“How the West Really Lost God”

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My sons grew up in an affluent community half-an-hour by train from America’s largest city. The schools here are good, but my wife and I decided early on that we would not defer to teachers responsibilities that properly belong to us. You could say the boys were homeschooled and educated publicly.

Early in my editorial career, I worked on a terrific parenting book, one that was partly an attack on the approaches to childrearing by such groups as Philadelphia’s Better Baby Institute, which promoted accelerated, high-pressure tutoring of babies (most of which the stressed-out kids later forgot). The premise of the book I edited was: make your children smart with love.

Stipulating the truth of that suggests that family is the crucible of stable, faithful, loving people, and, conversely, that family breakdown may lead to unstable, naïve, angry people – and a society that resembles them.

Although not per se the premise of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, I think she’d agree with the substance of what I’ve written above, to which I’ll add just another note of, well, doom, before I get to the content of Mrs. Eberstadt’s remarkable, powerful, prescient book.

In 2011, the percentage of all live births accounted for by unmarried American women was north of 40 percent. Among African-American women, it was over 72 percent [Child Trends Data Bank].  (The national rate hovered around 5 percent in 1950, which is where historically it has been for much pre-modern societies.) You may recall the press conference Cardinal Timothy Dolan and other New York City religious leaders held in that same year in which he and they lamented that nearly 40 percent of all pregnancies in the Big Apple end in abortion; among African-Americans, the abortion rate exceeds 60 percent.

No rational person can look at these data and think them anything but symptoms of a great disaster in the communities affected.

But such data, as Eberstadt shows, are symptoms, not causes, and while there are many factors affecting societal crises (“Urbanization, industrialization, belief and disbelief, technology, shrinking population . . .”), the most important is surely the decline of stable family life, which tracks more-or-less exactly with the decay of faith in God.

These two, faith and family, form the foundation of civilization and civility, of strong cultures and strong people, which can endure those other societal crises, but which when weak threaten the collapse of everything.

In one chilling sentence, Eberstadt succinctly summarizes the downward spiral: “In other words, family change has been an engine fueling statism – and statism in turn has been an engine fueling family decline.”

Modern skepticism about God has been a smoldering fire for centuries; the current indifference to family is gasoline thrown onto that fire.

Eberstadt’s case is sound, although the chicken-egg problem remains. She clearly believes that family decline (measured in part by numbers: of weddings, divorces, abortions, rates of contraceptive use, et cetera) deserves more credit for driving the loss of faith than is usually assigned to it by social scientists.

She spends a chapter arguing that assertions of rising secularism – of the diminishment of faith (especially Christian faith) – fail to account for the evidence that faith isn’t moribund – not anyway according to the expectations set by the familiar Cassandras of modernity, by Nietzsche and the rest.

Belief persists because it’s true. Yet even societies that vigorously profess belief in God may crumble, and they are crumbling, except in those areas in which families are robust.

The simplest formulation, as Eberstadt puts it, is this: “More God means more babies; less God means fewer of them.” The heart of her argument is that faith fails where families fail, not the other way around. Nothing precedes God, but family does come before faith, at least from the standpoint of each new family member.

But is faith really caused by family? Intuitively we sense it’s the opposite: that faith leads to emphasis on childbearing, and the data certainly show that those communities with the greatest religious commitment have the largest, most stable families.

And Eberstadt isn’t suggesting that belief is always a secondary factor in the health and happiness of individuals and communities. She simply suggests that belief often flourishes and finds its proper influence within the family, which sustains and magnifies belief.

So among Protestant Fundamentalists, tradition-minded Catholics, Orthodox Jews, and committed Muslims bigger families are more the norm, but – as Mary likes to say when building to a conclusion – so what?

Well, in Christianity at least, the Family Factor (mother-father-child) creates a primal bond of love – itself the heart of the faith: in the Trinity and the Church founded by Jesus. Without such a bond, faith is weakened and society is put at risk.

I suspect we ought to be extremely wary – much more so even than we already are – about such forces in society as are seeking the destruction of traditional marriage. And we are wary for the most part, but perhaps our essential American liberalism blinds us to the demonic force driving this movement for change.

The good news, if it will be good news, is that family and faith have ebbed and flowed throughout history, and current declines in childbearing and worship may be reversed. The realization of such a hope will make little difference in the short run, but a bellwether of a brighter future may be changing attitudes towards abortion.

In the event, the conversation has been changed by Mary Eberstadt. We say three things identify good real estate: “location, location, location.” Now we’ll say the measure of a truly blessed cultural future is: family, family, family.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.