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How the West Really Lost God - chapter 2


"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

What Is the Conventional Story Line about How the West Lost God? What Are the Problems with It?

eberstadtThe purpose of the previous chapter was to convince readers that the great puzzle described at the outset of this book does indeed exist — i.e., that parts of the West are indeed significantly more secular, and significantly less influenced by Christianity in particular, than they have been for much of the past two millennia including even in the relatively recent past.

Many readers may not have needed convincing, of course.  "Secularization" rings intuitively true, say, to those who toil in certain Western cultural institutions where God has long since been sent packing with a vengeance — such as the secular media, for example; or the raunchier reaches of Western popular culture; or the many elite colleges and universities that sport, for example, "Sex Week" but never "God Week."  Still other readers may have seen the secular writing on the wall in images from contemporary Europe — the hostility in some places toward any religious figure in the public square; the continuing political attempts to minimize or rewrite the influence of Christianity on European history; the many churches home to no one in the pews below the age of sixty or so; and the rest of the über-secular portrait presented already in the introduction and chapter 1.

Nonetheless, and as the arguments in the chapter past have gone to show, it was necessary as a logical matter to establish that Western Christianity is in decline before examining the arguments about why that change has occurred.  And so, having (I hope) concluded this necessary logical detour, we return here to our opening question.

How did it come to happen that the cultural burden of proof, as it were, shifted in large part from unbelievers to believers — in other words, that Christians have increasingly played defense, while their adversaries have increasingly commanded the offense?

Now, that God has been banished — and/ or that he ought to be banished — from large and hardly insignificant territories of the West is a notion that many urbane men and women no longer even think to question, so self-evident does it appear to them.  As we have seen, the idea that religion would inevitably decline has been shared by almost every titan of modernity, including Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer, among others.  In fact, so familiar is their collective story of how the West lost God that it is now taken for granted by a great many educated people — including many who have never stopped to ponder the finer points of secularization theory because they just "know" that the Christian religion will sooner or later become a thing of the past.

As people across the West become more educated and more prosperous, the reigning collective story goes, they also come to find themselves both more skeptical of religion's premises and less needful of its ostensible consolations.  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 European Continent, will die out.  Exactly which feature of modernity would do the trick has been much disputed, but a representative list would include, at a minimum, technology, education, material progress, urbanization, science, feminism, and rationalism, among others cited for the withdrawal of the Sea of Faith.

Over the years, as indicated, many learned and influential people have bent their powers to tracking the receding God.  Our purpose in this chapter is to listen to what they have to say and to see whether it all adds up.  As before, the arguments for the hows and whys of secularization can be distilled into a series of arguments united by family resemblance.  Let us now look at these related ways of putting the pieces together — in effect, at what might be called the "creation stories" of secularization itself — and consider briefly but carefully their various strengths and weaknesses.

"What caused secularization?  People stopped needing the imaginary comforts of religion."

Embedded deep within modern thinking about secularization is an almost entirely unremarked-upon religious anthropology — that is, an implied view of human beings that purports to account for how and why people believe in the Christian God (and, by extension, in religion generally).  Let us call one such particular creation story "the comfort theory."  Widely accepted though this view may be among modern, sophisticated Westerners, it is also a font of some of the deeper problems with secularization theory itself, for reasons that will become clear during the following discussion.

Why is it that so many millions of people throughout history have been drawn to the Christian God — or again for that matter, to other gods as well?  Some armchair theorists have offered one or another variation of the same answer to that question.  People believe in God, they suppose, because it comforts them to do so.  Religion is akin to "opium," as Marx put it.  It is an "illusion," in Sigmund Freud's word, one that "derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires."

More quotes could be produced to prove the point: from the perspective of anti-or un-Christians who have paused to think about it, Christianity is rooted in fear and superstition.  Its purpose is to serve as a giant pacifier against the hunger pains of mortality.

This is also the explanation offered, more or less, by those toiling in the fields of modern atheism.  Michel Onfray, for example, who is perhaps France's most prominent atheist apologist, opens his best-selling book Atheist Manifesto with these words: "In Flaubert's novel, Madame Bovary relieved her despair by pretending.  Many people do the same. . . . Better the faith that brings peace of mind than the rationality that brings worry — even at the price of perpetual mental infantilism."

Again like the baby with the pacifier, so are religious believers thought to suck comfort from their creed.  Believers, says Sam Harris similarly in The End of Faith, "draw solace and inspiration" from what they do.  Both Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens also explain religion by drawing attention to the gullibility of its followers — a dismissal that clearly implies some imagined consolation on the part of the believers.

In sum, for the new atheists — as for others standing outside the tent of belief, and wondering how it ever got put there — the most common answer to the question of "why religion?" seems to be that there is something about that tent that is comforting to those inside it.  It is something that people have somehow devised to make themselves feel better about elemental matters like mortality, suffering, deprivation, and the rest of the unfortunate human lot.

To begin to see what is problematic here, look for starters at the unstated premise behind this account of how religious belief enters and exits the world.  According to that premise, the people who are comforted in this way are by definition more primitive or less intelligent than certain others; otherwise, presumably, they would not keep reaching for that ultimate pacifier.  (As inadvertent confirmation of this condescension, consider that new atheists prefer to designate themselves as "Brights" — a word plainly implying that believers are by contrast either "Dims" or "Dulls.")

