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

Mary Eberstadt



This raises another question: Why? Why is it always implied that when it comes to the family, the more creatures, the merrier?

The answer can only be that someone, somewhere, figured out early on that the flourishing of the human family was important to the flourishing of religion, and to Judeo-Christianity in particular.

And you can grasp that much whether you’re the sturdiest of believers or a card-carrying member of the Richard Dawkins fan club. Either God chose to make the human family the medium for many messages — or the crafty humans who made him up did it instead. But somebody, somewhere, understood clearly how critical the family would be to the transmission of the teachings of temple and church. Otherwise, those endorsements of family wouldn’t be all over the Bible.

LOPEZ: You offer both a pessimistic and an optimistic case for the future of family and religion. Which is more likely?

EBERSTADT: Readers will have to make up their own minds about which of those chapters resonates more; the choice is theirs.

But I do believe that the wonderful contrarian sociologist Rodney Stark and a few other like-minded thinkers are on to a critical point: The shape of the family tomorrow will depend at least in part on what happens to the modern welfare state.

After all, it’s the welfare state that has bankrolled the fracturing of the Western family and acted as a family substitute during the lifetimes of most people reading these words.

Will the shrinking taxpayer base cause the welfare state to implode and drive people back to more organic connections such as family and church? It’s a radical thought.

LOPEZ: “It appears that the natural family as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many . . . and the gradual but now recognizable muffling of that symphony is surely an important and overlooked part of the story of how certain men and women came not to hear the sacred music anymore.” How do we get the orchestra back together and playing to a packed house?

EBERSTADT: We can’t know what to do until we first know how to think.

The point is that the social forces that have been supposed to make Christian decline inevitable — prosperity, urbanization, education, rationalism — don’t really explain secularization, as many people supposed.

And why does that point matter? For starters, it means that the idea of the inevitability of decline goes out the conceptual window. A central tenet of secular thought since at least Friedrich Nietzsche — i.e., the notion that something about modernity will ultimately wipe away Christian religious belief — has proved unsustainable. That alone is news.

If you study the historical timeline, you do not see the straight downward decline predicted by historicist sociology, but instead something much more interesting: Christianity comes and goes in the world. And if you look more closely at those times when it is strong — the Victorian era in England, or the 1950s religious renaissance not only in America but across the West, including in countries that became remarkably secular only a few decades later — what you see is the double helix of family and faith.

And that’s exactly why the future might be full of surprises, at least when measured against the secularization we see today. In the historical scheme of things, the world hasn’t known today’s rates of family fracture and atomization for long — or their attendant downside.

As evolutionary biologists are the first to understand, human beings are social creatures. Down the road, that widely underestimated fact might yet become the starting point for a recreation and rebuilding of the most elemental social connections of all — ones that men and women of the future, with the benefit of hindsight, might come to cherish more highly than some of their secularized Western ancestors-to-be do today. In the end, tough-minded optimism might win the day. Anyway, it has a shot.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.