Does Atheism Lead to Belief in Social Darwinism?

The short answer is no. But there is also a longer answer that qualifies this “no”, and atheists and agnostics should think about that qualified answer. It is certainly true that there is no logical necessity at work that tells the atheist that she must  embrace Social Darwinism to be an atheist, but it is also true that history matters. You can’t live in a hermetically sealed bubble of logic impervious to how that logic has played out in history and what that history suggests to you. Atheists and agnostics have things to learn from history, and history can help us think about alternative futures, and what we need to be cautious about. Thus atheists and agnostics need to be cautious about Social Darwinism and expressions of enthusiasm for eugenics for three very good reasons:

  1. Language. We don’t have religious language, such as the Sermon on the Mount, to restrain our speculations in the areas of Social Darwinism and eugenics.
  2. Intellectual coherence. A Nietzschean ethical system appears to be a more coherent fit for atheism than the syncretism of Christian ethics tacked on to atheism (which is what humanism is). In other words, humanism’s contradictions and “Christian hangovers” (such as belief in free will and altruism) may not always hold together within atheist movements. It may be “natural” over time for atheist movements to gravitate towards Nietzchean friendly ethical ideas (as opposed to Christian friendly ones).
  3. History. History suggests that atheism can fall prey pretty easily to the logic of Social Darwinism and eugenics. The temptations are there. Let’s not pretend that contemporary atheists are immune to it.

Here’s an analogy: There is no logical necessity that requires a believer in Jesus to kill Jews. But we know that, historically, antisemitism has been a phenomenon among Christians, and Christians need to be cautious about it and give vigilant attention to incipient hints of it emerging in their midst. Just as Christianity has a Geist  around which a certain family of ideas attaches, so it is also true that atheism has a Geist  around which certain ideas attach. History tells us things. We’ve got to bring our ideas out for a drive once in a while and reality test them, don’t you think?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Does Atheism Lead to Belief in Social Darwinism?

  1. Many Christians were social Darwinists (a misnomer since it has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘Darwinism’, but a form of social engineering), so I’m not sure what your point is. If it is that atheists are more susceptible, then history has demonstrated that this is clearly wrong.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Shamelessly:

    I agree that there was such a thing in Nazi Germany as a fascist form of Christianity (called the “German Christian Movement”). But it’s also true that Social Darwinism, eugenics, fascism, and communism were post-Christian European secular ideas.

    As for social Darwinism being a misnomer, I don’t agree. I think it would be a mistake to divorce Darwin’s ideas from what was thought about subsequently in terms of eugenics.

    Could I ask you, by the way, what your contemporary take, as an atheist, is on eugenics? Is it something you can endorse in terms of research for science today? Are you hopeful that, say, a hundred years from now, science will be breeding super smart humans with especially robust genetic profiles?

    —Santi

  3. ‘Darwinism’ and social Darwinism have nothing in common because they operate via completely different mechanisms, making the latter is a false analogy of the former. The resemblance of social Darwinism to natural selection is barely even superficial. For instance, what does ‘especially robust genetic profiles’ mean? How does one measure that? I don’t think anyone knows or even can know.

    Could I ask you, by the way, what your contemporary take, as an atheist, is on eugenics? Is it something you can endorse in terms of research for science today? Are you hopeful that, say, a hundred years from now, science will be breeding super smart humans with especially robust genetic profiles?

    It depends on what you mean by eugenics. If you mean genetic engineering, I don’t think it possible. The law of unintended consequences puts the fiction in science fiction on that subject. The silver fox experiment in Russia goes exactly to the point. In trying to breed a tame silver fox, the experimenters notices a whole bunch of other changes. Genes don’t operate in a vacuum and there’s no way to predict outcomes. In essence, it’s unworkable and will be relegated to the science fiction genre forever. One can not force evolution to do society’s will.

    I am, however, in favor of testing embryos from in vitro fertilization to test for genetic diseases like Huntington’s Disease and I’ve blogged on PGN before. Margaret Sommerville is an embarrassment to ethicists everywhere. The example I give (a real world one) is of a father who quite rightly doesn’t want any of his children living with the fear of the inevitable wasting away to death that they will see happen to him. Sommerville finds his choice deplorable. I question Sommmerville’s sense of humanity and am certain that her position has more to do with her religion than any defendable ethics. I have no idea why CBC keeps calling her in as an expert.