Every once in a while, the lordliness of this largely unexamined premise breaks through to the surface — as in a notorious example from 2008, when President Barack Obama referred to benighted people who "cling to their guns and their religion," only to have to backtrack mightily when faced with public wrath over that sublimely snobbish characterization of believers.  That kind of arrogance is one problem with the comfort theory.  Even so, it is not, technically speaking, an insurmountable problem; after all, it is possible that the theory could still be true, however much its superciliousness might annoy the rest of the world.

No, the main problem with the comfort theory is that as a strictly empirical matter, it fails.  The fundamental problem with this widespread explanation for how Christianity comes and goes in the world is this: as a description of how people choose to believe what they do, this one is falsified by economic and other empirical fact.

For one thing, the notion that Judeo-Christianity is "comforting" to individual men and women is thoroughly subverted by a reading of either the Old or New Testaments — to say nothing of both sets of books.  It is true, of course, that immortality, and at times even earthly benefits, are promised to the ones who keep God's laws (adamantly so in the New Testament, more obliquely in the Old).  And granted — since nearly all human beings love their own lives, as well as the lives of some others — the promise of more life is indeed a weighty consolation, as modern thinkers like to point out, and hence on its face, an undeniably attractive one.

But that attractiveness, I would argue, is outweighed by something that those who think along these lines have not thought to emphasize, because it undermines their argument: namely, the heavy strings attached to that same offer of ultimate salvation, as verified by a quick checklist of Judeo-Christianity's other and profoundly burdensome claims on those same individual souls.

There are, for starters, the constraints that the Judeo-Christian moral code strives to place upon human free will.  Consider sex.  Pagans in ancient Rome could have their concubines, same-sex lovers, orgies, and could otherwise engage without religious penalty in an expanded notion of sexual enjoyment; but practicing Christians (and practicing Jews) could not.  Similarly, modern pagans and secularists can freely ignore, say, the commandments to attend religious services on Sundays and Holy Days; practicing Christians (and practicing Jews) cannot.  People living outside the Judeo-Christian universe can decide whatever they like about any number of the most personal and far-reaching decisions they make in life — when to have their children, how to raise them, where to send them to school, what to eat on any given day, what to do about their parents, what (or whether) to give to charity, and so on.  But the Judeo-Christian rulebook, at least in theory, circumscribes each and every one of these activities from the everyday to the exotic — and more, to boot.

To put it more bluntly: Do you really want to tithe, in addition to paying your taxes?  Do you want your workweek disrupted by the demands of observance, and your social or romantic life circumscribed by rules that many of your friends think ridiculous?  Do you want to drag your kids to religious education for years on end, often missing things they'd rather do in the meantime?  Do you want to be laughed at in the secular Western public square?  Do you want to be peppered constantly with fund-raisers and requests for volunteer- time, food donations, funding drives, and the rest of the institutional reality of religion?  Then get yourself to synagogue/church.

In sum, the idea that people turn to Christianity as some kind of easy way out is subverted by the demands of putting that creed into practice.

Second, the hardly inconsequential history of Christian saints and martyrs also contradicts the comfort theory.  No doubt — as the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and like-minded souls have enthusiastically emphasized — the Christian cup overflows with hucksters and con men and criminals and hypocrites.  No doubt it also always has.  But even a casual acquaintance with history makes clear that alongside such exploitation, there also runs a tradition of individual martyrdom and self-sacrifice that is far more interesting — because it is impossible to explain the depth of self-denial it exhibits using the anthropology of the comfort theory.

From the beginning of Judeo-Christianity, hale and hearty and ostensibly sane men and women — and some children — have suffered and died rather than renounce their faith.  In the book of Daniel, rather famously, three young Jews (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) suffer prison and then risk death in a fiery furnace rather than accede to the demand of the King of Babylon — a fate they are rescued from only by divine intervention.  It is a story that has resonated throughout the centuries of a Christianity put often to similar trials and tests.  Among the twelve apostles, for example, and leaving aside Judas Iscariot for obvious reasons, only one is believed to have died of natural causes.  Christians were persecuted under every Roman emperor up until Constantine, and Diocletian alone is credited with the creation of 20,000 martyrs.  On through the centuries, and following the example of those early martyrs, Christians here and there would scatter martyrdom to every corner of the globe.

Even more intriguing and problematic, at least for the comfort theory, the twentieth century itself — one into which enlightenment and modern technology were supposedly seeping and changing mores everywhere — appears as the very high-water mark of martyrdom, with the number of Christians killed for their faith a positively staggering weight against the notion that Christianity is for suckers seeking a false fix from human reality.  According to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, for example, which delivers an annual "Status of World Christians Report" attempting to quantify what is happening worldwide, "The number of martyrs [in the period 2000–2010] was approximately 1 million."  This is compared to some 34,000 in 1900.

