Julia Shaw

Losing my religion: faith, family, and the real story of secularization in the West

Julia Shaw
By Julia Shaw

August 14, 2013 (Public Discourse) - In her new book, Mary Eberstadt argues that the West started losing God when it started losing the natural family. If she is right, then churches need to encourage and promote family formation, and religious believers need to form families.

The West is less Christian than it used to be. “A growing number of Western individuals greet the milestones of life with no religious framework at all,” Mary Eberstadt writes in her new book, How the West Really Lost God. They are born without being baptized or dedicated to a Christian community; they attend Sunday brunch rather than Sunday service; “and upon dying their bodies are incinerated and scattered to the winds, rather than prayed over whole in the ground as Christian ritual and dogma had hitherto commanded.”

In her thoughtful and engaging book, Eberstadt offers a new explanation for the religious downturn. Nietzsche’s madman predicted that religion would inevitably fade away. The traditional narratives about secularization see world-historical events or broad intellectual movements as silver bullets killing God. But Eberstadt encourages us to take another look at home and hearth—especially broken ones.

By looking at the decline of the natural family, she argues, we can understand how the West really lost God. While the religious and irreligious alike will find this book enlightening, the key audience includes the small “o” orthodox believers eager to spread the gospel. Once this audience understands the relationship between faith and family, perhaps Western society can find God again.

The Family Factor

To start, Eberstadt reviews the conventional theories of religious decline and reveals how they are incomplete. Most theories point to either an intellectual movement or a world historical event to explain the decline of religion. For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief. They cannot answer why Christianity “has flourished in some times and places and declined in others.”

Enter what Eberstadt calls the “Family Factor”: the “active effect that participation in the family itself appears to have on religious belief and practice.” By the family, Eberstadt means the natural family: a married mother and father raising their biological children. The Family Factor explains why secularization occurs and fills in the gaps that other theories leave behind.

Family life is not an outcome of belief but a conduit to religious faith. Eberstadt compares learning religion to learning a language. She argues that “trying to believe without a community of believers is like trying to work out a language for oneself.” Eberstadt’s theory explains the communal way in which individuals “think and behave about things religious—not one by one and all on their own, but rather mediated through the elemental connections of husband, wife, child, aunt, great-grandfather and the rest.”

Her theory is unique. Most secularization narratives ignore the family’s role in religious formation or see familial decline as a result of secularization: people stopped believing in God and then they stopped having families. But Eberstadt turns this simple, direct relationship on its head. The connection between faith and family is multidimensional: “faith and family are the invisible double helix of society—two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.”

It’s no secret that churches provide a necessary infrastructure and larger community for raising children. But Eberstadt conjectures that something deeper drives families to the pews. “Something about children might make parents more inclined toward belief in the infinite—to a supernatural realm that is somehow higher and less well-understood than this one.”

Childbirth is the miracle of life, and parents experience it, in Eberstadt’s words, as a “moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant.” This may explain why seemingly banal activities of family life—caring for an ailing parent or just staying married for seventy years—seem almost supernatural. The family, in a sense, defies death. Individual members may perish, but genes, names, and memories live on.

Eberstadt shows that strong family formation means more God. America enjoys a higher degree of religiosity than European countries, because “there are more families following the traditional model in America, even today, than in Europe.” Indeed, the post-war American baby boom coincided with a religious boom.

Conversely, weak family formation (e.g., illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce) means less God. The countries that have experienced religious decline have seen the natural family at its weakest. The French lost God earlier than other Western nations, because they stopped having babies and forming families in the late eighteenth century. Scandinavia, an area that has experienced dramatic decline in religious belief, has a high divorce rate and late marriage, and although there is a high rate of out-of-wedlock births, the total birth rate is very low. Countries that stop marrying and giving birth also stop attending church.

Lost in Translation

As Eberstadt reminds her readers, the language of Christianity is familial. Christians greet one another as brothers and sisters of the same God the Father. Christian marriage symbolizes the union of Christ and the church. The Holy Trinity is described in terms of a familial relationship: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Incarnation—the seminal event in Christian redemption—relies on the human family: God the Son came to earth as an infant, born to Mary, and adopted by Joseph.