    All I can say in answer is that the answer to your question is vastly more complicated than a yes or no, and must be taken on a case-by-case basis.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Shamelessly:

    Fair enough. Case by case is fine. I agree it’s a tricky ethical issue. Unlike you, I don’t think it is at all going to stay in the realm of science fiction. I think that somebody (a corporation, a government) will take over the genetic destiny of humanity within the next 100 years and create humans much smarter and with less proclivity to disease than current humans (that’s what I mean by robust). We’ve already got the code. It won’t be long.

    My point is that there are certain religious institutions that would almost certainly, on religious grounds, resist this traumatic existential choice of taking over humanity’s genetic destiny, whereas atheists have no obvious reasons not to do so. I think that this eugenic future, because it will be so tempting, and appear to offer so many potential benefits, will be virtually irresistable to policymakers, scientists, billionaires, corporations, and governments. I suspect that right now, as we speak, the Chinese are covertly racing the United States and Europe to the finish line on this. It may take fifty to a hundred years, but I bet that the engineering of humanity is being seriously thought about and funded. If it’s not being thought about in Manhattan Project terms quite yet, it will be. I think it is going to be the biggest issue of the mid 21st century. I have no idea if this future will be a paradise or a nightmare, and I’m also reasonably sure that far more religious people than non-religious people will resist its implementation.

    My guess is that by 2050 the media will start talking each year about “human 1.1”, “human 1.2”, “human 1.3” and so on. Each year will bring new genetic enhancements that will be incorporated into the human genomes of newborns (resistance to diabetes one year, an increase in the efficiency of oxygen use another year, an enhancement in musical ability another year). Once we get on that train, it will be very hard to get off, and those of us who are born without these enhancements will veer from other humans until there is a “two track” system of humans—the naturals and the enhanced. Nations will worry about enhancement gaps (as we worried about missile gaps in the 1960s). I have no idea what the reverberating implications will be, but it will overwhelm all other cultural forces, including religion.

    All the atheist worry about religion is swinging at a target that will have little influence on the direction of humanity a century from now. Religion, like most other things in our culture, is going to be yet another institution caught flat-footed by the pace of genetic technology supported by nano-computers. All of our contemporary politics will seem utterly quaint compared to the dilemmas of the near future. The world will be as different in 2050 as our world is different from, say, 1903 (when the Wright Bros. first flew an airplane).

    Thus, for all the atheist worry about religion, one thing is sure: the most serious problems of the next fifty years won’t be because there are too many religious people in the world. It might well be that there are not enough. The next century will be a secular century, and it will run on secular assumptions. It won’t be Christians or Muslims who make the Earth, a century from now, a desert or a paradise. It will be scientific elites interacting with secular power brokers manipulating public opinion—and the human genome.

    —Santi

  5. Matt says:

    I’ll accept that a misreading of Darwin can lead to social Darwinism, but that’s no more a reason for denying the truth of evolution than the argument that we shouldn’t teach physics and chemistry because people might use that knowledge to make guns and bombs.
    Knowledge can be misused, but so what? If we are to grow and mature as a society then we must question, and we must advance our understanding of the universe.
    I think the far, far greater risk lies in letting narrow religious beliefs dictate which bits of reality should be studied and understood.

  6. @Matt: You said exactly what I wanted to say about the relationship between Darwinism and social Darwinism, and far better.

    My point is that there are certain religious institutions that would almost certainly, on religious grounds, resist this traumatic existential choice of taking over humanity’s genetic destiny, whereas atheists have no obvious reasons not to do so.

    Do not make the mistake of thinking that atheism is a philosophical position of positive belief. It is simply a rejection of theism. In a similar vein, a belief in a god does not necessarily give one grounds to resist social engineering. In one respect, critics of atheism are correct – atheism in and of itself does not supply ethical or moral guidance. Of course, this is moot, since atheists don’t say this anyway. But atheism does free the individual to produce a defensible set of ethics, whereas religion dogmatically asserts an ancient barbaric morality that is often in conflict with modern societal values. The very idea that there is such a thing as an objective morality is laughable when the meaning of something which seems so fundamental as ‘thou shalt not murder’ has changed drastically over a mere two millennia.

