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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Newsbusters Staff

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Disney ABC embraces X-rated anti-Christian bigot Dan Savage in new prime time show

Newsbusters Staff
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March 30, 2015 (NewsBusters.org) -- Media Research Center (MRC) and Family Research Council (FRC) are launching a joint national campaign to educate the public about a Disney ABC sitcom pilot based on the life of bigoted activist Dan Savage. MRC and FRC contacted Ben Sherwood, president of Disney/ABC Television Group, more than two weeks ago urging him to put a stop to this atrocity but received no response. [Read the full letter]

A perusal of Dan Savage’s work reveals a career built on advocating violence — even murder — and spewing hatred against people of faith. Savage has spared no one with whom he disagrees from his vitriolic hate speech. Despite his extremism, vulgarity, and unabashed encouragement of dangerous sexual practices, Disney ABC is moving forward with this show, disgustingly titled “Family of the Year.”

Media Research Center President Brent Bozell reacts:

“Disney ABC’s decision to effectively advance Dan Savage’s calls for violence against conservatives and his extremist attacks against people of faith, particularly evangelicals and Catholics, is appalling and outrageous. If hate speech were a crime, this man would be charged with a felony. Disney ABC giving Dan Savage a platform for his anti-religious bigotry is mind-boggling and their silence is deafening.

“By creating a pilot based on the life of this hatemonger and bringing him on as a producer, Disney ABC is sending a signal that they endorse Dan Savage’s wish that a man be murdered. He has stated, ‘Carl Romanelli should be dragged behind a pickup truck until there’s nothing left but the rope.’ ABC knows this. We told them explicitly.

“If the production of ‘Family of the Year’ is allowed to continue, not just Christians but all people of goodwill can only surmise that the company Walt Disney created is endorsing violence.”

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins reacts:

“Does ABC really want to produce a pilot show based on a vile bully like Dan Savage?  Do Dan Savage’s over-the top-obscenity, intimidation of teenagers and even violent rhetoric reflect the values of Disney?  Partnering with Dan Savage and endorsing his x-rated message will be abandoning the wholesome values that have attracted millions of families to Walt Disney.”

Dan Savage has made numerous comments about conservatives, evangelicals, and Catholics that offend basic standards of decency. They include:

  • Proclaiming that he sometimes thinks about “f****ing the shit out of” Senator Rick Santorum

  • Calling for Christians at a high school conference to “ignore the bull**** in the Bible”

  • Saying that “the only thing that stands between my d*** and Brad Pitt’s mouth is a piece of paper” when expressing his feelings on Pope Benedict’s opposition to gay marriage

  • Promoting marital infidelity

  • Saying “Carl Romanelli should be dragged behind a pickup truck until there’s nothing left but the rope.”

  • Telling Bill Maher that he wished Republicans “were all f***ing dead”

  • Telling Dr. Ben Carson to “suck my d***. Name the time and place and I’ll bring my d*** and a camera crew and you can s*** me off and win the argument.”

Reprinted with permission from Newsbusters

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Jacqueline Harvey

Ending the end-of-life impasse: Texas is poised to ban doctor-imposed death by starvation

Jacqueline Harvey
By Jacqueline Harvey

AUSTIN, Texas, March 30, 2015 (TexasInsider.org)  After five consecutive sessions of bitter battles over end-of-life bills, the Texas Legislature is finally poised to pass the first reform to the Texas Advance Directives Act (TADA) in 12 years. An issue that created uncanny adversaries out of natural allies, and equally odd bedfellows, has finally found common ground in H.B. 3074 by State Rep. Drew Springer.  

H.B. 3074 simply prohibits doctor-imposed euthanasia by starvation and dehydration.

Since H.B. 3074 includes only those provisions and language that all major organizations are on record as having deemed acceptable in previous legislative sessions, there is finally hope of ending the end-of-life impasse in the Texas Capitol.

Many would be surprised to learn that Texas law allows physicians to forcibly remove a feeding tube against the will of the patient and their family. In fact, there is a greater legal penalty for failing to feed or water an animal than for a hospital to deny a human being food and water through a tube.

This is because there is no penalty whatsoever for a healthcare provider who wishes to deny artificially-administered nutrition and hydration (AANH). According to Texas Health and Safety Code, “every living dumb creature” is legally entitled access to suitable food and water.

Denying an animal food and water, like in this January case in San Antonio, is punishable by civil fines up to $10,000 and criminal penalties up to two years in jail per offense. Yet Texas law allows health care providers to forcibly deny food and water from human beings – what they would not be able to legally do to their housecat. And healthcare providers are immune from civil and criminal penalties for denial of food and water to human beings as long as they follow the current statutory process which is sorely lacking in safeguards.

Therefore, while it is surprising that Texas has the only state law that explicitly mentions food and water delivered artificially for the purpose of completely permitting its forced denial (the other six states mention AANH explicitly for the opposite purpose, to limit or prohibit its refusal), it is not at all surprising that the issue of protecting a patient’s right to food and water is perhaps the one point of consensus across all major stakeholders.

H.B. 3074 is the first TADA reform bill to include only this provision that is agreed upon across all major players in previous legislative sessions.

There are irreconcilable ideological differences between two major right-to-life organizations that should supposedly be like-minded: Texas Alliance for Life and Texas Right to Life. Each faction (along with their respective allies) have previously sponsored broad and ambitious bills to either preserve but reform the current law (Texas Alliance for Life’s position) or overturn it altogether as Texas Right to Life aims to do.

