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June 1, 2007

How the West Really Lost God

A new look at secularization.


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.

Moreover, practically every other modern titan credited or discredited with shaping the world of ideas as we know it — Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, and many more — would have agreed, with whatever fussy qualifications, that Nietzsche’s symbolic madman got something fundamentally right. So would their intellectually influential descendents. The so-called modernists and postmodernists may indeed have put forth uniquely “transgressive” models of thought, but none has been so transgressive as to ask whether Nietzsche’s madman spoke the truth; whatever their other radical uncertainties, all “know” that he did. So do the popularizers of atheism past and present, from Bertrand Russell (Why I Am Not a Christian) on up to the slew of manifesto writers appearing recently both here and in Western Europe.5 All are heirs to secularization theory and footnotes to Nietzsche even if, as several make clear, “inevitability” is turning out to take a lot longer than any of them would prefer.6 

And yet — and yet. In one of those twists that reveals history herself to be an ironist of the very first order, today Nietzsche’s madman seems farther than ever from having the last word on that figurative corpse in the cathedral. For despite one revolution after another these past 120 years, something surprising has happened. Vigorous counterattacks have come to be launched on secularization theory, markedly in the past few years. In fact, “secularization theory is currently experiencing the most sustained challenge in its long history” — an observation issuing not from the Vatican, but from two leading theorists on the other side.7 

What’s more, they are right. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the recent charge has been led by Christian intellectuals, primarily Catholics. Both John Paul ii and now Benedict xvi have believed the re-Christianization of Europe to be a pressing priority, and both have pressed it not only with Catholic rhetoric, but also with the language of modern Continental philosophy. Other critics have appeared similarly emboldened and on the offense. As Robert Royal observed recently in The God That Did Not Fail, “three centuries of debunking, skepticism, criticism, revolution, and scorn” by secularists not only have failed to defeat religious belief, but have actually enhanced its self-defense.8 In addition to critiques by unapologetic believers, secularization theory has also turned out to spur second thoughts among some of its own former proponents, notably intellectual apostate Peter L. Berger.9 In short, and despite the axiomatic status that Nietzsche’s madman has long enjoyed, there is new blood in the water surrounding this matter of secularization theory, and watchful parties on both sides know it. 

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.


I


Why should we believe that a fundamental change in family formation has been at least partly responsible for changes in religious belief rather than vice versa as conventional thought holds? One simple reason is this: Chronologically, the former preceded the latter in Western Europe at least some of the time.

First, to the matter of definitions. The archetypal domestic model in Western Europe throughout most of Christendom — i.e. until very recently — boils down to elemental connections based on biological ties — mother, father, sister, uncle, son, daughter, and the rest. As legal scholar Gerard Bradley, among others, has described this arrangement, other households might “mimic” but not actually replicate it.11 It is based on sexual activity between a man and a woman bound together legally and otherwise that results in biologically related children, who are then raised by those parents (and in an extended family context, perhaps others). Bradley and other theorists refer to this structure as the “natural family” because of its biological basis.12Historically, some version of this “natural family” has been near-ubiquitous — from illiterate tribes in the Amazon rainforest to the civilizations of Mesopotamia on up to poor much-maligned (but very clearly in the human majority) Ozzie and Harriet.13

The vitality of such a domestic arrangement may be hard to measure exactly, but proxies such as marriage and divorce and cohabitation rates are surely part of it — as is the most easily measured proxy of all, fertility.14 And here is where the sequence of events in Western Europe begins to get interesting. What sort of demographic patterns would we expect to see if the reversed causality being proposed here were to hold — i.e., if it were true that family decline were contributing to religious decline, at least some of the time? Interestingly enough, some that appear.

First, we would expect to find that declines in fertility and family formation had been around in Western Europe for some time before secularization as we know it — loss of religious faith and of such habits as churchgoing  — had become a social norm. And such does indeed appear to be the case. Looking just at the proxy of fertility — again, because it is perhaps the easiest to see — what demographers call the unprecedented and overall “sustained fall” in birthrate that characterizes Western Europe today began at different times in different countries, but it started earlier almost everywhere than is widely understood. In France, for example, the decline started in the late eighteenth century.15 In Britain, which was then richer than France, the decline started a century later — i.e., at a time when the majority of Europeans were still practicing Christians in some visible sense. Some countries would not see their fertility decline until much later; Ireland, a particularly dramatic example discussed below, did not begin resembling other European countries until well into the twentieth century. But whether early or late to the party of demographic decline, and with or without the occasional baby boom blips, European fertility in general dropped well before the dramatic demise of religious practice seen today.

