Monday, July 16, 2007
How the West Really Lost God by Mary Eberstadt
Review No. 143
June & July 2007
Table of Contents
How the West Really Lost God
By Mary Eberstadt
A new look at secularization.
Consider as subsidiary evidence this tantalizing fact: Differences in fertility rates within the United States itself also track broadly with differences in religiosity. The Northeast pattern closely resembles that in Western Europe, whereas the South and border states are correspondingly higher. And the rate is also high among the well-educated and well-off population of Latter-Day Saints.
Something about having larger families is making people more religious, at least some of the time.26
not only that religious people are inclined toward the family, but also that something about the family inclines people toward religiosity.
First, there is the phenomenological fact of what birth itself does to many fathers and just about every mother. That moment — for some now, even that first glimpse on a sonogram — is routinely experienced by a great many people as an event transcendental as no other. This hardly means that pregnancy and birth ipso facto convert participants into zealots. But the sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an elemental bond that is cross-cultural as perhaps no other — a formulation to which most parents on the planet would quickly agree.
Thus does a complementary religious anthropology begin to emerge, grounded on the primal fact that the mother-child and father-child bond, as no other, appears to push at least some people toward an intensity of purpose they might never otherwise have experienced. And it’s not as if birth is the only familial experience that has this transcendental effect. So do other common family events that defy ordinary, atomized human pleasure-seeking, including, say, the selfless care of an ailing family member, the financial sacrifices made for those whose adulthood one may never live to see, even the incredible human feat of staying married for a very long time. Further, in binding those alive to relatives both past and yet to come, family is literally death-defying — another feature that might make it easier for those living in families to make related transcendental leaps of the religious variety. Third, families and especially children also transform people in other ways — and not just by clipping adult wings, turning the former midnight rover into a man in slippers watching O’Reilly at 8 pm, but also in what may be the deepest way of all. All men and women fear death; but only mothers and fathers, and perhaps some husbands and wives, can generally be counted upon to fear another’s death more than their own. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too would there appear to be few in the nursery or critical care unit, at least most of the time.
Perhaps women who are mothers tend to be more religious because the act of participating in creation, i.e., birth, is more immediate than that of men. Perhaps that fact inclines women to be more humble about their own powers and more open to the possibility of something greater than themselves — in brief, more religiously attuned. Or perhaps for both mothers and nonmothers there is something about caring for the smallest and most vulnerable beings, which is still overwhelmingly women’s work — after all, even power mommies employ women to do it — that makes it easier to believe in (or hear, depending on one’s personal belief) a God who stands in a similar all-caring relationship to relatively helpless mortals of every age. Maybe the general sex differences in religiosity have something to do with explanations like these.
But the majority of people... learn religion in communities, beginning with the community of the family.
Trying to believe without a community of believers is like trying to work out a language for oneself
For there is nothing fixed or inevitable about today’s low birth rates or (bearing in mind that fertility is just one of several measures for the vitality of the family) low marriage rates or, for that matter, notions about the desirability of the natural family itself — in Europe or anywhere else. All these measures of family vitality have fluctuated throughout history, sometimes radically so. Both the low birth rate and the waning of marriage among Roman patricians, for example, were of sufficient concern under the emperor Augustus as to result in the imposition of the family-friendly “Julian laws” (incidentally, pronounced a failure by Tacitus a hundred years later). During the modern Depression, to take a very different example of flux, the birth rate in the United States was roughly two children per woman; only a historical blink later, in the years of the Baby Boom, it was four. Moreover, even the nations of Western Europe – now home to some of the lowest birth rates on earth — all experienced a baby boom recently enough to be within the living memory of those who are in late middle-age today.
There is also another less tangible but nonetheless real reason why one can imagine a turnaround both in marriage rates and family size.34 The world has not experienced these historically low rates of natural family formation for long — or their attendant problems. Single motherhood, for example, though cheered by feminists a generation ago in the name of “liberation,” is now widely seen for what it really is: an inhumanly difficult task for almost any woman to execute, let alone the poorer and more vulnerable women among whom it has become common. Similarly — though it is politically charged to say so at a time when gay marriage, polygamous marriage, surrogate births and other novel family arrangements are being championed — a generation of social science has established that children do best when they grow up with married, biological parents in the home and that children who do not enjoy that advantage are at higher risk for a large number of problems.35 It is interesting that both marriage rates and childbearing among relatively affluent educated American women now seem to be on the uptick for reasons that have set sociologists quarreling. Maybe learning from the recent past, in particular from the problems that have arisen from other kinds of family structures, is one reason for that change.
And of course one of the largest of these parental considerations — access to education — is also susceptible to political change. In the United States, where most urban public schools are seen as substandard and undesirable, parents in such areas often make decisions about family size based on what it costs to send children to school elsewhere. Any number of factors — restoration of public education, meaningful tuition tax credits, innovations in home-schooling networks — could affect that calculation in another direction.
People of the future may well appreciate better than many of us today the particular human joy not only in one’s own offspring, but in their offspring too.
There is plenty of reason for pessimism about what the future holds for religious belief if by “pessimism” one means further decline. Divorce and illegitimacy — to say nothing of maternal surrogacy, polygamy, polyandry, multiple parenthood, and related political experiments involving children that defy the empirical evidence about what’s best for them — all these and other forces are battering the natural family. The more we modern people experiment with it, retooling it to suit our material desires, our political agendas, our busy lives, the more we would appear to risk losing what it is that makes many people religiously inclined in the first place. Nevertheless, in the religious anthropology proposed here — and contrary to that of secularization theory — there is nothing inevitable about the decline of the natural family and thus, by implication, religion too.
To argue by analogy, it appears that the natural family as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many people — not the prophets, not the philosophers, but a great many of the rest. That is why the conventional story of secularization seems to be missing something: because it makes its cases by and to atomized individuals without reference to the totality of family and children through which many people derive their deepest opinions and impressions of life — including religious opinions and impressions.36