Of course one can quibble with the numbers, and a precise body count may be out of conceptual reach.  But what if the real tally is "only" half that?  The point is not to ask whether millions of human beings have been right or wrong to throw their lives at their religious cause.  But their situation in the history of Christianity does raise this provocative question: How can so many manifestly suffering people scattered across human history be squared with a theory that says their attraction to their faith was . . . to make themselves somehow feel better about life?  Similarly, what about the everyday martyrdom of many other Christians — the Catholic priests denying themselves in principle the consolations of family; the missionaries throughout history serving lonely and uncomfortable time among the wretched of the earth; the towering religious figures, among whom John Paul II stands as the latest example, who dedicate their lives to serving the church?  Are we really supposed to believe these people too took up their crosses because that burden made them feel good?

In short, champions of the comfort inadvertently illuminate all over again the difficulty squarely before us: upon reflection, there are obvious problems with the going explanations for why Christianity has diminished in parts of the West.

To summarize, the notion that people turn to Christianity as a kind of consolation prize for the slow of wit is deeply flawed when one considers what living by the rules of Christianity actually entails if put into practice — which is sacrifice, self-sacrifice, and the acceptance of some unambiguously heavy limitations on individual freedom.  And since that same deeply problematic conception of religion as a consolation prize is deeply embedded in the prevailing story line for secularization, it ends up calling into question that theory itself.

The problem before us is this: If we don't have an adequate explanation for why people believe in religion in the first place, how can we have one for why they stop? This is the first of other reasons to wonder whether some other explanation for the weakening of Christianity across the West might offer a more plausible account of what has happened.

"What caused secularization?  Science and the Enlightenment and rationalism."

Now consider another common explanation for today's levels of secularism, one that focuses on seminal historical events as the engine of religious change.  This is another widely accepted explanation for the disappearance of God from some Western precincts — and like the foregoing one, it requires a closer and harder look.

The creation story from the Enlightenment, capital "E," runs more or less like this.  Beginning in France in the 1700s or so — particularly with the often scathing works of the pseudonymous Voltaire and the other philosophes — certain specially gifted and bold men of letters came to understand that there was no God.  Over time, and bit by bit, their understanding of the fraudulent nature of Christianity and the mendaciousness of Christian leaders trickled down via various routes, including politics and the law.  As a result of the power of their ideas and the increasing (albeit unexplained) ability of other human beings to see through the superstition of religion, today the secular worldview of the philosophes and of the scientists who followed them is widespread among the masses of people, especially in Western Europe.

Certainly this account of how God disappeared from parts of the West is widely held, at least casually, among modern secularists.  The late Christopher Hitchens, for example, closes his 2007 manifesto God Is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything, with a chapter calling for "The Need for a New Enlightenment" — one that "will not need to depend, like its predecessors, on the heroic breakthroughs of a few gifted and exceptionally courageous people."  The clear implication is that the Enlightenment, by asserting that the proper study of humanity was humanity, started men and women down a path toward deliverance from religious bondage.

Similarly, historian and secular humanist Charles Alan Kors argues that the changes ushered in by Enlightenment science ultimately transformed not only science, but the entire theological world as well.  Writing of Kepler and others, he summarizes: "There was, as a matter of historical fact, a religious awe in the new science, but it was one that located God's providence far less in the history of miracles and prophecies and far more in the natural mechanisms around us. . . . Such a change in understanding . . . made possible a reconceptualization and revaluation of nature with profound implications for religion, for thinking about human nature, and for ethical theory."  The Enlightenment led to what Kors calls "the secularization of values" — one which in retrospect could not help but weaken the church by changing the way people conceived of evidence for a supernatural realm.

All this might seem intuitively obvious.  But is it empirically so?  Is there really a straight causal line from the ideas of the Enlightenment to today's continuing falloff in Christian observance?

In his authoritative book with Werner Ustorf, The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750–2000, British historian Hugh McLeod identifies three problems with this way of explaining secularization.  First, he observes, the masses were not part of the Enlightenment.  Second, eighteenth-century elites were actually more likely to be rational Christians than they were atheists or freethinkers.  Third, he notes, "those who seek to trace a continuous line from Voltaire to twenty-first- century atheists also tend to overlook the fact that the first half of the nineteenth century saw a revival of more conservative forms of Christianity both among intellectuals and among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie more widely."  In other words, the top-down theory from the French Enlightenment does not fit so well with the historical facts.

What McLeod has his finger on here is more than a historical nuance.  It is a gaping hole in the theory that the Enlightenment banished God.  If such were true, then we would expect that sophisticated people — educated people and those highest up the socioeconomic ladder — would one by one fall into line behind secularism.  If such were true, there would be no room in our theory for revivals of the more conservative Christian variety, at least at the higher levels of society.

Embedded in that argument from Enlightenment is a related and also problematic idea that similarly demands close attention: namely, that individuals become less religious as they become more personally enlightened, small "e."  Less-educated people are more likely to believe in the Christian God; better-educated people are less so.  This too is a causal notion about secularism that many people accept without qualm — if they even stop to think about it at all.

Like the notion that the Enlightenment caused secularization, this related idea that personal enlightenment leads to the same outcome has a surface plausibility.  Everyone knows that the phenomenon of losing one's faith during the college years, for example, is commonplace.  A secularist would argue that this trend is proof of the fact that the smarter or more educated or other enlightened one becomes, the less likely one is to believe in God, attend church, and the rest of the Christian religious requirement.  Everyone also "knows" that rich people have less use for God than do poor people, and that smart people have less use for religion, frankly, than do those with duller heads.  Don't we?

