“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. …. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion …”
— Barack Obama
There is a constant narrative in today’s increasingly irreligious modern Western societies that the reason we are less religious — specifically less Christian for this discussion — is that we have just outgrown such outmoded notions.
The common theme pumped out by educational, media and societal elites is that there has been a steady march to personal enlightenment since the Enlightenment, and that the smarter, more prosperous and more individualistic a society becomes, the less it needs the superstitions of the past with all its silly restrictions on human freedom and individuality.
In her new book How the West Really Lost God Mary Eberstadt, a scholar at the Hoover Institution (and the author of one of my favorite all time articles, “Why Ritalin Rules“), provides her signature unique take on something “everybody knows” and shows us how little actual wisdom there is in the “conventional wisdom” on the subject.
It is important that Eberstadt’s re-examination of this subject not only be used to puncture the conceits of the secular elites; but also that ultra-conservative Christians hear this message too. Many of them, wittingly or unwittingly, promote this fallacy by acting as though everything modern — from music to movies — is inherently evil, and some even treat the Enlightenment (even in its most general sense) as the equivalent of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
This guy below is a prime example. While Eberstadt repeatedly makes the point that “conservative” Christian churches are still thriving, this brand, which thinks it is the only “conservative” church, is getting decidedly smaller.
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The Fat and Happy Fallacy
Perhaps the most famous quote of recent years to show the contempt held by secular elites — and no, I don’t believe his attendance at Jeremiah Wright’s church for 20-plus years was anything other than Chicago political positioning — for those who hold to their Christianity in the face of the secular orthodoxy was then-Senator Barack Obama’s candid assessment to San Francisco millionaires about why he was doing badly in heavily Catholic Pennsylvania.
However, the Left has real cognitive dissonance when it comes to Christianity. Is it the oppressive tool of the white capitalist to keep the poor happy and working hard? Or is it the last refuge of the poor, hopeless dead-enders who resort to prayer when they cannot advance?
Eberstadt first tackles the fallacy that Christianity has been on the steady decline since the Age of Reason, the Renaissance, or whatever label one wants to attach to the emergence from serfdom of the Western masses.
She points out that Christianity in the West has always been characterized by waxing and waning. Christian revival movements have started in all classes of society, but looking at studies and writings by European and American observers of each age shows that for the most part, until recently, it was the wealthier who tended to be most religiously observant.
They built the churches, paid the tithes and were most likely to be in attendance on Sunday morning. Contemporary writings are filled with angst about how to get working and poorer people into church on Sunday.
The Too Smart Fallacy
A secularist would argue that this trend is proof of the fact that the smarter or more educated or other enlightened one becomes, the less likely one is to believe in God, attend church, and the rest of the Christian religious requirements. Everyone also “knows” that rich people have less use for God than do poor people, and that smart people have less use for religion, frankly, than do those with duller heads. Don’t we?
Eberstadt argues effectively that once again, “everyone knows” something that just isn’t true. It was the more educated who tended to start religious revivals.
Forgetting demographic arguments and studies for a moment, just think of it this way. Christian movements tended to revolve around those who could read their Bibles. Mass literacy is a relatively recent — and 200 years ago, quite American — phenomenon.
Whether you want to argue the deism of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, or the rather strange mix of Puritanism and Unitarianism that made up John Adams’s view of God, the Founders were nearly all professing Christians, and the majority were of a sort that today would be called conservative or Evangelical theologically.
So, the very people who argue that Christianity is the opiate of the masses also call the Founders rich white elitists who were powerful and smart enough to change the whole world to benefit themselves.
Which is it?
In fact, it would be easy to argue that it took a massive RE-education of an Orwellian sort, a censoring and deliberate re-writing of history, to bring us to the secular orthodoxy that seems to be dominating the landscape today.
The Too Enlightened Fallacy
So, too educated, too rich and just too modern and sophisticated for Christianity comes down to one catch-all: modern man is just too enlightened for Christianity, and the secular orthodoxy is gradually working its way through society as people are better educated and lifted out of poverty. This is just societal evolution, the natural state of man leaving superstition behind.
Here I am just going to let Eberstadt speak for herself, in one of the book’s seminal passages:
This too is a causal notion about secularism that many people accept without qualm—if they even stop to think about it at all.
Like the notion that the Enlightenment caused secularization, this related idea that personal enlightenment leads to the same outcome has a surface plausibility. Everyone knows that the phenomenon of losing one’s faith during the college years, for example, is commonplace. A secularist would argue that this trend is proof of the fact that the smarter or more educated or other enlightened one becomes, the less likely one is to believe in God, attend church, and the rest of the Christian religious requirement. Everyone also “knows” that rich people have less use for God than do poor people, and that smart people have less use for religion, frankly, than do those with duller heads. Don’t we?
