howthewestlostgodHow the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization by Mary Eberstadt (Templeton Press, $26.50, 268 pages)

I’ve almost been trained to smile on cue when I read Mary Eberstadt’s name in the media, even though How the West Really Lost God was only the second of her works I’d read in its entirety (an early draft of The Loser Letters at National Review Online being the first). In a few words, Eberstadt “gets it.” She is a master of words and imagery, who understands the most powerful forces leading to the secularization of modern society at a level few others do.

Within the first few pages, she paints a striking picture, saying that religion has “some enduring aesthetic and historical interest… but (has) no more bearing on the present day than paleolithic art.” Yet I love her later insistence that religion “continues to write the scripts of history (without) the permission of the world’s secularists.” Of course, this idea could apply to the Middle East. How can a positive spin on that line be applied to Christians? It’s substantial food for thought that I am still chewing on.

As Eberstadt explains, her purpose in writing How the West Really Lost God was to “attempt to supply the missing piece.” She moves the human family “to the center of this debate over how and why Christianity exercises less influence over Western minds and hearts” today. In fact, the institutions of the Christian church and the family are so deeply intertwined, she argues, that one cannot remain strong without the other. The analogy Eberstadt frequently returns to is the double helix, the shape of a strand of DNA. It is impossible for that strand to fulfill its purpose while one-sided.

There are many ways for the metaphorical double helix to break down. I was born in the early 1990s, and the prevalence of those breakdowns seemed to grow with my peers. For example, Eberstadt notes that marriage-based “identities that were once considered permanent, can now change” according to the whims of people who enter into that bond. If Joe has a brother-in-law today, it does not mean he will have one forever. This idea contributed to a great deal of confusion in my father’s family, after the divorce of his sibling. Could the relative who joined the clan by marriage still be called by the title I had used my entire life? According to Eberstadt’s thinking, perhaps not.

Conservatives and libertarians will appreciate Eberstadt’s noting the role of government in these shifts, as the state now fills the role once held by family members – specifically fathers and heads of households. She references Obama’s fictional character Julia, who relies on the state in every stage of her life. As well, public institutions like daycares and nursing homes “supply needs that were formerly met by the home.” Though I don’t think the decline of the family is the only factor that contributed to this change, it certainly played a large role. I agree with her quotation of British writer Ferdinand Mount: “Only the family has continued throughout history and still continues to undermine the state.” As well, Christians still bring their faith into politics, especially when it comes to social issues such as abortion and the meaning of marriage. Eberstadt calls this phenomenon “unexpected” and says it is a sign of secularism’s decline. When paired alongside the idea that Christianity’s “prizing of marriage and (banning) of infanticide and abortion” all gave believers a demographic advantage,  the family’s role becomes more intuitive.

Politics, however, is not the main point – the family is. One of the most obvious problems of modern families is fatherlessness. Even in the early days of the sexual revolution, men were separating from women and children. Eberstadt believes this began because marriage was no longer necessary to “access” sex. The resulting single-parent families have less time and fewer resources to get to church. (This was one of many factors that led to my lack of faith formation growing up.)

The one downside to How the West Really Lost Religion is statistics, which I mostly skimmed over. I’m not sure if that is due to their overabundance or my brain’s non-mathematical wiring – probably both. The sole figure shocking enough to get my attention was that “over 40 percent of respondents could not say what event was commemorated by Easter.” Even the most secular person should be able to answer that question. However, rather than learning and following the Christian faith, many want “vicarious religion” – that is, a situation “that upholds the values that many Europeans don’t very often live by but would still… like to be there.” My question for these people is: why do you seem to see that your philosophy doesn’t offer these values, but still want to act as if it does?

Finally, Eberstadt posits an interesting theory: what if Christianity (like other religions) is like language? Can it only be practiced in groups? What if there are “skills” needed for faith that can best be honed by time spent with others. As a linguistics student, this really makes sense to me, especially when viewed in light of our society’s increasing predisposition to solitary, screen-based activities. It does not bode well for the future of Christian churches if this trend continues.

Is there a solution, or is the world headed to Hell in a handbasket? The author offers one solution which essentially boils down to “combat relativism.” In other words, the more strongly a society attaches itself to Christianity, the more likely its members are to believe in absolutes of right versus wrong. I’m sure this applies to other faiths as well, but Christianity, which emphasizes natural law, surely has an advantage.

This book is both timely and necessary. If you are a Christian or person of faith, lend it to everyone you know who also falls into that category. We just might learn how to save the world.

 Taylor Hyatt was a 2013 Summer Student at The Interim and is a third year linguistics student at Carleton University.