Yesterday, I introduced you to Mary Eberstadt’s important new book, How the West Really Lost God. Her hypothesis is that while the decline of Christianity has contributed to the weakness of the traditional family, the opposite is also true.
In other words, the family that stays together is more likely to pray together.
Eberstadt’s principal metaphor for the relationship between faith and family formation is the double helix of the DNA. In western societies, faith and family are like “two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.” When one is in decline or ascendance, so is the other.
What’s important to understand is that causality runs in both directions: religious observance promotes strong families and strong families produce religious observance.
The evidence for the latter, counter-intuitive, part of that equation lies in the historical data. Measures of birth rates, average age of first marriage, and marriage rates in general didn’t trail indicators of religiosity, such as church attendance.
Instead, declines in the “family factor” occurred simultaneously with declines in religiosity and, in some instances, even preceded them. For instance, “the dramatic decline of the family in 18th-century France,” which was unique in 18th-century Europe, coincided with a similar decline in French Christianity.
The story repeated itself with minor variations throughout Europe. What Eberstadt writes about Britain — “British families are less religious today because they are also less familial” — is also true for the “advanced nations of the West,” including the United States.
Here, the decline in religious affiliation has coincided with a decline in marriage and child-rearing. We are less likely to marry, marry later when we do, and have fewer children.
This trend has been nearly 50 years in the making. And it probably has a lot to do with the rise of the so-called “nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation.
Which still leaves us with the question “Why are families and faith so intricately linked?”
Eberstadt suggests several ways that “experience of the natural family might incline some people toward religious belief.” One is that the birth of a child gives parents the sense “that they are witnessing something that only a Creator could have made” and this awakens their sense of transcendence.
This sense of transcendence is why people often go back to church after the birth of a child. Not only do parents drive kids to church, kids drive their parents to church, as well.
Another is that “the Christian story itself is a story told through the prism of the family. Take away the prism, and the story makes less sense.” The most obvious example is that, in Christianity, God is “our Father.”
Eberstadt quotes a book on the children of divorce in which a child is asked to imagine God as a loving parent. All he could say is “I’m drawing a blank.” Then there are Christian teachings on family and sexuality. People for whom divorce, cohabitation and, increasingly, same-sex marriage are normative are likely to reject Christian teachings on these subjects.
As Eberstadt puts it, “family illiteracy breeds religious illiteracy.”
All of this is to show that the battle for the traditional family has enormous implications for the church. I urge you to read Eberstadt’s book — which we have for you at our online bookstore at BreakPoint.org.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: May 30, 2013