How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization [VIDEO]


(May 30, 2013) In “How the West Really Lost God”, leading 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, however, marshals an array of research, from historical data on family decline in pre-Revolutionary France to contemporary popular culture both in the United States and Europe, showing that the reverse has also been true — the undermining of the family has further undermined Christianity itself.


  1. I suspect there is truth to this, but the correlation may not be causative: any strongly capitalist system will decimate the necessary foundations of stable, extended families and simultaneously create a social environment hostile to Christian orientation (one can, after all, not serve both God and mammon).

    • Fr. Johannes Jacobse says

      I don’t recall Eberstadt saying anything about economics except for mentioning Charles Murray’s “Losing Ground.” The author Tom Wolfe wrote an excellent essay about Murray’s book in the Turning Intellect into Influence issue of the Manhattan Institute’s journal. Murray argued that the welfare state was a significant factor in the creation of the Black underclass.

      • Could Murray be suggesting also that the welfare state (particularly in New York City) is also contributing to a form of social engineering that is becoming counterproductive to the African American community and other minorities?

        • Fr. Johannes Jacobse says

          Larry, I don’t recall every reading where Murray himself directly drew that inference. He may have but I am not aware of it. Others have of course, especially some Blacks who see the welfare state and abortion as tantamount to a war on Blacks (Black Genocide).

          I agree with much of your inference, BTW. The abortion industry is a bloody but highly profitable business. Planned Parenthood targets Blacks in their marketing and builds most abortuaries near poorer Black neighborhoods. The progressive ideas that decimated Black families and neighborhoods are also those that justify profiting from its demise. It was a cynical alliance from the start and should have been obvious to more people given that PP had its start in the eugenics movement, but it wasn’t unfortunately. We contribute to PP profits through our taxes, BTW.

          • Excellent insight Father. Especially your point about some Blacks who see the welfare state and abortion as a war on blacks. Yet they constantly ally themselves with those who champion these evils on them. I thought I’ve read that somewhere. That the very essence of the devil’s work is not only providing the method of destruction to the victims but actually convincing the victims that that method which is destroying them is essential to their existence. I yield to your greater knowledge as to where that comes from.

    • Michael Bauman says

      Wow Greg you sure have a talent for making absolute statements that have little substance in reality except your own pre-suppositions.

      What is your definition of capitalism?

      I would say it is not capitalism but the fascism and socialism that have done more damage to the family particularly the male headship that is required for healthy families.

      • Capitalism involves the free movement of labor and capital in order to maximize returns.

        Quite a comment from someone throwing around wild-eyed statements about “socialism” and “fascism”. And I am not sure what you mean by “absolute statements” – it was an observation on social history. It’s no accident that the household has disappeared from industrial capitalist societies and the same forces are undermining its successor family structure: free movement of labor, free movement of capital and profit maximization are hardly a recipe for stability in any form. This is true for the capitalist and technocratic-managerial classes as well as the average joe. However, the higher classes are thin, mobile and largely transnational. They can adopt more easily. They also accumulate increasingly larger percentages of the pie over time, which provides additional security. More broadly, the “creative destruction” of the system will tend to leave wide swaths of the society ruined altogether. This is why the world’s most “market oriented” country, the US, is becoming an advanced third world country.

        Social welfare may be detrimental to family structures at some level as well, but Murray’s thesis has been challenged convincingly; in any case, the need for social welfare appears to be largely a symptom rather than a cause of the underlying rot. Take a train ride through North Philadelphia, a highly dysfunctional and dangerous urban territory: observe the scores of abandoned factories one after the other. The root problem is not the welfare check.

        Policies that leverage the strength of market forces while protecting ordinary people and the national interest aren’t the stuff of deep mystery and hardly imply some kind of red orientation. Germany is a net exporter of manufactured goods, for example. It is probably far too late to “fix” the US, but one thing should be clear: the liberal-conservative paradigm doesn’t work. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense on its own terms.

        • Greg, you initial comment seems to miss the point. The only causative relationship Eberstadt posits is that family causes faith. The effect of “capitalism” on the family is another matter entirely. It’s a complicated matter, and I don’t deny everything you’ve said, but how does the causative relationship you’ve posited between capitalism and family disintegration explain the ups and downs in families and faith documented by Eberstadt? Was the post-war baby boom caused by the sudden success of socialism here and abroad? And is the present baby bust in Western Europe caused by a socialism’s collapse?

          • Not to be TOO smug, but….
            Isn’t it the Holy Spirit that causes faith?
            For many, family and its hypocrisy and/or dysfunction also extinguishes faith

  2. Fair enough – I was responding to Mr Bauman and clearly ratholed a bit. Sorry about that.

  3. Geo Michalopulos says

    Very interesting. It’s possible that the Reformation may have seeded the ground re the decline of the family. To my mind, the loss of sacramentality was a devastating blow to the West. Although France was a largely Catholic country, it had a significant Protestant population. Born Catholics such as Voltaire drew on the well-springs of rationalism to provoke traditionalists.

