Policy Review: How the West Really Lost God

Did Western European Christians stop having children because they became secularised, or did they become secularised because they stopped having children? In the Hoover Institution’s Policy Review Mary Eberstadt looks for an answer.

And therein lies a real defect with the conventional story line about how and why religion collapsed in Western Europe. For what has not been explained, but rather assumed throughout that chain of argument, is why the causal relationship between belief and practice should always run that way instead of the other, at least some of the time. It is as if recent intellectual history had lined up all the right puzzle pieces — modernity, belief and disbelief, technology, shrinking and absent families — only to press them together in a way that looks whole from a distance but leaves something critical out.

This essay is a preliminary attempt to supply that missing piece. It moves the human family from the periphery to the center of this debate over secularization — and not as a theoretical exercise, but rather because compelling empirical evidence suggests an alternative account of what Nietzsche’s madman really saw in the “tombs” (read, the churches and cathedrals) of Europe.

In brief, it is not only possible but highly plausible that many Western European Christians did not just stop having children and families because they became secular. At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families. If this way of augmenting the conventional explanation for the collapse of faith in Europe is correct, then certain things, including some radical things, follow from it.

15 comments ↓

#1 George Carty on 06.08.07 at 6:45 pm

Isn’t increasing urbanization another reason for both secularism and low birth rates in the West? For the entire history of the civilized world, urban birth rates have been below replacement level, with city populations being sustained by immigration from the surrounding rural areas. Also, big cities are cosmopolitan places and are thus not conducive to religious fundamentalism.

Another reason why religion may have declined in Europe is that Europeans admired the atheist Communists for their role in defeating Hitler. From June 1941 right up until VE-Day, over 80% of the Nazi army was facing the Soviets, and most of the resistance movements fighting against Nazi occupation were Communist-dominated.

Note that Poland – one of the few countries occupied by the Nazis which had a predominantly non-Communist resistance – is now one of the most Christian countries in Europe.

#2 thabet on 06.08.07 at 10:11 pm

I would say the welfare state was also crucial and it explains the differences between Western Europe and the US.

#3 James on 06.09.07 at 2:24 am

Amir,

Don’t forget Feminism. The womans’ rights movement broadened what the “acceptable” role(s) of women could be. In countries were women have close to the same rights as men, the birthrate is low. In countries were women have little to no rights the birthrate is high. This cuts across religion, race, economic status and population density.

By the way The Hoover Institute is a Right-Wing to Libertarian Think Tank. Keep that bias in mind when reading their articles. Not to say they might not have a good point, but they do have very specific frame of reference.

#4 Qutuz on 06.09.07 at 10:16 am

I think that we are looking far too late into the phenomenon

The first issue was the religion itself

1. when Christianity moved from an absolute to an allegorical truth (ie effectively withdrawing its claim as truth). That happened a long time ago

2. The replacement of worship of God, to obedience to a corporate hierarchy and ultimately the collapse of that church due to the ascendancy of the state and the rule of secular negotiated law.

3. Especially uncomfortable for Christianity was the advance of independent reason, Christianity survives best in an environment of communal stupidity and anti-intellectualism (example look at the demography of Christian revivalist movements, outer suburban in the west, African the poorest most illiterate parts of the Muslim world and south America).

Christianity is MS DOS in a multi core world, its not up to it. One can only be a religious Cristian by either not understanding science, or partioning ones hard drive and running a science based OS that keeps one functioning in the modern world and having a christian “app” that one can boot up for special occasions.

The contrast with Islam could not be greater.

Asking why Christianity has failed is like asking why George W Bush has failed, its not an interesting question.

#5 JDsg on 06.09.07 at 2:38 pm

The lower birthrates among Western European Christians (and many other peoples) have nothing to do with secularism; this is an economic phenomenon, pure and simple. (I teach this subject to my macroeconomics students.)

In general, as a society becomes richer, the birthrate begins to shrink. This phenomenon has been observed worldwide and has occurred over the centuries. (There is a famous historical rant, made by the Emperor Augustus, who called a meeting of the men of the patrician class and chewed them out for not having enough babies. Augustus even lowered the legal marriage age for girls to 12 so as to entice men to marry and have more children.)

