A conservative Christian blog repeated the malicious trope that atheistic Darwinism was to blame for the forced sterilizations of the feeble-minded performed from the 1920s until the 1980s. Sixty thousand citizens in 35 states were sterilized. In my native North Carolina, the only state that gave social workers the power to designate people for sterilization, there were an estimated 7,600 sterilizations performed between 1929 and 1974, some without the victims’ consent or even knowledge.[i]
Was atheistic Darwinism really to blame? The charge may sound superficially credible if you know only part of the story. After all, Francis Galton, father of the eugenics movement, who coined the term eugenics in 1883, was Charles Darwin’s half-cousin. Moreover, we’ve all heard of Social Darwinism, the idea that we shouldn’t waste money to aid the sickly or elevate the poor. It’s best, according to Social Darwinists, to let the unfit die off rather than drag down society’s high achievers. This harsh attitude was championed by Oswald Spengler, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Herbert Spencer, Andrew Carnegie, and Adolf Hitler.[ii]
Social Darwinism was a form of classism and racism that drew no support from biological evolution properly understood. In contrast, evolution—properly understood—teaches that all humans are related. Every time you greet another person, it is a family reunion.
Darwin acknowledged biological arguments for eugenics programs, but he rejected such policies on moral grounds.[iii] The codiscoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace, spent much of his life penning vociferous rebuttals of Social Darwinism.
The eugenics movement of the 1920s was not founded on widespread public acceptance of evolutionary theory. Most Americans scoffed at evolutionary theory. In 1924, North Carolina Governor Cameron Morrison, as ex officio chairman of the State Board of Education, banned a biology textbook from the public high schools merely because it discussed evolution.[iv] Religious constituents, who began around 1920 to identify as fundamentalists, were irate that mandatory school attendance laws, strictly enforced only after World War I, meant that their children were exposed to evolutionary infidelity.
Aimee Semple McPherson, the most popular radio-evangelist of the 1920s (the decade during which 60 percent of American households bought radios), vehemently denounced evolution and demanded that we instead place a Bible in every public classroom.[v] According to historian Colin Woodard, the 1920s stand out as a period during which anti-evolution activists were prevalent across the entire United States.[vi]
The infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee took place in 1925 and the evolutionists lost, thereby confirming the illegality of teaching evolution in public schools. Incidentally, Clarence Darrow, the agnostic lawyer who argued the evolutionist side in that trial, protested the eugenics movement as racist.[vii]
A Gallup poll conducted as late as 2012 revealed that only 15 percent of Americans believe in evolution without any divine intervention. This includes deists and pantheists as well as atheists. About 10 percent of Americans qualify today as atheistic evolutionists.[viii] The percentage of atheistic evolutionists in America in the 1920s, when the eugenics laws were enacted, is difficult to determine, but was probably between 2 and 4 percent.[ix] If every atheistic evolutionist in the nation favored the eugenics program, they could not have enacted it without first convincing a large percentage of Christians that the eugenics laws were in line with Christian doctrine.
Many Catholics, including G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), spoke against eugenics laws. Catholic policies have always tended to propagate more Catholics, teaching that “it is always intrinsically wrong to use contraception [including sterilization] to prevent new human beings from coming into existence.”[x]
It was Protestants who most favored eugenics laws. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and other women’s clubs labored in every Southern state to establish public eugenic institutions.[xi]
The United Methodist Church, in a rare but admirable move, apologized for its role in supporting the eugenics movement. Here’s an excerpt from that apology:
Ironically, as the Eugenics movement came to the United States, the churches, especially the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians, embraced it. Methodist churches around the country promoted the American Eugenics Society “Fitter Family Contests” wherein the fittest families were invariably fair skinned and well off. Methodist bishops endorsed one of the first books circulated to the US churches promoting eugenics. Unlike the battles over evolution and creationism, both conservative and progressive church leaders endorsed eugenics.[xii]
The ugly spirit of the eugenics laws traces back as far as 1790, when Congress passed America’s first naturalization law, limiting U.S. citizenship to “free white persons.”[xiii] The 1920s brought the expansion of the Christian cross-burning Ku Klux Klan to nearly five million members, its all-time high. An average of 32 lynchings occurred per year during the decade of the 1920s.[xiv] The Klan’s eugenics proposals, more aggressive than those passed by most state legislatures, provided for euthanasia. The Klan emphatically denounced evolutionary theory and still does to this day.
In 1920, Louisiana banned whites from marrying Native Americans or African Americans (believed, based on a racist reading of Genesis 9:20–27, to be cursed descendants of Ham[xv]). In 1921, race riots by blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma provoked a violent white backlash, resulting in an estimated 250 blacks being killed.[xvi] In 1923, the Supreme Court ruled that a Punjabi Hindu man wasn’t entitled to the privileges afforded to whites.[xvii] The same year, blacks were forcibly loaded onto railroad freight cars and removed from Mitchell County, North Carolina.[xviii] In 1924, Virginia passed, on the same day, a sterilization law and a law making it a felony for a white person to marry a non-white person.
