The argument with Nietzsche

There is plenty of reason for pessimism about what the future holds for religious belief if by “pessimism” one means further decline. Divorce and illegitimacy — to say nothing of maternal surrogacy, polygamy, polyandry, multiple parenthood, and related political experiments involving children that defy the empirical evidence about what’s best for them — all these and other forces are battering the natural family. The more we modern people experiment with it, retooling it to suit our material desires, our political agendas, our busy lives, the more we would appear to risk losing what it is that makes many people religiously inclined in the first place. Nevertheless, in the religious anthropology proposed here — and contrary to that of secularization theory — there is nothing inevitable about the decline of the natural family and thus, by implication, religion too.
Of course all this is meant as a generalization about groups rather than a description fitting any one individual. It is an account of how many people in many places might arguably find themselves inclined for religion or indifferent to it. Hence the obvious if necessary qualifications: Of course, merely having families and children is no guarantee of religious belief; and plenty of bustling hearths have proven home to every vice and sin in the book. Of course also, as the history of clericalism and monasticism shows, many childless single people seem to hear the voice of God without family bonds of their own formation entering the picture; and conversely, surely there are atheists happy with families of more than a child or two. This argument with Nietzsche is not an attempt to explain all cases, or indeed any individual case whatsoever. It is rather an effort to ask what makes a lot of people religious or a-religious a lot of the time.

In sum, we can leave open the possibility that for some people, such as the childless philosopher Nietzsche, religiosity goes out as he described it: in a top-down process hammered out by a tortured soul sitting in a study and then left for intellectual heirs to disseminate. But for many other people, it seems safe to say, this religious anthropology does not describe why things are what they are — and the recent history of Western Europe, in which declines in fertility and family life preceded or ran alongside declines in religious practice, corroborates the point.