Secularization: Religious Decline or Family Deterioration? - Pt 2 of 3

Feast of St Philip the Apostle

Eberstadt_How_West_Lost_God_Square.jpegMarriage and Fertility: Engines for Faith
Following a survey of the secularization thesis, Eberstadt offers three chapters in defense of her “family factor” theory. She begins by arguing for empirical links among marriage, childbearing, and religiosity. Her argument begins with an article by W. Bradford Wilcox (“As the Family Goes,” First Things 173) in which he offers three reasons why church attendance is connected to marriage and children:

  1. Marriage is a rare rite of passage that guides the transition into adulthood and churches provide practical support to family life: they “erect a sacred canopy of meaning over the great chapters of family life” (e.g., birth, childrearing, and marriage) and married couples with children find other couples to help guide them through the process;
  2. The arrival of a child awakens love and a recognition of the transcendent; parents want their children to be good kids and are thus driven to church for the sake of their kids;
  3. Women tend to be more religious than men so marriage drives men to attend church. 

Eberstadt concludes:

What is fascinating here is his conjecture that something about the family is driving faith—not vice versa. Why is this remarkable? Because it is one of the few examples available in which someone has thought to reverse the standard causality of faith and family. In this case, Wilcox does not have the ‘fact’ of faith driving family decisions; instead, he reverses the common story and says that something about the way people live in families makes people in those families more inclined to church (95).

Eberstadt thus seeks to “radically expand Wilcox’s insight.” Instead of assuming that married people go to church just because that is what married people do, she asks why we shouldn’t believe “that there is something about being married, or having children, or both, that is making the adults in those situations more inclined toward Christianity in the first place” (95).

In the first of her three chapters defending the family factor, Eberstadt develops her argument with sociological statistics and then concludes with an intriguing speculation. First, she cites multiple studies demonstrating “an iron law of demography” that applies “both across the West and beyond,” regardless of whether one is Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Mormon, and regardless of whether one is in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere: “faith and fertility appear joined at the hip” (96-8). In other words, religious people tend to have more children, and, therefore, she concludes, it is at the very least plausible to assume “that something about having larger or stronger or more connected families is making people more religious, at least some of the time” (98).

To conclude her first chapter defending the family factor, Eberstadt notes the established sociological fact of decreasing church attendance among late teens and early twentysomethings and then offers a remedial suggestion. In his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, offers six reasons for this decline:

  1. Churches are overprotective;
  2. Christianity is experienced as shallow;
  3. Churches seem antagonistic to science;
  4. Church seems judgmental with too simplistic a view of sexuality;
  5. The exclusive nature of Christianity is troublesome;
  6. Church seems unfriendly to doubters

Mark Regnerus suggests one controversial response to the decline of religiosity: marriage should take place at an early age (“The Case for Early Marriage,” Christianity Today, Vol. 53). Eberstadt offers an alternative suggestion, a quite intriguing idea that she describes as a “friendly amendment”:

[M]aybe these young people are not only irreligious because they [are] [sic] away from home for the first time, sowing their proverbial oats and reaping their colloquial hookups and otherwise following the standard script of how young adults lose their faith. Perhaps they are also skipping church and prayer and the rest because they are no longer living with families. Perhaps something about living in families makes people more receptive to religiosity and the Christian creed

Eberstadt thus argues that marriage, fertility, and family life have some sort of driving connection to religious decline. Statistical evidence demonstrates that, at the very least, there is a two-way relationship between family and religion, i.e., that religious decline drives family decline and vice versa.

Ralph Wood says the work of EDI is indispensable, James K. A. Smith says EDI gave him hope for the future of faith, and Rod Dreher says EDI is one of the happiest places on the planet offering hope to the hopeless.

Join our community of culture renewers today by becoming an Eighth Day Member!

