In this magisterial work, cultural critic Mary Eberstadt delivers a powerful new theory about the decline of religion in the Western world. 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.
Drawing on sociology, history, demography, theology, literature, and many other sources, Eberstadt shows that family decline and religious decline have gone hand in hand in the Western world in a way that has not been understood before—that they are, as she puts it in a striking new image summarizing the book’s thesis, “the double helix of society, each dependent on the strength of the other for successful reproduction.”
In sobering final chapters, Eberstadt then lays out the ramifications of the mutual demise of family and faith in the West. While it is fashionable in some circles to applaud the decline both of religion and the nuclear family, there are, as Eberstadt reveals, considerable social, economic, civic, and other costs attendant on both declines. Her conclusion considers this tantalizing question: whether the economic and demographic crisis now roiling Europe and spreading to America will have the inadvertent result of reviving the family as the most viable alternative to the failed welfare state—fallout that could also lay the groundwork for a religious revival as well.
How the West Really Lost God is both a startlingly original account of how secularization happens and a sweeping brief about why everyone should care. A book written for agnostics as well as believers, atheists as well as “none of the above,” it will change the way every reader understands the two institutions that have hitherto undergirded Western civilization as we know it—family and faith—and the real nature of the relationship between those two pillars of history.
Table of Contents
Introduction / 3
Chapter 1: Does Secularization Even Exist? / 25
Chapter 2: What Is the Conventional Story Line about How the West Lost God? What Are the Problems with It? / 59
Chapter 3: Circumstantial Evidence for the “Family Factor,” Part One: The Empirical Links among Marriage, Childbearing, and Religiosity / 89
Chapter 4: Circumstantial Evidence for the “Family Factor,” Part Two: Snapshots of the Demographic Record; Or How Fundamental Changes in Family Formation Have Accompanied the Decline of Christianity in the West / 105
Chapter 5: Circumstantial Evidence for the “Family Factor,” Part Three: Because the “Family Factor” Explains Problems That Existing Theories of Secularization Do Not Explain— Including What Is Known as “American Exceptionalism” / 125
Chapter 6: Assisted Religious Suicide: How Some Churches Participated in Their Own Downfall by Ignoring the Family Factor / 139
Chapter 7: Putting All the Pieces Together: Toward an Alternative Anthropology of Christian Belief / 155
Chapter 8: The Future of Faith and Family: The Case for Pessimism / 169
Chapter 9: The Future of Christianity and the Family: The Case for Optimism / 179
Conclusion: Why Does Any of This Matter? / 193
Epilogue: A Reflection on What Nietzsche and His Intellectual Heirs Missed, and Why They Might Have Missed It / 211
Acknowledgments / 217
Notes / 219
Index / 247
“You cannot understand the real philosophical problems of the West—which have been mounting for 40 years—without reading Mary Eberstadt’s new book How the West Really Lost God.”
"How the West Really Lost God is clear as a bell, beautifully plotted, and the point it makes not only overturns conventional wisdom but strikes far deeper into reality than any rival argument in the field."
“In How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt paints a provocative and powerful portrait of the familial roots of contemporary secularization in the West. Recent declines in church attendance throughout Europe and the Americas have been driven in large part by declining rates of marriage and childbearing among their citizens. Apparently, when men and women cease to find their way to the altar and the maternity ward, they are less likely to look heavenwards. As Eberstadt notes, the decline of faith and family have gone hand in hand throughout the West.
“This spells trouble for the men and women of the West, insofar as the one other institution besides family and religion that now supports them from cradle to grave is the welfare state. But, from Greece to the United States, the welfare state is running out of money. Eberstadt speculates that the demographic and financial collapse may well spur a revival of the fortunes of faith and family as people come to realize they cannot rely on the state. Only time will tell.”
“Mary Eberstadt is one of the most acute and creative social observers of our time. She is not afraid to challenge received wisdom and her insights are always well worth pondering.”
“Mary Eberstadt’s account of the connection between religion and family, showing that the two institutions rise and fall together, is finely written, impressively argued, and entirely persuasive. This book tells us much about the condition of Western societies today and reminds us that the atheists and the Nietzscheans owe their influence less to the truth of their views than to the loneliness to which they appeal.”
“An absolutely brilliant and strikingly fresh portrait of the ‘double-helix’ of faith and family, coupled with a potentially game-changing analysis of the why and how of secularization, all written with the sparkle and empathy that characterize the work of one of America’s premier social analysts.
“Mary Eberstadt’s account of the synergistic relationship between the fracturing of the family and declining religiosity is both chilling and utterly convincing. No theorist of secularization has come close to Eberstadt in sociological insight or explanatory power.”
“A brilliant contribution to the really big question about the future of the West, and a pleasure to read.”
