10 October 2014

Secularization and the "Family Factor"

“It is the contention of this book that just about everyone working on this great puzzle has come up with some piece of the truth—and yet that one particular piece needed to hold the others together still has gone missing.”

The book is “How the West Really Lost God.” The missing piece, Mary Eberstadt argues, is the health of “the two-parent, biologically connected, intact natural family.”

Eberstadt examines other explanations for secularization, such as disillusionment after two world wars, Enlightenment rationalism, and material prosperity, but a lot of evidence is not fully explained. The early nineteenth century and 1950s saw an increase, not a decrease, in religiosity. And Americans, though prosperous, are more religious than Europeans.

Citing studies from across Europe and America, she first explores the close association of marriage, children, and religiosity. Then she goes a step further, discussing how these indicators wax and wane. Even relatively small family trends, such as the baby boom immediately after World War II, closely coincide with increased religiosity, such as that in the 1950s.

The relatively stronger traditional family in America might explain the difference in religiosity between Americans and Europeans. Women's greater immediacy to family life might explain greater religious participation among women. The impact of the sexual revolution could explain why so many measures of religiosity changed so dramatically in the 1960s, somewhat earlier in France, later in Ireland.

Her chapter on how mainline Protestant denominations contributed to their own decline by gradually approving divorce and remarriage, contraception, and homosexuality leaves more questions unanswered than the rest of the book does.

But the primary argument remains intact—that religion and the family function like halves of a double helix. Thus, family decline in the west could have contributed to the growth of secularism as much as the other way around.

To explain how this works, she proposes, first, the experience of family life itself might incline some people to belief, and second, since the Christian narrative is “told through the prism of the family,” it depends on familial experience to make it understandable. 

One imagines many probably do stop going to church for reasons more related to family and daily life than a sudden change of heart. And many have said God as father becomes less relatable to the fatherless. 

This book points to a deeper possibility—that familial experience and choices change not just reasons or vocabulary but how people see questions of belief. 

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