National Catholic Register

Books

Losing Families, Losing Faith

Book review of How the West Really Lost God.

BY Mary Zurolo Walsh

June 30-July 13, 2013 Issue | Posted 6/24/13 at 1:52 PM

 

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; she also draws on a wide range of experts, citing sociologists, demographers, historians, novelists and theologians, to substantiate her views.

Eberstadt focuses a great deal 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 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.