Prior to H.B. 3074, bills filed by major advocacy organizations have often included AANH, but also a host of other provisions that were so contentious and unacceptable to other organizations that each bill ultimately died, and this mutually-agreed-upon and vital reform always died along with it.

2011 & 2013 Legislative Sessions present prime example

This 2011 media report shows the clear consensus on need for legislation to simply address the need to protect patients’ rights to food and water:

“Hughes [bill sponsor for Texas Right to Life] has widespread support for one of his bill’s goals: making food and water a necessary part of treatment and not something that can be discontinued, unless providing it would harm the patient.”

Nonetheless, in 2013, both organizations and their allies filed complicated, contentious opposing bills, both of which would have protected a patient’s right to food and water but each bill also included provisions the rival group saw as contrary to their goals. Both bills were ultimately defeated and neither group was able to achieve protections for patients at risk of forced starvation and dehydration – a mutual goal that could have been met through a third, narrow bill like H.B. 3074.

H.B. 3074 finally focuses on what unites the organizations involved rather than what divides them, since these differences have resulted in a 12 year standoff with no progress whatsoever.

H.B. 3074 is progress that is pre-negotiated and pre-approved.

It is not a fertile springboard for negotiations on an area of mutual agreement. Rather it is the culmination of years of previous negotiations on bills that all came too late, either due to the complexnature of rival bills, the controversy involved, or even both.

On the contrary, H.B. 3074 is not just simply an area of agreement; moreover, it is has already been negotiated. It should not be stymied by disagreements on language, since Texas Alliance for Life and Texas Right to Life (along with their allies) were able to agree on language in 2007 with C.S.S.B. 439. C.S.S.B. 439 reads that, unlike the status quo that places no legal conditions on when food and water may be withdrawn, it would be permitted for those in a terminal condition if,

“reasonable medical evidence indicates the provision of artificial nutrition and hydration may hasten the patient’s death or seriously exacerbate other major medical problems and the risk of serious medical pain or discomfort that cannot be alleviated based on reasonable medical judgment outweighs the benefit of continued artificial nutrition and hydration.”

This language is strikingly similar to H.B. 3074 which states, “except that artificially administered nutrition and hydration must be provided unless, based on reasonable medical judgment, providingartificially administered nutrition and hydration would:

  1. Hasten the patient’s death;
  2. Seriously exacerbate other major medical problems not outweighed by the benefit of the provision of the treatment;
  3. Result in substantial irremediable physical pain, suffering, or discomfort not outweighed by the benefit of the provision of the treatment;
  4. Be medically ineffective; or
  5. Be contrary to the patient’s clearly stated desire not to receive artificially administered nutrition or hydration.”

With minimal exceptions (the explicit mention of the word terminal, the issue of medical effectiveness and the patient’s right to refuse), the language is virtually identical, and in 2007 Texas Right to Life affirmed this language as clarifying that “ANH can only be withdrawn if the risk of providing ANH is greater than the benefit of continuing it.”

Texas Right to Life would support the language in H.B. 3074 that already has Texas Alliance for Life’s endorsement. Any reconciliation on the minor differences in language would therefore be minimal and could be made by either side, but ultimately, both sides and their allies would gain a huge victory – the first victory in 12 years on this vital issue.

It seems that the Texas Advance Directive Act, even among its sympathizers, has something for everyone to oppose.

The passage of H.B. 3074 and the legal restoration of rights to feeding tubes for Texas patients will not begin to satisfy critics of the Texas Advance Directives Act who desire much greater changes to the law and will assuredly continue to pursue them. H.B. 3074 in no way marks the end for healthcare reform, but perhaps a shift from the belief that anything short of sweeping changes is an endorsement of the status quo.

Rather, we can look at H.B. 3074 as breaking a barrier and indicating larger changes are possible.

And if nothing else, by passing H.B. 3074 introduced by State Rep. Drew Springer, we afford human beings in Texas the same legal access to food and water that we give to our horses. What is cruel to do to an animal remains legal to do to humans in Texas if organizations continue to insist on the whole of their agenda rather than agreeing to smaller bills like H.B. 3074.

The question is, can twelve years of bad blood and bickering be set aside for even this most noble of causes?

Reprinted from TexasInsider.org with the author's permission. 

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By John-Henry Westen

I can’t believe how quickly our annual Spring campaign has flown by. Now,with only 3 days remaining, we still have $96,000 left to raise to meet our absolute minimum goal.

That’s why I must challenge you to stop everything, right now, and make a donation of whatever amount you can afford to support the pro-life and pro-family investigative reporting of LifeSite!

I simply cannot overemphasize how important your donation, no matter how large or small, is to the continued existence of LifeSite. 

For 17 years, we have relied almost exclusively on the donations of our growing army of everyday readers like you: readers who are tired of the anti-life and anti-family bias of the mainstream media, and who are looking for a different kind of news agency.

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You will find our donation page is incredibly simple and easy to use. Making your donation will take less than two minutes, and then you can get back to the pressing duties scheduled for your day. But those two minutes means the world to us!

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Since our humble beginnings in the late 90s, LifeSite has gone from a small non-profit to an international force in the battle for life and family, read by over 5 million people every month

This is thanks only to the leaders, activists, and ordinary readers just like you who have recognized the importance truth plays in turning the tides of the Culture.

I want to thank the many readers who helped bring us within striking distance of our minimum goal with their donations over the weekend. 

But though we have made great strides in the past few days, we still need many more donations if we are going to have any hope of making it all the way by April 1st.

In these final, anxious days of our quarterly campaigns, I am always tempted to give in to fear, imagining what will happen if we don’t reach our goal.

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