How the West Really Lost God

A few weeks ago Mitt Romney spoke at a college commencement exercise and encouraged the graduates to marry early and have a lot of children. He used the words “quiver full” taken from the Old Testament.

The comment was unremarkable, particularly for a Mormon to make. They are known for marrying early and having quivers full of children. Contra the contraceptive culture, even among Evangelicals, the notion of a quiver full from the Psalms is gathering steam among orthodox believers.

Here is what he said, “You only live one life. Don’t spend it in safe, shallow water. Launch into the deep. If you meet a person you love, get married. Have a quiver full of kids if you can. Give more to your occupation than is expected of you. Serve God by serving his children.”

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A panel on Piers Morgan’s CNN show cackled like hens at what he said. So outrageous was his comment that they literally could not stop laughing.

One panelist from the Los Angeles Times said, “We’re seeing the real Mitt Romney emerge. This is maybe why he didn’t do so well with single women.”

A professor from Columbia University said, “This is the Mitt Romney I did not want to vote for, that I did not vote for. He kept making us think that he was this normal moderate guy but really he is a religious fanatic telling 21 year old college graduates to have binders-full of children.” Is it really abnormal, immoderate, and fanatical to counsel early marriage and big families?

CNN was not the only news outlet to erupt in mocking laughter at Romney’s comment. It was all over the place.

Not long ago such comments by an American politician would have been met with yawns. They would have been considered safe and true bromides. And not long ago a national news operation would have fired anyone for mocking such comments as religious fanaticism.

How_West Lost God covThe good news is that American politicians are still making such comments. Look across the Atlantic and such comments by a European politician would be unthinkable, career ending.

What we are witnessing is the near absolute victory of secularism in Europe and its aggressive rise in the United States. How this happened in Europe and is happening, albeit more slowly, in the United States is the topic of an important new book by the remarkable Mary Eberstadt.

Eberstadt’s book looks specifically at How the West Really Lost God. The “really” is in her title because she proposes a new theory that now competes with other more established theories of religion’s decline, all of which, according to Eberstadt, are missing a key component.

A favorite of the new atheists is the assertion that “people stopped needing the imaginary comforts of religion.” Eberstadt responds that faithfully practicing religion is quite hard.  After all, it requires you to observe practices of the faith that can be onerous—fasting, for instance—or practices that are inconvenient like going to church on Sunday or those that may be downright challenging like living constricting sexual norms that the rest of society either ignores or laughs at or both.

Secularists like to claim that religion declined as science and rationalism took center stage starting with the Enlightenment. Eberstadt points out that “the masses were not part of the Enlightenment, that 18th century elites were not modern atheists but “rational Christians” and that “those who seek to draw a straight line from Voltaire to twenty-first century atheists” tend to forget the great religious revival of the intervening 19th century.

She similarly dispatches claims that the World Wars killed Christianity and that material progress did, too.

Some theories of secularization she accepts but sees them as only parts of a larger puzzle. Urbanization and industrialization can be seen as parts of a larger whole but they still leave something out.  She says that authoritative scholarly books have been written on the topic—David Martin’s On Secularization for instance—that do not have a single mention of this mysterious factor.

So what is this factor, what is the real reason for religion’s decline? It is the family and the family’s decline. She calls it the Family Factor and it explains a lot.

Many of us have taken so many secularization theories as matters of faith: faith declines with education, or riches, or modernity and that families decline as religion does. Eberstadt says it’s the other way around. All those people who crowded into factories and into cities may have slowly lost the faith and all those who have PhDs and big jobs may have lost the faith, but the reason is that they also started having smaller families or broken families or no families.

As with many things in life, one does not need a sociological study to show the truth of this. Getting married and having children practically push us into the practice of faith. A wild-thing in college gets married, has a baby and almost immediately thinks of finding a Church. Taking the child to Church inevitably leads the parent to the same thing.

Look at it another way. Catholics love to picket the Bishop when at long last he has to shutter empty churches and emptying schools. These same Catholics grump about there not being enough priests. Odds are these same complaining Catholics use contraception, had only two children and have waned in the practice of their faith while they wax nostalgic for earlier days.

Eberstadt points out something that all sociologists and theories of secularization agree with, that the great cliff that the faith fell from was the 1960’s. And it wasn’t because of rock music, Vietnam or marijuana.  It was the pill. Eberstadt has dealt beautifully with the pill in her wonderful book Adam and Eve After the Pill. She points out that the Pill simply destroyed and continues to destroy families and when the family is destroyed the faith declines.

A short column cannot do justice to the wide and deep reading and all the evidence Eberstadt has marshaled for her argument, so you are urged to read this book. What is certain is that this is one of those books that will forever change the conversation about why Christianity is in decline in the West.


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