How the West Lost God image

How the West Lost God

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There's been a lot of interesting stuff written recently about secularisation. For those who are busy trying to contextualise the gospel to contemporary culture, it's enormously important to ask the question: how and why has the West become so secular? Why, as Charles Taylor asks pertinently in his A Secular Age, is it so hard to believe in God in the modern West, when in the medieval world it was almost impossible not to? All sorts of factors are proposed as crucial - the Reformation's individualism, the scientific revolution, industrialisation, liberalism and democracy, and so on - but in a new book, Mary Eberstadt argues (in an interesting reversal of the causality usually assumed) that the decline of the family was chiefly responsible for the loss of religion. Her book, How the West Really Lost God, has been getting a lot of attention recently, and has just been the subject of a superb review in Christianity Today.

The review by Jordan Hylden, who is researching for his PhD at Duke, is sympathetic to Eberstadt’s approach, but argues that it is insufficient. To make this point, a summary of the main alternative view, as represented by Taylor, John Milbank and others, is provided, and it is hard to think of a better three paragraph summary anywhere of ‘how the West lost God’:

Once upon a time, everyone lived in an enchanted world, filled with spirits and magic. In the West, the rise of Judaism and Christianity began to displace the spirits—only the one true God was almighty, and the spirits were either worthless idols or weaklings in the face of the Lord’s power. Christ, as it were, began to cast out the spirits from the world. But the ancient and medieval church’s sacramentalism kept the world enchanted, only now with the grace of God. This began to retreat with the Reformation, when God’s presence shifted from the sacraments and the priests to the Word alone. Nothing was enchanted now, except the Word.

This Word marched forth, carrying with it a powerful drive to reform European society after its demands. To a large extent, it succeeded, but at the same time religious conflict unleashed years of bloody war. Many became skeptical that the Word could really bring about reform, but gained confidence that we could reform the world ourselves. For the first time in history, it became possible to conceive of an “exclusive humanism.” Secular politics, science, and technology became humanism’s tools, and as time went on these took hold of more and more of human activity and imagination. God became a hypothesis that society had little need for.

Meanwhile, the post-Reformation churches had some success at mobilizing believers, in a new world in which faith was no longer simply part of everyday social life. But the church all too often allied itself with fading political regimes, discrediting it in the eyes of many. The First World War’s senseless violence shattered for a generation the old Christendom synthesis of church and state, and Europe’s churches have never been the same. The church held on in America, since the war did not shatter us like it did the Europeans, and because our churches were not in any case allied so tightly with the state. But the 1960s began to change that, as the civil rights movement and Vietnam began to topple the confidence of many in the American Establishment, and insofar as the “mainline” churches were viewed as part of the status quo. The American social imagination split in two, and ever since then has been characterized by culture wars, with most of religion on the conservative side.

Of course, when mapping something that takes place over several centuries and involving dozens of countries and billions of people, trajectories and trends are never as simple as that. But as a sketch, I think Hylden’s overview is immensely helpful. If you want to know why your town is so much more secular than it was a few hundred years ago, this is a great place to start.

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