Most states banned interracial marriage. In 1928, Senator Coleman Blease of South Carolina proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to outlaw interracial marriage uniformly across the nation. The racism directed against blacks was so blatant that in 1923 a candy maker in Portland, Oregon publicly advertised a chocolate candy called “nigger’s toes.”
The 1920s was also a time of intense anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-Chinese sentiment. According to the historian Peter Watson, “[in] the 1920s…a fresh wave of xenophobia and the eugenic conscience hit America…”[xix] Americans fell prey to an epidemic fear of the influx of foreigners, especially those who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
The reactionary patriotism of the 1920s was spurred by anxiety that the American character was under assault. On Flag Day in 1923, the federal flag code was established, prescribing etiquette for folding the flag and raising it on a flag pole. Like the status of being a traditional, God-fearing, white American, the flag was sacrosanct. The words “my Flag” in the pledge of allegiance were changed to “the Flag of the United States,” prodding immigrants to renounce loyalty to their birth countries. The Emigration Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 halted the immigration of people from southern and eastern Europe.
Americans were appalled by families in ethnic ghettos living off the government dole and by the vast numbers of children housed in orphanages. Wealth inequality peaked. Whereas, in 2014, the public was incensed that the wealthiest 1 percent owned 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, during the 1920s they owned a whopping 51 percent.[xx] It was an era of big business and government corruption. Organized crime escalated, owing largely to the prohibition of alcohol. Prohibition had been enacted in 1918 to keep families stable and, particularly in the South, to keep alcohol away from rowdy blacks.
To give you the flavor of the times, let me briefly recount an incident that occurred in North Carolina in 1929. Ben Wells was a labor organizer trying to get a union started at a textile mill near Charlotte. Fifteen members of an anti-union mob physically hauled him away and beat him. They beat him so severely that the anti-union judge would not let him appear before the initial inquiry. Ben Wells was later prohibited from testifying against the men who beat him because he was an atheist. Atheist testimony was deemed untrustworthy and was not admissible in court. Even though the union was not on trial, Carl Holloway, a former striker, was permitted to testify that he quit the union “because of free love, association with negroes, and religion… They taught us there was no God…”[xxi]
The “Red Scare” of the 1920s was a panicked public reaction against a small group of American communists, a few of whom were violent anarchists who opposed the industrial elites. By “small” group I mean about one tenth of one percent of the country’s population.[xxii] To Americans keen on distinguishing between “us” and “them,” these communists were emphatically categorized as “them.”
In the early 1920s, Henry Ford published a four-booklet volume titled The International Jew, promulgating the myth of a vast Jewish conspiracy against Christ, Christmas, and Christianity. Anything even slightly exotic or outside the norm became suspect. In Europe, this mindset gave rise to Fascism, virtually synonymous with rightwing Catholicism. This socio-political movement in Europe culminated in the Jewish concentration camps of the late 1930s and 1940s.
In the United States, the handsome Midwesterner Warren G. Harding was elected President in 1920 on the Republican ticket, having campaigned to “return to Normalcy.” In 1922, Sinclair Lewis published Babbitt, a novel that satirized the shallow, conformist nature of American middle-brow culture, in which people were cautioned not to stand out from the crowd. The highest flattery was to be patted on your back and told, “You’re a regular guy.” By the end of the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had written his book Civilization and Its Discontents, in which not fitting into society was taken as a marker of a psychological defect.[xxiii]
The 1920s was a time of intense hostility toward atheists, evolutionists, and anyone who wasn’t a gainfully employed, properly complected Protestant. Not surprisingly, poor blacks and Native Americans were disproportionately represented among the sterilization victims. In 1945, one U.S. senator urged the sterilization of all Japanese held in the internment camps, and some did get sterilized.[xxiv]
The forced sterilizations performed across America were the product, not of godless Darwinism, but of Christian majority-backed racial and ethnic bigotry in collusion with a clique of misguided leftists intent on social engineering. Though some of those leftists were atheists, public support for the eugenics programs came overwhelmingly from Protestant Christians.
Whenever the topic of forced sterilizations comes up for public discussion, modern Christians exhibit selective amnesia. The 1987 rejection of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork elicited the following protest from Dinesh D’Souza:
When senators harangued Bork about state laws requiring forced sterilizations and other such atrocities, Bork should have replied, “Senator Kennedy, your question presumes a profound lack of faith in the American people. Do you imagine that the American people lack the good sense to pass laws under which they can live? In which state do you expect forced sterilization laws to pass?”[xxv]
The last sterilization in the United States was performed in Oregon in 1981, only six years prior to these coldly astigmatic remarks by D’Souza. When the ugly history of sterilizations isn’t being purged from public memory, it’s being so effectively distorted that the tiny sliver of the population who were atheists receive the blame.
