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

Mary Eberstadt



LOPEZ: If there is “something about living in families” that “makes people more receptive to religiosity and the Christian creed”? Are you saying that God is dependent on the family?

EBERSTADT: Let’s get back first to some uncontroversial points.

Married people are more likely to go to church than single people. Married people with children are significantly more likely to do so, especially if they’re men. Social science documents all that — and then moves on as if there’s nothing to see here.

Similarly, social science documents that across the world, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to have families of size; fertility and religiosity are tightly linked, any way the numbers are run.

So why don’t we stop right here and ask why these things are so? It’s not satisfactory to answer by saying “well, that’s just what religious believers do.” That’s tautological. No, the more logical conclusion to draw is that there is something about living in families that inclines at least some people toward religiosity in general, and toward Christianity in particular — and that this fact is a hidden engine of both secularization in some circumstances, and religious revival in others.

The experience of birth, for starters, rather obviously inclines some people — maybe even many people — toward a transcendent frame of mind that can get translated into religiosity. Whittaker Chambers writes beautifully of just this phenomenon in his autobiography Witness, where he describes how studying his infant daughter as she sat in her high chair one night became the epiphany that eventually led him away from atheism and Communism and back to Christianity. The experience of childbirth lifts people out of themselves, tying them to generations past and to come. Such might be one explanation for why people with children are more likely to end up in church.

And there are other reasons why people who live in families might feel the gravitational pull of the pews more than others, and there’s more talk about those in the book. These are the kinds of causal influences on secularization that have gone largely unexamined.

LOPEZ: Who is Brad Wilcox and why is his work so important?

EBERSTADT: Brad’s work is important for plenty of reasons and it’s one of the reasons I started thinking about the argument of this book. Several years ago, he wrote an essay in First Things about the statistical relationship between children in the home and church attendance. He used the phrase “children drive parents to church.”

I kept thinking about that striking phrase. One chapter of How the West Really Lost God, “Toward a New Religious Anthropology,” asks what happens if we radically expand his insight.

LOPEZ: How is that “more families of one equal less God”? Shouldn’t the solitary life mean one has more time for God?

EBERSTADT: Of course the argument isn’t a straight-up numbers game, as if families of twelve are ipso facto more religious than hermits of one, or some related piece of reductionism.

But the interesting thing to zero in on here, I think, is that the call to construct families — and families of size — is all over the Good Book. We’re told straight off in Genesis that it isn’t good for the man to be alone. Later, Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply. Abraham is promised that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, which clearly implies that fecundity is a good thing, and Psalms says similarly that blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children. All this predates the Catholic Church, of course. And there’s more.