Julia Shaw

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

Julia Shaw
By Julia Shaw
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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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Sofia Vazquez-Mellado

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11-year-old in Uruguay refuses to abort after rape

Sofia Vazquez-Mellado
By Sofia Vazquez-Mellado

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, May 25, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – An 11-year-old girl in Uruguay is making headlines for refusing to abort after being raped by a 41-year-old relative. Pro-abortion organizations in the country are using the case to ask for a broadening in the law, which allows for abortion up until 12 weeks gestation, 14 weeks in cases of rape, and up to 9 months when the life or health of the mother are at risk or when the baby is “unviable.”

Local media report that the girl, who is 18 weeks pregnant, lived with her abuser for over a year prior to the pregnancy. Her mother is now asking authorities to make her abort, but according to the local newspaper La Diaria, a team of psychiatrists from Uruguay’s Child and Adolescent Institute (INAU) has said that “the girl’s position has been confirmed without a doubt: she wishes to be a mother.”

According to her relatives, the girl suffers from a mild mental incapacity, although she is not considered handicapped.

In a press conference, Susana Muñiz, president for the Association of State Health Services and former minister of health, said: “An 11-year-old girl obviously has a body not prepared to be pregnant, with a very small uterus.”

However, according to Monica Silva, head of the INAU’s Health Division, “There is no risk to the life of the girl nor that of the baby. We cannot force her to abort.”

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“Even if her mother wants it, it would be inhuman to force her to abort,” continued Silva. “The fact that there was a rape doesn’t allow me to force her to abort. This [aborting] may seem like a protection of her rights but it is against the girl’s will.”

Nevertheless, a press release “demanding” that the girl abort “immediately” was issued by several pro-abortion NGOs soon after, on May 12. “The hypocritical and bureaucratic system allows for her rights to be undermined without considering the cost this will bring to the girl,” it read.

“Who will take charge now to stop the undermining of her rights and protect her health and her life? How much longer do we need to wait before somebody decides responsibly on the interruption of that pregnancy?” it concluded.

In her interview, Silva also said the girl’s parents “never visited, with exception of one of the six siblings she has.”

 “The best that could happen would be to ensure that she has a ‘welcoming family,’ that would receive the girl with her baby,” continued Silva. “I doubt we can achieve that because it’s hard to find families who want this challenge.”

The girl remains under INAU’s care and her abuser has been imprisoned.

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Steve Weatherbe

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Christian jeweller made gay couples’ rings but still got targeted by gay lobby

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By Steve Weatherbe

MOUNT PEARL, Newfoundland, May 25, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) –While North Americans are used to reading about Christian business people being fined and excoriated for refusing to cater to homosexual weddings, Newfoundland has added a novel twist: there a Christian jeweller has been punished financially and deluged with hate mail even though he did do business with a homosexual couple.

Nicole White and Pam Renouf liked the service they got from Esau Jardon of Today’s Jewellers in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland and Labrador, who took their deposit and proceeded to design and build them two engagement rings. They even recommended the store to friends.

But by the time one friend went there, the Mexican-born Jardon had put up a sign in his shop window marking Mother’s Day—and his strong, traditional Christian beliefs: “The Sanctity of Marriage IS UNDER ATTACK; Help Keep Marriage Between Man & Woman,” it read.

The friend went ballistic. Her picture of the sign went viral. The couple went back on their deal and back to the store, demanding their deposit. Today’s Jewellers’ Facebook page was so deluged with hundreds of hateful emails and many threats that Jardon and his brother, who is his business partner, have to shut it down.

LifeSiteNews asked White if Jardon had been punished enough. “Omigod, yes,” she responded. “Way, way too much.” But earlier she explained to a local newspaper why the couple cancelled their order. “The ring symbolizes love, and just knowing that that’s the sign that they have up there — every time I look at my ring, yes, I’ll think of us, clearly, but also everything we went through. So I don’t want my ring from there anymore. I just want my refund.”

At first, she reported, “They just said that that's their beliefs, and they think they can put up whatever they want. I just said it was very disrespectful, it's very unprofessional and I wanted a refund,” White said. “I have no issues with them believing in what they believe in. I think everyone's entitled to their own opinion. But I don't think they should put their personal beliefs inside their business.”

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Jardon, at first, was loath to return it, lest this be seen as an apology for his beliefs. Reached in Toronto, he told the St. John’s Telegram, “When I walk on Church Street in Toronto, where I am right now, and I see [LGBT rainbow flags], and I see a lot of signs and a lot of things on public property, I don't have a problem with them. I accept it. I chose to come to Canada... and we accept the whole package... I don't discriminate against that, nor do I come and tell them to take them down. For the same reason, I ask to have the same respect in return, especially when it's in my own business.”

But what is sauce for the gander is not sauce for the geese, or for the LGBT community that crowded onto the bandwagon, or for the CBC which was all too ready to label the jeweller’s sign “homophobic.”

