Review: How the West Really Lost God
by Gail Deibler Finke
I’ve read a lot of great Catholic books this year (see some reviews here) but this is the first one to make me want to run out and find someone — anyone — who had read it so I could talk about it right now.
A couple of others came close: Russel Shaw’s American Church made me want to start a book group and Elizabeth Scalia’s Strange Gods practically begs for a long discussion over coffee and fattening food. For starters.
But Mary Eberstadt’s latest book commands more urgency. It’s an important book — though that phrase sometimes implies the kind of navel-gazing, academic tome that is anything but important.
The importance of dow the West Really Lost God isn’t in exhaustive research painstakingly compiled, but in positing a new direction that begs to be explored. And quickly.
The thesis is simple: Declining fertility far from being a result of the secularization of society, actually contributes to and accelerates secularization. It’s a cause, not an effect — or rather, it’s a cause and an effect, in a spiral that denudes life of everything transcendent even as it discourages family life and the conception of children.
The implications are obvious, especially for religions. If Eberstadt is correct, churches, synagogues, and other religious groups that encourage birth control and/or abortion in an effort to “keep up with the times” are digging their own graves.
That prospect may not seem dire to thoroughly secularized people, but as Eberstadt demonstrates, it is. Religious people volunteer more hours and contribute more money to charities than anyone else does. They adopt more children, they provide more disaster aid, they obey more laws, and they generally contribute more to the stability of society and the good of others. The loss of religion to society is, in practical terms, devastating.
The loss of souls is, of course, incalculably greater.
Eberstatd shows convincing, though preliminary, evidence that secularization and declining fertility rates are mutually dependent. Most interesting are her examples of France — which began its secularization and its lower fertility rate earlier than any other nation in Europe, and Ireland which began its turn to secularization dead last among European countries and whose previously robust fertility rate plummeted at the same time.
Eberstadt’s theories about why the two are related are intriguing. A smaller family means fewer obligations, looser ties, less sacrifice demanded of its members, and so on. Perhaps, she posits, membership in a family makes it easier to be a member of a religion: more willing to sacrifice, more understanding of obligations to others, and so on. Christianity, which is based on a family, may suffer particularly from the loss of family life. As families get smaller, the conditions that foster faith and communal worship may vanish. And as the faith that gives meaning to people’s lives vanishes, people may be more inclined to see family members as obstacles in the way of getting what they want — thus having fewer children, which leads to smaller families.
Moreover, as religious ties weaken contempt for family life grows, and vice versa.
Animus against both religion and the family from secularists is as common today among Facebook trolls who argue viciously in comment boxes against “selfish people” who use up “precious resources” by having offspring, as it was among the most eminent Enlightenment philosophers, who both hated Christianity and had few or no children (or, like Rousseau, successively abandoned all his children to the state).
Why this is so, Eberstadt says, “is a deep mystery, and one that should be meditated upon at length somewhere else.” But that it is so cannot be denied, and bolsters the theory that the two are somehow related and that reversing one requires reversing the other.
This “deep mystery” is to me the most compelling, if briefly touched on, idea in the book. Why should this be so? Why should the people most dedicated to a secular and childless (or very nearly childless) life so hate something that in theory should not concern them? Why, as the West commits demographic suicide, is there so much bile spit at the few people who believe in God and breed?
Eberstad doesn’t answer. But that question is surely the key to the book — and to the survival of the West.
Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God. Templeton Press, West Conshohocken, PA, 2013.
Gail Deibler Finke is Senior Editor of The Catholic Beat.
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