do you think family life in the West will be stronger or weaker?

Mary Eberstadt: I am sad to say -- speaking as someone familiar with just some of the data on what family break-up does to children, and what it also costs society -- that I think the natural family will be even more battered in the West twenty years hence.

There is a library-full of evidence in America (though not only in America) that children are best off being raised with their biological parents in the home. Children raised with stepparents are at higher risk for a number of behaviours that you'd think we would spare them if we could -- violence, dropping out of school, drugs and drink -- and the list gets more dramatic still if we look at kids raised by one parent rather than two.

Everybody knows this. Kids know it too. I once published an essay called "Eminem is Right", detailing at considerable length what is in the lyrics of rap and rock today and how very much of it concerns family break-up and what that phenomenon is doing to this generation of kids.

So yes, everyone knows this, but polite opinion insists on ignoring it and even subverting this truth. Key opinion leaders do not want to face the facts -- and they are empirical facts -- about what is best for kids, because those facts will make a great many adults, including the kinds of feminists who have agitated for as much mother-child separation as possible, very, very uncomfortable.

And so at present, we see no turning back of the experiments being performed on children in the name of adult liberations: divorce and fatherlessness first and second, and more recently also gay parenting, polyandrous parenting, polygamous parenting, and the purposeful creation of children through sperm donors who are likely anonymous -- with the latter practice aimed purposefully at depriving those children of a usable human past, at least insofar as that past includes a father. The toll will be heavy on at least some of these kids -- by some accounts it already is -- but it will be years before this runs its course.

In a society whose elite has grown so deliberately callous to the needs of children that honest talk about what is best for them is discouraged or even banned in the toniest venues, opting for and defending the natural family will be increasingly difficult.

But there remains one important nugget of good news. For years, secularisation has held that religion is on its way out, inevitably. My thesis in "How the West Really Lost God" challenges what I believe is the critical weakness in that theory -- its inevitability. If changes in family patterns are at least partly responsible for changes in religious belief, rather than always the other way around as secularisation theory holds, then there is nothing inevitable about religion's waning.

One can name any number of factors, and I do in the essay, that might account for upswings in family formation and fertility; certainly, the history of the West is marked by just such demographic and social reversals. So while short-term practices may incline us to pessimism, there is nothing necessarily pushing religion toward extinction -- contrary to what many enlightened people have held for over a century now. And that, I think, should give us hope and courage.

Mary Eberstadt is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, author of Home-Alone America (Penguin, 2004), editor of Why I Turned Right (Simon and Schuster, 2007) and consulting editor to Policy Review. She is married and has four children.


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