Without the family, the Christian story may be lost in translation. If one is raised without a father, how can one contemplate the unconditional love of God the Father or understand Joseph’s adoption of Jesus? If children are a choice, how can a person consider accepting them, as Mary did, as a matter of obedience to God?

And if unencumbered self-expression is the highest virtue, then Christianity’s teachings on sex, money, and vocation are vicious. Sadly, says Eberstadt, “when many people live lives that contradict the traditional Christian moral code, the mere existence of that code becomes a lightning rod for criticism and vituperation—which further drives people away from the church.” Eberstadt concludes that “family illiteracy breeds religious illiteracy.”

Protestantism, Catholicism, and Family Decay

If family decay leads to and accelerates religious decline, then how should churches respond?

In a chapter aptly titled “Assisted Religious Suicide,” Eberstadt focuses most on how churches harmed the family by embracing certain doctrinal changes to the Christian moral code. This chapter is essential reading for any Christian believer, whether Protestant or Catholic. Yet it also reveals the weak point in Eberstadt’s analysis: she fails to distinguish between thriving and decaying churches in Protestantism and why, despite keeping key doctrines on family formation, Catholicism is declining.

Eberstadt argues that the Christian moral code remained intact until the Protestant Reformation, “when churchmen started picking apart the tapestry of Christian sexual morality—hundreds of years ago, long before the sexual revolution, and over one particular thread: divorce.” Now, several hundred years later, “divorce in the mainline Protestant churches is not only destigmatized, it has been almost entirely emptied of moral content, period.”

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(Eberstadt does not explain the difference between an annulment, which seems not to damage the institution of marriage, and divorce, which in her view does undermine marriage.)

The doctrinal changes on divorce, Eberstadt argues, were a “template for other related doctrinal changes to come”: first divorce, then contraception, and finally homosexuality. Reformers throughout the ages intended these changes to “construct a Christianity with a kinder, gentler, more inclusive face” and thereby expand the flock, but instead, Eberstadt argues, they decimated the family and church attendance.

Her point is well-taken—changes in doctrine on marriage and sexuality have undermined the family—but I question the accuracy of her critique of Protestantism, particularly of its beginnings. At various points, she comes close to reducing the Protestant Reformation to a revolution about divorce and sex, rather than a disagreement about the authority of the pope, the status of scripture, and the nature of grace.

Eberstadt also fails to explore why there was a sizable chunk of time between the sixteenth-century Reformation and the twentieth-century Lambeth Conference that embraced contraception. Nor does she consider why the doctrinal changes on homosexuality are quite recent.

So, did the Protestant Reformation, rightly understood, lead to widespread abandonment of traditional Christian moral teachings on marriage, family, and sexuality? Or was the liberal theology that infected at least some Protestant churches 300 years later responsible? It is hardly fair to lump Cranmer in with Schleiermacher (Henry VIII notwithstanding), much less Luther and Calvin with the father of liberal theology.

In earlier chapters, Eberstadt distinguishes between mainline Protestants (e.g., Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Lutherans) and the pentecostal and evangelical Protestants. She acknowledges that “certain evangelical denominations are thriving despite the secular trend.” And she recognizes that the same thriving churches “do not have theological injunctions against birth control as such, and have a higher fertility rate than secular people.” If doctrines of family decay were part and parcel of the Protestant Reformation, one would expect all Protestant churches to suffer the same fate. And how would Eberstadt account for the recent doctrinal divisions between the Episcopalian and Anglican churches in America? The chapter would have benefited from considering each doctrinal change (divorce, contraception, and sexuality) and churches’ responses separately, rather than collapsing them in to one fluid phenomenon. While Catholic writers and theologically liberal mainliner connect all three doctrines, others (namely thriving, evangelical churches) do not.

Her arguments on the health of Catholicism merit a similar analysis. The Catholic Church as an institution resisted doctrinal changes on divorce, contraception, and homosexual activity: “the exception [to these doctrinal changes], of course, was the Catholic Church, whose issuance of Humane Vitae in 1968 both famously and infamously affirmed the traditional moral code by upholding the ban on birth control.”

