How the West Really Lost God: The Family Factor

We Orthodox face many contemporary challenges in the modern West. We have for decades now been fully aware of the challenge of secularism thanks to the works of Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Fr. Seraphim Rose. Typical for intellectuals the loss of God was analyzed from an intellectual framework. They approached the challenges by articulating intellectual genealogies and engaging in philosophical debate. The challenge of secularism has also been the occasion for the recent resurgence in discussing enchantment in many recently released Ancient Faith podcasts, as evidenced by the popularity of The Lord of the Spirits and Amon Sûl, and the concurrent popularity of Jonathan Pageau and others around “The Symbolic World”.1

While others are addressing the importance of developing a Scriptural mind and sacramental imagination I wish to develop another line of inquiry. I have begun to articulate this approach like this. Orthodox Christianity in the Anglophone sphere in the past few decades has focused an incredible amount of energy on apologetics, liturgical renewal, and dogmatic theology. We have specialized in mystical theology, Chalcedon, liturgical experience, and the revitalization of the existential element of the dogmas. In other words, we have specialized in the first few chapters of Ephesians and Colossians, the parts where St. Paul articulates great dogmatic truths about the Holy Trinity and our salvation, and in comparison we have done precious little to better articulate and embody the truths St. Paul gives us at the end of these epistles. The Christian path for our relationships and for the practical outworking of the truth found in Jesus Christ. The importance of marriage, child rearing, ecclesial relationships, and then our relationships with those in the world. 

As I am always processing the challenge of our life here in the secular nihilistic West I recently came across the work of the cultural critic Mary Eberstadt.2 At the core of her work is the oft overlooked importance of the family in the matrix of modern challenges. In the following posts I wish to explore some of her thesis regarding the overlooked “Family Factor” from her 2013 book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press). 

Don’t worry interspersed between our looking into the work of Eberstadt we will continue our Hartford series.

The decline of God

Friedrich Nietzsche

Since the dawn of modernity there has been the continual announcement of the death of God and the consequent secularization of the West. Nietzsche’s madman announced such and many an artist, philosopher, and sociologist have echoed the same.3 Weber’s famous “secularization thesis” has continued unabated and unquestioned in much of the humanities.4 As man embraces the core principles of the “Enlightenment” he steadily sheds the primitive beliefs of his forefathers. Now he pursues above all his autonomy, leaving the misty glades and enchanted forests of Europe for the technological dream of the future, and ultimately instantiating a rational, mature, independent, and advanced community of individuals. The primitive ideas of God required by primitive and heavily dependent living are replaced with mature human self-reliance and technological mastery. As man masters himself and nature he no longer needs God. We leave a time of enchantment and interdependence and enter a new era of pragmatic reason and independence. There is no place for God in this new landscape. While we may miss Him, we don’t exactly seem to need Him. 

This is the basic thesis of the heirs of modern heirs of Nietzsche and many sociologists. And if we turn to the modern West, especially in Europe, we see low numbers of baptisms, weddings and funerals done in practically empty churches. It seems that the prophecy of the madman was accurate. As man “grows up”, to use Kant’s language, he puts behind him childish and primitive ideas, such as God.5 This thesis turns upon the world of ideas. Man grows up by seeking knowledge and achieving independence and self-mastery through the acquisition of knowledge. 

The decline of the Natural Family

Concurrent with the rampant secularizing of the modern West there has been another earth shattering trend. The incredible decline of the natural family.6Sociologists and other experts analyze this decline by focusing on divorce, single parenthood, the widespread use of contraception, legal abortion, and the sharp drop in birthrate. While there is debate as to the severity and challenge to contemporary society no one questions that the changes to the family in the modern West have been radical. 

