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

Feast of St Catherine the Great Martyr of Alexandria

Eberstadt_How_West_Lost_God_Square.jpegFurther Evidence for the Family Factor: Weakened Families Stop Transmitting Christianity
After providing three chapters’ worth of evidence for her theory (see Part 2), Eberstadt offers four additional chapters and a conclusion that works out its implications.

Chapter six explores how churches in the West contributed to their own decline by ignoring the family factor. In other words, Eberstadt suggests, by accepting divorce, condoning contraception, and embracing homosexuality, the Christian Church in the West “weakened both literally and figuratively the foundations on which those same churches depended—i.e., natural families” (140). 

Chapter seven presents two hypotheses about how the natural family seems to increase and decrease religiosity: (1) the mere experience of living in a family drives some people to religion (e.g., the experience of having children is experienced by many as a transcendent event and inclines parents to be more religious); and (2) since the Christian story is told through the prism of a family, when the experience of a family weakens, the story makes less sense and becomes less believable (e.g., a child without a father will have a hard time understanding a religion that presents God as a loving Father). 

Chapters eight and nine suggest reasons why one can be both pessimistic and optimistic about the future of faith and family. On the one hand, evidence suggests families and fertility are in decline in America. Eberstadt therefore thinks America will follow the path of Europe with a decline in religion. On the other hand, a major financial crisis like that of 2008 or the 9/11 attacks sparked a decrease in divorce and an increase in religiosity. She can therefore also envision a continued strengthening of both families and faith.

In her conclusion, Eberstadt argues that the family factor augments the typical secularization story of an Enlightenment-led demise of religion. She agrees with secularization theorists who note a link between urbanization and smaller families. As people moved into the cities, families became smaller and more chaotic. Then, to make matters worse for families, divorce was legalized, modern contraception was invented, out-of-wedlock births were subsequently destigmatized, and the loosening of doctrine in Protestant theology further undermined the family. Eberstadt thus concludes that “the severely weakened Western family ceased to transmit Christianity among its shrinking generations as it once had” (168). 

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.

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Eberstadt poses an important question in her epilogue: “What if Christianity (like other religions) is like language—something that can really only be practiced in a group? What if, just as people enhance their language skills by exposure to other people, those who are most connected to other people are more likely to develop ‘religious skills’ too?” (212). If this were true, then people who have lived in a home with a strong family that worshipped a deity and connected major family events with religious ritual (e.g. birth, marriage, and death) would have a more strongly developed religious outlook. Those who grew up in a weak family community, on the other hand, would be more inclined to be less religious and more secular.

Eberstadt goes on to illustrate her point: “Like the fabled boy of Germany whose time growing up alone in the forest left him disadvantaged in speech for the rest of his life, so might the relative solitude and disconnection from family of many Westerners today render them severely disadvantaged when it comes to understanding another language: religion” (213). According to Eberstadt, while some people may make a rational choice to reject Christianity based on scientific theories like evolution, this story doesn’t describe most people’s experience (Charles Taylor makes the same argument in A Secular Age). She concludes:

The history of the modern West, in which declines in fertility and marriage and other measures of the strength of family life ran right alongside declines in religious practice, must be grasped in full—not just in isolated measures of church attendance or unmarried births or other relevant measures, but as a whole in which all these measures lock the helix together. In a way that we are only just beginning to understand, it appears that the natural family as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many people—not the prophets, nor the philosophers, but a great many of the rest; and the gradual but by now recognizable muffling of that symphony is surely an important and overlooked part of the story of how certain Western men and women came not to hear the sacred music any more (216).

What if Eberstadt is on to something the world of sociology has failed to take seriously? We think she is. 

We believe the family factor is a legitimate contribution to secularization theory. So, despite any feeling of “indigestion” over the massive academic output on secularization, there is even more to be absorbed and digested. Indeed, to revisit Larsen’s admonition quoted earlier in this chapter, the Church “cannot afford to ignore this area of intellectual inquiry.” And we think people like James K. A. Smith and Alan Kreider are on the right track in their emphasis on catechesis and habitus created through embodied practices. Indeed, with them, we believe the home, i.e., the family, is the primary place for creating Christian culture in a secular age. Our homes should be miniature churches (microecclesiai) where embodied, handed-down ways of being are practiced.

 How are you making your home into a microecclesia?

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

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

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