  4. M. Stankovich says

    If you read Fr. Schmemann’s Problems of Orthodoxy in America, written in 1965, the secularization of the Orthodox Church could hardly be considered a “heyday” of either faith or family from the period following World War II to the neo-Patristic renaissance – in fact a “rescue mission” – of Fr. Georges Florovsky nearly singlehandedly. And had it not been for the initial effort of Fr. Florovsky, heaven only knows of the eventual degradation and ultimate consequence. It is remarkable to me that Ms. Eberstadt speaks so confidently of her theory as if we did not exist or as if we were not present! How could Ms. Eberstadt not appreciate this fact? Easily. Because this “history” she provides is not “our” history. There is no parallel, there is no convergence, and is there is little overlap other than we were there:

    One of the greatest dangers of modern secularism is the reduction of man, of his life and his religion to history and sociology. The historical reduction results in relativism: what was true in the past may not be true today and vice-versa, for the very concept of truth is a historically conditioned one. As to the sociological reduction, it consists in viewing man as entirely determined in his ideas, ideals and behaviour, by his sociological environment—be it “middle class”, “modern world”, or “technological age”. A relative truth attained by statistics: such is the formula of secularism. And it is this double reduction inasmuch as it is accepted by the Orthodox, that conditions and provokes the spiritual crisis of Orthodoxy described above, the so-to-speak natural rejection by the American Orthodox of all that which does not “fit” into their “American way of life” and is therefore declared to be “impossible.” It is very typical that this rejection is never professed as a personal conviction. Very seldom will you hear: “I do not believe in this and I reject it because such is my conviction.” The pattern would be, rather: “Our people won’t accept this”, or “It is not for our American people.” Whoever says it sounds as if he personally could and would accept “this”, were it up to him; but since “our people won’t have it, you just can’t go against the people.” In this reduction of Orthodoxy to the “commonly acceptable” there is very little difference between the clergy and the laity. Recently an old and respected protopresbyter flatly stated in a written report to his Bishop that the Parish Statutes adopted by his whole Church and embodying, in a very mild form, the most obvious and elementary norms of Orthodox canon law, were “unacceptable” due to “conditions of life in America.”

    Problems of Orthodoxy in America: III. The Spiritual Problem

    We were an “immigrant” church that attempted to mold itself to a mythical America thought to provide “religious freedom,” but in fact brought “internal surrender of Orthodoxy to secularism”:

    a simple coexistence of religion and a “philosophy of life” alien to it is impossible. If religion does not control the “philosophy of life”, the later will inevitably control religion, subdue it from outside to its set of values. One cannot be Orthodox in the Church and a “secularist” in life. Sooner or later one becomes secularist in the Church also.. It is thus in all sincerity that people do not understand why the democratic process and the “majority rule” which seem to work so well in their public life could not be applied as such in the Church. It is in all sincerity that they think of a parish as their “property” and are scandalized by the attempts of the hierarchy to “control” it. It is in good faith that they see in the Church an institution that should satisfy their needs, reflect their interests, “serve” their desires and above everything else, “fit” into their “way of life.” And it is, therefore, in good faith that they reject as “impossible” everything in the Church which does not “fit” or seems to contradict their basic philosophy of life.

    I listened to Ms. Eberstadt for twenty-five minutes – in retrospect, twenty minutes longer than she deserved – and I must conclude that her “theory” is neither new nor is her insight important, if only because she believes she has a full & comprehensive “picture” by which to postulate, when she does not. Common sense & reason would suggest that if she stepped two feet out of the box and read For the Life of the World, Problems of Orthodoxy in America, and Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Beseiged by the late Professor Christopher Lasch (author of the The Culture of Narcissism), she would draw a different conclusion. While I still suspect the correct conclusion would elude her, a better conclusion could be reached. Nevertheless. the heterodox will consistently conclude that it is quite possible to at odds with their faith & their “philosophy of life.” That is their history. But it is not ours.

  5. Michael Bauman says

    M. Stankovich,

    In addition to technological man there is also homo economicus which reduces human beings to cogs in the economic machine. This was gifted to us by Marxism but has transferred to what is called capitalism.

    It is the loss of real humanity and the ability of our society to respond to humanity and support it, especially when the ideology of individualism holds sway. The family is intensely human, a community not a collection of individuals.

    Now in addition to economic determinism and technological determinism we have genetic determinism.

    • M. Stankovich says

      Mr. Bauman,

      I heartily recommend Prof. Lasch’s book (one is offered – hardcover, used, for $1.43 from the Amazon link I’ve included!) as he explores how the narcissistic culture fostered our “insufficiency” generally, but in the family specifically, and that impotency gave way to the need for “experts”; not looking, for example, to the Festal Menaion as the only source for the birth and childhood of the Theotokos (taken by the high priest into the Sanctuary of the Temple!), or as Prof. SS Verhovskoy liked to point out, “The parents of St, Basil the Great were saints (As the saint eulogized them himself, “One soul in two bodies.”), as were his brother and sister. It would seems somehow a bit easier to become a saint under these circumstances.” Instead, from 1946, we were convinced we needed Benjamin Spock, MD to direct us in properly “raising” two generations of Americans, pulling them from the arms of the Lord (cf. Mk. 10:14) into the arms developmental psychologists & behaviouralists! So much we have sadly ceded to a society and a “philosophy of life” that is not ours. Certainly it is important to witness, and certainly it is important to “let your light so shine before men,” (Matt. 5:16), but our light flickers. Alexander Schmemann was not “larger than life,” nor was he a prophet. But in the case of Orthodoxy in America, what he wrote was prophetic. Minimally, it is the most insightful, the most joyful, the most creative, and the most positive direction we have available to us. And it is no small coincidence that the Russians referred to the family as the “little church,” and that Fr. Alexander & Fr. Georges Florovsky believed that the answer began at the level of the parish.

  6. cynthia curran says

    St Paul just states it simplifying when he was in Athens and quoted a stoic philosopher,he is not far from anyone of us, for in him we live and moved and have our being.

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