Secularization: Religious Decline or Family Deterioration? - Pt 1 of 3

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Eberstadt_How_West_Lost_God_Square.jpegSecularization Theory: Dead or Alive?
If the sociologist Jan Swyngedouw could look back from 1979 at the sheer volume of what had been written on secularization in the 1960s and 1970s and “find it difficult to suppress a certain feeling of ‘indigestion,’” what are we to conclude over five decades into the debate? Swyngedouw goes on to ponder: “Is it even remotely possible, then, to add anything meaningful to what has been written—to what, because of its extensiveness, is no longer capable of being absorbed and digested?” By the 1980s, the answer to this question seemed negative.

Certain global developments in the 1980s and 90s, however, posed a threat to the classical secularization thesis of the 1960s and 1970s, thereby opening the way for further theoretical developments. The Iranian Revolution, the collapse of communism (as a secular religion), the rapid and meteoric growth of Pentecostalism across Central and South America, the growth of Christianity in Africa and China, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalists are just a few global developments that cast the traditional theory in doubt by prominent sociologists. Berger, for example, in 1997 went so far as to admit the error of his ways:

I think what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about secularization was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularization and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularization. It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it’s basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It’s very religious. (“Epistemological Modesty: An Interview with Peter Berger,” The Christian Century 114 [1997]: 974.)

Two years later, in his article “Secularization, R.I.P.,” Stark argued for the death of the traditional theory: “After nearly three centuries of utterly failed prophecies and misrepresentations of both present and past, it seems time to carry the secularization doctrine to the graveyard of failed theories, and there to whisper ‘requiescat in pace.’” (“Secularization, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion, 60:3 (1999): 270.)

The problem, however, is that in the second decade of the twenty-first century the classical theory is not dead and the end of the debate is not in site. Despite the sheer volume of writing on secularization over the last fifty years, and despite new waves of religious fanaticism that would seem to merit the death of the theory, the role of religion in today’s world demands further reflection on the theory. Two contributions are of particular importance, one by Charles Taylor and the other by Mary Eberstadt. In this three-part post, we’ll limit ourselves to Eberstadt. 

The Family Factor: A New Contribution
In 2013, Mary Eberstadt, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. The title itself is revealing. First, it seems to affirm the process of “secularization.” Second, it locates this process in the West. Third, it specifies a decline in a particular religion: the Judeo-Christian tradition. And finally, it purports to offer a “new” theory.

Eberstadt does not argue for secularization as the death of religion. She acknowledges the advances of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And she acknowledges a global increase of religiosity in general. According to Eberstadt, “the fact that religion has not withered away as predicted by a variety of secular theorists . . . does not tell us why or how it has withered, where indeed it has” (30-31). In other words, relative religiosity of other parts of the world may be a fascinating study, but it does not answer her key question: “Why and how did Christianity come to decline in important parts of the West? (30). So what is Eberstadt’s “new theory”? 

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Eberstadt’s Story: The Decline of the Western Family

Why has Christianity declined in certain parts of the West? According to Eberstadt, there is a critical problem with the typical story of secularization, especially regarding the “how and why” of Christianity’s collapse in the West. The conventional theory leaves out one critical element: “the Family Factor.”

Eberstadt thus begins her project by establishing the idea that there is something fundamentally different about families in the West today than in any other place or period in history. First, as an institution, the family has less power over individual members. Second, kinship no longer defines people today as it once did: today family is “a series of optional associations that can be and sometimes are discarded voluntarily depending on preference” (14). And third, the state now functions as a substitute for the family in many cases, “in particular, as a father substitute” (16). Eberstadt concludes:

The decline of the Western family, in sum, has altered the rhythms of daily life from the moment of birth to that of death—from the ways that babies are cared for, to when school starts and how long it goes, to how the sick are tended, to what a deathbed looks like, and just about everything else in between. Like the waning of Christianity, the waning of the traditional family means that all of us in the modern West lead lives our ancestors could not have imagined. We are less fettered than they in innumerable ways; we are perhaps the freest people in the history of all humanity. At the same time, we are also more deprived of the consolations of tight bonds of family and faith known to most of the men and women coming before us—and this fact, it will be argued, has had wider repercussions than have yet been understood (19-20).

What are the repercussions? According to Eberstadt, the decline of Christianity.

Eberstadt does not think the conventional story line of secularization is completely wrong. She agrees that modernization and urbanization have contributed to the decline of God in the West. But she “does argue that this story line is radically incomplete” (21). It is incomplete because it has failed to consider the family. Her thesis, stated clearly at the beginning of her book, runs like this: “the ongoing deterioration of the natural family itself has both accompanied and accelerated the deterioration in the West of Christian belief” (22).

In the next installment, we’ll summarize Eberstadt’s three chapters of defense for her thesis.

Click here for Part 2

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


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