Yet despite “sticking to its theological guns on the family,” Eberstadt writes, Catholicism has seen a “significant falloff in practice.” If keeping the doctrines was enough, why are individual Catholics, and even whole parishes, selectively following these teachings? While chiding Catholic scholars for arguing that secularization is a Protestant problem, Eberstadt readily admits that many Catholics are “Catholic” in name only: men and women who ignore not only the basic holy obligation to attend weekly mass but also the church’s teachings on sex.

Perhaps Eberstadt’s emphasis on these doctrines is misplaced. The doctrines on divorce, contraception, and homosexuality don’t seem to explain the whole story. Perhaps fidelity to the Nicene Creed keeps families in the pews.

Eberstadt writes that the “most vibrant areas of Catholicism are the most orthodox.” The same applies to Protestantism, but Eberstadt doesn’t explicitly say it.

Over the years, mainline Protestants have been eager to embrace doctrinal changes relating to family formation, but they balk at affirming the basic tenets of Christian faith. To put it another way: divorce, contraception, and homosexuality are no big deal, but the teachings of the Nicene Creed are controversial.

Thriving Protestant churches, to the contrary, take the tenets of the Nicene Creed (as well as traditional Christian moral teachings) seriously. Indeed, by so doing, many evangelical churches attract those raised devoid of religious faith. They also draw some of those “Catholics” in name only, who were baptized in the Catholic Church but didn’t believe in Christ (let alone follow the moral teachings) until becoming Protestant. (The Mormons, who embrace family formation but not the Nicene Creed, appear to be an outlier.) Eberstadt’s chapter on doctrinal changes would be stronger if she had explored these differences.

Eberstadt is both a great thinker and a devout Catholic. Protestantism has benefited from the intellectual heft of Catholicism on moral issues relating to marriage, the family, and natural law. Eberstadt, by failing to distinguish fully between thriving and decaying forms of Protestantism, misses an opportunity to engage with evangelical churches explicitly.

Still, her arguments raise challenging questions for my fellow Protestant and evangelical brethren in flourishing mega-churches. Should Protestants consider children negotiable in marriage? Should pastors be indifferent to means of procreating (or preventing it)? Do we adequately incorporate children into church life and the Christian story as Eberstadt describes it? Most importantly, how often are churches growing by attracting former Catholics, instead of training up children the way they should go? Converts are great, but so are lifelong committed Christians raised in the church.

The Fate of the Double Helix

The future of the faith-family double helix is unclear. Eberstadt recognizes that predicting the future is risky, so instead she presents both a case for pessimism—fewer people are getting married and staying married; fewer people are bearing children, let alone bearing them in wedlock; and a case for optimism—as society becomes more fragmented, the need for the family increases, so decline can lead to resurgence.

If Eberstadt is right that family decline led to religious decline, then churches need to encourage and promote family formation, and religious believers need to form families. Secularization isn’t inevitable. Christianity is still strong in the United States. Can it last another generation? The answer to this question, as all Christians must acknowledge, lies with the Holy Spirit. But Eberstadt makes a convincing case that the Holy Spirit often enlists the family.

Reprinted with permssion from  The Public Discourse

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BREAKING: Planned Parenthood shooting suspect surrenders, is in custody: police

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By John Jalsevac

Nov. 27, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) - Five hours after a single male shooter reportedly opened fire at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood, chatter on police radio is indicating that the suspect has now been "detained."

"We have our suspect and he says he is alone," said police on the police radio channel. 

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers also confirmed via Twitter shortly after 7:00 pm EST that the suspect was in custody.

The news comes almost exactly an hour after the start of a 6:00 pm. press conference in which Lt. Catherine Buckley had confirmed that a single shooter was still at large, and had exchanged gunfire with police moments before.

According to Lt. Buckley, four, and possibly five police officers have been shot since the first 911 call was received at 11:38 am local time today. An unknown number of civilians have also been shot.

