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.
First, we would expect to find that declines in fertility and family formation had been around in Western Europe for some time before secularization as we know it — loss of religious faith and of such habits as churchgoing — had become a social norm. And such does indeed appear to be the case. Looking just at the proxy of fertility — again, because it is perhaps the easiest to see — what demographers call the unprecedented and overall “sustained fall” in birthrate that characterizes Western Europe today began at different times in different countries, but it started earlier almost everywhere than is widely understood. In France, for example, the decline started in the late eighteenth century.15 In Britain, which was then richer than France, the decline started a century later — i.e., at a time when the majority of Europeans were still practicing Christians in some visible sense. Some countries would not see their fertility decline until much later; Ireland, a particularly dramatic example discussed below, did not begin resembling other European countries until well into the twentieth century. But whether early or late to the party of demographic decline, and with or without the occasional baby boom blips, European fertility in general dropped well before the dramatic demise of religious practice seen today.
What could it be about the experience of the natural family that might make an individual more disposed toward religion than he is without it? Though merely a preliminary attempt at an answer, several lines of explanation suggest themselves.
First, there is the phenomenological fact of what birth itself does to many fathers and just about every mother. That moment — for some now, even that first glimpse on a sonogram — is routinely experienced by a great many people as an event transcendental as no other. This hardly means that pregnancy and birth ipso facto convert participants into zealots. But the sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an elemental bond that is cross-cultural as perhaps no other — a formulation to which most parents on the planet would quickly agree.
This fact of the primal connection between parents and children — this suggestion that such may be the critical foundational bond of human beings — is not just limited to ordinary mortals in the obstetrician’s office, but also echoes throughout numerous of the masterpieces of human history. It is why King Lear is nearly universally recognized as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, whereas, say, Romeo and Juliet for all its pathos is not — because the predeceasing by Lear of Cordelia is the perfect symbol of the worst tragedy life can present, again so far as the mothers and fathers of the world are concerned. It is why the story of Jesus is so similarly universal in its tragic appeal, whether told via that masterpiece of sculpture, the Pieta (whose primary focus, suggestively enough, is Mary, not Jesus), or just via the familiar story that begins with Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to save their infant’s life — one that has resonated among literates and illiterates for two millennia.
Similarly, the theme of not only outliving one’s children but symbolically profiting from their death repeatedly presents itself as the worst transgression imaginable in works that stand at the absolute pinnacle of Western literature. Consider Medea’s unwitting devouring of her children as related by Euripides almost 2,500 years ago; Dante’s portrayal of Ugolino, one of the most famous figures in the Inferno, whose punishment in hell is to watch his four sons die and then to eat their flesh out of his inability to stop himself; Shakespeare’s sounding of the theme inTitus Andronicus, where the title character’s ultimate revenge on the Goth queen who has destroyed his family is to engineer her unwitting digestion of her own two children, cooked like Medea’s in a pie. In all cases, the meaning is clear across centuries and languages: Nothing could be worse than losing one’s children, unless it is the taboo of living off that which should never have died first.
Which account comports better with what people actually do and why they do it, Nietzsche’s or this one? The answer seems to depend on which people we are talking about. On the madman’s model, a few übermenschen in possession of truths that would be unbearable to others spread the word slowly — in this case of the death of God, which will take centuries — thus beginning a process that will someday trickle down to the unknowing mass of men. The mechanism of such a transfer appears mysterious; after all, not many people avoid church these days because of the Copernican revolution, say, or because of Galileo’s vindication, or because of other specific events that caused some in the history of philosophy to lose their faith. But let us leave this issue of trickle-down secularism aside and give Nietzsche’s madman the benefit of the doubt for now. There are people who do indeed learn and decide, believe and disbelieve, in the way he describes.
But the majority of people, to continue this complementary religious anthropology, do not re-invent the theological wheel this way. They learn religion in communities, beginning with the community of the family. They learn it as Ludwig Wittgenstein once brilliantly observed that language is learned: not as atomized individuals making up their own tongues, but in a community. Wittgenstein countered Descartes’ dualism, after all, by observing that the philosophical question he was most famous for — how do I know that I am? — contained the seeds of its destruction in the very phrasing: Only by presupposing a community of language believers, Wittgenstein argued, could this question about radical oneness make sense.
So might the comparative case of religiosity best be understood for many people — not for the übermenschen of Nietzsche’s imaginings, but for at least some of the great many human beings who have lived their lives in natural families and worshipped a deity. With that connection now broken in formerly Christian Western Europe and other parts of the West, a great many people in their current peer group lean one way — the secularist way.32 But that ending, pace the secularists and atheists, has not proved once and for all that religion is over. It has proved rather that the kind of human community on which religious apprehension appears most dependent — i.e., one in which the natural family enjoys some kind of critical social mass — is in serious decline. Trying to believe without a community of believers is like trying to work out a language for oneself — something that a few übermenschen might be up for attempting but most other people are not.
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.36
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.