Consider the decline in the birthrate.7 Eurostat states that between 1960 and 2010 the birthrate dropped in every single European country and plunged in most. The precipitous decline has meant most of Europe is not reproducing at a rate to even replace their current population.8 This demographic change radically shapes society and denotes a web of interrelated issues, e.g. high divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births. The natural family continues to wane and along with its decline so goes its influence and stabilizing effect. What better captures contemporary men and women but to characterize them as rootless, unattached, and more and more dependent upon the State for everything. Remember the fictitious young woman “Julia” from Obama’s reelection campaign?9 Eberstadt summarizes the challenge, “The decline of the Western family, in sum, has altered the rhythms of daily life from the moment of birth to that of death – from the ways that babies are cared for, to when school starts and how long it goes, to how the sick are tended, to what a deathbed looks like, and just about everything else in between.”10 Now we have

…aging, childless people who must now rely on friends or institutions for company, rather than on family members, when they get sick; the children of older and smaller families who will spend most of their adulthood with no immediate biological relatives and who will never know a robust extended family, for better or worse, and perhaps above all, the many children who will never know what most people previous to us would take for granted, namely the presence in the home of two biologically related parents, and the persistence of those same two individuals through the generations. 11 

Photo by Kevin Delvecchio on Unsplash

The Family Factor in Secularization

For years sociologists have debated how this has come about. Naturally many of them turned to the theory at hand, the “secularization thesis”. The decline of the family is due to people stepping away from God. The thesis of Eberstadt is that the overlooking of the grounding role of the family in human formation is a “critical defect in the conventional secular story line about how and why Christianity has collapsed in parts of the West.”12 She calls this missing piece in the secularization of the West the “Family Factor”. 

She argues “that family formation is not merely an outcome of religious belief, as secular sociology has regarded it. Rather, family formation can also be, and has been, a causal agent in its own right – one that also potentially affects any given human being’s religious belief and practice.”13 The secularization we have experienced has not been properly understood because it has missed an important piece of the puzzle. It is not entirely wrong, rather, Eberstadt argues it is just missing an incredibly important part of the human experience. That the family is an “important, indeed irreplaceable, transmission belt for religious belief.”14 Instead of privileging the shrinking of belief in modernity as the cause for the decline in the natural family, Eberstadt wants to argue that the “ongoing deterioration of the natural family itself has both accompanied and accelerated the deterioration in the West of Christian belief.”15

In thinking of turning the secularization thesis on its head, by prioritizing the formation of belief in the matrix of the family Eberstadt gives us a fresh perspective. We will flesh out more of her argument in our next post in this series. Our third and final post on her thesis will be looking to what she believes is at stake in supplementing the secularization thesis with the “Family Factor”.

  1. Also Rod Dreher’s current book will be addressing enchantment. For an introduction to the issue see the podcast conversation between Fr Andrew Stephen Damick and Jonathan Pageau “The Inevitability of Re-enchantment – Jonathan Pageau (Part 1)” & “The Inevitability of Re-enchantment – Jonathan Pageau (Part 2)
  2. See her website here.
  3. Read more about Nietzsche here.
  4. Read further about Weber here.
  5. Read more about Kant’s understanding of the crisis of the Enlightenment here.
  6. Definition of natural family from Mary Eberstadt’s essay, “How the West Really Lost God”. “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. 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. Historically, 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.”
  7. See 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).
  8. As found in How the West Really Lost God, 11-12.
  9. See the slideshow here
  10. How the West Really Lost God, p, 19-20.
  11. Ibid. p. 19
  12. How the West Really Lost God, p, 20.
  13. Ibid., p. 21
  14. Ibid., 21
  15. Ibid., 22

About Fr. Daniel Greeson

Father Daniel holds an M.T.S. from Vanderbilt Divinity School at Vanderbilt University and an M.Div. from Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He is rector of St. Anne’s Orthodox Church (OCA) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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One comment:

  1. Fr. Daniel,

    I am looking forward to your fleshing out of Eberstadt’s thesis. Rod Dreher, no matter how you judge his diagnosis/prescription, is one of the few Orthodox doing serious work on the subject of how to “be” Orthodox within a wider culture that not only not helpful but positively working against you as a parent. In my opinion the Ben Op acknowledges Eberstadt’s insight and says “Now you have to within your family, within your parish, within your working life/community not only be conscious of the structural elements that work against you but consciously and positively counter them”. I am wondering what Eberstadt has to add to this.

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