Although initial reports had suggested that the shooting began outside the Planned Parenthood, possibly outside a nearby bank, Lt. Buckley said that in fact the incident began at the Planned Parenthood itself.

She said that the suspect had also brought unknown "items" with him to the Planned Parenthood. 

Pro-life groups have started responding to the news, urging caution in jumping to conclusions about the motivations of the shooter, while also condemning the use of violence in promoting the pro-life cause. 

"Information is very sketchy about the currently active shooting situation in Colorado Springs," said Pavone. "The Planned Parenthood was the address given in the initial call to the police, but we still do not know what connection, if any, the shooting has to do with Planned Parenthood or abortion.

"As leaders in the pro-life movement, we call for calm and pray for a peaceful resolution of this situation."

Troy Newman of Operation Rescue and Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, also issued statements.

"Operation Rescue unequivocally deplores and denounces all violence at abortion clinics and has a long history of working through peaceful channels to advocate on behalf of women and their babies," said Newman. "We express deep concern for everyone involved and are praying for the safety of those at the Planned Parenthood office and for law enforcement personnel. We pray this tragic situation can be quickly resolved without further injury to anyone."

"Although we don't know the reasons for the shooting near the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs today, the pro-life movement is praying for the safety of all involved and as a movement we have always unequivocally condemned all forms of violence at abortion clinics. We must continually as a nation stand against violence on all levels," said Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, based in Washington, D.C.


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Rubio says SCOTUS didn’t ‘settle’ marriage issue: ‘God’s rules always win’

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By Dustin Siggins

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 27, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- Surging GOP presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, says that "God's law" trumps the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision imposing same-sex “marriage” nationwide.

The senator also told Christian Broadcast Network's David Brody that the Supreme Court's redefinition of marriage is not "settled," but instead "current law."

“No law is settled,” said Rubio. “Roe v. Wade is current law, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to aspire to fix it, because we think it’s wrong.”

“If you live in a society where the government creates an avenue and a way for you to peacefully change the law, then you’re called to participate in that process to try to change it,” he explained, and "the proper place for that to be defined is at the state level, where marriage has always been regulated — not by the Supreme Court and not by the federal government.”

However, when laws conflict with religious beliefs, "God's rules always win," said Rubio.

“In essence, if we are ever ordered by a government authority to personally violate and sin — violate God’s law and sin — if we’re ordered to stop preaching the Gospel, if we’re ordered to perform a same-sex marriage as someone presiding over it, we are called to ignore that,” Rubio expounded. “We cannot abide by that because government is compelling us to sin.”

“I continue to believe that marriage law should be between one man and one woman," said the senator, who earlier in the fall was backed by billionaire GOP donor and same-sex "marriage" supporter Paul Singer.

Singer, who also backs looser immigration laws and a strong U.S.-Israel alliance, has long pushed for the GOP to change its position on marriage in part due to the sexual orientation of his son.

Despite Singer's support, Rubio's marriage stance has largely been consistent. He told Brody earlier in the year that "there isn't such a right" to same-sex "marriage."

"You have to have a ridiculous reading of the U.S. Constitution to reach the conclusion that people have a right to marry someone of the same sex."

Rubio also said religious liberty should be defended against LGBT activists he says "want to stigmatize, they want to ostracize anyone who disagrees with them as haters."

"I believe, as do a significant percentage of Americans, that the institution of marriage, an institution that existed before government, that existed before laws, that institution should remain in our laws recognized as the union of one man and one woman," he said.

Rubio also hired social conservative leader Eric Teetsel as his director of faith outreach this month.

However, things have not been entirely smooth for Rubio on marriage. Social conservatives were concerned when the executive director of the LGBT-focused Log Cabin Republicans told Reuters in the spring that the Catholic senator is "not as adamantly opposed to all things LGBT as some of his statements suggest."

The LGBT activist group had meetings with Rubio's office "going back some time," though the senator himself never attended those meetings. Rubio has publicly said that he would attend the homosexual "wedding" of a gay loved one, and also that he believed "that sexual preference is something that people are born with," as opposed to being a choice.