Second, if the decline of the family were indeed powering the decline in belief — again, even just some of the time — one would expect to find a rough correspondence like this: More religious countries were those where the birthrate was highest, and less religious ones were those registering an earlier decline. Why? Because, if this theory is correct, the persistence of the natural family was somehow keeping religiosity alive in some places even as its decline elsewhere was helping to extinguish it. Certainly, corroborating evidence is suggested by a closer look at two countries at different ends of the demographic spectrum: France and Ireland.

In France, for example — where secularism has been a ferocious social and political force for centuries — people generally stopped having babies much sooner than they did elsewhere on the Continent. (Though many people assume that birth control did not begin on a significant scale until the invention of the Pill, that commonly held opinion is not correct; numerous artificial and natural methods of contraception have been known of and deployed en masse in different places and times.16) Such was apparently the case in France in the early 1800s. By the 1880s, according to demographic authority Jean-Claude Chesnais, widespread use of birth control brought the total fertility rate (i.e., births per woman per lifetime) down to 3.25 per thousand (the same as the Netherlands in the early 1960s).17 A historian of the period further reports that the decline was so precipitous that “the term ‘French family’ was henceforth discretely employed by the English when referring to the two-child household.”18 Thus, in France the pattern appears to be generally what reversing the conventional causality between belief and practice would have predicted: people stopped having babies there earlier than elsewhere in Europe, and their religiosity declined earlier than elsewhere too.

Now consider the very different example of Ireland. Here the change in public religiosity came much later than in France; in fact, it has been most dramatic just in the past generation. The decline in weekly Mass-going, for example, is reported to be one of the steepest in Europe — from 91 percent of Irish Catholics in 1973 to 34 percent in 2005. Irish culture, it is routinely reported by natives and visitors, has changed more in the past generation than in hundreds of years preceding it. As Archbishop Sean Brady put it last year, summarizing the one thing on which those for and against these developments would agree: “The influence of secularism has struck Ireland with great speed and intensity.”19

Numerous familiar explanations have been offered for this especially speedy collapse in religiosity: rising prosperity, lowered taxes, urbanization, and the rest of the secularization script. A recent New York Times Magazine essay on Pope Benedict has suggested as well that the priest sex scandals, more widespread in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe, might also have played a key role in that collapse.20 No doubt each of these explanations touches some part of the truth; to repeat, few social phenomena would appear powered by just one force, secularization included.

But what these explanations overlook is perhaps the most obvious contributing cause of all. Not only has Irish religiosity been anomalous in the speed of its collapse; so too was Irish fertility. Essentially, the Irish stopped having babies and families — and shortly afterward stopped going to church. Ireland’s twentieth century baby boom came markedly late — the 1970s, during which births were roughly double replacement level. This boom was followed by a dramatically steep decline of fertility such that by 2000, total fertility rate was 1.89. As one analyst put it, “The biggest difference [between Ireland’s demographic trends in fertility and those of the rest of the continent] is that while most of Europe experienced these changes over a period of two generations, Ireland went through them in one.” Once again, as in the case of France where the chronology is equally clear albeit more spread out, why is it not easier — i.e., more fitting with the facts — to suppose that the dramatic collapse of fertility has been helping to drive the collapse in religiosity rather than just vice versa?

The third and most important fact suggesting that the conventional account needs augmenting is this: Once we allow that family decline is at least partly responsible for religious decline, we can do a better job of explaining the “exceptions” in the literature than does secularization theory itself. Specifically, we can explain the largest problem that has bedeviled the theory all along: i.e., the difference in religiosity between Europe and the United States.

As leading atheist Richard Dawkins has posed that problem, “The paradox has often been noted that the United States, founded in secularism, is now the most religious country in Christendom, while England, with an established church headed by its constitutional monarch, is among the least. I am continually asked why this is, and I do not know.” That is exactly why the problem of exceptionalism is such a problem. After all, if modernity is supposed to wipe away religion, how is it that the still largely Christian United States — with arguably the most modern economy on earth and inarguably the most advanced universities — registers such different patterns of belief and churchgoing than does Europe?21 (Some counterattacking revisionists have even turned that phrase on its head, arguing that in light of the global historical record it is Europe, not America, that is the “exception” to the rule.22) So critical is the issue of exceptionalism that as two critics of the secularization thesis, Rodney Starke and Roger Finke, pointed out in their 2000 book Acts of Faith, “What is needed is not a simple-minded theory of inevitable religious decline, but a theory to explain variation.” 23

This problem of “exceptionalism” is much larger than a dispute over how to read demographic statistics. It is fundamental to the secularization script, because it springs from that same hidden assumption — i.e., since religious belief is posited to come ontologically before family formation, “therefore” either America or Europe must be “explained.” In other words, there is only the “problem” of American (or European) “exceptionalism” if one assumes what secularization theory assumes about the relationship between those two variables — namely, that belief comes first and in turn drives personal behavior.

