by Mary Eberstadt
Templeton Press, 2013, 268 pp., $24.95
t would be a stretch to claim, either in elegy or triumph, that Christianity lies in ruins in the West. But it is undeniable that Americans and especially Western Europeans increasingly regard it with bemusement or hostility, even to the point that some intellectuals deny its founding influence on Western civilization. Whether one thinks Christianity is pernicious or socially nourishing, there should be near universal agreement that its cultural decline in the West has transformed politics, public education, the arts and academe, and—perhaps most prosaically yet also most profoundly—the family.
It is easy for us today to assume that only officious clergymen policing our bedrooms led most people to accept the drudgery of wedlock and family life rather than the siren songs of eros and self-fulfillment. But as Mary Eberstadt argues in How the West Really Lost God, it wasn’t just the authoritarian whip of the Church that kept men and women marching lockstep into marriage and babymaking until Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” of 1963. The Church’s dwindling social power alone can’t explain why the bonds of kinship are arguably less important than ever before in human history.
Yet that is the fact of the matter. Across America and Europe, people live alone for such great portions of their lives, and in such unprecedented numbers, as to be unfathomable to our ancestors. These changes reflect altered social patterns rising from greater prosperity and freedom. But they also have a darker side, revealed, as Eberstadt writes, in
the 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 could take for granted, namely, the presence in the home of two biologically related parents, and the persistence of those same two individuals through the generation.
Eberstadt’s core argument is that the fraying family is not a simple after-effect of attenuated Christian authority, because in this case as in most, causality does not run only one way. Rather, family fragmentation and the consequent, relentless thinning of social capital have both predated and...