“Eberstadt deals directly and rather deftly with the vast body of literature on secularization. In keeping with the current trend, she refuses to treat secularization as a blanket process of religious decline and narrows her task to explain why a particular kind of religion—Christianity—is declining in the West… . Although others before her have noticed the correlation, and sometimes suggested that secularization leads to family decline, the argument here is that the decline of the family also leads to the decline of Christianity.”
“[A] very thoughtful and accessible book which I thoroughly recommend… . Mary Eberstadt has made a valuable contribution to the causes of Western secularization. Her view that the influence of the strength of the traditional family on a society’s religiosity is compelling and important to reflect upon given the continuing attacks on marriage and the traditional family in Australia today.”
“I have been reading Mary Eberstadt’s How the West really lost God(Templeton Press). Published in 2013 and sub-titled A New Theory of Secularization. The author, a heavyweight American academic, throws new and persuasive light on an old question.”
“But is the future of Christianity—in the West at least—a lost cause? Eberstadt thinks not. Her final chapter is entitled ‘The Case for Optimism’ and I am about to read it. It will be the subject of my next blog. Meanwhile, I think this thoughtful, carefully argued book should be read by anyone interested in the future of the family – and thus the future of the Christian faith.”
“The detailed qualifications this book makes are important to the whole. For example, though she intends to ‘turn the standard account of Western religious decline upside down,’ she by no means intends that argue that it is false . Rather, she simply means to show (through various lines of evidence) the sociological, cultural and anthropological significance the natural family has planted on the Western world – and how it has radically changed it.”
“I would definitely recommend this book for those of you interested in the subject regarding marriage and civilization.”
“How are church and synagogue attendance related to the marriage crisis, if at all? AEI Scholar Mary Eberstadt’s compelling new book, How the West Really Lost God, argues that family breakdown has led to loss of religious practice. If she is right, the old 1950s Ad Council slogan is true, after all: ‘The family that prays together, stays together.’”
“Eberstadt’s bold conjecture is that we learn faith from family life, and when we abandon family, we are likely to lose our religion as well. People of faith are her target audience, but her review of demographic literature is so comprehensive and instructive that nonreligious readers will benefit from it as a work of reference”
“How the West Really Lost God is no syrupy lament for the days when we all said ‘Merry Christmas’ to one another, nor does the author carry on and on about ‘Liberal Creeps Who Don’t Believe the Word of God.’ She posits, instead, a sociological disaster of recent origin. For various reasons, the family structures that supported organized religion began to deteriorate”
“Eberstadt’s book explores the connection between what she calls the ‘two momentous trends of modernity,’ the decline of religion and the family in the West. In a carefully reasoned argument, which relies heavily on sociology, she makes the case that the conventional wisdom that the decline of religion has led to the decline of the family is inadequate and, in fact, ought to be reversed. Rather it is the decline of the traditional family that has sent the membership roles of Western churches into free fall.”
“In her new title, How the West Really Lost God, American cultural commentator and critic Mary Eberstadt weights the evidence and poses the question: How did it happen? Her approach to the subject is primarily historical and sociological and her findings should provoke a good deal of soul-searching on the part of evangelical Christians and churches.
There are undoubtedly many challenges that confront us in a Western world that has lost God, but by taking on board the central message of Mary Eberstadt’s book and recognizing the pivotal role that the family has to play, we are also presented with a tremendous opportunity.
In a dark world where intact, stable and well-functioning families providing inter-generational support are rare, Christian families can shine bright lights and so bear eloquent testimony to the wisdom and power of God.”
“Getting to know Christ through the context of a family — knowing God as a loving Father and accepting the intercessory help and model of Mary and her courageous ‘yes’ and Joseph and his quiet trust and leadership — can be challenging at a time when what exactly family is a matter of some confusion and contention in the public square and foreign to the lived experiences of many (a point Mary Eberstadt explores in her How the West Really Lost God).”
“Looking for a terrific book to read during your holiday travels? Pick up How the West Really Lost God. It’s an insightful look at the link between the decline of the family and Christian religions in the Western World; a social shift that has touched every one of us… . I hope you’re curious enough to read the book. Why bother? Information is power. Eberstadt reminds us data overwhelmingly proves religious believers bring valued contributions to society and children raised in steady, traditional families, do better overall than those who are not.”
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Online–11/11/2013
“Overall, How the West Really Lost God was a fantastic book with a lot to contribute to our current discussions of faith, family, and culture. I highly recommend it. Since finishing the book and contemplating Eberstadt’s ideas, my thoughts have turned to Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine. She was a woman in a mixed-faith marriage—her husband was a pagan. A devout Christian woman and a great intercessor for her son, she had the support of Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. We know that Augustine eventually became a Christian under the teaching of Ambrose and was baptized by him. We see, as Eberstadt rightly claims in her thesis, that faith and family are intertwined. Whether in the year 387 or the year 2013, God indeed uses the family to bring mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to the Faith.”
