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

Mary Eberstadt



In the book, I try to explain why these trends don’t appear to be mere coincidences. What’s the most secular territory on Western earth today? Scandinavia. Who pioneered the postwar unmarried Western family and its close ally, the welfare state (whose arguably critical role in secularization is also part of this picture)? Scandinavia. What is arguably the most atomized place in the Western world today, as measured by, say, the number of people who don’t live in a family at all? Scandinavia again. Almost half of Swedish households are now singletons, for instance, and in Norway it’s something like 40 percent.

The book argues these things are related — that family is a driver of faith, not just vice versa — and enumerates the reasons why this might be so.

That’s just one example of the “double helix” at work. What’s happened in the Scandinavian family is also affecting the Scandinavian churches. The causal relationship isn’t only the other way around. Each institution needs the other to reproduce.

Looking at it this way makes the “puzzle” of secularization less of a puzzle — and also casts doubt on the going secular notion that the fall-off in religious observance is just a matter of people progressively coming to their senses about the God racket. That caricature is what many secular people believe, but it’s not what the record shows.

LOPEZ: Why are the hows, whys, and whens of secularization so important?

EBERSTADT: What’s critical is this fact: Western secularization has not happened on the timelines predicted for it, and it also has not happened for the reasons commonly offered to explain it.

So, for instance — and contrary to what many otherwise sophisticated people have uncritically supposed — education and prosperity alone have not driven out God; to the contrary, there are examples cited in the book, including in the United States today, of the opposite pattern. Similarly, as British historians have shown, the relatively bustling churches of Victorian London, say, were peopled largely by the upper classes, not the lower ones.

These are just two examples that contradict stereotypes about who’s going to church. So much for “poor, uneducated, and easy to command,” as a hapless Washington Post reporter immortally — and incorrectly — dubbed Evangelicals ten years ago.

LOPEZ:  Why are you so interested in finding out why married people with children are more likely to go to church?

EBERSTADT: You can scroll through the works of great modern thinkers who had plenty to say about religion — Durkheim, Marx, Comte, Freud, and more — and find little attention given to this very interesting question.

The reason that’s such an interesting question is this: We do know, indisputably and thanks to social science, that strong correlations are there. See the work of sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, among others, who’s really gotten under the hood of those relationships, or the late sociologist Steven L. Nock. Men who are married are more likely to go to church. Men and women who are married with children are far more likely to go than are singles. And so on. More marriage and more children add up to more God.

The conventional way of explaining that connection — to the extent that anyone’s tried to explain it — is to say that it’s a one-way street: Religious decline causes family decline; religious belief comes first and affects the family.

That’s only part of the story, though. There’s also evidence for reversing that causality, and for concluding that family decline also breeds religious decline. That evidence is at the heart of the book. If it’s right, then we need to revisit the accepted wisdom about secularization from Nietzsche on down.