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Once Upon a Time in the West

By From the June 2013 issue

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How the West Really Lost God
By Mary Eberstadt
(Templeton Press, 268 pages, $25.95)

Here is a bit of intellectual history with which we are all familiar: From approximately 400 A.D. up to around 1900, a majority of people in a place called “the West” were Christians. Then, toward the end of this 1,500-year period, a number of things happened. Galileo Galilei had a falling out with the pope over heliocentrism. Geology found its Principles, species its Origin. The earth, it turned out, had come into existence much earlier than Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C., the date proposed by the Archbishop of Armagh. Meanwhile wars were fought over religion, and French priests ate boeuf à la glace while peasants starved. Smooth sailing on the Sea of Faith became impossible, such that when a lunatic ran into the street proclaiming God’s death, the response was “Meh.” Without anyone noticing, the rug was pulled out from under the cardboard edifice of Christianity, and before long, nobody, save for a smattering of rubes and fanatics, believed.

There are, of course, any number of problems with this story—the truth about, for example, Galileo and his old drinking buddy Urban VIII is far more complicated, and certainly more amusing, than the familiar Faith vs. Enlightenment parable we all know so well—but as popular history goes, perhaps it’s not bad. Making man’s home an obscure lump of carbon rather than the center of the universe, extracting the telos from nature, seeing the faithful and the clergy in the worst possible light: surely it adds up? Mary Eberstadt doesn’t think so.

The key to understanding the rise of secularization in Western Europe and North America, Eberstadt argues in her contentiously titled new book, How the West Really Lost God, is something called “the Family Factor.” Statistics tell us, or seem to tell us, that among the many consequences of Christianity’s decline is the drastic reduction in birth rates observed in almost every Western country during the last half-century or so. Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and former consulting editor at the now defunct Policy Review, does not dispute these facts, only the way that they have been interpreted. Spinning the causal weather vane 180 degrees, she claims that while the irreligious are indeed less likely to reproduce at high rates, the recent drop in births is also a driving force behind secularization—the aforementioned Family Factor.

If Eberstadt’s case for the Family Factor is successful, it is because her book is well organized. Her first chapter begins not, as one might expect, with a summary of what others have written about the causes of secularization, but rather with a brief polemic against “contrarians” who deny that such a phenomenon exists. Tough-minded about the history of her religion, she admits that there has never been a Hesiodic golden age of Christian faith. Nevertheless, professed belief in God, to say nothing of rates of religious observance, is at what looks to be an all-time low in virtually every Western nation. Eberstadt very ably lines up objections to the secularization theory—e.g., Protestantism, not Christianity, is fading; religion is diversifying, not dying; man is an immutably religious animal—and pulls her statistical trigger. By giving readers little choice but to accept her first premise—that the West really has lost God—she avoids the classic sociologists’ pitfall of writing a book that makes great sense only if one agrees with the author in the first place.

Probably no one will agree with all of Eberstadt’s conclusions. (I wish I shared her optimism about the future of Western Christianity.) But this does not make the book any less compelling. One by one, she carefully examines and, in many cases, eventually rejects various branches of secularization’s genealogy: religion as a drug habit that, thanks to our newfound wealth and health, we’ve happily kicked (actually, it was never all that much fun); religion as sacrificial victim at the altars of science and the Enlightenment (how many tenant farmers in rural England read Darwin?); religion as unconscionable in light of the 20th century’s horrors (religious revival rather than religious decline followed World War II). In support of her claim that family drives faith—as opposed to the other way round—Eberstadt points out that, for every child a man has, he is nearly three times more likely to attend church and that Mormons with large families are more likely to be religiously observant than nominal members of the same church who are less fecund. For my part, I think that whether faith leads to larger families or vice versa is a question of the chicken-and-egg variety; and Eberstadt, always fair-minded, admits that there are cases in which the arrow of causality seems to point in the opposite direction.

HOW THE WEST REALLY LOST GOD does suffer from certain rhetorical flaws. A more accurate title for this book, albeit one that I cannot imagine the marketing churls signing off on, might read: One Aspect of How the West Lost God That You Might Previously Have Neglected. At one point in the introduction, Eberstadt writes that “just about everyone working on this puzzle [i.e., secularization] has come up with some piece of the truth—and yet that one particular piece needed to hold the others together is missing.” A bit lower on the same page, she writes that her book’s “purpose is to offer an alternative account” of secularization. She claims, on the one hand, that she “hope[s] in this book to do some brief justice to preceding attempts to explain what really happened to the ‘Sea of Faith,’” and, on the other, that “the second part of the book puts forth evidence for an alternative theory of what happened.” Which is it, then? Does the canvas need some touching up, or are we being presented with a brand-new landscape? 

This book is also somewhat poorly edited. Editors at Templeton Press, like President Obama, seem to think that “enormity” means “something that is extremely large,” as opposed to “outrageousness or wickedness.” Better, one thinks, for the reader not to be introduced to Owen Chadwick twice in the first chapter. “Marxist/Communism” is a likely typo—for “Marxism/Communism”?—that I encountered in the galleys and had hoped to see fixed when I received a hardback in the mail.

Still, these faults—for most of which I blame Eberstadt’s editors—aside, How the West Really Lost God is that rarest of literary beasts, a work of soft science that is engaging, well researched, and cogently argued. 

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About the Author

Matthew Walther is assistant editor of The American Spectator. His work has also appeared in the Spectator (London), National Review, the American Conservative, the Daily Beast, the Salisbury Review (where he writes the quarterly "Letter From America" column), First ThingsTouchstoneProspect, Quadrant, the Millions, the Washington Times, and other publications.