Pick a study, any study: The Pew Forum Survey on Faith and Public Life, the American Religious Identification Study, the Gallup Poll on Religious Identity. No matter what the study, the conclusion remains the same: America is losing its faith.
In the United States, Christianity is on the wane and secularism is on the rise. Between 1950 and today, the percentage of adults who claim no religious affiliation has risen from 2 to 16, while in just a decade, the number of self-professed atheists and agnostics has doubled.
To explain this trend, experts have posited numerous theories, from intellectual enlightenment to the legacy of two world wars. The demographic evidence, however, belies those answers.
For example, a spike in belief, not unbelief, marked the decade immediately after World War II. Similarly, while university campuses may be bastions of secularism, rates of church attendance and religious affiliation actually are higher among college-educated Americans.
That’s not to say that the rise of scientific rationalism, the madness of war or the relative luxury in which Westerners live has contributed nothing to the process of secularization. Nevertheless, those explanations don’t quite add up. Some piece of the equation is missing.
According to Mary Eberstadt, that piece is “the family factor.”
“Family and faith are the invisible double helix of society,” she writes in her new book “How the West Really Lost God” (Templeton, $24.95). “[They are like] two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.”
In other words, according to Eberstadt, the trends that signal a decline in the traditional family — rising rates of out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation and divorce, paired with falling rates of marriage and an ever-shrinking family size — aren’t simply the consequence of secularization. They also are part of the cause.
To prove her point, Eberstadt weaves together a vast array of sociological and demographic data, demonstrating that in ages both past and present, wedding rings and babies tend to pull women and men toward religious practice. So, where there are more marriages and more babies, there’s also “more God.” And where there are fewer marriages and fewer babies? Then, there’s “less God.”
As for why that occurs, she suggests any number of reasons, from the desire to raise virtuous children to the transcendental experience of childbirth.
Perhaps her most convincing supposition is that a ready understanding of family is critical to understanding Christian doctrine.
How, she asks, can those who have never known the love of a father, witnessed the sacrifices made in a loving marriage or experienced the bonds of siblings understand a faith that calls them to believe in God as a loving Father, sacrifice themselves for the good of others and participate in a communal life?
The answer, she says, is they can’t. At least not easily. The metaphors that have made Christianity understandable for 2,000 years — father, mother, marriage, family, enduring love — don’t work as well in a world with no experience of the realities behind the metaphors.
Making the case
Eberstadt’s conclusion — that a vibrant faith life depends on a vibrant family life — is really nothing new. Sociologists such as Christian Smith and religious leaders such as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have said much the same.
“Marriage is called not only to be an object of the New Evangelization, but a subject,” said the pope emeritus in one homily last year.
What is new, however, is the way Eberstadt makes the argument for the symbiotic relationship between faith and family. “How the West Really Lost God” sets out to make an evidence-based case for the family’s import to religious practice, and it strives to make that case to those not already in the choir. That it does masterfully and like no other book.
At the same time, however, that approach is the source of the book’s only weaknesses. By putting herself in a sociological box, Eberstadt limits the types of arguments she can make, which means when the real answer to a question is more theological than sociological — for instance, why women tend to be more religious than men — Eberstadt’s reasoning falls short.
Likewise, she leaves it to her readers to connect the dots between the evidence she presents and the argument Pope Benedict makes: Namely, that if Christians want to stop the West from hemorrhaging belief, they need to get serious about living the Church’s teachings on marriage and family.
Again, however, that’s not the book’s aim. “How the West Really Lost God” is a clear, compelling and ultimately convincing presentation of the relationship between faith and family. It’s not a call to action. But it doesn’t need to be. The Church has already told Christians what to do. The book just dispels any lingering doubts about the necessity of doing it.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.