However, some have offered support and sympathy. Rod Dreher, blogging at The American Conservative, observed that only so-called sexual minorities expected this kind of treatment. “Is a fundamentalist Christian permitted to send her osso buco back to the kitchen if she discovers that homosexual hands cooked it? Of course not. Some delicate snowflakes are more delicate than others.”

Referring to recent decisions by courts and human rights tribunals against Christian vendors who refused to serve homosexuals, Dreher concluded on an ironic note. The pressure on Jardon to return the deposit marked “the next phase in the March of Progress. You must not only bake the cake, or arrange the flowers, or make the ring, you must hold the correct opinion when you do it.”

Jardon defends his right to his own opinion. “One of the reasons my family chose to move to Canada was the rights that it offered, the freedom of religion and freedom of speech, both of which at the time seemed to be very limited in Mexico,” he said.

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Canadians headed to the ballot box for the fall federal election should remember the right to life is 'the most basic thing in society,' the archbishop tells LifeSiteNews. Pete Baklinski / LifeSiteNews
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Exclusive: Clinging to Christ will help those struggling with sexual identity, says Montreal’s archbishop

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By Pete Baklinski

OTTAWA, May 25, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) -- Montreal’s archbishop, Christian Lépine, weighed in on what the Catholic Church actually has to offer people struggling with the biological sex they were born with, telling LifeSiteNews in an exclusive interview that it’s no mistake that God creates the human person as male or female and that every person must look for their identity within a “view of God.”

“The teachings of the Church as such, its most basic one, is that we’re made in the image of God. That's always the starting point. And when you lose track of that — that you're made in the image of God — then somehow you come to lose trust in who you are as a human being, and you know less of who you are, and you don't know anymore who you are, and you [find yourself] looking for your own identity outside of a view of God,” Lépine told LifeSiteNews last week one day prior to the annual National March for Life that drew an estimated 25,000 pro-life advocates.

Following the first book of the Bible, where it is stated that God created human beings as “male and female,” the Catholic Church has always taught, and continues to teach, that the male/female binary is God’s plan for mankind.

As the book of Genesis (1:27) states: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses that recognizing and preserving the male/female sexual difference is necessary for a healthy society.

“Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity. Physical, moral, and spiritual difference and complementarity are oriented toward the goods of marriage and the flourishing of family life. The harmony of the couple and of society depends in part on the way in which the complementarity, needs, and mutual support between the sexes are lived out,” the Catechism states.

Lépine said that anytime questions about sexual identity arise for the faithful, “we must go back to the basics,” namely that “every human is created in the image of God, and of course, biblically, every human being exists as a woman or as a man.”

The archbishop’s words are foreign to mainstream notions of so-called ‘gender fluidity’ where male/female difference is construed as a social construct and ultimately as a personal choice.

Lépine acknowledged that some people suffer when it comes to accepting their own sexual identity as either a male or female based on biological characteristics.

“Sometimes people have sufferings about their own desires, or about their own sense of identity, or about the fact that masculinity and femininity exists, or about the fact that you as ‘human being’ [exist] as a male or female, as a man or as a woman.”

He called the male/female binary “a reality that is part of the [human] experience,” adding that it is also “taught in the Bible.”

Lépine stressed that the Church does not leave people “looking for a meaning in their lives and their own sense of identity” to struggle on their own, but offers them many helps and aids, including a clear anthropology on the nature of the human person.

“As Christians, we have the Bible to help people. We have Jesus Christ to help people. We have faith in God to help people. So, going back, [we must be] conscious that we are made in the image of God. And our own sexuality — what is the meaning of being a man or woman — is related to our vocation to love. And, every human being as such, made in the image of God — being a man or woman — is called to love.”

“So, how [are we] to help [such] people? You can talk about things theoretically, which is one thing. But also, we have to be conscious of people who live through situations where they're looking for their own identity and we need, I think, the Bible and faith to help them.”

Fluid notions of gender have been criticized by Pope Francis on at least three occasions, and prior to this, by Pope Benedict XVI.

“Gender theory is an error of the human mind that leads to so much confusion," Pope Francis told young people during his voyage to Naples, Italy last March.

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In his 2012 Christmas greeting, Pope Benedict condemned gender theory as a “profound falsehood” since it denies the male and female sex as a “given element of nature.” According to Benedict, instead of acknowledging that God created people male and female, gender theory posits the existence of sexual social constructions that people can decide to conform to or not.

“The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves.”

“When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being,” Benedict concluded. “The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears,” he said.

Earlier in the interview, Lépine spoke about the need to “promote relentlessly life and respect for life” in the face of the country’s top court setting the legal stage for allowing doctors to end the lives of their patients under the pretext of compassion and mercy.

“You don't take care of someone when you suppress the life of someone, because you're not solving a problem. You're suppressing the person. It doesn't work,” he said.

Referring to the upcoming federal election this fall, the archbishop called “life and the right-to-life and dignity of the person” an “important subject, because it's the most basic thing in society.” 

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