Everyone "knows" these things — yet in actual fact few people, especially those people advancing these notions as explanations for the weakening of Western Christianity, seem to know the empirical truth.  Once again, if the theory from enlightenment were true — if it correctly predicted who was religious, and why — then we would reasonably expect that the poorer and less educated people are, the more religious they would be.  Certainly that is a stereotype that many people hold — one flagrantly displayed, for example, in a subsequently infamous observation by a Washington Post reporter in 1993, describing the followers of leading American evangelicals as "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command."

Conversely, if the theory from enlightenment were true, we would also expect from the theory that the better-off people are, the less likely they are to practice religion.  This is also a social and economic stereotype to which many people would likely agree.

So are these two stereotypes backed up by the evidence available to us — or are they not?

No, they are not.  In fact, the data heap here testifies to the opposite fact: i.e., that Christian religiosity, in at least some significant places and times, has in fact been more concentrated in the upper classes than in the lower, and more likely among the educated than among those who are less so.

Note that we are not attempting here to gather data for all social classes and all places and times — nor do we need to.  We have enough already to make this point: Christianity does not wax and wane in the world in the way the theory from Enlightenment or enlightenment says it does, because Christian socioeconomic patterns of belief do not look the way the theory says they should.

Hugh McLeod — again, a major analyst in Great Britain of secularization both there and in Western Europe — has among other contributions performed painstaking work on historical London between the 1870s and 1914.  One correlation he emphasizes is that "the poorest districts thus tended to have the lowest rates of [church] attendance, [and] those with large upper-middle- class and upper-class populations the highest."  In other words — and in contrast to the perhaps Dickensian image of the pious poor morally and otherwise outshining a debauched and irreligious upper class — reality among the populace seems to have been the opposite.  "Only a small proportion of working-class adults," McLeod points out by way of example, "attended the main Sunday church services" (Irish Catholics being the sole exception).

Historian Callum G. Brown, another expert on the numbers, cites McLeod along with observers from the mid-1800s.  All make the same point about religiosity in Britain during those years: that contrary to common wisdom, "the working class were irreligious, and that the middle classes were the churchgoing bastions of civil morality."

Are educated and better-off people actually more likely to believe in the Christian God and to practice the Christian faith than poorer and worse-off ones?  Counterintuitive though it might appear, there is evidence for that proposition well beyond Victorian England.  In fact, much the same pattern characterizes the United States today — one more socioeconomic subversion of the idea that economic and intellectual sophistication are somehow the natural enemies of Christian faith, or that personal enlightenment and sophistication explain the falloff in Western Christian practice today.

Robert D. Putnam's and David E. Campbell's American Grace, mentioned earlier, similarly refutes the notion that religiosity in the United States is a lower-class thing.  During the first half of the twentieth century, the authors observe, college-educated people participated more in churches than did those with less education.  This pattern changed during the 1960s, which saw church attendance fall off most among the educated.  But following that "shock" there emerged another pattern, according to which attendance tended again to rise faster among the educated than it did among the less educated (or depending on how one looks at it, the falloff in attendance then became more dramatic among the less educated than it was among those with college degrees — another way of saying the same thing).  As Putnam and Campbell observe, "This trend is clearly contrary to any idea that religion is nowadays providing solace to the disinherited and dispossessed, or that higher education subverts religion."

Similarly, in research summarized in another wide-ranging book on American social class called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, political scientist Charles Murray analyzes recent data on churchgoing, marriage, and related matters to conclude that "America is coming apart at the seams.  Not the seams of race or ethnicity, but of class."  Most interesting of his proxies for our purposes here is that of religion.

The upper 20 percent of the American population, he summarizes using data from the General Social Survey, are considerably more likely than the lower 30 percent to believe in God and to go to church.  Among the working class, 61 percent — a clear majority — either say they do not go to church or believe in God, or both; among the upper class, it is 42 percent.  "Despite the common belief that the white working class is the most religious group in white American society," Murray summarizes, "the drift from religiosity was far greater in Fishtown [his imaginary working-class community] than in Belmont [a better-off suburb]."

Such numbers also track with recent data on the state of American marriage — and once again, it seems safe to use marriage rates as some kind of proxy for the health of Christianity, insofar as all Christians are enjoined to marriage as an alternative to cohabitation.  Of course people marry for reasons other than religious ones.  But given that believers marry for the primary purpose of receiving a religious blessing on their unions, we can infer that religious people have more incentive to marry than do secular people or people antagonistic to religion.  Thus, it surely tells us something about the condition of marriage in America that the better-educated and better-off people are, the more likely they are to be married as well.

Related findings on religion and social class have also been documented independently by sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox at the University of Virginia, one of the country's leading authorities on American marriage.  Wilcox has documented the "faith gap" between the better-educated and the people who are less so.  Americans with a high school degree are more likely to get divorced than they used to; those with a bachelor's degree or higher are less likely.  Americans with college degrees are more likely than those with high school diplomas alone to attend church on Sunday.  Moreover, the researchers also found that the statistical likelihood of attending church varied inversely with the social ladder from bottom to top — in other words, that "the least educated have experienced faster rates of decline than even the moderately educated, and they began at an even 'lower' starting point . . . meaning the gap between the least educated and most educated is even larger than the one between the moderately educated and most educated."

