Interview: Author Mary Eberstadt on How the West Really Lost God

Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. In the 1990s, she was the executive editor of National Interest magazine, and in the mid-1980s, she worked with George P. Shultz and Jeane Kirkpatrick in the Reagan administration.

In the introduction to her new book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, Eberstadt does not shy away from asking the big questions about life in the west in the first decades of a new millennium. (Say, how are those things reckoned, anyhow?) She writes:

Why was belief in the Christian God and his churchly doings apparently taken for granted by most Europeans, say, six hundred years ago— whereas today merely alluding to the possibility of the existence of that same God is now guaranteed to provoke uneasy dissent in some sophisticated quarters and savage ridicule in others? How much did the Enlightenment and rationalism and scientifi c thinking have to do with this enormous transformation— this sea change from a civilization that widely fears God, to one that now often jeers him? How much did various historical infl uences fi gure into this reshaping of our shared civilization— factors like technology, the world wars, politics, church scandals, the changing social status of women, and more?

These and other large questions will be considered in the pages ahead— including, at the outset, the radical question raised by some scholars, which is whether Western Christianity has even declined in the first place.

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. Urbanization, industrialization, belief and disbelief, technology, shrinking population: yes, yes, and yes to all those factors statistically and otherwise correlated with secularization. Yet, even taking them all into account, the picture remains incomplete, as chapter 2 goes to show. It is as if the modern mind has lined up all the different pieces on the collective table, only to press them together in a way that looks whole from a distance but still leaves something critical out.

As Eberstadt goes on to write, her new book "is an attempt to supply that missing piece." Its Amazon page adds:

The conventional wisdom is that the West first experienced religious decline, followed by the decline of the family. Eberstadt turns this standard account on its head. Marshalling an impressive array of research, from fascinating historical data on family decline in pre-Revolutionary France to contemporary popular culture both in the United States and Europe, Eberstadt shows that the reverse has also been true: the undermining of the family has further undermined Christianity itself.

During our interview, Eberstadt will discuss:

  • What is the relationship between spiritual decline and demographic decline?
  • Is religious belief suppressed in secular Europe and Blue State America?
  • How the rise of "New Age" spiritualism beginning in the 1960s impacted and interacted with the decline of religion in the west.
  • Some background on the book's publisher, Templeton Press, founded by pioneering mutual fund manager turned philanthropist Sir John Templeton.
  • Could today's ongoing economic and demographic crises help to strengthen the family?

And much more. Click here to listen:

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MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ, and we’re talking with Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. In the 1990s, she was the executive editor of National Interest magazine, and in the mid-1980s, she worked with George Shultz and Jeane Kirkpatrick in the Reagan administration.

She’s also the author of a new book, How the West Really Lost God. It’s published by Templeton Press, and available from and your local bookseller. And Mary, thanks for stopping by today.

MS. EBERSTADT:  Thanks for having me, Ed.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Mary, over the last few years, there have been several books exploring the demographic decline that the west is undergoing, including those from authors such as Mark Steyn, Charles Murray, Jonathan Last and others.  What role does the decline in religion or how our religious beliefs have changed in the last century, play in this demographic decline?

MS. EBERSTADT:  Great question.  Well, let's look at the big picture, for starters, of what's been going on.  We know that over the past several decades, there's been a decline of religious belief and church attendance across the western world, most markedly in Western Europe, but also in the United States.

And up until now, there's been one prevailing explanation for this.  And the explanation comes down from the Enlightenment, and you heard it from the new atheists most recently.  The idea is that religion is a superstitious thing that will eventually die out as people become sufficiently educated and rational and enlightened.  And this is what a lot of sophisticated people believe, obviously.

The purpose of my book is first of all, to hold that explanation up to the light and to ask whether it's true.  And I argue that it's not true and it's not true for several reasons, any one of which would deep six the prevailing explanation.  But just to focus on one.  That explanation would suggest that religion is a function of the lower classes, that belief in God is something that poor people do.  Or if you remember that famous quote from the Washington Post, it was just about ten years ago, that a reporter wrote that the followers of evangelicals were, let's see, uneducated and easy to command.  Do you remember that?

MR. DRISCOLL:  Yes, easy to command, easily led, yeah.

MS. EBERSTADT:  Easily led.  Yeah.  That beautifully summarizes the stereotype of religious believers as being people who just haven't gotten the word yet, you know, just haven't gotten sophisticated enough to get rid of God.

But it's actually not only not true, but the reverse is true.  In the United States today, as you can see from perfectly secular social science, you are more likely to profess belief in God and to go to religious services, the higher up you are on the socioeconomic ladder.

Now, that is something that a lot of people don't know, and a lot of people suspect the opposite to be true.  But it's not only in the United States.  This was also true in Victorian England, for example.  And I quote a bunch of British historians to make this point in the book.  Religious belief was more likely at the top of the socioeconomic ladder than at the bottom.  And it was better-off people who were populating the churches.