But if the reverse can also be correct — i.e., if changes in marrying and having babies and families are helping to drive changes in religiosity — then the “problem” of American exceptionalism disappears. It appears instead to be perfectly adequately “explained” by the difference between today’s American and Western European tendencies toward family formation — meaning that there are more families following the traditional model in America than in Europe. The United States has significantly more children per woman and higher marriage rates — both indicators of the relative strength of the natural family. While fertility has plummeted in most of the rest of the industrialized world, to take one example, in the United States it remains the same, even registering a slight increase.24 

Consider as subsidiary evidence this tantalizing fact: Differences in fertility rates within the United States itself also track broadly with differences in religiosity. The Northeast pattern closely resembles that in Western Europe, whereas the South and border states are correspondingly higher. And the rate is also high among the well-educated and well-off population of Latter-Day Saints.

At this point, the reader may be tempted to rejoin that such is exactly what one would expect; after all, religious people tend to have larger families; so what?25 But look carefully at that common formulation, because it contains the same hidden assumption as that of secularization theory — i.e., it assumes that because people are more religious, therefore they have larger families. But where is the evidence for putting things in that order? It is at least as plausible — in fact, given the evidence, it is more plausible — to assume the opposite: that something about having larger families is making people more religious, at least some of the time.26

Of course it is undoubtedly true that some people seek to have more children because they feel religiously “called” to do so. But as a blanket explanation for what is going on in the relationship between those two things, the axiom that religion is dictating family size is riddled with logical problems. It is commonly assumed, for example, that religious Catholics have larger families because of the prohibition against birth control. Such may well be true, again, some of the time; the argument here, recall, is not that secularization theory gets everything wrong.

But if the prohibition against birth control is interpreted as the exclusive reason why religious people have larger families, then we can make no sense of this fact: Evangelical Christians, who do not similarly have theological injunctions against birth control as such, have a higher fertility rate than other groups. Orthodox Jews in America have far more children than secular Jews, even though orthodox Judaism also allows contraception within marriage for certain, quite broad purposes and does not wholly proscribe abortion.27 And Mormons have a high rate of natural family formation too, even though abortion is not wholly proscribed for them either, and couples are also allowed to use artificial contraception if they determine after prayer that it is best for them — rather a large loophole. Moreover, even Catholics are not enjoined to have all the children that they can, but rather to use their reason and weigh responsibilities in the matter of family size.

Thus, the idea that having large families is just something that religious people “do” begs the question of the relationship between those two things — especially since, apart from the Catholic Church, no meaningful restrictions on artificial contraception exist any longer in any other Christian sect.

In sum, the surface explanation that people have families just because they are religious is problematic because it does not explain why those with theological carte blanche to use abortion and contraception nevertheless persist in having larger families. So here is one more piece of evidence that  things work the other way, at least sometimes: i.e., not only that religious people are inclined toward the family, but also that something about the family inclines people toward religiosity. The chronology of secularism in Western Europe, in which unprecedented family shrinkage appeared sometimes before and sometimes in tandem with the unprecedented decline in belief, suggests at least that much.28, 29


II


If augmenting the conventional story line about secularization in this way makes sense, then why might it make sense — i.e., what is the alternative script according to which something about the experience of families might incline people toward religion?

The conventional causal chain runs something like this. One by one, and thanks mostly to the Enlightenment, a few brave souls in Europe came to recognize the charlatanry of the continent’s historic Jewish and Christian faiths. As they did, it became clear that more and more people would eventually come to their point of view — that such a transformation is ultimately inevitable and, once widespread enough, would usher in a new and better era of history. (“There never was a greater event — and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!”)

To begin sketching an explanation of religious belief complementary to this one, one must answer this question: What could it be about the experience of the natural family that might make an individual more disposed toward religion than he is without it? Though merely a preliminary attempt at an answer, several lines of explanation suggest themselves.

First, there is the phenomenological fact of what birth itself does to many fathers and just about every mother. That moment — for some now, even that first glimpse on a sonogram — is routinely experienced by a great many people as an event transcendental as no other. This hardly means that pregnancy and birth ipso facto convert participants into zealots. But the sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an elemental bond that is cross-cultural as perhaps no other — a formulation to which most parents on the planet would quickly agree.