Everyone “knows” these things — yet in actual fact few people, especially those people advancing these notions as explanations for the weakening of Western Christianity, seem to know the empirical truth. Once again, if the theory from enlightenment were true — if it correctly predicted who was religious, and why—then we would reasonably expect that the poorer and less educated people are, the more religious they would be. Certainly that is a stereotype that many people hold—one flagrantly displayed, for example, in a subsequently infamous observation by a Washington Post reporter in 1993, describing the followers of leading American evangelicals as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.”14
All this might seem intuitively obvious. But is it empirically so? Is there really a straight causal line from the ideas of the Enlightenment to today’s continuing falloff in Christian observance?
In his authoritative book with Werner Ustorf, The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750–2000, British historian Hugh McLeod identifies three problems with this way of explaining secularization. First, he observes, the masses were not part of the Enlightenment. Second, eighteenth-century elites were actually more likely to be rational Christians than they were atheists or free-thinkers. Third, he notes, “those who seek to trace a continuous line from Voltaire to twenty-first-century atheists also tend to overlook the fact that the first half of the nineteenth century saw a revival of more conservative forms of Christianity both among intellectuals and among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie more widely.” In other words, the top-down theory from the French Enlightenment does not fit so well with the historical facts.
What McLeod has his finger on here is more than a historical nuance. It is a gaping hole in the theory that the Enlightenment banished God. If such were true, then we would expect that sophisticated people — educated people and those highest up the socioeconomic ladder—would one by one fall into line behind secularism. If such were true, there would be no room in our theory for revivals of the more conservative Christian variety, at least at the higher levels of society.
So, that answers that. But why did the West lose God?
The Family Factor
Eberstadt takes two things that “everybody knows” that are actually correct — traditional family and religious decline — and re-examines their cause and effect relationship in a truly revolutionary way. After a cursory examination of the evidence that both are true, she posits:
With those two sketches of faith and family in the modern West in place before us, let us now ask the question to which this effort is dedicated. What is the actual relationship between these two momentous trends of modernity—religious decline on the one hand, and family decline on the other?
That is the chicken-or-egg question at the heart of this book. To my knowledge, it has not been explored at this length before, so both the question and the way it is answered in the pages ahead offer something new. The proposition of this book is that there was—and still is—a critical defect in the conventional secular story line about how and why Christianity has collapsed in parts of the West. The missing piece is what I will dub “the Family Factor.”
Simply stated, what the “Family Factor” means to signal is a new idea. It is that the causal relationship between family and religion — specifically, the religion of Christianity — is not just a one-way, but actually a two-way street. In other words, I will argue that family formation is not merely an outcome of religious belief, as secular sociology has regarded it. Rather, family formation can also be, and has been, a causal agent in its own right — one that also potentially affects any given human being’s religious belief and practice. The process of secularization, I will argue, has not been properly understood because it has neglected to take into account this “Family Factor”— meaning the active effect that participation in the family itself appears to have on religious belief and practice.
Eberstadt modestly admits that this is truly a chicken-egg question and is less than dogmatic in arguing that family decline causes religious decline — instead of the other way around.
What this book means to impress is that 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. That is one way of stating the thesis here.
The most convincing argument Eberstadt makes is in her argument that Christianity is not largely conveyed through preaching or intellectual public discussion, but by the family:
Perhaps for some people, such as the childless philosopher Nietzsche, Christianity does indeed go in or out the door 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 most other men and women, it seems safe to wager by now, this conventional religious anthropology fails to describe why things are the way they are. The history of the modern West, in which declines in fertility and marriage and other measures of the strength of family life ran right alongside declines in religious practice, must be grasped in full—not just in isolated measures of church attendance or unmarried births or other relevant measures, but as a whole in which all these measures lock the helix together.6 In a way that we are only just beginning to understand, it appears that the natural family as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many people—not the prophets, not the philosophers, but a great many of the rest; and the gradual but by now recognizable muffling of that symphony is surely an important and overlooked part of the story of how certain Western men and women came not to hear the sacred music any more.
Eberstadt is absolutely correct that family decline has been a neglected part of the discussion of the reasons for secularization in the West, particularly the above assertion summed up so eloquently in her question:
What if Christianity (like other religions) is like language — something that can really only be practiced in groups? What if, just as people enhance their language skills by exposure to other people, those who are most connected to other people are more likely to develop “religious skills” too?