Why is this social pattern concerning marriage a problem for the going theory about how and why many Westerners stopped believing in God?  For this reason: because if religion is indeed Marx's "opiate of the masses," as certain seminal modern thinkers seem to agree, then one would expect to see the opposite of the social pattern from the one just described.  That is, one would expect the worse-off members of society to be consuming more of the Christian Kool-Aid — including, say, participation in marriage — than people in the better-off classes, not less.  As a written report for put the matter pithily in a piece summarizing work by Wilcox et al., "Who Is Going to Church?  Not Who You Think."

Less pithily, there is an obvious problem in all this for secularization theory.  After all, one would expect from conventional thinking about secularization that Christianity would wither away from the top down.  Yet plainly, in at least some places and times that have been closely documented by experts, this is not what has happened.  Yes, there are elite territories today where secularism is the unquestioned coin of the realm, and where religious believers appear to be few and far between — Ivy League campuses, certain subgroups of scientists, and academics generally.  But in the big picture of the United States today — as in Victorian England of yesterday, it appears — the reality of who believes and practices Christianity is the social and economic opposite of what is commonly supposed.  Religious affiliation and attendance actually increase as one climbs the socioeconomic ladder.

Consider one more proof of this same significant trend — significant not least for what it tells us about the shortcomings of the reigning accounts of secularization: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the United States.

In 2011, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published a major study of the beliefs and practices of America's Mormons — the largest one yet to be commissioned by an organization not affiliated with the LDS itself.  The report contained a number of findings testifying to the prevalence and strength of religious belief in the LDS community.  Most germane for our purposes was this one: once again, in this community as in others discussed above, religiosity increases, not decreases, as one climbs the social and economic ladder.  Thus, for example, "Mormons who have graduated from college display the highest levels of religious commitment (84%) followed by those with some college education (75%).  Mormons with a high school education or less exhibit substantially lower levels of religious commitment (50% score high on the scale) than their more highly educated counterparts."  Once again, and contrary to popular belief, literacy and money do not drive secularism.

The mere fact of the existence of worldly, sophisticated men and women who nevertheless persist in their faiths goes to show that something is missing from the current story line about how and why God came to be discarded by many modern, secular human beings.

In short, the ebb and flow of Christian religiosity does not appear to be a function of personal enlightenment, small "e," per se, any more than they do of the Enlightenment proper.  As with the problems inherent in the comfort theory, the empirical shortcomings of the enlightenment thesis point once again to this conclusion: something else must be going on to account for the way religious belief, or at least Christian religious belief, comes and goes.  Pace received wisdom, and seen from today's end of the telescope, rationalism and sophistication and literacy and the like, simply in and of themselves, do not suffice to drive out God — and may even open extra windows for him.

"What caused secularization?  The world wars did."

This is another idea about what caused the decline in Christianity that makes more sense the less it is inspected.  Like the answer about the Enlightenment, this one has an intuitive plausibility — and like that other answer as well, it cannot be all wrong.  Surely some of the people who lived through those uniquely catastrophic events of history found their religious faith shaken and at times destroyed by the horrors they witnessed and experienced.  Many must also have found it arduous to reconstruct their lives after years during which husbands and wives were separated on a mass scale and when the rhythms of ordinary life, whether those surrounding home or family or church or anything else related to human gathering, were disrupted as never before.  So, yes: that the two world wars and their massive dislocations had enormous fallout for many millions of people is easily granted.

After all, Western Europe in the twentieth century was devastated by war as no other territory had been in history.  Over twenty million Europeans died in the First World War, and some fifty to seventy million in the Second depending on the estimate.  The horrors of the Holocaust alone, the deliberate murder of six million Jews, including by people who also called themselves Christians, would seem to more than justify despair about the incorrigible darkness of the human heart — to say nothing of calling into existential question a God who promised after the Flood that he would never again abandon his people.  The Holocaust in and of itself might also explain a subject beyond the reach of this book, though obviously related to it, which is the falloff in religious practice among postwar Jews across the world (the most religious singularly excepted).28

The ways in which the wars seared world consciousness, especially European consciousness, has also been a constant theme of art ever since.  Postwar British and European literature, not surprisingly, mourns a world never to come again — from the poems of Wilfred Owen and other members of the Lost Generation in England to the fictions of Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass and others in the shattered world of postwar Germany.  The Diary of Anne Frank and other works memorializing the Holocaust are similarly grim literary windows onto catastrophic Europe in the mid-twentieth century.  Across the board, whether in fiction or nonfiction, the portrait of the wars is one of a world shattered violently to bits and peopled by broken characters, devoid in equal parts of innocence and hope and pockmarked throughout by savagery.

Under the catastrophic circumstances of those wars and the horrors of that world, one might ask, how on earth could reasonable men and women not have lost their faith?

Yet once again, an intuitively appealing answer does not, indeed, seem to fit the empirical facts about the shrinkage of Christianity in Europe, for several reasons.

For one thing, the timeline of secularization is not the same in all places and times.  Staying home on Sunday mornings happened faster in France than in England; it did not happen in Ireland until just about two decades ago.  If war was really the engine driving secularization, why would it take decades to get from one country in Europe to another?  The world-wars theory of secularization also does not account for secularization before the wars — and plenty of scholars would argue that Christian practice was already trending downward well before that fateful day in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria survived one assassination attempt via grenade in the morning, only to be felled by a revolver later in the day.

Second, one might reasonably expect that if the wars were in fact the reason for secularization, then the victorious nations might somehow look different from the vanquished ones; but this is not the case, either.  By the yardstick of declining Christian practice, shattered Germany measures up much the same as victorious Great Britain.  Catholic Spain — riven by its own civil war, which included the murder of an estimated one-fifth of its Catholic clergy — remained ostensibly religious, albeit deeply divided, until very recently, and has apparently been making up for lost time by galloping toward secularism at a faster rate than most.  Neutral Switzerland is as secular and free of Christian fervor as any other country in Europe.  Why should nations with such disproportionate burdens of wartime suffering all experience a decline in religious faith?

The theory of secularization invoking the wars does not say — which suggests that this theory is ultimately not going to shed much light on our great puzzle.

Third — and what is perhaps the insurmountable problem for the world-wars theory — at least some intriguing evidence suggests that in fact, the opposite may be true: that as mentioned in the previous chapter, the catastrophe of war may at times call forth greater faith, not less.  World War II, at least, by wide agreement of secular experts, seems to have been followed by a boomlet in religiosity in different parts of the West.

In an intriguing essay alluded to earlier, for example, reviewing the role of religion during that war in the British, American, and Canadian armies, historian Michael Snape concludes that the soldiers of all three nations "were exposed to an institutional process of rechristianisation during the Second World War, a process that was widely reinforced by a deepening of religious faith at a personal level."29 This experience, he concludes, further "reinforce[d] a religious revival that was stirring in the war years and which was to mark all three societies until the religious ferment of the 1960s."

Callum G. Brown agrees with this assessment.  As he has put it, summarizing evidence from across the West of a religious boomlet in the mid-twentieth century:

Between 1945 and 1958 there were surges of British church membership, Sunday School enrollment, Church of England Easter Day communicants, baptisms and religious solemnization of marriage, accompanied by immense popularity for evangelical 'revivalist' crusades. . . . Nor was Britain unique. . . . In Australia, the period 1955 to 1963 has been described as a 'modest religious boom' which affected every denomination across all the measurable indices of religious life, characterized by the same crusading evangelism and social conservatism as in Britain and the United States.  In most regions of West Germany between 1952 and 1967 there was a modest rise in churchgoing amongst the Protestant population, whilst in France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands in the 1950s a resilient religious observance underpinned confessionalist politics.  Nationalist experiences varied greatly, and there were exceptions (notably in Scandinavia), but there is clear evidence that in the mid-twentieth century there was a significant resilience to Christianity in Britain and much of the Western world [emphasis added].

This apparent renewal of Christianity on the part of men and women across the West following the war was not merely an individual affair, but also a matter of public practice.  In some countries, in fact, the language used by political leaders reached to Christianity itself in a way that would be considered shocking today.  And this religiosity of public vocabulary following the war is one more bit of evidence that the war alone didn't kill God.

This was especially true in Germany.  Immediately after the war, as the eminent German Protestant theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg has observed: "Germany was eager to reclaim its place in Western culture and to distance itself from the ruins of Nazism.  Cultural reclamation included affirming Germany's specifically Christian heritage, which was helped by the fact that the churches had been less morally compromised than other institutions during the Third Reich."   From Konrad Adenauer on down through the newly created Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, German politicians and other leaders forged new links to the Catholic Church, and found in the Christian tradition a usable moral past on which to try and rebuild the vanquished country.  In fact, at a famous speech at Cologne University in 1946, Adenauer not only urged the refounding of Germany on a Christian ethic, but also blamed Nazism itself on the weakness of Christianity in Germany before the world wars.

Of course it is impossible to imagine any such words issuing from the mouth of any European leader, anywhere, anytime, today; Germany today is as characteristically secular as any other countries of Western Europe, including in the public pronouncements of its leaders.  Indeed, the speed of the Christian collapse in Germany may be especially interesting for just this reason — because it is one more example of how a society with an explicitly Christian public ethos could watch so much of that ethos evaporate in a matter of mere decades, rather than over centuries or millennia.

Taken together with the other evidence, however, the postwar public religiosity of Germany suggests the same conclusion: the argument that the world wars traumatized the modern West into secularism simply doesn't hold up as a sufficient explanation for what really happened to Christianity after 1914 — or 1945.

It may well be — and would surely make sense — that many people shattered by the war lost their faith in a benign Creator.  It may also be that the loss of their faith was not evident for some mysterious reason until later on in history.  But why, generations later, should so many of their children and grandchildren who knew nothing but relative postwar prosperity be secular too?

Once again, a piece of the overall puzzle seems to have gone missing.

"What caused secularization?  Material progress did.  People got fat and happy and didn't need God anymore."

This is a colloquial way of summarizing one more explanation for secularism and secularization that many people instinctively accept.