Now, this isn't to say anything about the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.  But the reason this matters is that if this is true, and it is true, then it goes to show that money alone doesn't drive out God.  And education alone doesn't drive out God.

So the whole story that is believed widely across the west about how God had been driven out of parts of the west, is wrong.  And what I try to do in the book is suggest an alternative theory that revolves around something much more mundane, but completely overlooked by conventional sociology.  And that is the family.

And what I argue is that the family is the best predictor of Christianity's fate in the world.  And in times when Christianity is strong, the family is strong.  And in times when it's in decline, as Christianity is now, you're witnessing family decline.  Family decline and religious decline don't happen in a vacuum.  They are side by side.  And the same is true of family and religious prosperity.  And that is the basic message of the book.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Mary, I get the impression from your book, that we’re simplifying things when we say that intellectuals killed off God in the late 19th century, because that implies that it was a static one-time event. And that it’s more accurate to say that religion is being actively suppressed to this day. Could you talk a bit about the difference, and what it implies?

MS. EBERSTADT:  It's true.  Religious believers have been taking a beating in the public square before the new atheists appeared, but then especially at their hands.  And now, arguably, we have an administration in Washington that is more openly skeptical of religious believers, arguably more hostile to them than any administration in history.

So there's a lot going on out there.  When we look at Europe we see that Pope Benedict was dogged by protests across the continent when the traveled.  This sort of thing also never used to happen.  So there's a kind of open hostility out there toward religion that wasn't there before.

And again, I trace this to -- depending on which term you want to use -- the phenomenon of family decline, or changing family patterns.  When people turn out to protest traditional -- the traditional moral code of Judeo-Christianity, they are protesting the protection and privileging of the family and all the teachings that follow from that, like the teachings against abortion, for example, and the teachings against extra-marital sex, and all of these other teachings that a lot of people object to after the sexual revolution.

So there is no doubt here to, that the open hostility toward religion is tied up with the decline of the family, the changing of family patterns.  And so once again, we see what I call the double helix of family and faith.  We see this relationship between the churches and the family that really can't be disentangled, because both things are powering each other.

MR. DRISCOLL:  And as you mentioned a few moments ago, conventional wisdom posits that elites are secular and the lower classes religious, but in the book, you believe that’s a rather gross simplification of how the two classes approach religion.

MS. EBERSTADT:  Well, there are pockets of the elite that are far more hostile toward religion than the rest of society.  There -- for example, it looks like certain kinds of scientists are like that.  Ivy League campuses, to take an example, are like that.  So the picture is definitely mixed. There's -- you see strength and weakness there.

The picture is also mixed when it comes to the churches themselves, because in a very interesting phenomenon -- to get back to your mention of Jonathan Last and that very interesting book of his about population decline, there's something very interesting going on out there that I don't think the aggressively secular people in society have taken account of.  And that's the fact that for whatever reason, secular people don't have children.  Religious believers do.  And the more religious they are, the more likely they are to have children.

So what this means, Ed, I think, is that down the road, we're looking at something really interesting that we haven't seen before, which is an increasingly polarized world, where the children of religious believers are going to be more and more the population of what is, at the same time, this demographically declining western world.  So you're going to have more aggressive secularism on one side, but more populous religious belief on the other.  And that's going to make for a very interesting time, I would think.

MR. DRISCOLL:  We tend to think of religion’s decline in America as beginning in the 1960s and the rise of the New Left, and their waging the culture war. But beginning in the mid-1960s, traditional religion began to be supplanted in the west by various forms of new age spirituality. The Beatles discovered the Maharishi, radical environmentalism with a spiritual fervor began to take off, and in his famous mid-‘70s “Me Generation” essay, Tom Wolfe explored the connection between psychedelic drug users and their rather idiosyncratic attempts to find God. How do these new age-style religions factor into the equation explored in your book?

MS. EBERSTADT:  Yeah, that's a very interesting phenomenon, I think.  Well, there's no doubt that human beings are theotropic -- to use the technical term.  They lean toward God; they lead toward the idea of God.  Obviously, not all human beings.  But throughout history and across cultures, that's a defensible proposition.

So what you see, I think, in the New Age and other movements, environmentalism, radical environmentalism, et cetera, all the things you named, I think what you're seeing there is attempts to be religious, but also have the sexual revolution.  Because part of why people found the churches less palatable, was that if you wanted to embrace the sexual revolution, obviously the traditional churches frowned on that and said it was a no-no.

So I think what people being -- you know, just generally leaning toward God or gods in one way and another, what they're --- what they've been trying to do, is reinvent the wheel and find themselves spiritualities and religions that get around the problem of the traditional Christian moral code.