Ebestadt is less effective, I think, in proving which is the chicken and which is the egg than in proving that family decline is really the birth control preventing a rebirth of Christian society. As she notes:
… how can the story of the Holy Family be understood in a world where a family is increasingly said to be whatever anyone in possession of voluntary associations wants it to be?
Here, Eberstadt is at her brilliant best. The family is a picture of Christianity, which is built on a structure with God as the Father and the notion of temporary family tears at the very heart of Christianity and its relatability and attractiveness to a world of broken families.
Our Hallowed Welfare State
What’s new and provocative about Ebestadt’s thesis is not that Christianity and the family are in decline, or that there is a connection. But previous authors have assumed that the decline of Christianity has been primarily the cause for family decline.
To deny this completely is to deny any transformative power of Christianity that makes family harmony more likely. Eberstadt does not go that far.
Eberstadt’s premise that “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” is the strongest part of her thesis. And she is very convincing in asserting that family decline is a far larger factor in the decline of Christianity than previous authors have examined.
Okay, then, what is the cause of family decline? What has replaced fathers — or religion — in the modern secular culture?
Eberstadt finds a rather unsurprising culprit:
Preceded by the Utopian Socialists in the early nineteenth century, Marx and Engels argued famously that the family was intrinsically exploitative, and predicted that it would pass away along with the stage of capitalism it was tied to — strongly implying good riddance to it
The reputation of the family took another serious beating later on in the nineteenth century, on the couch of psychoanalysis. Freudians and like-minded critics painted the family as a hotbed from which sprang necessary but still excruciating weeds of neurosis, repression, and other problematic eruptions. Gone was the Victorian image of the happy hearth surrounded by proud parents and beaming children. Instead, Freudians believed, the family unit seethed with toxicity, including where none had been detected before — such as putative sexual longings by infants, murderous feelings toward parents perceived as sexual competitors, and lust for the parent of the opposite sex.
Though both Marxism and Freudianism would fall precipitously from grace by the end of the twenty-first century, it seems safe to say that their antifamily legacies linger on in Western culture. The 1960s, in particular, witnessed an explosion of calls for new and improved family forms given what were often said to be the unbearable oppressions of the family unit. The notion that there is unique misery associated with hearth and home has also been a theme of modern literature sounded by more writers than one can list here, among them Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, J. D. Salinger, and more.
More recently, the family has also been the whipping boy of choice for generations of Western feminists missing no opportunity to blame the family first for the problems of modern women. Most of these attacks have amounted to one or another translation of Engels’ fundamental point: the institution of the family is inimical to the individual interests of human beings — most especially women.
British historian Michael Burleigh, after taking a look at how Hitler replaced every cultural institution in Germany with a Nazi counterfeit in his remarkable The Third Reich: A New History, then wrote a superlative two volume history of how government replaced Christianity in Europe, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War, and Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror.
Burleigh gives an extensive history of how the big isms, from Jacobism in the French Revolution to the Nazis, specifically targeted Christianity and Christian institutions (including the family) for replacement — but also how, in a thousand little ways, all secularists and welfare state advocates eventually accomplished a similar end, this time by the consent of the governed.
It’s worth noting, however, as Burleigh does, that the very rhetoric and values that even the most extreme secularists from Marx to Hitler use to promote their cause, the sense of right and wrong they are proposing to further, borrows from the language of Christian ethics — even depending on the populace accepting those premises, whether they know it or not.
Eberstadt also examines how the lack of a traditional family outlook is used to pit Christianity against the very people it is trying to help, creating an atmosphere where the Church is considered a place of judgment, rather than refuge.
Now let us consider some of the implications for Christianity of these enormous numbers of (typically) fatherless children, this new norm across the West. These rates of illegitimacy alone make any hypothetical Christian renaissance amount to an extraordinary uphill climb. That is because what used to be called “illegitimacy” puts people at odds with the traditional Christian moral code. Of course—to clarify the theological point—having a child out of wed- lock is no more a permanent roadblock from the church’s perspective, even in the strictest churches, than is homosexuality, adultery, abortion, or any of the other behaviors called sins by Christianity. The churches, as pastors like to remind, exist for sinners, not saints.
But to whatever extent Eberstadt is correct in her examination of cause and effect, How the West Really Lost God is an invaluable contribution to the discussion.
This should be a game-changer that informs any serious discussion of the topic.
Related: Don’t miss Ed Driscoll’s interview with Mary Eberstadt.