Corroborating Trends: Family Decline Accompanies Religious Decline

In her second chapter defending the family factor, Eberstadt explores four large trends that corroborate her thesis. First, family decline has in fact accompanied religious decline: fertility rates have decreased; marriage rates have decreased; and church attendance has decreased. Second, other trends associated with family decline have accompanied religious decline. Specifically, Eberstadt points to the Industrial Revolution as a typical causal explanation for secularization. She agrees but counters that it cannot be the sole explanation for religious decline. The family factor must be added. Then we can see that the Industrial Revolution affected families in such a way that it became more difficult for people to believe and practice the Christian faith. According to Eberstadt:

It is at least possible that people did not stop believing in God just because they moved to cities. The missing piece would appear to be that moving to cities made them less likely to have and live in strong natural families—and that intermediate, unseen step may have been what really started them down the road toward losing their religion, at least some of the time (118).

Third, the most irreligious parts of the West have the weakest rates of marriage and child birth. Thus, the most secularized Scandinavian countries of Europe are now referred to as the “Nordic model” for their high divorce rates, high rates of birth out of wedlock, and high ages at first marriage. Sweden is a striking example of this: it has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, over half of all births occur out of wedlock, and the average age for marriage is twenty-nine for women. And fourth, family boomlets have accompanied religious boomlets. For example, the religious boom of the 1950s after World War II occurred in conjunction with the baby boom. Furthermore, that baby boom occurred during a time period with a sharp increase in marriage rates. So both decline and boom in families have accompanied decline and boom in religion. 

American Exceptionalism: Resolved in the Family Factor
For her third chapter in defense of the family factor, Eberstadt argues that the family factor resolves problems with theories of secularization, including “American exceptionalism.” First, the durability of religion in America, in contrast to the steep decline of religion in Europe, can be explained by the family factor. More families follow the traditional model in America than in Europe; and there are more marriages and children in America than Europe. In other words, once American levels of marriage and fertility reach European levels, we’ll see a similar level of religious decline in America. Second, the family factor helps explain the male-female religious gender gap, i.e., why women are more religious than men in America and Europe. Eberstadt speculates here:

Perhaps women who are mothers tend to be more religious because the act of participating in creation, i.e., birth, is more immediate than that of men. Perhaps that fact inclines women to be more humble about their own powers and more open to the possibility of something greater than themselves—in brief, more religiously attuned. Or perhaps for both mothers and non-mothers, there is something about caring for the smallest and most vulnerable beings, which is still overwhelmingly women’s work—after all, even ‘power mommies’ employ other women to do it—that makes it easier to believe in a God who stands in a similar all-caring relationship to relatively helpless mortals of every age. . . . In other words, maybe what separates men from women in the pews is that women have more hands-on experience of the Family Factor (130).

And finally, Eberstadt argues that the family factor also helps explain why 1960 is such a pivotal year for secularization. According to Eberstadt, the approval of the birth control pill in 1960 facilitated a “quantum leap toward irreligiosity in the 1960s.” While acknowledging a long-evolving sexual revolution predating the advent of the Pill, Eberstadt argues

[I]t was the technologies that turned that revolution into capital letters. Once the genie of the Pill was literally out of the bottle, extramarital sex became easier—freer of the immediate consequence of pregnancy—than ever before. And once again, however one feels about that change, it has an obviously seismic impact on family formation and the lack thereof. Divorce rates soared as never before. So did illegitimacy—in part because the sexual marketplace grew and grew with every woman who took the Pill or related technologies, which in turn made it ever less likely that men would marry simply for the sake of a sexual partner. . . . The Pill and its associated movement, the sexual revolution, contributed to the weakening of family bonds as no other single technological force in history—which explains as no other single factor why the 1960s are the linchpin of the change in Western religiosity (134-5).

According to Eberstadt, then, America is not an exception to the rule of secularization; strong families in America have preserved a strong commitment to religion. And the relative decline in religion in the 1960s is no coincidence: with the advent of the Pill, America embraced a sexual revolution and set itself on the same path as Europe.

In tomorrow’s third and final installment, we’ll briefly summarize the following four chapters, where Eberstadt works out the implications of her theory, and then offer our own conclusion.

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 3

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

*This three-part essay is the concluding section of chapter one in Director Doom's PhD Dissertation


Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.