I have long held there to be a close relationship between the sexual revolution that took place mid-way through the twentieth century in Western countries and the decline in religious observance and/or traditional religious (more specifically Christian) belief. However, whilst reading an interview with Mary Eberstadt at the National Review, a deeper connection was made apparent to me – that between faith and the family. Eberstadt contends, based on solid sociological studies, that whilst the increased prosperity and educational exposure of many in the West is often cited as the primary cause for the falling away of many from the Faith, it is the dissolution of the family that seems to have paved the way for the rapid secularisation of the last few decades:
‘What interests me most, and what the book spends some time dissecting, are the subtle ways in which the sexual revolution and its fallout put new barriers between some modern Western people and the likelihood of their belief in God.
First, insofar as it contributes to broken, scattered, and atomistic homes, the revolution makes it harder just to tell the Christian story itself — because it’s a story saturated throughout with familial images and ideas. How, for instance, do you explain the idea of God as a loving, benevolent Father to someone whose experience of men in the home is a series of Mom’s boyfriends? How do you get across what’s so theologically central, say, about Mary’s absolute acceptance of her role in the divine plan of birth to secular men and women living in a post-abortion age who think that every birth is negotiable? How do you explain what’s so miraculous about the idea of God coming into the world as a baby — in fact, how do you explain what’s so miraculous about babies, period — to an adult who has never even held one?
Those are just a few examples of how the way we live today might make it harder for some people to grasp some of the basics of the Christian religion — or as believers would say, to hear the voice of God.’
Here Eberstadt draws attention to the fact that a fundamental change in thinking about what life is all about has come to pass, and that this has been effected by a change in our basic circumstances. When familiar (literally familiar) images like fatherhood, motherhood and the wonder of childbirth become deconstructed and are no longer normative for shaping our experience, this has a profound effect on what we think about things like fidelity, grace, love and truth. I think this is an important point often overlooked (I for one am certainly guilty of this) – that despite the importance of ideas in shaping culture, it is people’s day-to-day experience that directly shapes our thinking, and also our receptivity to new ways of thinking. Thus the effect of the ‘New Atheist’ movement is not, despite what its proponents would have us believe, primarily an intellectual one; rather, it is at bottom a shift in perspective about it what it is to be human, and what existence means, that is rooted in deep cultural changes. Eberstadt reflects on this point here:
‘My hope is just to try and clarify what’s happening. Pace the new atheists and the condescending secular piety according to which secularization is just the logical result of humanity growing up, what’s keeping many Western people out of church today isn’t Philosophy 101. They’re not lying awake at night mulling transubstantiation or the problem of theodicy, say, and then checking “none of the above” on a Pew survey. No, what’s helping to drive secularization for many people is something a lot less cerebral: the widespread desire to keep biting that apple of the Sexual Revolution — which traditional Christianity wants to put out of their reach. It’s a head-on collision, for sure…
…The experience of birth, for starters, rather obviously inclines some people — maybe even many people — toward a transcendent frame of mind that can get translated into religiosity. Whittaker Chambers writes beautifully of just this phenomenon in his autobiography Witness, where he describes how studying his infant daughter as she sat in her high chair one night became the epiphany that eventually led him away from atheism and Communism and back to Christianity. The experience of childbirth lifts people out of themselves, tying them to generations past and to come. Such might be one explanation for why people with children are more likely to end up in church.’
So, according to Mary Eberstadt’s thesis, it is the sea-change that occurred in the way we live during the sexual revolution (and which effects are still being felt now) that has had the biggest effect on our ability to receive, understand, or even to care about, the Gospel. It is a compelling argument, and one which is backed up by considerable research showing a strong correlation between the traditional family unit and religious (specifically Christian) faith. The most interesting thing about Eberstadt’s theory is its proposal that it is more often the family that fosters faith, not necessarily the other way round. This is an idea also found in the teaching of the Church, notably in the documents of the Second Vatican Council:
‘From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.’
Lumen Gentium, Section 11.
The idea of the ecclesia domestica was also a favourite theme of Blessed John Paul II’s teaching and preaching. In Evangelium Vitae, he stresses the importance of the family unit in preserving and perpetuating the ‘culture of life’:
‘The family has a special role to play throughout the life of its members, from birth to death. It is truly “the sanctuary of life: the place in which life-the gift of God-can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth”. Consequently the role of the family in building a culture of life is decisive and irreplaceable.’
Evangelium Vitae, Section 92.
This connection between the teaching of the Church and the findings of thorough sociological research, whilst not surprising, is indeed encouraging. Encouraging for one, because, whilst many will not listen to the Magisterium, they may well listen to sociologists; and also because this means that the decline of Christianity in the West is perhaps not as inevitable as it is often prophesied to be. If the decline in Christian faith in Western societies has more to do with the decline in the family unit, rather than increased urbanisation, prosperity, etc, then the situation looks much more hopeful. One means by which society may see a return to the traditional structure of family and community suggested by Eberstadt in the interview is the implosion of the welfare state. Here in the UK, given the increasingly apparent failure of the welfare state to produce both human and economic flourishing, this seems like a fairly prudent prediction. Whichever way it comes though, a return to a traditional understanding of the family, and a recognition of its essential role in a healthy society, cannot come too soon.