If you were asked to answer the question “What happened to religious practice among industrialized nations over the past 100 years?” how would you respond? Most people from academics and religious leaders like Pope Benedict XVI to the leaders of the New Atheist Movement would probably point to the influence of secularist societies as being responsible for bringing about the demise of faith. This proposition is so widely held among people that it is considered to be conventional wisdom: a premise that is self-evident. Mary Eberstadt, in her recent book ‘How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization’(Templeton Press; West Conshohocken, PA) 2013, turns such ‘wisdom’ on its head. She points instead to the breakdown of family life and values as being the responsible culprit that emptied out churches. Her argument is compelling both in the evidence she provides and from in its internal logic; a logic understood as one who is actually familiar with the issue from the perspective of both a believer and an academic.
The first task she sets herself to is examining what forces or circumstances are actually accountable for secularism’s ascent to prominence throughout the West. In the process, she demolishes the (again conventional) wisdom that it rose and ascended due to the writings of Enlightenment sophists such as Voltaire. Next she shreds apart the argument that secularism is the logical outgrowth of the ascendancy of the natural sciences. To do this, she makes judicious use of that popular trope (oft times wielded by atheists against believers) that ‘correlation is not the same thing as causation’. In the process, she demonstrates the unsubstantiated assumptions upon which the secularist position rests. Put plainly, she questions that just because science and/or liberal democracies flourished at the same time as religion began to wane doesn’t necessarily signify that the former truly caused the latter. While each had an important role to play, Eberstadt points out that they cannot actually account for all the changes that have befallen churches in our time.
Leading the reader through numerous studies and sociological articles, Eberstadt presents a persuasive and cogent argument that it has in fact been the decline in family life throughout the West that bears the greater responsibility for the current demise of religion today. While no one piece of evidence in itself proves her argument, she weaves together a strong albeit circumstantial case from a multiplicity of published research papers to show that the ‘family factor’ merits more responsibility for the change than does secularism or science. This is to say that the family factor rather than secularism or science best explains the bulk of evidence amassed by academics and writers since the Enlightenment.
Why is this conclusion so essential for the Church today? It’s because if the Church continues to fall prey to the argument that secularism and/or science are responsible for the decline in religious practice, she will expend her energies confronting the wrong enemy! Rather than engaging in the ongoing cultural wars currently afflicting western democracies which serves only to alienate people from the Church, Eberstadt argues that it is by addressing the issue of the ongoing disintegration of traditional family structures that the Church can actually begin to turn the tide in its favor.
‘How the West Really Lost God’ by Mary Eberstadt is definitely required reading for anyone interested in participating in the ‘New Evangelization’ project that Catholics are being called upon to enact.