Saturday, June 23, 2007

Does Religion Encourage Families or Do Families Want Religion?

In a fascinating and insightful analysis in the June/July 2007 Policy Review, Mary Eberstadt tackles key presumptions and beliefs about our belief systems in How the West Lost God. The article goes to heart of the common axiom that the great religions command having families as opposed to Eberstadt's proposition that family life leads to a desire for religiosity.

She makes many import points a few blurbed here: ...if 9/11 drove to church for weeks on end millions of Americans who had not darkened that doorstep in years — as it did — imagine the even deeper impact on ordinary mothers and fathers of a sick child or the similarly powerful desire of a devoted spouse on the brink of losing the other. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, so too would there appear to be few in the nursery or critical care unit, at least most of the time.

In sum, because it treats belief as an atomistic decision taken piecemeal by individuals rather than a holistic response to family life, Nietzsche’s madman and his offspring, secularization theory, appear to present an incomplete version of how some considerable portion of human beings actually come to think and behave about things religious — not one by one and all on their own, but rather mediated through the elemental connections of husband, wife, child, aunt, great-grandfather, and the rest.

And later she goes on: To argue by analogy, it appears that the natural family as a whole has been the human symphony through which God has historically been heard by many people — not the prophets, not the philosophers, but a great many of the rest. That is why the conventional story of secularization seems to be missing something: because it makes its cases by and to atomized individuals without reference to the totality of family and children through which many people derive their deepest opinions and impressions of life — including religious opinions and impressions.

In sum, and given what we know now about the religious and familial situation in Western Europe some 125 years later, Nietzsche was right to declare that the great Christian cathedrals of Europe had become tombs. But he may have been wrong about what exactly had been buried in them. It was not so much God as the European natural family that has been largely laid to rest — an interment already well underway in some countries long before his madman entered the square and one that is surely an overlooked and critical part of the full story of how Christian Europe went secular.

The article has totally changed my thinking and my mistaken acceptance of the common theory of why large families and religion go hand in hand. I also think that both theories are correct but as to which one is quantitatively more correct is still, perhaps ironically, open to one's own beliefs. Eberstadt discusses the influence of community in her analysis and I also think that community and tradition perhaps compose the third leg of the discussion; hence the inherent interrelatedness of family, community, and God.

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