This fact of the primal connection between parents and children — this suggestion that such may be the critical foundational bond of human beings — is not just limited to ordinary mortals in the obstetrician’s office, but also echoes throughout numerous of the masterpieces of human history. It is why King Lear is nearly universally recognized as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, whereas, say, Romeo and Juliet for all its pathos is not — because the predeceasing by Lear of Cordelia is the perfect symbol of the worst tragedy life can present, again so far as the mothers and fathers of the world are concerned. It is why the story of Jesus is so similarly universal in its tragic appeal, whether told via that masterpiece of sculpture, the Pieta (whose primary focus, suggestively enough, is Mary, not Jesus), or just via the familiar story that begins with Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to save their infant’s life — one that has resonated among literates and illiterates for two millennia.

Similarly, the theme of not only outliving one’s children but symbolically profiting from their death repeatedly presents itself as the worst transgression imaginable in works that stand at the absolute pinnacle of Western literature. Consider Medea’s unwitting devouring of her children as related by Euripides almost 2,500 years ago; Dante’s portrayal of Ugolino, one of the most famous figures in the Inferno, whose punishment in hell is to watch his four sons die and then to eat their flesh out of his inability to stop himself; Shakespeare’s sounding of the theme in Titus Andronicus, where the title character’s ultimate revenge on the Goth queen who has destroyed his family is to engineer her unwitting digestion of her own two children, cooked like Medea’s in a pie. In all cases, the meaning is clear across centuries and languages: Nothing could be worse than losing one’s children, unless it is the taboo of living off that which should never have died first.

What is it about the predeceasing of parents by children that has so captured the imaginations of the West’s (though not only the West’s) greatest artists across millennia and languages and cultures? The answer can only be that this theme resonates most deeply with the human heart — or at least the heart joined to children by family ties. As even Aaron, Shakespeare’s moral monster in Titus Andronicus, cries upon seeing his illegitimate newborn, “This before all the world do I prefer; This maugre [pleasure] all the world will I keep safe / Or some of you shall smoke for it in Rome.”

Thus does a complementary religious anthropology begin to emerge, grounded on the primal fact that the mother-child and father-child bond, as no other, appears to push at least some people toward an intensity of purpose they might never otherwise have experienced. And it’s not as if birth is the only familial experience that has this transcendental effect. So do other common family events that defy ordinary, atomized human pleasure-seeking, including, say, the selfless care of an ailing family member, the financial sacrifices made for those whose adulthood one may never live to see, even the incredible human feat of staying married for a very long time. Further, in binding those alive to relatives both past and yet to come, family is literally death-defying — another feature that might make it easier for those living in families to make related transcendental leaps of the religious variety. Third, families and especially children also transform people in other ways — and not just by clipping adult wings, turning the former midnight rover into a man in slippers watching O’Reilly at 8 pm, but also in what may be the deepest way of all. All men and women fear death; but only mothers and fathers, and perhaps some husbands and wives, can generally be counted upon to fear another’s death more than their own. To put the point another way, if 9/11 drove to church for weeks on end millions of Americans who had not darkened that doorstep in years — as it did — imagine the even deeper impact on ordinary mothers and fathers of a sick child or the similarly powerful desire of a devoted spouse on the brink of losing the other. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too would there appear to be few in the nursery or critical care unit, at least most of the time.

In sum, because it treats belief as an atomistic decision taken piecemeal by individuals rather than a holistic response to family life, Nietzsche’s madman and his offspring, secularization theory, appear to present an incomplete version of how some considerable portion of human beings actually come to think and behave about things religious — not one by one and all on their own, but rather mediated through the elemental connections of husband, wife, child, aunt, great-grandfather, and the rest.

The proposed religious anthropology which I have sketched as a complement to Nietzsche’s has another advantage: It ties up another theoretical loose end that should be troubling to the secularizationists, despite having no apparent standing in their discussion. That is the well-known fact — one that is curiously unmentioned in the latest vogue of atheism as well — that women as a whole are more observant than men. This difference in practice is not only verifiable through studies, it is also easily observed by walking into just about any North American or European church.30

But why, if Nietzsche’s parable and secularization theory are all we need to know, should this difference be? If news of God’s death is moving through society slowly but surely, why should it be that one sex in one country and culture after another seems to be getting the news faster than the other?

Surely it cannot reasonably be argued (though today’s atheists must suspect as much given their rhetoric about the stupidity of belief) that women are more prone to belief because they are mentally inferior to men; as a matter of established fact, iq is essentially evenly distributed between the sexes.31 Are they by nature, then, more docile and easily led? Surely the West’s legions of modern professional women who compete alongside men, and who in contests apart from physical strength are often said to have the advantage, deep-six that rationalization too.

