Friday, January 17, 2014
A Review of Mary Eberstadt's How the West Really Lost God
It is often rhetorically asked, especially by secularists who are critical of religion, questions such as:
Why would a supposedly omnipotent diety who created the universe and all its myriad wonders, care a wit about who sleeps with whom?
Why does the God promoted by the conservative right seem to have such an obsession with human fertility and birth control?
One might also question why such a powerful being would be concerned with the trivialities of human existence at all. But so long as you agree that God desires followers who worship him, and attend church regularly, and carry the faith from one generation of believers to the next, then this book will explain the answers.
I finally have some time to post some new articles on my blog--even though I doubt there were ever many folks out there. This is a book I read last year concerning the sorry state of organized religion in the West, especially in continental Europe and the UK, and increasingly in the US as well. However one feels about this, whether one is an atheist, a fundamentalist Christian, or a more moderate believer (which, I suppose I am one), there is little doubt but what faith is in crisis. I've discussed the matter before here, notably when I discussed Ken Ham's book, Already Gone.
Eberstadt takes an unusual position in her observation of the decline in faith: that the decline of the birthrate in the West, resulting in the decline of the nuclear family, is at the core of the decline in religiosity. As she points out, most other author's generally assume that religious faith comes first, followed by the family unit, which functions to hold the faith together. Eberstadt demonstrates, through argument and from example, that it actually works both ways: family leads to faith and faith leads to family. She traces the history of the Christian Church in Europe throughout the previous century, and uncovers some starling results: whenever the populace experiences a decline in the birthrate, a corresponding decline in religiosity inevitably follows.
It seems, therefore, virtually inescapable that children drive people to church. It remains uncertain precisely why this is so (perhaps the "miracle" of children awakens people's faith in a divine creator, as Eberstadt suggests at one point?) A friend of mine who works with the Salvation Army actually has his doubts as to the declining birthrate as the core of the problem, as he works with many adults who keep having children and show no interest in the Lord at all. He is of the opinion that the "Fat and Happy" scenario, one of the many explanations that Eberstadt debunks as the root cause, is a far more likely explanation.
But if Eberstadt's findings are to be believed, and she presents considerable data to indicate that they are, then we have good explanation why conservative Christians take the increasingly un-PC positions that they do. Taking into account the decline in the birthrate in the West, it suddenly becomes very obvious why conservative Christians care so fervently, not only about abortion (about which the Bible itself holds no position), but about contraception and birth control as well. It also explains why conservatives are concerned about these things, not merely among Christians, but among the general populace as well. I once believed that if atheists really wanted to eradicate faith, their best approach would to be to abandon autonomous birth control, at least as it applies to themselves, and produce as many offspring as possible--in other words, out-breed the competition. But greater numbers of children, even among the committed secularists, would inevitably result both in some children eventually choosing Christianity, and even some parents being driven closer to God. Also, from what I've read on the subject, atheists are not nearly as tradition-oriented as believers. even though they generally tend to pass on their non-belief. Children of atheists are more likely to be encouraged to choose their own worldview.
Then there is the gay issue. It seems that CCs have every right to fear marriages that do not result in children. Words like "bigotry,""intolerance" and "homophobia" frequently come up among liberals whenever the attitudes of the religious right are discussed. But the actual concern that CCs have about GLBT couples has nothing to do with hatred, intolerance, or fear of the "different." It is simply about the survival Western Christian culture against the rising tide of secularism.
And although they are not directly related to reproduction, essentially the same should be said of Creationism and the Hell doctrine, both of which are strongly promoted by the right. Most creationists, by the way, are are far from ignorant in regard to science, and most seem very much brighter than average. What creationism really is, is a symptom: very like the curling of the corn in a withering summer drought. Were it not for the encroaching tide of Western secularism, we would not see people like Ken Ham pouring millions into the construction of a Creation museum.
All this leads to a very problematic situation: in the past, I've been fairly critical of "culture war" Christianity, especially in its tendency to idolize tradition over Christ Himself. This is all a very far distance from the actual teachings of Christ, who commanded that we deny ourselves--and even our family's--to follow him. Tradition, you see, is all firmly rooted in THIS WORLD. Christ's kingdom is NOT of the world we know.
Yet at the same time, as Eberstadt's book demonstrates, CCs appear to have every reason to worry about the future of the Church, especially in regard to the birthrate and the family unit. One of the most disturbing things that she shows are the cases in which a certain congregation, out of the desire to be fair and tolerant, relaxed its standards concerning divorce or homosexuality, and ended up closing its doors after a generation. The churches that currently appear the most healthy, full of vibrant, thriving families, tend to be those who have stuck to their theological guns. I happen to notice this myself: the church I currently attend is one such healthy church, and it is conservative to its core. In contrast, the liberal church I grew up in is now attended chiefly by seniors.
So what really is the answer? There is much to criticize about organized faith, the "religion" part of Christianity. But if it continues to decline, won't Christianity itself--a living relationship with Jesus Christ among His followers--dissipate as well?