How the West Really Lost God

By Mary Eberstadt
Hoover Institution Policy Review, June-July 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

The secularization theory is the idea that as people become more educated and more prosperous, they find themselves both more skeptical of religion's premises and less needful of its ostensible consolations.

Secularization theory assumes that religious belief comes ontologically first for people and that it goes on to determine or shape other things they do, such as whether they marry and have children or not.

Western European Christians did not just stop having children and families because they became secular. At least some of the time, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families.

What sort of demographic patterns would we expect to see if it were true that family decline were contributing to religious decline?

1. We would expect to find declines in fertility and family formation in Western Europe for some time before secularization became a social norm. The sustained fall in birthrate that characterizes Western Europe today began at different times in different countries, but it started earlier almost everywhere than is widely understood. In France, the decline started in the late eighteenth century. In Britain, the decline started a century later. In Ireland it began in the twentieth century. But European fertility in general dropped well before the dramatic demise of religious practice seen today.

2. If the decline of the family powered the decline in belief, one would expect to find that more religious countries were those where the birthrate was highest, and less religious ones were those registering an earlier decline. If this theory is correct, the persistence of the natural family kept religiosity alive in some places even as its decline elsewhere was helping to extinguish it. In France, people generally stopped having babies much sooner than they did elsewhere, and their religiosity declined earlier too. In Ireland, the change in public religiosity has been most dramatic just in the past generation. Essentially, the Irish stopped having babies and families, and shortly afterward stopped going to church.

3. Once we allow that family decline is at least partly responsible for religious decline, we can explain the difference in religiosity between Europe and the United States. If changes in marrying and having babies and families are helping to drive changes in religiosity, then American exceptionalism is explained by the fact that there are more families following the traditional model in America than in Europe. Differences in fertility rates within the United States track differences in religiosity.

The axiom that religion is dictating family size is riddled with logical problems. It is commonly assumed, for example, that religious Catholics have larger families because of the prohibition against birth control. But Evangelical Christians, who do not similarly have theological injunctions against birth control as such, have a higher fertility rate than other groups. Orthodox Jews in America have far more children than secular Jews, even though orthodox Judaism also allows contraception within marriage. Mormons have a high rate of natural family formation too. Even Catholics are not enjoined to have all the children that they can.

In sum, here is evidence that things work the other way, not only that religious people are inclined toward the family, but also that something about the family inclines people toward religiosity.

The phenomenology of what birth does to parents is routinely experienced as transcendental. The sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself. It is why the story of Jesus is so universal in its tragic appeal.

A religious anthropology is grounded on the primal fact that the parent-child bond pushes people toward an intensity of purpose they might never otherwise have experienced. Birth is not the only familial experience that has this transcendental effect. In binding those alive to relatives both past and yet to come, family is literally death-defying.

In sum, secularization theory appears to present an incomplete version of how human beings actually come to think and behave about things religious — not one by one and all on their own, but rather mediated through the elemental connections of husband, wife, child, aunt, great-grandfather, and the rest.

The proposed religious anthropology ties up another loose end, the fact that women as a whole are more observant than men. Perhaps the act of participating in birth inclines women to be more humble about their own powers and more religiously attuned. Or perhaps there is something about caring for the smallest and most vulnerable beings that makes it easier to believe in a God who stands in a similar caring relationship to relatively helpless mortals of every age.

The majority of people learn religion in communities, beginning with the community of the family. With that connection now broken in formerly Christian Western Europe and other parts of the West, a great many people in their current peer group lean the secularist way. But that ending does not prove that religion is over. It proves that one kind of human community is in decline.

If people come to religious practice because of their experience of the natural family rather than vice versa, then a very different verdict about the fate of religiosity in the advanced West suggests itself.

For there is nothing fixed or inevitable about today’s low birth rates or low marriage rates or notions about the desirability of the natural family. All these measures of family vitality have fluctuated throughout history, sometimes radically so. Even the nations of Western Europe all experienced a baby boom within living memory.

One can imagine the personal decisions about families changing for various reasons. For example, if the state can no longer be counted on to help support the elderly, then young men and women might choose to have children to rely on in old age. Children do best when they grow up with married, biological parents in the home. Children who do not enjoy that advantage are at higher risk for a large number of problems. In the United States, parents in some areas often make decisions about family size based on what it costs to send children to a good school.

In the religious anthropology proposed here, there is nothing inevitable about the decline of the natural family or religion. But historically, many people have heard God through the human symphony of the natural family.

AR  I find the argument persuasive and important. A dialog on this basis is well worth pursuing further.

The Cold War Pope

By Mary Eberstadt
Hoover Institution, Policy Review, December 1, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II
The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy
By George Weigel
Doubleday. 590 pages

Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, has the biographer he deserved. Ten years ago, George Weigel's first volume, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, chronicled Karol Wojtyla's early life and the first 22 years of his papacy. The second volume sheds light on Wojtyla's forty-year struggle against communism.

Wojtyla was nineteen in 1939 when the Red Army invaded Poland and the country was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union. Wojtyla began study for the priesthood in a clandestine seminary program that was under surveillance by the Gestapo.

His appearance in the police files grew apace. By 1963, the files of the Polish security service were full of warning flags about Wojtyla. In 1973 and 1974, Polish prosecutors three times considered arresting Wojtyla and charging him with sedition. In one Polish report: "Despite his seemingly conciliatory and flexible nature, Wojtyla is a very dangerous ideological opponent."

Communist kingpins saw a mortal threat to the regimes they were defending and to the profound lies about human beings on which those regimes were built. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was almost alone in the West in grasping immediately the historical significance of Wojtyla's election: "It's a miracle! It's the first positive event since World War I, and it's going to change the face of the world!"

Weigel reports that this pope went on pilgrimages to 129 different countries, visited 1,022 cities outside Rome and delivered 3,288 prepared addresses, held 1,164 general audiences attended by millions of people, and had some 1,600 meetings with heads of state and other political figures. There is also his intellectual legacy within the Church itself via a prodigious outpouring of encyclicals, apostolic letters, catacheses, and other documents, including a 1994 bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

Wherever he was, John Paul II's Christian message remained the same. Weigel cites as Wojtyla's indispensible inner core the Catholic understanding of metanoia, or complete turning to God and losing of self. Weigel:

That the most visible man in the history of the world should have been a man living in late modernity was not a surprise. That the most visible man in history was one who understood himself primarily as a Christian disciple and evangelist — that was one of the great surprises of late modernity.

AR  Fascinating the a pope should loom so large in history — the Christian arc of the Divine Comedy seems to be made visible again.