The Magazine

God in the Details

Explaining the connection between family and religion.

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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'Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family,” the historian Peter Laslett once wrote, “in a circle of loved, familiar faces. .  .  . That time has gone forever. It makes us very different from our ancestors.” Laslett was writing in 1965, as he lamented the decline of the family over the course of England’s industrial age. But even then, after a century and a half of upheaval, families in Great Britain and the rest of the West were relatively large, divorce was rare, and illegitimacy was frowned upon.

God in the Details: Explaining the connection between family and religion.

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Today, barely two generations later, even Laslett’s fallen world looks impossibly Edenic: In most Western nations, cohabitation vies with marriage as the primary mode of household formation. Those marriages which are consecrated end in divorce roughly half of the time. Out-of-wedlock births are nearly the norm. But total births are relatively infrequent: No Western country produces enough children even to sustain its population at a constant level, let alone grow. Many Western countries are experiencing population decline as a result of their crashing fertility rates.

Over the last few decades, a great deal of social science has attempted to understand the collapse of the family. Most researchers agree that one of the large-bore causes has been the decline of religion: As Western peoples became increasingly secularized, they abandoned organized Christianity. Without religious precepts in favor of procreation, or against contraception or living in sin, they abandoned family life. This theory is so widely accepted as to be something like received wisdom. And in How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt turns it on its head.

A fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (and a contributor to The Weekly Standard), Eberstadt has inverted the formulation to ask an intriguing question: What if the causality runs both ways? What if the decline of the family in the West is also part of what caused the decline of Christianity? Eberstadt begins by first reconsidering the entire theory of Western secularization. And what she finds might surprise you.

In its popular conception, the Nietzschean theory of secularization goes something like this: As the Enlightenment dawned, small groups of Western elites no longer needed the balm of religion and began to put down God’s yoke and step into the freedom of the modern, scientific world. Over time, their enlightened example trickled down the socioeconomic scale until everyone in the West, save the bitter clingers, was shorn of the God delusion.

Only, that’s not quite what the evidence shows. For one thing, across the West, religious adherence increases with education and income, and it has done so since the 18th century. For another, religious practice has both waned and waxed since the Enlightenment. Interestingly enough, one of the immediate surges in Western Christianity came in the first half of the 19th century, just after Voltaire gave up the ghost. And these moments of religious increase are found, in different times, across the whole of Europe and the United States.

What modern secularization theory really hangs its hat on is the year 1960, which is the moment when religious practice throughout the West swung against Christianity, as if on a hinge. And it has not (yet) swung back.

Focusing on 1960, Eberstadt proposes that Christianity’s waning might well be tied to the other key development of the day—the collapse of fertility rates across the West. There is not a small amount of statistical evidence to support her thesis. For instance, sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox’s research suggests that a third of the drop in American religiosity in recent years is directly related to there being fewer married adults with children. The work of Steven Nock demonstrates that marriage and childbearing directly affect male church attendance: Every child a married man has increases his annual church attendance by 2.5 Sundays. Other research suggests that cohabitation has the opposite effect, by causing men to decrease their time in church.

Pulling up to a higher, more abstract level, Eberstadt’s theory that there is a “Family Factor” driving religiosity becomes even more persuasive. Countries seem to always see their fertility and religiosity rates fall together. France, for instance, experienced these declines relatively early, while Ireland saw them later. So the two phenomena are always closely paired. And not just on a country-by-country basis, either. Across both Europe and America, we see intra-country differences in both fertility and religiosity varying by population density. In cities and urban settings, fertility rates are lower, marriage comes later, and people attend church more sparsely than in the suburbs and rural areas. This correlation is highly suggestive. 

As Eberstadt notes,

[I]t is at least possible that people did not stop believing in God just because they moved to cities. The missing piece would appear to be that moving to cities made them less likely to have and live in strong natural families—and that intermediate, unseen step may have been what really started them down the road toward losing their religion, at least some of the time.

But perhaps the strongest support for Eberstadt’s Family Factor is the baby boom. Most people know that, in the two decades following World War II, birth rates across the West shot up and remained elevated for an entire generation. What fewer people know is that the baby boom was powered, in part, by a sharp increase in marriage rates, too. But what very few people realize is that the baby boom also witnessed a marked increase in religiosity across the West, with church membership and attendance both spiking for a generation.

Sociologists have long been flummoxed by the baby boom; there is no fully satisfying explanation for why it happened. Eberstadt suggests that we can’t understand it apart from the religious revival which accompanied it. Because, just as religion fosters family life, family life is a conduit to religion. The two form what Eberstadt evocatively proposes is a “double-helix,” supporting and influencing one another.

How the West Really Lost God doesn’t provide conclusive proof of the existence of a Family Factor; Eberstadt isn’t toiling in the minutiae of econometric regression analyses. What she’s done is construct a fascinating work of forensic demography which manages to take the telescope through which we’ve long studied the relationship between family formation and religiosity and flip it entirely around to let us peer through the other side. 

What she shows us is compelling. With luck, researchers in the academic world will follow her lead and take a new look at the phenomenon of demographic decline, too. 

Jonathan V. Last, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, is the author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.