Now, that's all well and good.  But what those kinds of expressions of spirituality don't do is reproduce themselves.  People don't, as a general rule, become successful purveyors to their children of New Age religions.  And people who -- no matter how spiritual they think themselves, don't tend to hand that down through the generations, so that four generations from now, somebody can point to a rock somewhere and say, you know, that's where my great grandmother had her first druid experience.

For whatever reason, the churches are a lot better at institutionalizing this sort of thing.  So that's one big difference between the New Age expressions of spirituality and the traditional incarnation of religion in the churches.  One gets passed down and the other doesn't.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Does that also help to explain why, if you’re somebody with the mindset of say the late Christopher Hitchens; if you’re say, secular-minded or agnostic or atheistic, why you should be concerned about the simultaneous collapse of faith and family?

MS. EBERSTADT:  Well, I think everybody can be concerned about that one, because first of all, if you -- first of all, religious people have extra reasons for trying to keep families intact and keep them productive.  They have religious reasons for doing this.  They're told this is what they're supposed to do.

All of society benefits from having people who are taken care of by their families, because otherwise, we have yet more people who need to be taken care of by the state.  And this is another part of the discussion of the book, that I think is actually important to people in America right now.

The welfare state is largely a creation of the fractured family, and it largely bankrolls the fractured family.  If you remember the Julia video from the re-election campaign, you know, the one about being taken care of --

MR. DRISCOLL:  Um-hum.

MS. EBERSTADT:  -- from cradle to grave.  That one?  You know, that's the promise that the welfare state makes.  And the reason the state has to make that promise is that people are not living in families.  Many people are not living in families that can take care of themselves.

So one thing that the religious believers do out there is increase the likelihood of having families like that who are not dependent and who don't need those same things.  So that's one thing they give back.

The other reason that I think it's really shortsighted of the aggressively secular people to attack the believers as much as they do, is that religious believers are also more likely to give to charity, to volunteer, to do good works.  And this is also true across the western world.

So when you get a really secular society like the societies of Europe, as Arthur Brooks has documented, you get people who give very little to private charity.  They just don't.  And I'm not saying secularists are bad people.  I'm just saying it's a fact that people who have a religious creed that tells them to give to charity, are more likely to do that.

So there again, we have an example of how what the traditional religious people are doing in the public square actually benefits everybody, whether they are religious or not.  So I think those are two pretty big reasons to think that, you know, we should have more appropriate appreciation of what the believers are doing out there.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Mary, just a couple more questions.  Your book is published by Templeton Press.  Could you talk a bit about the company and the man whose name it bears?

MS. EBERSTADT:  Well, Sir John Templeton was a great philanthropist, and he left a private foundation that does a lot of charitable works, but that also has, as an independent part of it, this press.  And the head of the press approached me to ask if I were interested in writing this book.  And that's how that all came about.

MR. DRISCOLL:  And last question.  We try to end these things on a happy note, even when we’re discussing a topic as grim as the concurrent demographic and religious collapse in the west. But will the economic and demographic crisis in the West have the unintended impact of reviving the family as the most viable alternative to the failed welfare state?

MS. EBERSTADT:  I think that's entirely likely.  I think, in fact, that the optimistic scenario is the most likely scenario here.  Because adversity has a way of driving people home.  You know?  We saw this in 2008 when the financial crisis started.  A couple of interesting footnotes happened.  One was, of course, we saw the beginning of the return to the home of many young adults, because they couldn't afford to strike out on their own.

And this is generally regarded as a bad thing.  But what I see there is that's an example of how adversity arguably strengthens the extended family, by having people not be atomized and all on their own, but rather back in some kind of connection to the family unit.

A second thing that happened in 2008, divorce rates fell, because divorce, of course, is always expensive.  And in a time of adversity, some people rethought their plans and held off on that.  And divorce lawyers themselves commented that they were seeing less business, because people, in a bad economic time were less likely to go for divorce.

So these are, of course, inadvertent things.  And we don't hope for a financial catastrophe.  But given how problematic the big welfare states of the western world are right now, and given what's going on in Europe, and with the constant questions about whether these kinds of states can be sustained by a very small and shrinking taxpayer base, it's very likely, it seems to me, that down the road, we see a restructuring of the welfare state and with it, a return to the more organic bonds of family and church and small communities that people have not had to go to because they've thought that the state could take care of it all.

When it turns out that the state can't, we're going to see a very different ball game out there.

MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ  And we've been talking with Mary Eberstadt, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, and the author of the new book, How the West Really Lost God.  It's published by Templeton Press and available from and your local bookseller.

And Mary, thank you once again for stopping by today, and good luck with the new book.

MS. EBERSTADT:  Thank you very much, Ed.  Thanks for having me.

(End of recording)

Transcribed by, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll. Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by