Robert Bechtle, ’61 Pontiac. The modern family frozen in time.

As a general rule, one should always approach grand, sweeping secularization theories with a cautious eye, especially theories that attempt to tell the story of religion’s decline in the West. There are notable exceptions, John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and Michael Allan Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity, to name just a few.

As it turns out, Mary Eberstadt of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in DC has taken another stab at explaining religion’s decline in the West. Eberstadt ties the decline of something like “belief in God” to the decline of the bourgeois family. One can only assume that Eberstadt is working with this particular definition of the family, as the interviewer didn’t happen to ask Eberstadt to define her use of the term. It seems that the modern nuclear family is taken as a self-evident fact.

In speaking about her book, Eberstadt offers the following picture of what went wrong in the West:

There’s a figurative picture handed down to us from the Enlightenment thinkers onward. It’s one in which a lone person sits in a chair, thinking hard about whether to believe in God or not; imagine Rodin’s statue of the Thinker for a visual. That’s the mental image many people have when they think about secularization: as if it’s something that happens to a society one atomized person at a time, as one after another ponders religion and decides against it.

Part of the argument of the book is that this picture doesn’t describe reality. People are social beings. They learn religion the way they learn language: in communities, beginning with the community of the family. And when family structure becomes disrupted and attenuated and fractured, as it is for many Western people today, many families can no longer function as a transmission belt for religious belief. In addition, many people become insulated from the natural course of birth, death, and other momentous family events that are part of why people turn to religion in the first place.

Eberstadt’s thesis seems both right and wrong, and at the same time. Wrong, at least as far as the interview is concerned, in that she seems to only tangentially address how capitalism, stagnant wages, the debt economy, etc. destroyed the family. Eberstadt also lays much of the blame on the welfare state, though seems to forget that the welfare state is only a byproduct of ruthless capitalism.

But where Eberstadt is right in her analysis is to see that religion, and the primary vehicle of religion, is inherently social. And if it is social, then it occurs within particular social confines, of which the family is one.

To this end, a much more compelling thesis is offered by Rowan Williams in Lost Icons. Williams avoids the temptation to isolate one instant or particular social entity, such as something as nebulous as “the family,” and chooses instead to examine the entire social matrix of religion, language, family, capitalism, politics and on down the line.


The typological anticipation of the eschatological family – in all it’s fallen glory.

When Eberstadt attempts to isolate the family above the social grid, she can’t help but default and therefore repeat the very modern abstractions she’s derides. She seems to think that she can pull the family out from under the layers of culture. What might help Eberstadt’s thesis is John Milbank’s distinction between simple and complex space in thinking through social questions. Simple space is the story of modernity, where society is drilled down to individual units vs. the whole, the state vs. market, and secular vs. sacred; in philosophical terms, the question of one vs. the many. But complex space, as Milbank uses the term, allows us to think beyond these binaries, to examine how the family, as one example, cannot be isolated or abstracted from church, business, culture, the local union hall, neighborhood association, and so on.

If only Eberstadt had begun her argument with an analysis on complex space. She might then have avoided boosting the free market economy.

[Update] Just this week, Slate published, “Marriage Is the New Middle-Class Luxury Item.” Writing about a new University of Virginia study, Slate writes,

For their new paper “Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape,” University of Virginia sociologist Sarah Corse and Harvard sociologist Jennifer Silva interviewed 300 working- and middle-class Americans like Cindy, Megan, Earl, and Jan about their work and relationships. They found that as the American workforce and the American marriage have destabilized over the past half-century, marriage has become an increasingly inaccessible option for working-class Americans. While middle-class people like Earl and Jan are throwing money at their intimate relationships to keep them stable, working-class people like Cindy and Megan have been priced out of the institution.

Thanks to falling working-class wages, the outsourcing of American manufacturing, the thinning of company benefits, and the rise of part-time and self-employment, American jobs are, in many ways, less stable than ever. Unskilled workers without a higher education are finding it more difficult to translate blue-collar work into middle-class stability. Many of the working-class Americans interviewed by Silva and Corse are now too concerned with maintaining their “own survival” to “imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others.” Meanwhile, marriage itself has transformed into a luxury item.