It is usual for authors writing social analysis to preface their works with something along the lines of working “towards” an understanding, critique, or revaluation of some situation or event. After all, there’s nothing bad about a bit of intellectual humility. On the other hand, I doubt we’d want to live in a perpetual state of agnosticism about everything, forever stuck on the question and never arriving at a definitive answer. It was G. K. Chesterton who said that “the purpose of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to shut it firmly on something solid.”

Mary Eberstadt’s book promises to be that solid thing, the seeds of which can be found in her 2007 essay of the same title. Eberstadt does not only want to offer educated observations; rather, she points out that the fate of the family actually matters to all of us in real life. The more people stop marrying and having children the further society declines, and not just in religious practice. Eberstadt cites study after study to show that religious people are happier, have better mental health, give more money to charity, volunteer more, are less likely to commit crime, and generally contribute more to social capital.

Eberstadt cites W. Bradford Wilcox’s studies about religious practice and family in America which lead him to conclude that the “fortunes of American religion rise with the fortunes of the intact, married family.” Similar findings have been found by Steve L. Nock, who noted that men are more religious in proportion to the number of children they have. Eberstadt writes that her work takes the baton from sociologist Wilcox and runs with it to discover “what happens if we radically expand Wilcox’s insight.”

Her primary thesis, then, is that there is something about being married and something about having children that makes people more religious. Being married, carrying a new life in the womb, giving birth and having a tiny helpless child under your care makes people want to be religious, to go to church, to go back to the religious practice of their childhood and youth, to want a good morality for the child, which Christianity can ensure. Family tragedy such as sickness and death can turn people to pray and call on God’s help, even if it is for the first time.

We could also point out that families see social benefits in being religious, particularly entrance to local Christian schools, which are seen as academically and behaviourally better than secular schools. Likewise, there is some something about societies where marriage and children are in decline that leads to religious indifference and secularization.

Eberstadt’s “family factor” theory is counter-intuitive. It is usually assumed that religion is the primary driver of marriage and fertility, and that the decline of religion is responsible for the decline of the family – through the rejection of moral doctrines. But she suggests that causality runs the other way round: being married and having children drives people to be more religious, and it’s the decline of marriage and family that’s leading to the collapse of religion.

However, it’s more complex than that, because religious families also tend to have higher fertility rates even when their religions do not prohibit the use of contraception. This means it is not only religious beliefs and doctrines that drive fertility; there is something else about religious practice that facilitates higher fertility. What is that?

Eberstadt suggests that it’s peer influence: “concerning the faith-fertility relationship, theology counts for less than does one’s religious peer group and frequency of exposure thereto in a given church.” She cites Evangelicals, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews, who have higher fertility rates the secular counterparts, even though contraception is permitted.

However, there is a big doctrinal emphasis on fertility, procreation, and raising children in these religions and denominations, which might better explain the higher fertility rate. Rather than measuring fertility by what is prohibited, Eberstadt could have measured it by the emphasis put upon having children by these religions.

Eberstadt also argues that the decline in religious practice among young adults — particularly when they move away from home for higher education — is tied not only to the typical lifestyle of their peer group, but also to the fact that they are no longer with their family. As she notes, the family is theologically, spiritually, morally, and practically intrinsic to Christianity itself and its transmission throughout history: “living in families makes people more receptive to religiosity and the Christian creed.”

Chapters 1 and 2 of her book are taken up with presenting and refuting common narratives which either deny that secularization is happening, or that it is happening but fail to explain why.

Denialists arguments include the following: recent events show that religion hasn’t declined, it is actually thriving around the world; secularization as decline is false as it presupposes a prior golden age of religious belief and practice; we are not becoming secular, as people are naturally spiritual, always have and always will tend towards transcendence of some sort of other; secularization is really the death of Protestant Christianity, the Catholic Church is doing fine; and we are not more secular, just becoming more diverse with alternative spiritualities and philosophies of life.

On the other hand there are a set of arguments which say secularization is indeed happening, for the following reasons: people stopped needing the imaginary comforts of religion; science and the Enlightenment have lead to secularization; secularization is a result of the numerous wars; material progress and comfort mean people don’t need God anymore.

