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How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization Hardcover – April 24, 2013
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“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.”—Jonathan V. Last, author of What to Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster
“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, Our Sunday Visitor
“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.” —Phil Cooke, The Christian News Journal
“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.” —Crisis Magazine
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First, I should share my own family/religious background because I think it's relevant to a book like this. In some ways, I am a person predisposed to agree with Eberstadt's argument and in some ways I'm not.
I come from a mixed family. My mom and dad were both previously married before they married each other. I have 1 younger full sister and 3 older half-sisters (1 from my dad's previous marriage, 2 from my mom's previous marriage).
I was raised in the Episcopal Church by my mom, quit going to church around 6th grade because my mom got tired of dragging 2 kids to church alone every Sunday, and then didn't really go to church at all between 6th grade and my senior year at Princeton. A year and a half ago, during my senior year at Princeton, I converted to Catholicism and am now a devout Catholic.
THINGS I LIKED
1. MAIN ARGUMENT IS CONVINCING. I found Eberstadt's main argument quite convincing. Her basic argument is that the decay of traditional marriage/family is the primary engine driving the decline of modern Western Christianity.
After documenting that these declines in traditional marriage/family and Christian religious belief/practice are actually occurring, she proposes 2 primary mechanisms for her argument, aided by copious (albeit mostly footnoted) social science research.
The first proposed mechanism is that traditional family life is a conduit for the transmission of Christian values and practice. Christianity's strong endorsement of traditional family life, the transcendent experience of conceiving children, the desire for one's children to have religious/moral instruction, etc. are all powerful incentives for married people with children to go to church.
The second proposed mechanism is that non-traditional family life and its resulting non-traditional values form a potent barrier to Christian belief/practice. In short, if you or someone you love is having premarital sex, is pro-choice, is having gay sex, etc., these beliefs/behaviors/associations are powerful incentives to either not identify as Christian or to maintain affiliation but not actually practice.
I found this argument convincing for several reasons. First, it explains why unmarried people without kids are much less likely to go to church than married people with kids. Second, it explains why religious observance and fertility are so closely related, both on a national level and on a group level. Third, it explains why some nations' religious observance declined later than others. Fourth, it explains why so much started happening around 1960. Fifth, sex and family are emotionally powerful experiences that actually touch people's everyday lives, unlike theories that attribute secularization to the Enlightenment or to the World Wars.
2. PROSE IS CLEAR AND EASY TO READ. Eberstadt's prose is clear and easy to read. She also has some nice turns of phrase that I enjoyed, like "a great many people have voted with their pills against having babies."
3. WIDE REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE. Eberstadt is well-read and has a good grasp of the social science literature. The work of Mark Regnerus, Rodney Stark, W. Bradford Wilcox, Robert Putnam, Charles Murray, etc. plays a prominent role in her argument. She addressed most of the counter-examples and objections I had.
4. GOOD ORGANIZATIONAL FORMAT. I liked the book's organizational format. I liked how she took a chapter to examine whether secularization was actually occurring, that she took a good amount of time to examine the weaknesses of alternate secularization theories, etc.
THINGS I DIDN'T LIKE
1. NOT ENOUGH DATA IN BODY OF TEXT. My main issue with this book is the same issue I had with Eberstadt's book "Adam and Eve After the Pill": it assumes an audience that is both emotionally receptive to her general message and that has a passing familiarity with the statistics and trends that she cites. This is okay if she is content with this book being read almost entirely by the choir, but if she wants to convince skeptics, she will need to incorporate more statistics/graphs into the actual text instead of simply footnoting them. I think she did this for readability's sake, but I think it was the wrong decision.
For instance, one of the points crucial to her case is that well-educated, affluent Americans currently have significantly higher church attendance than poor Americans, and that this is related to the recent marital decay that has devastated America's poor while largely sparing its rich. This is important because it contradicts the theory that modernity/affluence/education inherently lead to greater secularism.
