How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularism

How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularism
Mary Eberstadt
Templeton Press 2013 

In this magisterial work, cultural critic Mary Eberstadt delivers a powerful new theory about the decline of religion in the Western world. The conventional wisdom is that the West first experienced religious decline, followed by the decline of the family. Eberstadt turns this standard account on its head. Marshalling an impressive array of research, from fascinating historical data on family decline in pre-Revolutionary France to contemporary popular culture both in the United States and Europe, Eberstadt shows that the reverse has also been true: the undermining of the family has further undermined Christianity itself.

Drawing on sociology, history, demography, theology, literature, and many other sources, Eberstadt shows that family decline and religious decline have gone hand in hand in the Western world in a way that has not been understood before—that they are, as she puts it in a striking new image summarizing the book’s thesis, “the double helix of society, each dependent on the strength of the other for successful reproduction.”

In sobering final chapters, Eberstadt then lays out the ramifications of the mutual demise of family and faith in the West. While it is fashionable in some circles to applaud the decline both of religion and the nuclear family, there are, as Eberstadt reveals, considerable social, economic, civic, and other costs attendant on both declines. Her conclusion considers this tantalizing question: whether the economic and demographic crisis now roiling Europe and spreading to America will have the inadvertent result of reviving the family as the most viable alternative to the failed welfare state—fallout that could also lay the groundwork for a religious revival as well.

How the West Really Lost God is both a startlingly original account of how secularization happens and a sweeping brief about why everyone should care. A book written for agnostics as well as believers, atheists as well as “none of the above,” it will change the way every reader understands the two institutions that have hitherto undergirded Western civilization as we know it—family and faith—and the real nature of the relationship between those two pillars of history.


“You cannot understand the real philosophical problems of the West—which have been mounting for 40 years—without reading Mary Eberstadt’s new book How the West Really Lost God.”  — Jonathan V. Last, author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster

“How the West Really Lost God is clear as a bell, beautifully plotted, and the point it makes not only overturns conventional wisdom but strikes far deeper into reality than any rival argument in the field.” — Michael Novak, author of The Myth of Romantic Love, No One Sees God, Belief and Unbelief

“In How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt paints a provocative and powerful portrait of the familial roots of contemporary secularization in the West. Recent declines in church attendance throughout Europe and the Americas have been driven in large part by declining rates of marriage and childbearing among their citizens. Apparently, when men and women cease to find their way to the altar and the maternity ward, they are less likely to look heavenwards. As Eberstadt notes, the decline of faith and family have gone hand in hand throughout the West.

“This spells trouble for the men and women of the West, insofar as the one other institution besides family and religion that now supports them from cradle to grave is the welfare state. But, from Greece to the United States, the welfare state is running out of money. Eberstadt speculates that the demographic and financial collapse may well spur a revival of the fortunes of faith and family as people come to realize they cannot rely on the state. Only time will tell.” — W. Bradford Wilcox, director of National Marriage Project, University of Virginia

“Mary Eberstadt is one of the most acute and creative social observers of our time. She is not afraid to challenge received wisdom and her insights are always well worth pondering.” — Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man

“Mary Eberstadt’s  account of the connection between religion and family, showing that the two institutions rise and fall together, is finely written, impressively argued, and entirely persuasive. This book tells us much about the condition of Western societies today and reminds us that the atheists and the Nietzscheans owe their influence less to the truth of their views than to the loneliness to which they appeal.” — Roger Scruton, author of The West and the Rest: Globalisation and the Terrorist Threat

“An absolutely brilliant and strikingly fresh portrait of the ‘double-helix’ of faith and family, coupled with a potentially game-changing analysis of the why and how of secularization, all written with the sparkle and empathy that characterize the work of one of America’s premier social analysts. — George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.

“Mary Eberstadt’s account of the synergistic relationship between the fracturing of the family and declining religiosity is both chilling and utterly convincing. No theorist of secularization has come close to Eberstadt in sociological insight or explanatory power.” — Mary Ann Glendon, author of The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt

“A brilliant contribution to the really big question about the future of the West, and a pleasure to read.” — Rodney Stark, author of The Rise of Christianity

Table of Contents

Introduction / 3

Chapter 1: Does Secularization Even Exist? / 25 

Chapter 2: What Is the Conventional Story Line about How the West Lost God? What Are the Problems with It? / 59

Chapter 3: Circumstantial Evidence for the “Family Factor,” Part One: The Empirical Links among Marriage, Childbearing, and Religiosity / 89

Chapter 4: Circumstantial Evidence for the “Family Factor,” Part Two: Snapshots of the Demographic Record; Or How Fundamental Changes in Family Formation Have Accompanied the Decline of Christianity in the West / 105

Chapter 5: Circumstantial Evidence for the “Family Factor,” Part Three: Because the “Family Factor” Explains Problems That Existing Theories of Secularization Do Not Explain— Including What Is Known as “American Exceptionalism” / 125

Chapter 6: Assisted Religious Suicide: How Some Churches Participated in Their Own Downfall by Ignoring the Family Factor / 139

Chapter 7: Putting All the Pieces Together: Toward an Alternative Anthropology of Christian Belief / 155

Chapter 8: The Future of Faith and Family: The Case for Pessimism / 169

Chapter 9: The Future of Christianity and the Family: The Case for Optimism / 179

Conclusion: Why Does Any of This Matter? / 193

Epilogue: A Reflection on What Nietzsche and His Intellectual Heirs Missed, and Why They Might Have Missed It / 211

Acknowledgments / 217

Notes / 219

Index / 247