“Scholars will no doubt be sifting the evidence and weighing the arguments for some time to come, but if Eberstadt’s insights prove accurate, one of her conclusions will be particularly troubling to thoughtful Christians: the doctrinal changes made by the mainline churches over the past three generations regarding divorce, contraception and, yes, homosexuality have been terribly and ironically self-destructive. By relaxing age-old standards on sexual morality, the churches have inadvertently undermined the foundations of the traditional family, thus precipitating their own demise.”
“Several theories have been proposed as to the cause(s) of secularization. Mary Eberstadt’s book, How the West Really Lost God, is an important new addition to the debate… . From the outset it is critical to pick up on the spirit of Eberstadt’s book. Her subtitle, A New Theory of Secularization, highlights her approach. The author has a particular view and argues it with intelligence and conviction, but she is not making a dogmatic pronouncement.”
Catholic Book Reviews Monthly–September 2013 Edition
“Religion, in Eberstadt’s view, has frequently been on the decline, but it has also made numerous resurgences, and there is nothing to prove that Christianity will not make a comeback in the West. In order to explain why religious influence ebbs and flows, it is important to understand the causes of the process. There is, however, a lot of controversy as to why these cultural shifts happen, and Eberstadt makes a compelling case as she addresses and critiques the potential causes of secularization… . The future of religion in the West is uncertain, but if history is any guide, there may be many surprises as to what might happen. If Eberstadt is correct in her analysis, in order to revitalize religion, believers will have to revitalize the family.”
“Mary Eberstadt takes on the tangled threads of faith and family in How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press, 2013). Despite the title, it’s not simply a book about religion (or lack thereof); Eberstadt makes it clear that faith and family are undeniably linked. She uses the visual of the DNA double-helix strand: religious commitment and participation as one strand, strong and healthy families as the other, with ladder-like bars holding the two together. With the collapse of one, she argues, the inevitable happens: the breakdown of the other.”
“Mary Eberstadt delivers a compelling theory about the decline of Christian religion in the Western world. By the analysis of data on the family, from pre-Revolutionary France to contemporary culture in the West, she demonstrates how the natural family is the prime nurturing force for Christianity in a society.”
“Any important contribution to the secularization debate is worth praising. A book that exposes a major blind spot in this important field and presents a plausible theory for what ought to fill it is a significant accomplishment.”—Greg Forster
“[A] fascinating work of forensic demography which manages to take the telescope through which we’ve long studied the relationship between family formation and religiosity and flip it entirely around to let us peer through the other side. What she shows us is compelling. With luck, researchers in the academic world will follow her lead and take a new look at the phenomenon of demographic decline, too.”
“In her excellent book, How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt argues that the sharp decline in religious belief (and the waning influence of the churches) in the Western world is related directly to the decline of the traditional family.” —Elizabeth Scalia
“In her characteristically methodical fashion and employing an impressive amount of research, Eberstadt adds new considerations to the debate over how and why Christianity has really come to decline in important parts of the West. Her argument remains intriguing until the last page… . She gives a balanced account of the consequences, proposing both a pessimistic as well as an optimistic view of the future. Eberstadt succeeds in presenting an even-handed interesting and comprehensive look at today’s trends that leaves the reader with much to ponder.” —Mary Zurolo Walsh
“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.
“[A] remarkable, powerful, prescient book… . In the event, the conversation has been changed by Mary Eberstadt. We say three things identify good real estate: ‘location, location, location.’ Now we’ll say the measure of a truly blessed cultural future is: family, family, family.”
“In her deeply insightful new book, How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt suggests that there is a more fundamental cause underlying the cultural loss of religion—a cause that all the previous research has mistaken for just another effect. What if the decline of religion is integrally connected to, and perhaps even a result of, the decline of the natural family?”
“A short column cannot do justice to the wide and deep reading and all the evidence Eberstadt has marshaled for her argument, so you are urged to read this book. What is certain is that this is one of those books that will forever change the conversation about why Christianity is in decline in the West.”
“Her short, elegantly written book repeatedly shows that strong families help to keep religious practice alive, and that too many people see a causal connection running exclusively in the opposite direction.”
“Every Christian leader who’s interested in engaging today’s culture (and who shouldn’t be?) should have this book on his or her desk. Her research and historical perspectives are fascinating, and I’m confident that she’ll give you enormous new information that will help you engage today’s non-believing culture more effectively.”
“Eberstadt makes a powerful case that we acquire religion not like information in a classroom, but more like apprentices to a craftsman. That is, we learn it by doing it, in community, most especially the community of the family. You lose the family, she contends, and you eventually lose God in all but the most nominal sense. Perhaps this is why the Bible presents to us as normative and binding what we have come to call ‘traditional marriage’.”