This point is hammered home convincingly in Charles Murray's "Coming Apart", and I think Eberstadt would have done well to re-present an abbreviated version of Murray's case for the sake of readers unfamiliar with his work. She does mention the book, and shares a few statistics, but I think they are too few.
2. TOO MUCH FOCUS ON THE RULE, NOT ENOUGH ON OUTLIERS. I also think the book focuses too much on the large-scale trends and not enough on the small-scale exceptions. Meaning, she mostly focuses on the overall trends in family formation and religious practice on a national/international scale, and not enough on the groups that have proven resistant to these trends. On the more exotic end, this would include groups like the Amish and Hasidic Jews. On the more mainstream end, this would include groups like Modern Orthodox Jews and the Mormons.
Why examine these groups? Because they are Western religious groups that are exposed to the same pressures (invention of contraception, legal abortion, no-fault divorce, etc.), and yet have maintained high marriage rates, high fertility rates, and high religious attendance rates. As such, they are valuable case studies in what a religious group can do to slow or reverse these secularizing trends without waiting for society as a whole to change. This could have fit well into the "Case for Optimism" chapter.
3. NEEDS LONGITUDINAL DATA. I think Eberstadt's case would greatly benefit from some longitudinal data tracking church attendance as people go to college, get married, have children, get divorced, etc. If the data shows that people have kids first, THEN resume church attendance (which would fit with everyday experience), that would be powerful evidence for her argument that family decline causes secularization, and not the other way around. I'm not sure how much of this data is currently available, but her case's power is necessarily limited without it. As it currently stands, Eberstadt's case is mostly circumstantial (as she admits), even if it is stronger, on balance, than competing theories of secularization.
4. OCCASIONAL OMISSIONS. Eberstadt's discussion of marriage/family breakdown curiously has no discussion of the rising rate of premarital sex and pornography use. She also rarely brings up abortion. These seemed like odd omissions.
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it.
Her primary audience is not your average reader, but she writes in an accessible enough fashion that all are welcome. Written from a sociologists perspective and style, not only does she make the case that "family decline helps to power religious decline," she also writes as a Roman Catholic Christian and bolsters the case for the Church (and society as a whole) to return to a robust value of the traditional family by letting the empirical evidence speak for itself. (I am a conservative Confessional Lutheran, LCMS, and did recognize her Catholic dispositions, but I was not too put out by them as she strived for objectivity for the most part.)
Her basic premise is that faith (Judeo Christianity) and the family form an interwoven "double helix." Where one goes, the other is sure to follow. In other words, it is not just as Christianity goes so goes the family. But the reverse as well--as the family goes, so goes Christianity. "What this book means to impress is that faith and family are the invisible double helix of society--two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another" (p. 22). Thus, where American society is riddled by broken families, nontraditional families, and anti-family segments, there is apt demonstration of why America is becoming increasingly secular. That is, the family unit is no longer solidified by the Christian message nor, correspondingly, is it propagating the Christian message and morals as the nuclear whole that it once was.
Eberstadt by no means aims to reduce Christianity to the family alone, nor does she aim to undermine the power of "the Word" in creating the Church. In fact, the astute Christian reader will hear her brief but clear deference for the work of the Holy Spirit. And it should be made clear this is by no means any type of theological treatise. Nonetheless, she provides invaluable sociological "empirical" evidence for Christians to draw upon in order to intelligibly speak about the maladies of our culture as it impacts both the Church and the family, very often in parallel manners.
In provocatively clear fashion, she details, among other things, not only how the development of social issues such as divorce, birth control, and homosexuality have impacted the makeup, reconstitution, and absence of the family, but how, wittingly and unwittingly, the Church (among various denominations) has actually changed course and fostered these developments to its own demise.
In the end, Eberstadt provides a hearty diagnostic as well as a simple but profound remedy for what ails the collective family and Church: "If there is a family renaissance, there may be a religious renaissance too. And a religious renaissance in turn would make that family renaissance stronger for the same reasons already seen." (p. 198).