Eberstadt systematically, and in a not overly long manner, refutes the arguments from both sides, citing a variety of empirical evidence from history, surveys and sociologists. These initial chapters give the book a rigorous and thoughtful tone.

Throughout her exposition of why these arguments about secularisation do not hold water, Eberstadt points out that they all, in different ways, fail to take into account the “family factor”. Philip Longman’s The Empty Cradle, Mark Steyn’s America Alone, and Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherent the Earth?, among others, are borrowed by Eberstadt to develop her theory of the family factor as a protagonist in western secularization. However, she does not want to argue that only marriage and family drive religiosity and secularization up or down, rather the situation is more of a “double helix” between religion and family. The relationship goes back and forth, it is symbiotic.

As such, the relationship between these two strands takes a tragic turn, presented in Chapter 6, during the revolt of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Henry VIII and others. As historian Roderick Philips notes, the revolt of Luther et al included a rejection of traditional Christian doctrine on the sanctity of marriage. Eberstadt writes that “divorce in the mainline Protestant churches is not only destigmatized; it has been almost entirely emptied of moral content, period.” This is not to say that the family has no external enemies; these include the communism of Marx and Engels, Freudian psychology, and the majority of feminists. We might also add the destruction that unbridled capitalism has wrought, turning families into economic units and parenting roles being exported outside the home as a paid service provided by others.

The Protestant train wreck continues in 1930 when the Anglicans meeting at Lambeth decide to permit married couples to use contraception, and bolster their decision at the Lambeth meeting of 1958. Allan C. Carlson’s recent book, Godly Seed, documents the acceptance among American Evangelicals of contraception and the current turning of the tide as many Evangelical Christian families reject contraception. Carlson has also penned a long essay on the nationwide anti-contraception crusade of Protestant Anthony Comstock from the 1870s until his death.  The same thing happens with the issue of abortion among the mainstream Protestant denominations (Anglican, Salvation Army, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian and so on). Through Protestantism, marriage and procreation have been attacked and separated. Eberstadt notes the appalling assault upon unborn children in abortion normalised as a doctrinal and pastoral principle.

Eberstadt brings us to the final part of this jigsaw in the revolution that is happening among Christian denominations with the acceptance of homosexual sexual acts, practising homosexuals being admitted among the clergy, and the blessing of homosexual unions of various types. This was prepared for by the separation of sex from procreation; sex could be for enjoyment without the concomitant orientation and openness to procreating a child. On this premise former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie ordained practising homosexuals. The exact same argument has been highlighted by the late philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The American judiciary also demonstrates the truthfulness of these points if we follow the reasoning in the judgements in the cases of Griswold v Connecticut, Roe v Wade, and the culmination in Lawrence v Texas.

The counterpoint to all this is those few pockets of robust orthodox Catholics who have proved to be remarkably good at forming marriages and stable families with large numbers of children (Neocatechumenal Way, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, and Catholic groups attached to the traditional Latin Mass). Eberstadt concludes: “relaxing the rules hastened the decline of the churches that did it.”

Although the title of Eberstadt’s book promises much, the actual content is much more cautious. She repeatedly prefixes her arguments with “what if it were the case”, or “couldn’t it be possible” and finally, to be sure, we don’t have a proverbial smoking gun i.e., incontrovertible and conclusive evidence for our case.” In her citation of scholarly work, she says “we are just using their work to construct a more expansive conclusion” which is somewhat less than the reader might have hoped.

This caution follows through with the book having two endings: one pessimistic the other optimistic. Eberstadt has made a sustained, sometimes cautious, argument that the family plays a much more important role in the rise and decline of religion and secularization than it is credited with, without committing herself to telling us how it will all end. We’ll either live to see, or have to wait for another book that takes the risk of predicting the future of the family.

Daniel Blackman is a theology and ethics post-graduate. Since 2010 he has been working in education, research, and campaigning on family issues. He is published in journals, papers, and magazines in the UK and America. 

Daniel Blackman is a theology and ethics graduate. Since 2010 he has been working in education, research, and campaigning on family issues. He is published in journals, papers, and magazines in the UK...