Sydney, Monday 07 November 2022: What to make of the decline in religious belief in the West in the past century? As people become more educated and more prosperous, do they turn away from church? Do they find themselves more sceptical of religion’s premises and less in need of its ostensible consolations?
According to US author and cultural critic Mary Eberstadt, the idea that something about modernity will ultimately cause Christianity to wither away has been axiomatic among modern, sophisticated Westerners.
But in a recent special Ramsay Lecture event, co-hosted with the Campion College Centre for the Study of the Western Tradition, she posed the question: what if this widely accepted ‘secularization thesis’ misses something crucial?
In front of a packed audience at The Mint in Sydney late last month, Ms Eberstadt argued it does.
Citing an array of historical and other evidence, Ms Eberstadt expanded on the central thesis of her 2013 title, How the West Really Lost God, arguing that the decline in Western churchgoing is more attributable to the collapse of the Western family, especially since the 1960s, than any other commonly touted cause.
In pressing her case, she first disputed prevailing arguments about why Christianity is in decline, including what she claimed is the dominant theory, ‘that material prosperity drives out God.’ She rejected this, citing an array of historical and statistical evidence which shows that poorer and less educated Westerners are less likely to go to church, with greater religious devotion among the wealthy and middle class.
Ms Eberstadt also examined the psychological impact of the two world wars of the 20th century, as well as the impact of industrialisation, and mass mobility. While she conceded that these had had some effect on religious devotion, she said the biggest cause of religious decline was the breakdown of the family unit, flowing on from the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
“Everyone looking at this puzzle sees the same thing. Belief and practice across the West enter steep decline between 1963 and 1966,” Ms Eberstadt said.
“It is not prosperity that makes God harder to see, it’s not science, it’s the increasing absence of familial figures who serve to sharpen the human vision of the divine.”
Ms Eberstadt cited Australian census figures which reveal that the number of Australians identifying as Christians has decreased from 86 per cent in 1971 to just under 44 per cent today. She said modern challenges to religion, particularly among millennials, now included technologies that made non-marital lives more plausible, as well as cancel culture on universities which made it harder for the young to declare and engage in their religious faith.
But she argued Christianity may not be in permanent decline as societal problems such as loneliness and mental illness could eventually drive people to question their way of life and see a return to communities built more around families and faith.
Mary Eberstadt holds the Panula Chair in Christian Culture at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. She is the author of several books including Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics; How the West Really Lost God; and Adam and Eve after the Pill. She has written for numerous magazines and journals and her 2010 novel The Loser Letters, about a young woman in rehab struggling with atheism, was adapted for stage and premiered at Catholic University in 2017. Her work is available on her website, maryeberstadt.com
A recording of this Ramsay Lecture will be available via our website ramsaycentre.org as both a video and podcast on Thursday 17 November.
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