Some alternative explanation seems in order, and a theory arguing that religiosity is driven in part by family formation, at least for some people, just might be it. In the differing dedication that men and women generally show toward religion, we have another fact that seems to fit that theory. Why? Perhaps women who are mothers tend to be more religious because the act of participating in creation, i.e., birth, is more immediate than that of men. Perhaps that fact inclines women to be more humble about their own powers and more open to the possibility of something greater than themselves — in brief, more religiously attuned. Or perhaps for both mothers and nonmothers there is something about caring for the smallest and most vulnerable beings, which is still overwhelmingly women’s work — after all, even power mommies employ women to do it — that makes it easier to believe in (or hear, depending on one’s personal belief) a God who stands in a similar all-caring relationship to relatively helpless mortals of every age. Maybe the general sex differences in religiosity have something to do with explanations like these.

Which account comports better with what people actually do and why they do it, Nietzsche’s or this one? The answer seems to depend on which people we are talking about. On the madman’s model, a few übermenschen in possession of truths that would be unbearable to others spread the word slowly — in this case of the death of God, which will take centuries — thus beginning a process that will someday trickle down to the unknowing mass of men. The mechanism of such a transfer appears mysterious; after all, not many people avoid church these days because of the Copernican revolution, say, or because of Galileo’s vindication, or because of other specific events that caused some in the history of philosophy to lose their faith. But let us leave this issue of trickle-down secularism aside and give Nietzsche’s madman the benefit of the doubt for now. There are people who do indeed learn and decide, believe and disbelieve, in the way he describes.

But the majority of people, to continue this complementary religious anthropology, do not re-invent the theological wheel this way. They learn religion in communities, beginning with the community of the family. They learn it as Ludwig Wittgenstein once brilliantly observed that language is learned: not as atomized individuals making up their own tongues, but in a community. Wittgenstein countered Descartes’ dualism, after all, by observing that the philosophical question he was most famous for — how do I know that I am? — contained the seeds of its destruction in the very phrasing: Only by presupposing a community of language believers, Wittgenstein argued, could this question about radical oneness make sense.

So might the comparative case of religiosity best be understood for many people — not for the übermenschen of Nietzsche’s imaginings, but for at least some of the great many human beings who have lived their lives in natural families and worshipped a deity. With that connection now broken in formerly Christian Western Europe and other parts of the West, a great many people in their current peer group lean one way — the secularist way.32 But that ending, pace the secularists and atheists, has not proved once and for all that religion is over. It has proved rather that the kind of human community on which religious apprehension appears most dependent — i.e., one in which the natural family enjoys some kind of critical social mass — is in serious decline. Trying to believe without a community of believers is like trying to work out a language for oneself — something that a few übermenschen might be up for attempting but most other people are not.


III


Why does it matter whether the decay of the natural family has been an unappreciated factor in the decay of religion itself? Because if the argument of this essay is correct — i.e., if people come to religious practice much of the time, or even just some of the time, because of their experience of the natural family rather than vice versa — then a very different verdict about the fate of religiosity in the advanced West suggests itself from the one that has been written by the conventional secularization script.

For there is nothing fixed or inevitable about today’s low birth rates or (bearing in mind that fertility is just one of several measures for the vitality of the family) low marriage rates or, for that matter, notions about the desirability of the natural family itself — in Europe or anywhere else. All these measures of family vitality have fluctuated throughout history, sometimes radically so. Both the low birth rate and the waning of marriage among Roman patricians, for example, were of sufficient concern under the emperor Augustus as to result in the imposition of the family-friendly “Julian laws” (incidentally, pronounced a failure by Tacitus a hundred years later). During the modern Depression, to take a very different example of flux, the birth rate in the United States was roughly two children per woman; only a historical blink later, in the years of the Baby Boom, it was four. Moreover, even the nations of Western Europe – now home to some of the lowest birth rates on earth — all experienced a baby boom recently enough to be within the living memory of those who are in late middle-age today.

Similarly, one can imagine the personal decisions that go into the social and demographic data changing under any number of scenarios. One potential catalyst is economic. Every advanced Western country faces a coming fiscal and political crisis in its social security system. Default or collapse, somewhere, seems inevitable, with possibly catastrophic reverberations. If and when that happens — if the state can no longer be counted on to help support the elderly — then young men and women might make radically different choices about whom they might prefer to rely on in old age, including the traditional solution of more children. In fact, the intellectual foundations of such a reversal would already appear to be laid in the counter-literature lately issuing from thinkers who have examined the population “bomb” and found it a dud.33

There is also another less tangible but nonetheless real reason why one can imagine a turnaround both in marriage rates and family size.34 The world has not experienced these historically low rates of natural family formation for long — or their attendant problems. Single motherhood, for example, though cheered by feminists a generation ago in the name of “liberation,” is now widely seen for what it really is: an inhumanly difficult task for almost any woman to execute, let alone the poorer and more vulnerable women among whom it has become common. Similarly — though it is politically charged to say so at a time when gay marriage, polygamous marriage, surrogate births and other novel family arrangements are being championed — a generation of social science has established that children do best when they grow up with married, biological parents in the home and that children who do not enjoy that advantage are at higher risk for a large number of problems.35 It is interesting that both marriage rates and childbearing among relatively affluent educated American women now seem to be on the uptick for reasons that have set sociologists quarreling. Maybe learning from the recent past, in particular from the problems that have arisen from other kinds of family structures, is one reason for that change.

And people do learn that way, after all. Consider the example of smoking and how many decades it took to change the global consensus from benign encouragement to widespread opprobrium. That example is a powerful confirmation of the truth that social norms do change in unexpected ways. All kinds of things might affect any individual’s calculation about whether to marry or any couple’s calculation about whether another child or two might be desirable — from sublime considerations like what that might add to their extended family’s happiness to prosaic factors like how many children can fit legally into most cars.

And of course one of the largest of these parental considerations — access to education — is also susceptible to political change. In the United States, where most urban public schools are seen as substandard and undesirable, parents in such areas often make decisions about family size based on what it costs to send children to school elsewhere. Any number of factors — restoration of public education, meaningful tuition tax credits, innovations in home-schooling networks — could affect that calculation in another direction.

For these reasons among others, it seems possible to imagine a sea-change in how some people of the future regard family formation as the consequences of some current trends — which is to say, the negative consequences — continue to reverberate. Such a change would also square with demographic facts of life in America and the rapidly aging rest of the West. It is one thing to be a healthy childless 40-year-old, say, free for all the travel, nightlife, entertainments, and the rest that are off-limits to most 40-year-olds with children. But it is another to be a sick 80-year-old in a nursing home, perhaps with a middle-aged child living in a different city, facing pain, mortality, and the hardest questions of life with strangers in brightly patterned hospital scrubs. The passing from middle to old age of the Baby Boom generation alone seems guaranteed to put these issues front and center in the next few decades.

For the same reason, it is hard to read of doings on the outposts of family shrinkage without feeling as if something precious has been lost, whether for the tens of thousands of nursing-home residents who died in the heat wave in France a few years ago or other stories from the front lines of the global experiments in life with few relatives. In Japan, at the very demographic cutting edge of the shrunken family, pathos appears hand in hand with the overall prosperity: the “renting” of nonfamily members for ceremonial purposes; the stories of villages emptied of all but the very old; the craze for cuddly automated talking dolls among older women who claim to find the companionship in them that earlier generations got from grandchildren. People of the future may well appreciate better than many of us today the particular human joy not only in one’s own offspring, but in their offspring too.

There is plenty of reason for pessimism about what the future holds for religious belief if by “pessimism” one means further decline. Divorce and illegitimacy — to say nothing of maternal surrogacy, polygamy, polyandry, multiple parenthood, and related political experiments involving children that defy the empirical evidence about what’s best for them — all these and other forces are battering the natural family. The more we modern people experiment with it, retooling it to suit our material desires, our political agendas, our busy lives, the more we would appear to risk losing what it is that makes many people religiously inclined in the first place. Nevertheless, in the religious anthropology proposed here — and contrary to that of secularization theory — there is nothing inevitable about the decline of the natural family and thus, by implication, religion too.

Of course all this is meant as a generalization about groups rather than a description fitting any one individual. It is an account of how many people in many places might arguably find themselves inclined for religion or indifferent to it. Hence the obvious if necessary qualifications: Of course, merely having families and children is no guarantee of religious belief; and plenty of bustling hearths have proven home to every vice and sin in the book. Of course also, as the history of clericalism and monasticism shows, many childless single people seem to hear the voice of God without family bonds of their own formation entering the picture; and conversely, surely there are atheists happy with families of more than a child or two. This argument with Nietzsche is not an attempt to explain all cases, or indeed any individual case whatsoever. It is rather an effort to ask what makes a lot of people religious or a-religious a lot of the time.

In sum, we can leave open the possibility that for some people, such as the childless philosopher Nietzsche, religiosity goes out as he described it: in a top-down process hammered out by a tortured soul sitting in a study and then left for intellectual heirs to disseminate. But for many other people, it seems safe to say, this religious anthropology does not describe why things are what they are — and the recent history of Western Europe, in which declines in fertility and family life preceded or ran alongside declines in religious practice, corroborates the point.


