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How the West Really Lost God

A New Theory of Secularization

Mary Eberstadt

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.

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

Mary Eberstadt is one of the most acute and creative social observers of our time.

Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man

A brilliant contribution to the really big question about the future of the West, and a pleasure to read.

Rodney Stark, author of The Rise of Christianity

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.

Michael Novak, author of The Myth of Romantic Love, No One Sees God, and Belief and Unbelief

A provocative and powerful portrait of the familial roots of contemporary secularization in the West.

W. Bradford Wilcox, director of National Marriage Project, University of Virginia

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.

Roger Scruton, author of The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat

No theorist of secularization has come close to Eberstadt in sociological insight or explanatory power.

Mary Ann Glendon, author of The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt

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.

George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II

Catholic Herald

“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.”

Francis Phillips

Christian News Journal

“Every Christian leader—particularly pastors—in Europe and America needs to read this book.”

Phil Cooke

Love, Joy, feminism Blog–December 13, 2017

"Breakdown of the family. It has long been recognized that experience with an earthly father deeply informs the perspective about the heavenly father. In How the West Really Lost God, sociologist Mary Eberstadt correctly asserts, 'The fortunes of religion rise or fall with the state of the family.'”

Libby Anne

The Economist

"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."

Crisis Magazine

“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.” 

Washington Times

“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?”