HOW THE WEST REALLY LOST GOD
A New Theory of Secularization
By Mary Eberstadt
Templeton Press, 2013
268 pages, $24.95
To order: (800) 621- 2736
Mary Eberstadt engages one of the most significant questions of our day in her latest book, How the West Really Lost God.
In her characteristically methodical fashion, and employing an impressive amount of research, Eberstadt adds new considerations to the debate over how and why Christianity has really come to decline in important parts of the West. Her argument remains intriguing until the last page.
She begins by establishing the timeliness of her examination, noting that, “some time back, the great majority of people living in what can still be called Western civilization believed in certain things: God created the world; he has a plan for humanity; he promises life everlasting to those who live by his word. … Today … no great majority continues to believe in all such particulars.”
Eberstadt carefully reviews conventional explanations for secularization and their various weaknesses, before detailing her thesis that family decline and religious decline are connected.
She describes them as “the double helix of society, each dependent on the strength of the other for successful reproduction.”
Contrary to the unspoken assumption that religious decline results in family decline, Eberstadt views these trends as dynamic. She provides much evidence for her argument that “the decline of the family has contributed to the decline of Christianity in more ways than one.”
Her style of breaking down chapters, each of which focuses on a logical point in her argument, into italicized questions or summaries of ideas under consideration, makes the book easy to read. Eberstadt also anticipates questions readers might have and does not shy away from any of them.
Questions include: “How much did the Enlightenment, rationalism and scientific thinking have to do with the decline of Christianity?”; “Why has Christianity thrived in some places and times but not in others?”; “Why are married people with children more likely to go to church and to be religious than single people?”; and “Why are women more religious than men?”
Eberstadt draws on a wide range of experts, citing sociologists, demographers, historians, novelists and theologians, to substantiate her views. To establish her contention that Christianity is indeed diminishing, she quotes Ronald A. Lindsay, president of the Council for Secular Humanism, among others, who describes this decline as “unprecedented in the history of the world.”
To illustrate the trend of the decline in traditional families, she presents an interesting and surprising statistic offered by sociologist Eric Klingenberg, who notes that one out of seven American adults live alone, and half of American adults are single. She also quotes Peter Laslett, author of the 1965 study "The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age," who writes, “Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved familiar faces. … That time has gone forever.”
When Eberstadt analyzes how that time disappeared, she focuses on the introduction of contraception and clearly explains the consequences that acceptance of this new technology had for those churches that endorsed it.
Throughout the book, Eberstadt is careful to qualify her arguments. She limits her analysis to Christianity in Europe and other important areas of the West. She also states that, in offering “the Family Factor” as an explanation for today’s trends, she is not discarding all previous explanations for secularization. Instead, she simply hopes to offer a new way of looking at the loss of religion and the traditional family.
The final chapters are devoted to an examination of the consequences of the trends Eberstadt has identified. She states at the beginning of the book that she strives to be objective in presenting her argument, and she is. She gives a balanced account of the consequences, proposing both a pessimistic as well as an optimistic view of the future.
Eberstadt succeeds in presenting an even-handed, interesting and comprehensive look at today’s trends that leaves the reader with much to ponder.
Mary Zurolo Walsh writes from Hamden, Connecticut.