There’s no debate that the West is losing its religion. Recent statistics from the Pew Research Center show that in 2007, only 16% of U.S. adults denied having any religion—in 2021 that percentage almost doubled, making roughly three out of every ten Americans religious “nones.”
While the decline in Western religious belief has been accepted as fact, the question remains: what’s causing it?
The Decline of the Nuclear Family
Our Praxis Circle Contributors have many thoughts on this topic, but perhaps none more than Contributor Mary Eberstadt, whose book How the West Really Lost God explores the theories of religious decline and offers a compelling alternative—the decline of the nuclear family.
Eberstadt revisited the thesis of this book in a recent article for the National Review. There, she offers updated statistics of secularization in the U.S., Australia, and Europe—no less on the rise ten years ago when she first published the book. She emphasizes that today’s common explanations such as material prosperity, world wars, industrializations, and church scandals touch on aspects but still miss the bigger point. She writes,
“To put the point another way, one that believers themselves should find consoling: Western Christianity is in decline for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the truth value of religious belief. It is not prosperity or sophistication or science that makes God harder for today’s people to see. It is the increasing absence of family members who, by their actions in the family community, sharpen human apprehension of the divine.”
In her first interview with us, Eberstadt goes into even more detail about what that means.
The Rise of the Progressive Family
As mentioned previously, Eberstadt makes a very compelling argument. There is no denying that there is a correlation between family life and religious life. But is that the answer? Can we safely say this is the absolute cause?
Contributor R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, mentions in his recent interview with us an interesting study on American families done by the University of Virginia Institute for Advanced Studies. They classified families in four categories: faithful, progressive, striver, and detached families. He goes on to explain that the faithful families (generally adhering to some form of religion) and the progressive families (generally rejecting religion) are very similar in their size and makeup: strong, convicted, intact families. How then can two strong family types have such different worldviews? Reno explores this more in the interview:
We come to a dilemma: the chicken or the egg. Do families cause a change in religion, or is it the other way around? Reno highlights the fact that there are very strong families out there that have rejected religion in place of progressivism. To Eberstadt’s point, these families are influencing their children in an important way that in turn shapes their worldview but directing them towards rallies and progressivism over Sunday school and church pews.
The Suppression of Miracles
Proving a definitive cause, a starting point for the West’s secularization, seems nearly impossible—almost as impossible as proving miracles. Dr. Molly Worthen, a historian at UNC Chapel Hill, recently published an op-ed in the New York Times on a research study being done by neuroscientist Josh Brown and his wife who are documenting miracles worldwide in an attempt to link Christian prayers and revivals to inexplicable healings and medical recoveries. Dr. Brown’s own personal experience involving a miraculous healing from a fatal brain tumor propels their study.
Because miracles are, well, miraculous, that makes them scientifically unrepeatable in the typically studied way. This has created serious skepticism from critics, yet Worthen writes,
“But the Browns’ experiences and research—not to mention the abundance of healing testimony from other witnesses, especially outside the West—deserve serious consideration. Watertight proof of divine causation may be an impossible goal, but the search for it forces us to confront the assumptions that prop up our own worldviews—whether one is a devout believer or a committed skeptic.”
Indeed, this is the crux of the issue—confronting our own worldview assumptions. Today’s western society has almost wholeheartedly rejected the possibility (and reality) of miraculous God events, forcing out any and all divine explanations. The West is out of step with most of the world in this way (as Contributor Rodney Stark describes here) and is perhaps a significant contributing factor to our society’s secularization.
When God is forced out of government, politics, media, academia, science, families and even the church itself through growing Cancel Culture and increasing Wokeness, people no longer look to Him as a viable answer. Many, like the progressive families, seem to have found a “new” way of doing things. This soon becomes the only way of doing things.
We believe this is extremely problematic because secular humanism seems to rely primarily on the residual nature or foundations of Classical Judeo-Christianity (CJC) in Western society for its moral system. When CJC is fully removed, chaos, anarchy, and evil seem to quickly encroach. Other ideologies or religions take over.
In other words, when individuals abandon one worldview, they adopt another (or others). Most worldview “experts” agree there is no neutral space.
We do not claim to know the cause of secularization, if indeed there is just one. But one thing is certain: the West will change its trajectory for the better only when God once again becomes an acceptable answer—and that begins when we open our eyes to the miracles that surround us each day.
To read more on the secularization thesis: