Ten years ago, the preamble to the newly-drafted constitution of the European Union omitted any reference to Christianity. It was an unmistakable reminder of Christianity’s diminished influence in a part of the word it helped create.
How Christianity gave way to secularism is difficult to explain, but an important new book, How the West Really Lost God by Mary Eberstadt, offers an explanation that Christians need to hear.
That the West has become increasingly secular is difficult to deny. In his magisterial 2010 book, A Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor asks why, in Western society, it was “virtually impossible not to believe in God in say, [the year] 1500 ... while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”
There’s no shortage of explanations for the change. The most popular, especially among the so-called “new atheists,” is that Western society “outgrew” its need for God. The Enlightenment and the scientific developments of the past two centuries offered alternative explanations for the world around us, which, in turn, made the Christian story seem less plausible.
Another explanation is that increasing prosperity and levels of education are to blame (or credit, depending on your perspective). An echo of this explanation could be heard in the infamous 1993 comment that characterized evangelicals as “poor, uneducated,” and thus, “easily led.”
The problem with both of these explanations is that, as Eberstadt documents, they don’t fit the facts. Secularization has not followed a straight-line trajectory. Instead, periods of decreased Christian practice have been interspersed with revivals in Christian devotion. Both “Great Awakenings” followed periods of relative religious indifference. The two decades after World War II saw a remarkable upsurge in church attendance in both the United States and much of Europe.
Likewise, attributing Western secularization to rising levels of prosperity and education doesn’t square with the facts. While Marx famously called religion the “opiate of the masses,” in fact, objective measures of religiosity such as regular church attendance are higher among the more affluent and better educated than among their poor and working class counterparts.
This isn’t a new phenomenon: A study of church attendance in London between 1870 and 1914 found that “the poorest districts thus tended to have the lowest rates of [church] attendance, [and] those with large upper-middle-class and upper-class populations the highest.”
In their book American Grace, Robert Putnam and David E. Campbell write that the data disproves the “idea that religion is nowadays providing solace to the disinherited and dispossessed, or that higher education subverts religion.”
So if the most-popular explanations are wrong, or at least problematic, what lies behind Christianity’s diminished influence in the West? Eberstadt’s thesis is that an important culprit is the weakening of the family.
While no one denies the strong correlation between religious observance and family formation, the standard explanation is that increased religious observance produces stronger families, not vice versa.
Eberstadt argues that while it’s true that the family that prays together stays together, it is also true that family formation can and has affected “any given human being’s religious belief and practice.”
It’s an extraordinary claim that demands extraordinary proof, which Eberstadt provides. How do things like traditional marriage and having children incline our hearts toward God? Well, you’ll have to tune in tomorrow to BreakPoint to find out.
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 29, 2013