Here’s an interesting post about a new book by Mary Eberstadt. The post is written by historian Benjamin Wiker.
As the West has become increasingly secularized, the loss of faith has coincided with the destruction of the natural family. The sexual revolution, higher and higher rates of divorce, cohabitation, same-sex marriage—all have combined to make life-long man-woman marital unions an increasing rarity.
Clearly, the rejection of God has led to a rejection, or radical redefinition, of the family.
But in her How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt bids her readers to look at things from the other end as well. The “decline of the natural family” in the West is not only the effect of the loss of faith, but the cause as well: “the ongoing deterioration of the natural family has both accompanied and accelerated the deterioration in the West of Christian belief.”
Briefly put, “family decline…helps to power religious decline.”
One affects the other because the two go together, argues Eberstadt, like the spiral ladder of the double helix. The fortunes of family and faith correlate, and causation goes both ways. Across the board, regardless of social status or income, the religious tend to have more children than the secular-minded. And the more children a couple has, the more likely they are to go to church.
But that means, of course, that those who are most secular are least likely to have children, and those who are unmarried and/or have no children are least likely to be religious.
That correlation explains the precipitous decline in the birth rate for the most secularized countries of Europe, but allows us to see it in a new light. It is not just that secularization has led to plummeting birth rates in Europe. Europe’s demographic collapse is actually speeding up its secularization.
This is not a correlation that exists only in recent history. The French Revolution gave the West the first self-consciously secular government at the end of the 1700s, and one of its first revolutionary acts was to liberalize its marriage laws. But what people may not realize, was that France was the first country in Europe to experience a decline in fertility rates within marriage, and an increase in cohabitation and illegitimacy, decades before the French Revolution. In the early 1700s, over a half century before the Revolution, illegitimacy was only at 1%, but by the storming of the Bastille, which ushered in the Revolution, France’s illegitimacy rate had climbed to 20% overall, with a 30% rate in the boiling pot of Paris. The French Revolution’s successful attack on Christianity, and the consequent secularization of France, was, in part, the result of the prior erosion of the family.
We see the same pattern in the UK, argues Eberstadt. “In Britain…the decline in births started a century later [than in France] at the very height of Victorian England,…Bit by bit…the same family trends already established in France—fewer births, more divorces, more out-of-wedlock births—also began reshaping the world of Britain. By our own time, over half of all children in Britain are born to unmarried people, and the fertility rate stands at 1.91 children per woman.” Not surprisingly, Britain’s churches are, like those of France, largely empty.
In the Scandinavian countries, like Sweden, where marriage rates are lowest, and divorce, cohabitation, and single-family households, and out-of-wedlock births are the highest, we find the greatest degree of secularization.
The obvious lesson we must draw, says Eberstadt, is “Vibrant families and vibrant religion go hand in hand.”
America is no exception. On the positive side, the baby boom after World War II brought with it a kind of “boom” in religious practice in the US.
But the negative side of the correlation between family and faith is now more evident. Eberstadt quotes the findings of sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, “The recent history of American religion illuminates what amounts to a sociological law: The fortunes of American religion rise with the fortunes of the intact, married family.”
Now here’s the part that I think is interesting. When you walk into a church, you will find very little, if any, education about the kinds of policies that cause marriages to actually not happen or actually break up. The trouble is that most pastors are so focused on reading the Bible, and only the Bible, that they have no idea what sorts of policies and incentives cause people to not marry or to not stay married. In order to know that, they would have to be reading outside the Bible, in the scientific literature, and then communicating that knowledge to their flocks to get them to make better decisions and to vote more intelligently.
I think that we need to read more widely in order to know how to reach our goals (promoting marriage, in this case) in a practical way. What can we say to people to show them how to get to marriage? What decisions should they be making now, in order to be ready for marriage later? What policies should we be supporting to nudge people towards marriage? What policies should we be against that make it easier for people to dispense with marriage?