#6 Amir on 06.09.07 at 6:04 pm

I agree that female contribution to the workforce, increased wealth, urbanisation and so on have all contributed to a declining birthrate. But where does ’secularisation’ fit into all this?

Is there really a direct correlation between religiousness and procreation or does the decline of religion sit, alongside the declining birthrate, as a consequence of all these things? Or is secularisation and the decline of religion really not related to this issue at all?

#7 Andrew Reynolds on 06.09.07 at 10:30 pm

Perhaps a brief look at the history of Europe over the last century would help, particularly compared to that of the US. Europe has gone through two major, devastating, wars during the period, with both sides seeing their churches waving the flag for their own side. A loss of faith in God, as well as a declining birthrate, may be a reaction to this. In the US, by contrast, the wars have been distant and, at least by comparison, casualties relatively minor.

#8 Fringe on 06.12.07 at 10:23 am

As people become more educated, they are less willing to be enslaved solely to the reproductive yoke – the doors of the mind have been opened and they know there’s more to life than breeding and child-rearing – though of course this may still be sufficient fulfillment for some.

A more educated populace is able to resist the intellectually hollow dictates of those who hold power over others by faith – hence increased secularisation.

Conversely, uneducated masses are easy prey for political elites, whether they be secular or theological.

#9 How the West Really Lost God « Umar Lee on 06.13.07 at 5:54 am

[...] the West Really Lost God Jump to Comments From the blog of Austrolabe on a topic I have frequently discussed [...]

#10 Amir on 06.13.07 at 10:00 am

As people become more educated, they are less willing to be enslaved solely to the reproductive yoke – the doors of the mind have been opened and they know there’s more to life than breeding and child-rearing – though of course this may still be sufficient fulfillment for some.

Interesting ideas, Fringe. However, if the educated people free themselves from enslavement to the ‘reproductive yoke’, then that means that only the uneducated will breed. Assuming education is, at least, a partial marker of intelligence and knowing that IQ trends towards the mean, this would suggest that successive generations will become increasingly stupid. :)

#11 George Carty on 06.13.07 at 9:23 pm

Christianity is MS-DOS in a multi core world, its not up to it. One can only be a religious Christian by either not understanding science, or partioning ones hard drive and running a science based OS that keeps one functioning in the modern world and having a christian “app” that one can boot up for special occasions.

The contrast with Islam could not be greater.

I like the computing analogy. By the way, I remember once from Usenet that the rabidly Islamophobic author SM Stirling (who’s an atheist) once wrote that Islam was more dangerous than Christianity because it was more internally coherent.

#12 unaha-closp on 06.14.07 at 8:03 am

One driver for low birth rates is the provision of state welfare support. Westerners no longer require an extended family to support in times of stress. More socially supportive the state is the lower it’s birthrates. The communist states witnessed a massive decline in birthrates.

#13 Fringe on 06.14.07 at 12:16 pm

Hi Amir

It would be a worry, except industry requires lots of drones to keep its wheels spinning.

Admittedly, with more technologisation, industry needs less drones than in the past. So we should try to educate more folks. I don’t think education however is a determinant of IQ – uneducated people have innate intelligence – education hones their potential.

Additionally, the up side is that people who have less children have more time to contribute toward the advancement of civilisation – the arts and sciences. This of course explains why women have featured less prominently throughout history in such pursuits. Things have changed for the better :)

Cheers and by the way, thanks for an excellent site.

#14 Fringe on 06.14.07 at 12:19 pm

unaha closp

Further refinement to your point – another influence creating lower birth rates is the provision of old age pensions – no longer in western civilisations does one have to multiply and farm the kids in order to survive to old age.

This imho is a *good* thing.

#15 UmmFarouq on 06.14.07 at 4:25 pm

I have to wake my son up now to go milk the cow and tend the fields. After he’s finished, he’s going to put in a few hours at our country store, selling grain.

Now all that responsibility couldn’t be heaped on little Paris or Nikki, could it?

I must get to reproducing!

BTW, congratulations on a smashing new look!

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