It is also a thought that pops up frequently in the pastoral literature created by contemporary religious leaders seeking to rein in their wandering flocks.  Thus, for example, Arthur Simon, evangelical pastor and founder of the charity Bread for the World, is also author of a book called How Much Is Enough?  Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture.  There he sounds a theme of concern to many a minister and priest: namely, "the supremely difficult challenge of living faithfully for Christ in a culture that is more alien to our faith than we may realize."  By "culture," he specifically means the pursuit of material accumulation — that the unprecedentedly high standards of wealth in the advanced nations (recessions notwithstanding) are the chief force standing between modern Westerners and God.

Many Catholic leaders, too, have similarly connected the dots  between increasing affluence on the one hand, and increasing secularism on the other.  A series of papal encyclicals and related commentary have warned against the temptations of commercialism and accumulation, further attempting to stake out the answer to Arthur Simon's question — i. e., how much may be too much?35 Pope Benedict XVI has vigorously and repeatedly condemned what he calls the "idol" of consumerism, noting for example before 150,000 young people in Sydney, Australia, that "in our personal lives and in our communities, we encounter a hostility, something dangerous; a poison which threatens to corrode what is good, reshape who we are and distort the purpose for which we have been created."

Certainly here, too, everyone has grasped some piece of the truth.  God and Mammon, at least according to the holy books, have been at odds from the very beginning; so why shouldn't the unprecedented prosperity of modern times drive men and women away from the pursuit of heaven?  The Old and New Testaments, for their parts, do not stint on the idea that storing up riches on earth rather than in heaven is inimical to following God.  Jesus tells parable after parable in which the rich man is made the unenviable villain of the piece — and that passage about camels and needles' eyes can still induce uneasiness, maybe even more among well-off modern people than their forebears.  Following this tradition of regarding material wealth with judgments ranging from healthy skepticism to frank enmity, Christian leaders generally have regarded warnings against materialism as a critical part of their religious message.

Perhaps the most nuanced version of the relationship between money and God, at least as it pertains to secularization, comes from political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart.  They have explored in fine detail the connections between privation and religious belief.  According to their model, the poorer and less secure people are, the more they "need" religion.  Once again, this is a theory bolstered by the numbers; across the world, broadly speaking, better-off countries are less observant than poor ones (this despite the fact that, as we have seen, in some advanced countries it is the better-off people who appear more religious).  It is almost certainly also true, as they suggest, that affluence appears to erode some of the bonds between individuals and church in this specific sense: people who can rely more on themselves financially are by definition in less need of the traditional social-service functions that have helped to make Christianity go round — like soup kitchens, shelters, and the rest of the charities and good works that churches perform.

Yet while the fat-and-happy argument surely contributes to our understanding of secularism, or the ways in which comfortable modern people live more of their lives outside the religious sphere, it seems limited as the overriding explanation for secularization.

First, it shares the same limitations as the argument reviewed earlier from rationalism and enlightenment.  If the "material progress" explanation were all we needed to know about secularization, then one would expect religiosity to decline as one climbs the social ladder in the advanced West — and instead, as we have seen, the opposite appears to be the case, in at least some significant quadrants.

Second, as a related point, the "material progress" theory implicitly advances the notion that — to put it colloquially — more stuff equals less God.  Yet in fact, Christianity has coexisted comfortably, even exuberantly, in materially comfortable surroundings from ancient Rome to Renaissance Florence to the gated communities and megachurches of the United States today.  At times, in fact, rather infamously, bearers of the Christian message have proven so at home with first-class surroundings that scandal has been the result.  One can scarcely stroll through the gardens and astonishingly sculpted fountains of Villa D'Este in Tivoli, say, without wondering how Cardinal Ippolito II D'Este viewed his odds of jamming one of the most sumptuous estates ever commissioned through that proverbial needle's eye — or by extension, how the ostentatious artworks and monuments of Christianity can possibly be squared with the founding message of abstemiousness, moderation, and self-denial.

But the ultimate limitation of the explanation from material wealth is one shared by the other going theories for secularization: i.e., there are too many exceptions to be explained — in other words, too many pieces left over once the problem is supposedly "solved."  It is this list of questions, finally, that clinches the case for an alternative theory of where the Western God has gone — a list that amounts to puzzle pieces yet to be fitted together in one place.

Why is the United States of America, by any measure, more religious than the economically comparable nations of Europe — a problem known in the specialized literature as "American exceptionalism"?  Why are women more religiously observant than men?  Why is 1960 such a pivotal year for religious observance and practice, as nearly all observers agree; what is it that makes Christianity seem to go off a cliff after that point?  Current theories of Christianity's decline cannot answer these questions — meaning that the truths of each going version of the theory are partial, and not complete.

As will be argued in chapter 5, each of these subsidiary puzzles — and a couple of other loose pieces — are better explained by a theory that takes the Family Factor into account.

Finally — if any more proof is required by now of God's not having exited the scene on the timetable predicted by secular soothsayers — consider also this intriguing piece of subsidiary evidence suggesting that the current story line about religion and secularization needs revising.  That is the constantly expressed frustration on the part of nonbelievers and anti-believers at Christianity's apparently unfathomable persistence in the modern world.

Frustration with one's fellow humans for not having absorbed  Nietzsche's message by now is a continuing preoccupation of the new atheist genre, for example — and one that indirectly tells us something interesting about just how limited the standard secularization script has turned out to be.

Michel Onfray, for example, seems to blame the plodding majority of humanity for just not getting it.  "The explosive nature of his [Nietzsche's] thought," he opines, "represents too great a danger for the earthbound clods who play the leading roles in real-life history."   American atheist Sam Harris seems similarly to believe that most other people are inferior to atheists in understanding what is, at least to him, the obvious truth of the cosmos.  Hence he ends his Letter to a Christian Nation on this 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 remain in the dark about what exactly it is that has kept so many human beings believing in God anyway.  In this the new atheists are markedly inferior to the great thinkers of modernity, whose understanding of the impulse toward religiosity was immeasurably more nuanced and empathetic.

Let us take a brief tour of their thoughts here.  Émile Durkheim, to make a long story ridiculously short, believed that religion contained deep truths.  In particular, as he argued in a seminal essay on "The Dualism of Human Nature," Durkheim held human beings to be dual creatures with both an individual and social side.  Religion, he argued, was created by the social side; it is an institution through which human beings embody and celebrate and reinforce underlying social truths.  Durkheim, unlike certain modern superficial critics of religion, would have understood as they do not the history of martyrdom and religious sacrifice.  In fact, he argued that sacrifice was necessary and to be expected.  It is part of the price that the individual pays for belonging to the social group.

Sigmund Freud, for his part, argued similarly in Civilization and Its Discontents that society requires sacrifice on the part of individuals and repression as the price for civilization.  Thus, though he was also a signatory of sorts to what has been dubbed the "comfort theory" of the origins of religion, he understood as critics of Christianity today seem not to that religion is more than "just" an illusion — it is a practice that gives something back to practitioners.

Max Weber — whose immense work on the sociology of religion defies summary, but will be mentioned here anyway because it is impossible to omit — believed in the original variant of the "Protestantism" explanation for secularization visited earlier.  That is, he held that certain features of Protestantism, especially Calvinism, were essential to modernity and its concomitant "disenchantment of the world."  He also believed that societies follow a progression from magic to polytheism, and finally, to ethical monotheism.

As even this brief tour makes plain, there are riches in the tradition of the sociology of religion that are lacking in the new atheists and other contemporary skeptics or adversaries of Christianity.  The classicists understood in their own ways what most thinkers today do not — namely, where religion might come from — without the signature condescension that marks so much anti-theist writing today.  But even the classicists did not, any more than contemporary thinkers, explain the question we are rounding over and over in this chapter: What causes God to come and go? — in all likelihood because most of them did not believe that religion could wax as well as wane.

Plainly, and to repeat, Christianity does just that.  Surveying the past two decades' statistics on the growth of unbelievers in America, for example, Ronald A. Lindsay, president of the Council for Secular Humanism, recently made a point with which this book is in whole-hearted agreement: that the increasing number of Western people who reject belief in anything transcendent is indeed "unprecedented in the history of the world."  Even so, and correctly, he warns that secularists would be wrong to celebrate prematurely — because to judge by human history, the next rise in religiosity might be just around the corner.

After all, as he notes, "I doubt whether many Romans in the early second century would have predicted the rise of Christianity, whether many Americans in the mid-nineteenth century would have foreseen the survival and prospering of Mormonism, or whether many Americans in the early twentieth century correctly conjectured there would be a simultaneous decline among mainstream Protestant denominations and a rise in Protestant fundamentalism."  These failures of prognostication are also failures of something larger — namely, the inability of secularization theory in all its forms, popular as well as erudite, to deliver a coherent explanation of why religion rises as well as falls.

In sum, and as we have had occasion to observe before, what is missing is an adequate "theory of variation."  But the fact that such a theory does not yet exist only inadvertently emphasizes the conclusion of this chapter: we have by now not one, but many, reasons to believe that not all of the pieces of the secularization puzzle have been put on the table.

The pages in this chapter have given us an opportunity to consider the main lines of thought about why parts of the West have gone secular — including the comfort theory, the theories from Enlightenment and enlightenment, the wars theory, the fat and happy theory, and variations on same.  In each case, scrutiny of these theories points beyond them to this conclusion: whatever else has happened in the world, the projected diminishment of the Christian God appears either not to have happened for exactly the reasons it was supposed to, or not on the timeline that was set for it — or both.

Of course we have not considered these large matters in anything like the depths plumbed by academics who spend their careers tracking the baptismal records of French provinces in the 1600s, say, or conversely via gargantuan Pew research surveys or other massive statistical undertakings.  In a way, though, the relative brevity of this inquiry is exactly the point.  For as the general reader can see, even considering these theoretical issues in the relatively finite length of a chapter makes clear that there is something missing from the explanation we currently have for secularization.

Having established that doubt in the reader's mind, or so I hope, we can now turn to more circumstantial proof that something is amiss with our current way of seeing things — and that an alternative invoking the Family Factor, as outlined later in chapter 7, will throw new light on which pieces really belong where. 



eberstadt Mary Eberstadt. "Chapter 2." How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2013): 25-58.

Reprinted with permission of Templeton Press and Mary Eberstadt. 

The Author

eberstadt3smeberstadtaesm Mary Tedeschi Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute, the parent institution of The Catholic Thing, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC.  She is the author of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, Adam and Eve after the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution,Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death and Atheism, Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs and Other Parent Substitutes and the editor of Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys.

Copyright © 2013 Templeton Press
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