IV


To argue by analogy, it appears that the natural family as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many people — not the prophets, not the philosophers, but a great many of the rest. That is why the conventional story of secularization seems to be missing something: because it makes its cases by and to atomized individuals without reference to the totality of family and children through which many people derive their deepest opinions and impressions of life — including religious opinions and impressions.36

In sum, and given what we know now about the religious and familial situation in Western Europe some 125 years later, Nietzsche was right to declare that the great Christian cathedrals of Europe had become tombs. But he may have been wrong about what exactly had been buried in them. It was not so much God as the European natural family that has been largely laid to rest — an interment already well underway in some countries long before his madman entered the square and one that is surely an overlooked and critical part of the full story of how Christian Europe went secular.


1 Exactly which feature of modernity would do the trick has been much disputed, but a representative list would include technology, education, material progress, urbanization, science, feminism, and rationalism among others.

2 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) §125; Walter Kaufmann, ed. (Vintage, 1974), 81-82. For a discussion of the importance of this declaration to Nietzsche’s thought overall, see Peter Berkowitz, Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist (Harvard University Press, 1995), especially 14-21.

3 In Freud’s classic formulation, “The more the fruits of knowledge become accessible to men, the more widespread is the decline of religious belief.”

4 Or without public expressions of the corollary anxiety that the Muslims of Europe seem to be increasing their faith (and family size) even as the Christians have sent theirs packing.

5 See, for example, Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (W.W. Norton, reprint edition, 2005) and Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf 2006); Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin, reprint edition, 2007); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve, 2007); Michel Onfray, Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (English language ed., New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005); Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Prometheus Books, 2007). For a critical discussion of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris, see Michael Novak, “Lonely Atheists of the Global Village,” National Review (March 19, 2007). See also Heather Mac Donald, “God and Man and Human Suffering,” with a reply from Novak, American Spectator (December 2006/January 2007).

6 Frustration with one’s fellow humans for not having absorbed Nietzsche’s message by now is a continuing preoccupation of the current atheist genre. Michel Onfray, for example, perhaps the leading atheist in France and author of the bestselling Atheist Manifesto, seeks to explain the shortfall by positing a discrepancy between lofty intellectuals and plodding men of action: “The explosive nature of his [Nieszche’s] thought represents too great a danger for the earthbound clods who play the leading roles in real-life history.” Sam Harris proposes a different account, ending his Letter to a Christian Nation on a doleful note: “This letter is the product of failure — the failure of the many brilliant attacks upon religion that preceded it, the failure of our schools to announce the death of God in a way that each generation can understand, the failure of the media to criticize the abject religious certainties of our public figures — failures great and small that have kept almost every society on this earth muddling over God and despising those who muddle differently.” Plainly, despite broad agreement among themselves on the perils of religious faith, today’s atheists have not worked out a common idea about what exactly it is that has kept so many believing anyway.

7 Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 3. For counterattacks on secularization theory see George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (Basic Books, 2005), and Michael Novak, “The End of the Secular Age,” conference on Religion and the American Future, American Enterprise Institute (October 26–27, 2006). See also Eric Kaufmann, “God Returns to Europe: The Slow Death of Secularism,” Prospect (November 2006).

8 Robert Royal, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West (Encounter Books, 2006), xxiii.

9 See, for example, Berger’s preface to The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Ethics and Public Policy Center and Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999).

10 As Norris and Inglehart, for example, recently formulated that point in the specific matter of religion’s relationship to having babies: “secularization and human development have a powerful negative impact on human fertility rates. Practically all of the countries in which secularization is most advanced show fertility rates far below the replacement level — while societies with traditional religious orientations have fertility rates that are two or three times the replacement level.” Note the clear causal vector here, which is standard in the wider literature.

11 Gerard V. Bradley, “Stand and Fight,” National Review (July 28, 2003).

12 There is nothing intrinsically pejorative about this description; only one woman may be a biological mother, for example, to a given child, though other women may be “like” a mother. One’s actual biological ties to relatives are intrinsically limited and unchangeable, whereas one’s figurative, family-like associations are not.

13 The institution of marriage, which in effect seals the natural family in an arrangement lasting as long as it possibly can in human terms — i.e., till death — is similarly near-universal. For an anthropological overview, see David Blankenhorn, The Future of Marriage (Encounter Books, 2007), especially chapters 1–5.

14 Thanks to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt for illuminating some of the points in this section of the essay.

