By every measure, Europe has become increasingly secular since the 1960s. Even in the far more religious United States, the percentage of adults regularly attending church or synagogue fell from 41 to 31 percent, or roughly by a quarter, between 1972 and 2002.
Europe is also collapsing demographically, with fewer marriages, more divorces and fewer children. Across the continent, each generation is smaller than the one before it. The notion of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is largely myth nowadays; most young Greek children have no brothers and sisters, no aunts and uncles. Almost half of all Swedish households today have only one occupant.
The striking exception to Europe’s population decline is its Muslim community, which, through high fertility as well as immigration, is growing rapidly both in absolute and relative terms.
But Americans have no cause for complacency. Our marriage and birth rates have also dropped; we’re simply lagging a bit behind.
The clear relationship between increasing secularism and decreasing marriage and birth rates has long been noticed, and it’s been thought to be a causal one: Secular people tend to marry later, if at all, and to have smaller families. In other words, religious decline comes first, followed by demographic decline.
Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow of both the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., agrees that loss of faith leads to shrinking families. But, in her important new book “How the West Really Lost God,” she argues that the undermining of the family undermines Christianity, too. (She focuses on Christianity, but her analysis seems applicable to other religions.)
As she expresses it, “family and faith are the invisible double helix of society — two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another.” Religious values are first taught in the home, and the home is where religious practice is modeled for the next generation.
And it works the other way, too: A married man with children is more than twice as likely to attend church as an unmarried man with no children. Children, Eberstadt argues, “drive parents to church” as those parents seek help and support in child rearing. In other words, family fuels faith in this respect, rather than the other way around.
Many people, of course, welcome secularization. And more than a few welcome the decline of the “traditional” family. But, following her meticulous and well-informed case for the historical causes of both, Eberstadt proceeds to argue that each of these declines comes at a very steep social, economic and civic price. “Both believers and secularists,” she contends, “benefit in public ways from Christian faith and the natural family,” and, accordingly, both should care about their weakening presence in Europe and the broader West.
Her book is very solidly documented. (It probably doesn’t hurt that her husband, Nicholas Eberstadt, is himself a prominent political economist and demographer.) She discusses the manifold health benefits and other advantages conferred upon believers by their faith and their involvement in religious communities, and also points out the dangerous strains to which governments (and especially welfare states) will be subjected by aging populations.
Not only will there be fewer young people still in the work force and paying the taxes to sustain their elders, but the elderly, lacking the support of children and kinsfolk, will require more services from governments. The state will be obliged to function as substitute family to them. Moreover, with only a few years left to live, subsidized seniors will have far less personal reason than their younger compatriots to be concerned about excessive government spending and debt; they’ll be gone when the bills come due.
But we shouldn’t think that the elderly will be getting a one-sided good deal as they ride off into the sunset on the backs of unrelated (and possibly resentful) younger people. One of the most poignant images in Eberstadt’s book is that of aged Japanese using electronic toys as substitutes for their never-born grandchildren.
“Vibrant families and vibrant religions go hand in hand,” Eberstadt argues. “Conversely, not having a wedding ring or a nursery means that one is less likely to be found in church.”
People of faith should, therefore, be concerned about the health of the family. The future of their faith — and the salvation of many souls — may well depend upon it.
Daniel Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, edits MormonScholarsTestify.org and BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/, and speaks for himself.