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God and Family in the West
A double helix of a mess.

Mary Eberstadt

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‘The fracturing of the family combined with the sexual revolution has put a great many people in the West on a collision course with certain fundamental teachings of the Christian faith,” Mary Eberstadt writes in her new book, How the West Really Lost God. “Church officials often wring their hands about getting out the ‘positive’ side of those teachings, and one can understand why. But what is less clear is how many understand the deeper reason for their difficulty: that the unprecedented proliferation of weakened natural families and nontraditional quasi-families has left a great many individuals resistant as they never were before to fundamental features of the Christian moral code.” Eberstadt, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the reality and the future of God and family in the West.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Has the West really lost God? We prayed after the Boston Marathon bombings, after all. Is this “tsunami of secularism” stuff overblown?

MARY EBERSTADT: It’s hard to survey Western societies today and not see that many people have turned their backs on the Judeo-Christian God — including in places that were once Christian strongholds.

Across Western Europe, church attendance has gone over a cliff. Just last week, a report made headline news across Britain, because it showed that self-professed Christians will be a minority of the population there even sooner than supposed — in fact, within the decade.

Nor is this just a Protestant thing. Something like 15 percent of the population of “Catholic” Venice attends Mass every Sunday — which is particularly emblematic since Catholics are taught that missing it for any but the gravest of reasons is a mortal sin. “Catholic” Spain doesn’t measure up much better. On it goes across the Continent and into Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and more — including the United States, where a steady rise in “none of the above” has been documented, especially among younger Americans.

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Beyond just showing up — or not — there are other measures of secularization to consider too: the commercial success of the new atheism, the growth in public animosity toward Christianity, changing legal norms, and other examples touched on in the book.

There are interesting and even ingenious arguments to the effect that Western secularization is not the same as the decline of Western Christianity. I review those arguments, because they harbor important insights. And it’s also true, as believers in particular like to point out, that in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, Christianity is vibrant and growing at a fast clip.

But to keep our eyes fixed on the West, to the exclusion of the rest, is to see that something profound is underway. A lot of people have stopped going to church, have stopped feeling as if they ought to go to church, and have even stopped thinking that the churches have anything to say to them at all. That’s not a shifting current but a sea change — and one that conventional secular thought hasn’t navigated correctly, which is one of the reasons for the book.


LOPEZ: Why do you liken faith and family to a double helix? And why is this so crucial to examine and reflect on?

EBERSTADT: In a way that hasn’t been well understood so far, it appears that the great jigsaw puzzle of secularization has been missing a critical piece. Religious vibrancy and family vibrancy go hand in hand. Conversely, so do religious decline and family decline: where you see one, expect the other.


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