15 For an overview, see, for example, John Caldwell, “Paths to Lower Fertility — Education and Debate — Statistical Data Included,” British Medical Journal (October 9, 1999).

16 See, for example, Malcolm Potts and Martha Campbell, “History of Contraception,” vol. 6, ch. 8, Gynecology and Obstetrics (2002): “By the turn of the 19th century, all the major leads in contraceptive development had taken place.”

17 Jean-Claude Chesnais, “Below-Replacement Fertility in the European Union (eu-15): Facts and Policies, 1960–1997,” Review of Population and Social Policy 7 (1998). See especially Table 7.

18 Angus McLaren, Reproductive Rituals: The Perception of Fertility in England from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century (Methuen, 1984), 178–79.

19 Press release, Catholic Communications Office, Irish Bishops Conference (October 28, 2006).

20 Russell Shorto, “Keeping the Faith,” New York Times Magazine (April 8, 2007).

21 For a thorough discussion see Nicholas Eberstadt, “‘Demographic Exceptionalism’ in the United States: Tendencies and Implications,” American Enterprise Institute (January 2007).

22 As Peter Berger has observed, for example, “strongly felt religion has always been around; what needs explanation is its absence rather than its presence.” See also Grace Davie, “Europe: The Exception That Proves the Rule?” in Berger, Desecularization of the World, 65–83.

23 Acts of Faith (University of California Press, 2000), 33.

24 For a discussion of that increase and the role of other factors such as immigration, see Nicholas Eberstadt, “‘Demographic Exceptionalism.’”

25 Philip Longman reports that in Europe, the fertility differential between believers and unbelievers is 10–15 percent. See “Fertility, Faith, & the Future of the West: A Conversation with Phillip Longman,” interview by W. Bradford Wilcox, Books & Culture: A Christian Review (May/June 2007).

26 That there is a link between religiosity and family life is not in dispute. Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, for example, recently summarized the data on church attendance and secularization in the United States as follows: “The recent history of American religion illuminates what amounts to a sociological law: The fortunes of American religion rise with the fortunes of the intact, married family.” W. Bradford Wilcox, “As the Family Goes,” First Things 173 (May 2007). Wilcox also suggests three reasons for “why churchgoing is so tightly bound to being married with children”: because they find other couples like themselves in churches — i.e., those navigating family life; because children “drive parents to church” in the sense of encouraging them to transmit a moral/religious compass; and because men are much more likely than women to fall away from church on their own.

27 Those being when pregnancy or childbirth might harm the mother; to limit the number of children in a family for the benefit of the family; or to delay or space out having children.

28 By “shrinkage” of the family is meant not only the decline in family size per se, but also and more important the decreasing strength of marriage and childbearing and the natural family itself as social norms — i.e., “shrinkage” is meant both literally and figuratively.

29 Of course, Europe during the same interval also saw two world wars and the deaths of many millions of its fellows, events that arguably had a catastrophic effect on both family and religiosity. Yet perhaps surprisingly, it appears that those wars were not the main engines of the collapse of family and faith. For the vast majority of its citizens now have no recollection of those times, no widespread experiences of other catastrophes (episodic Islamicist and Basque separatist and ira terrorism apart) and are living in comparatively great prosperity — yet still a great many of them still do not have children, nor do they practice.

30 The religious gender gap is also a subject of vigorous debate. See, for example, Leon J. Podles, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Spence Publishing, 1999), and David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church (Thomas Nelson, 2004).

31 The stipulation is that males are slightly more likely to be represented on either end of the curve; i.e., slightly more likely to be geniuses on one end or severely retarded on the other. See Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1996), 275.

32 To continue the analogy to language, it is fascinating that children are apparently more influenced in their acquisition of language by their peers than by their parents. See Judith Rich Harris’s discussion in The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do (Bloomsbury, 2000), 287.

33 See, for example, Philip Longman, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It (Basic Books, 2004), and Ben Wattenberg, Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Reshape Our Future (Ivan R. Dee, 2005).

34 For a fuller discussion of these issues and an overview of current revisionist demographic literature, see Stanley Kurtz, “Demographics and the Culture War,” Policy Review 129, (February/March) 2005.

35 To name just a few books, see, for example, James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families (Harper paperbacks, reprint edition, 2003); Kay S. Hymowitz, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age (Ivan R. Dee, 2006); David Blankenhorn, The Future of Marriage (Encounter Books, 2007); Mary Eberstadt, Home-Alone America (Penguin/Sentinel, 2004).

36 For an interesting take on the shrill tone of much of that genre, see Anthony Gottlieb, “Atheists with Attitude: Why Do They Hate Him?” The New Yorker (May 21, 2007).