Friday, June 22, 2007

How the West Lost God

Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt,a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, has a very interesting essay in the Hoover Institution's Policy Review. She argues that the West has become more secular, and less religious, because we stopped having families. In otherwords, she reverses the usual causal relationship between family anf God. She argues that we lose our faith when we stop having children. Some highlights:

For well over a century now, the idea that something about modernity will ultimately cause religion to wither away has been practically axiomatic among modern, sophisticated Westerners.1 Known in philosophy as Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous story of the madman who runs into the marketplace declaring that “Gott ist tot,” and in sociology as the “secularization thesis,” it is an idea that many urbane men and women no longer even think to question, so self-evident does it appear.2 As people become more educated and more prosperous, the secularist story line goes, they find themselves both more skeptical of religion’s premises and less needful of its ostensible consolations.3 Hence, somewhere in the long run — perhaps even the very long run; Nietzsche himself predicted it would take “hundreds and hundreds” of years for the “news” to reach everyone — religion, or more specifically the Christianity so long dominant on the Continent, will die out.


As everybody also knows, much about the current scene would seem to clinch the point, at least in Western Europe. Elderly altar servers in childless churches attended by mere handfuls of pensioners; tourist throngs in Notre Dame and other cathedrals circling ever-emptier pews roped off for worshippers; former abbeys and convents and monasteries remade into luxury hotels and sybaritic spas; empty churches here and there shuttered for decades and then re-made into discos — even into a mosque or two. Hardly a day passes without details like these issuing from the Continent’s post-Christian front.4 If God were to be dead in the Nietzschean sense, one suspects that the wake would look a lot like this.

. . . .

This essay represents what might be called a radical friendly amendment to the revisionists. It questions the theory of secularization and, by extension, its father Nietzsche, not by citing current facts about religious renewal or historical facts about Christianity’s influence, but rather by exploring a hitherto unexamined logical leap in the famous story line. To be fancy about it for a moment, what secularization theory assumes is that religious belief comes ontologically first for people and that it goes on to determine or shape other things they do — including such elemental personal decisions as whether they marry and have children or not.10 Implied here is a striking, albeit widely assumed, view of how one social phenenomenon powers another: that religious believers are more likely to produce families because religious belief somehow comes first.

And therein lies a real defect with the conventional story line about how and why religion collapsed in Western Europe. For what has not been explained, but rather assumed throughout that chain of argument, is why the causal relationship between belief and practice should always run that way instead of the other, at least some of the time. It is as if recent intellectual history had lined up all the right puzzle pieces — modernity, belief and disbelief, technology, shrinking and absent families — only to press them together in a way that looks whole from a distance but leaves something critical out.

This essay is a preliminary attempt to supply that missing piece. It moves the human family from the periphery to the center of this debate over secularization — and not as a theoretical exercise, but rather because compelling empirical evidence suggests an alternative account of what Nietzsche’s madman really saw in the “tombs” (read, the churches and cathedrals) of Europe.

In brief, it is not only possible but highly plausible that many Western European Christians did not just stop having children and families because they became secular. At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families. If this way of augmenting the conventional explanation for the collapse of faith in Europe is correct, then certain things, including some radical things, follow from it.




Read it all.

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