I have highlighted the example of forced sterilizations, not to exculpate any atheist who was party to this moral outrage, but to illustrate that the same religious factions that now assume the mantle of moral superiority have engaged in, and are still engaged in, a dishonest propaganda campaign to deny the widespread Christian support for eugenics and to blame it on atheists.
Let me add a personal anecdote to illustrate the pernicious eugenic mindset. When my three sons were young boys, I stood alongside them in front of the local Wal-Mart store, waiting for their mother to finish shopping. A wiry redneck fellow nodded at my boys and then vigorously shook my hand, “Nice to see white people raisin’ families. God bless you, sir.” He walked away before the content of his statement sunk in. His assumption about my views on race and religion speaks volumes about our society. He would never have shaken my hand if I were black or if he knew me to be the author of the book Religion Refuted.
[i] “North Carolina Senate Denies Funds for Sterilization Victims”, (ABC News, reported by Carrie Gann, Courtney Hutchinson, and Susan James, June 22, 2012), www.abcnews.go.com/Health/WomensHealth/north-carolina-senate-blocks-compensation-sterilization-victims-eugenics/story?id=16628515
[ii] Adolf Hitler argued for cultural evolution. He banned the teaching of biological evolution, denied all but micro-evolution, and misconstrued it as supporting the obsolete hierarchical concept of “higher state of being.” (Mein Kampf, p. 223)
[iii] In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”
[iv] William S. Powell, “The Evolution Controversy”, North Carolina through Four Centuries, (University of North Carolina Press, 1988), Reposted at www.ibiblio.org/uncpress/ncbooks/evolution/evolution.html
[v] During the period between the two world wars, the Catholic priest Charles Coughlin hosted a radio program heard regularly by one in ten American families. In the years leading up to World War II, Coughlin issued increasingly ferocious anti-Semitic rants. His followers held mass rallies, stockpiled weapons, and beat up Jews.
[vi] Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, (Penguin Books, NY, 2011), p. 272.
[vii] Clarence Darrow, “The Eugenics Cult” (The American Mercury, Volume VIII, Number 30, June 1926) www.dododreams.blogspot.com/2011/09/reprint.html
[viii] 2004 BBC poll
[ix] Extrapolated from figures listed under heading “Atheists In America” (FreeThoughtPedia, cited 9/3/2013), www.freethoughtpedia.com/wiki/Percentage_of_atheists#Atheists_In_America
[x] Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, “Birth Control” (Catholic Answers: To Explain & Defend the Faith, 8/10/2004, Cited 11/15/2015), http://www.catholic.com/tracts/birth-control
[xi] Edward J. Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1995). p. 75.
[xii] “An Apology for Support of Eugenics (81175-C2-R9999)” (United Methodist Church, cited 1/1/2014), www.calms.umc.org/2008/Text.aspx?mode=Petition&Number=1175
[xiii] Paul Lombardo, “Eugenics Laws Restricting Immigration” (University of Virginia), www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay9text.html
[xiv] University of Missouri–Kansas City, law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingyear.html
[xv] Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, (Penguin Books, NY, 2011), p. 202.
[xvi] New York Times, “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past”, A. G. Sulzberger, June 19, 2011.
[xvii] Reference is to the case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. For more information, see Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package, (The Penguin Press, New York, 2014), p. 99.
[xix] Peter Watson, The Modern Mind, (Harper Collins, New York, 2001), p. 250.
[xx] Time Life, The Roaring Twenties: The Decade That Changed America, p. 10.
[xxi] “North Carolina Judge Won’t Allow Atheist’s Testimony Admitted in Court” (skeptican.org, cited 12/5/2013) www.skepticism.org/timeline/september-history/8659-north-carolina-judge-wont-allow-atheists-testimony-admitted-court.html
[xxii] C. N. Trueman, “The Red Scare in the 1920” (The History Learning Site, 5/22/2015, Cited 12/6/2015), http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/america-1918-1939/the-red-scare-in-the-1920/
[xxiii] As Karl Popper observed, Freud failed to make psychology resemble a genuine science. Freud’s social alienation of dissidents echoed the religious practice of ostracizing dissenters. Puritans used “shunning.” Dissents in Jehovah’s Witnesses get “disfellowshipped.” Scientologists shame their dissidents as “suppressive persons.”
[xxiv] “Inside Story Americas – Forced sterilization: Time for compensation?”, Aljazeera, 6/23/2012 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pyiVuYAznk)
[xxv] Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court, (The Penguin Press, New York, 2007), p. 52.