Additionally, days after the Supreme Court redefined marriage, Rubio said that he disagreed with the decision but that "we live in a republic and must abide by the law."

"I believe that marriage, as the key to strong family life, is the most important institution in our society and should be between one man and one woman," he said. "People who disagree with the traditional definition of marriage have the right to change their state laws. That is the right of our people, not the right of the unelected judges or justices of the Supreme Court. This decision short-circuits the political process that has been underway on the state level for years.

Rubio also said at the time that "it must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood…"

“I firmly believe the question of same sex marriage is a question of the definition of an institution, not the dignity of a human being. Every American has the right to pursue happiness as they see fit. Not every American has to agree on every issue, but all of us do have to share our country. A large number of Americans will continue to believe in traditional marriage, and a large number of Americans will be pleased with the Court’s decision today. In the years ahead, it is my hope that each side will respect the dignity of the other.”

The Florida senator said in July that he opposed a constitutional marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution to leave marriage up to the states because that would involve the federal government in state marriage policies.

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Former The View star Sherri Shepherd and then-husband Lamar Sally in 2010 s_bukley / Shutterstock.com
Steve Weatherbe

Court orders Sherri Shepherd to pay child support for surrogate son she abandoned

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By Steve Weatherbe

November 27, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- Sherri Shepherd, a Hollywood celebrity who co-hosted the popular talk show The View for seven years, has lost a maternity suit launched by her ex-husband Lamar Sally, forcing her to pay him alimony and child support for their one-year surrogate son LJ. The decision follows an unseemly fight which pro-life blogger Cassy Fiano says has exposed how surrogacy results in “commodifying” the unborn.

Shepherd, a co-host of the View from 2007 to 2014, met Sally, a screenwriter, in 2010 and they married a year later. Because her eggs were not viable, they arranged a surrogate mother in Pennsylvania to bear them a baby conceived in vitro using Sally’s sperm and a donated egg.

But the marriage soured in mid-term about the time Shepherd lost her job with The View. According to one tabloid explanation, she was worried he would contribute little to parenting responsibilities.  Sally filed for separation in 2014, Shepherd filed for divorce a few days, then Sally sued for sole custody, then alimony and child support.

Earlier this year she told PEOPLE she had gone along with the surrogacy to prevent the breakup of the marriage and had not really wanted the child.

Shepherd, an avowed Christian who once denied evolution on The View and a successful comic actor on Broadway, TV, and in film since the mid-90s, didn’t want anything to do with LJ, as Lamar named the boy, who after all carried none of her genes. She refused to be at bedside for the birth, and refused to let her name be put on the birth certificate and to shoulder any responsibility for LJ’s support.

But in April the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, and now the state’s Superior Court, ruled that Shepherd’s name must go on the birth certificate and she must pay Sally alimony and child support.

“The ultimate outcome is that this baby has two parents and the parents are Lamar Sally and Sherri Shepherd,” Shepherd’s lawyer Tiffany Palmer said.

As for the father, Sally told PEOPLE, “I'm glad it's finally over. I'm glad the judges saw through all the lies that she put out there, and the negative media attention. If she won't be there for L.J. emotionally, I'll be parent enough for the both of us.”

But Shepherd said, “I am appealing the ruling that happened,” though in the meantime, Sally will “get his settlement every month. There’s nothing I can do.”

Commented Fiano in Live Action News, “What’s so sickening about this case is that this little boy, whose life was created in a test tube, was treated as nothing more than a commodity…Saying that you don’t want a baby but will engineer one to get something you want is horrific.” As for trying to get out from child support payments now that the marriage had failed, that was “despicable.”

Fiano went on to characterize the Shepherd-Sally affair as a “notable example” of commodification of children, and “by no means an anomaly.” She cited a British report than over the past five years 123 babies conceived in vitro were callously aborted when they turned out to have Down Syndrome.

“When we’re not ready for babies, we have an abortion,” she added. “But then when we decide we are ready we manufacture them in a laboratory and destroy any extras. Children exist when we want them to exist, to fill the holes in us that we want them to fill, instead of being independent lives with their own inherent value and dignity.”

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