How the West really lost God? By mediating sex, argues new book

how the west really lost godSecularization wasn’t the inevitable result of the Enlightenment, it was the result of the widespread acceptance of a new media. More specifically, the mediating of the one flesh union with the technology of contraception.

Or so argues Mary Eberstadt in her provocative new book that is sure to spark great debate, How the West Really Lost GodContraception, generally speaking, is of course not a new technology. But contraception saw a giant leap forward in its ease of use and effectiveness with the advent of the Pill in 1960. And, according to Mary Eberstadt, that is exactly when the West had its big drop-off in faith.

But what’s the connection? Eberstadt argues that faith has declined as the family unit has fallen apart in the West and that the family unity has fallen apart largely due to the widespread acceptance of contraception in the mid-20th century, primarily the Pill.

And the time was ripe for the Pill in 1960. For the first 1900 years of the faith, all Christian denominations, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, had condemned any use of contraception on moral grounds. A highly qualified acceptance of the use of contraception under only certain circumstances at the Anglican Church’s 1930 Lambeth Conference marked the first time a Christian denomination had ever accepted the use of contraception under any circumstances, and it did so amidst the ire of both evangelicals and Catholics at the time. However, Margaret Sanger, founder of what is now Planned Parenthood, worked hard to frame contraception as a “Catholic issue”, and succeeded (the same tactic was used by Larry Lader and Bernard Nathanson, co-founders of NARAL, in the late 60s and early 70s over abortion). Over the next 20-30 years, leading up to 1960, virtually all Protestant groups changed their minds on contraception, even most conservative evangelicals (with scattered exceptions), and now most hold that contraception, as long as its used within marriage, is acceptable to use under any circumstances at the full discretion of the couple. The Orthodox now have differing opinions on the matter, but the Catholic Church’s magisterium has maintained the historic Christian view (the actual practice of most of the laity is a different matter).

How the West Really Lost God comes just a year after the release of her previous book Adam and Eve After the Pill, which focuses more on the fallout for relationships from the acceptance of contraception in the mid-20th century. The author of this blog post (Brantly Millegan, Co-Editor) has not read either of the books yet, but the topic seemed highly relevant to bring to attention at this journal. A review over at Crisis Magazine summarizes her basic argument:

Secularists like to claim that religion declined as science and rationalism took center stage starting with the Enlightenment. Eberstadt points out that “the masses were not part of the Enlightenment, that 18th century elites were not modern atheists but “rational Christians” and that “those who seek to draw a straight line from Voltaire to twenty-first century atheists” tend to forget the great religious revival of the intervening 19th century.

She similarly dispatches claims that the World Wars killed Christianity and that material progress did, too.

Some theories of secularization she accepts but sees them as only parts of a larger puzzle. Urbanization and industrialization can be seen as parts of a larger whole but they still leave something out. She says that authoritative scholarly books have been written on the topic—David Martin’s On Secularization for instance—that do not have a single mention of this mysterious factor.

So what is this factor, what is the real reason for religion’s decline? It is the family and the family’s decline. She calls it the Family Factor and it explains a lot.

Many of us have taken so many secularization theories as matters of faith: faith declines with education, or riches, or modernity and that families decline as religion does. Eberstadt says it’s the other way around. All those people who crowded into factories and into cities may have slowly lost the faith and all those who have PhDs and big jobs may have lost the faith, but the reason is that they also started having smaller families or broken families or no families.

As with many things in life, one does not need a sociological study to show the truth of this. Getting married and having children practically push us into the practice of faith. A wild-thing in college gets married, has a baby and almost immediately thinks of finding a Church. Taking the child to Church inevitably leads the parent to the same thing.

Look at it another way. Catholics love to picket the Bishop when at long last he has to shutter empty churches and emptying schools. These same Catholics grump about there not being enough priests. Odds are these same complaining Catholics use contraception, had only two children and have waned in the practice of their faith while they wax nostalgic for earlier days.

Eberstadt points out something that all sociologists and theories of secularization agree with, that the great cliff that the faith fell from was the 1960’s. And it wasn’t because of rock music, Vietnam or marijuana. It was the pill. Eberstadt has dealt beautifully with the pill in her wonderful book Adam and Eve After the Pill. She points out that the Pill simply destroyed and continues to destroy families and when the family is destroyed the faith declines.

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