    So, what does that have to do with the genetic tinkering of society? This: as a secular humanist I believe in individual freedoms. Social Darwinism violates principles that I hold sacred. Making PGD available, for instance, is in line with this. Sommerville’s position is not.

    Religion, like most other things in our culture, is going to be yet another institution caught flat-footed by the pace of genetic technology supported by nano-computers. All of our contemporary politics will seem utterly quaint compared to the dilemmas of the near future.

    Near future? We’re already way beyond that. New technologies are already outpacing the discussion of ethics, let alone the attention of legal authority. And I put it to everyone that religion has little (indeed, I would say nothing) to offer in guidance. What does the bible say, for instance, about stem cell research? Trying to shoehorn antiquated moral systems into modern ethical dilemmas leads to ridiculous policies, Dubya’s banning of stem cell research being one of them. While I have no doubt that religion has benefits for individuals, when applied to society religion is poison. We’ve been down that road where religion ran things and it was a disaster. Secularism, far from being the bogeyman it is portrayed as being, is the only way where all points of view can have a say as to what we want society to be.

  7. Samuel Skinner says:

    ” I think that somebody (a corporation, a government) will take over the genetic destiny of humanity within the next 100 years and create humans much smarter and with less proclivity to disease than current humans (that’s what I mean by robust). We’ve already got the code. It won’t be long.”

    I honestly doubt that- the only reason would be for cosmetic purposes. Computers are much simpler to work with and are alot better- if we don’t make AIs, people will try to find a way to let people use computers linked to their minds as a cheaper solution.

    After all, if you screw up, you can just take the machinary out. Genetic engineering has no going back.

    “whereas atheists have no obvious reasons not to do so.”

    Unless they are leftists. Making the rich and the poor different species is a bad idea.

    “technology supported by nano-computers.”

    Yeah, we are going to be using normal sized computers for this.

    “All of our contemporary politics will seem utterly quaint compared to the dilemmas of the near future. The world will be as different in 2050 as our world is different from, say, 1903 (when the Wright Bros. first flew an airplane).”

    You are sounding like the Singularity proponents. Trust me- they called dibs on world changing revolutions.

  8. santitafarella says:

    Matt:

    I don’t know how you took Darwin disbelief from anything that I said. I believe that the Earth is old, that plants and animals change over time and replace one another via survival of the fittest, and that all living plants and animals derive from a common ancestor. Looking honestly at the social implications of these discoveries is very different from rejecting them as discoveries. You can accept the basic facts of the Darwinian catechism without feeling comfy about their social implications.

    Given what Darwin discovered, it is hardly surprising that he drew eugenic conclusions from them (see the last pages of his Descent of Man for proof of this). But Darwin didn’t have a crystal ball for seeing how his discoveries would play out in the social arena. We now do know, and we should be honest about it. Hitler was a crude eugenicist, and he believed that he was implementing the essence of what Darwinism had discovered (survival of the fittest). And now, 21st century people have got to think very, very hard about eugenics once again. Eugenics will be a large part of the human future, and scientists, policymakers, and corporations, within the next century, will be making momentous decisions about tinkering with the human genetic code based on Darwinian principles. This is a fact.

    —Santi

  9. santitafarella says:

    Samuel:

    You said: “Making the rich and the poor different species is a bad idea.”

    No shit. But this will be precisely the dilemma facing elite policy makers and scientists over the next century. Within the next fifty years, for example, Harvard University will be struggling with the question: “What will we say to rich parents who have had their children’s intelligence enhanced by an en vitro procedure? Will we say that they have been given an unfair advantage over the unenhanced?” In other words, will genetic enhancement be just another advantage some people have for college admissions (as money and family connections are today)? There will be students seeking to apply to elite universities who are genetically enhanced. It’s coming. What do we do about it?

    If the United States bans genetic enhancement procedures, do you imagine that China or some other country won’t gladly take rich peoples’ money, and perform the procedures? And do you think that once one country starts down such a road, that others can afford not to join them?

    Imagine the panic of a nation that is caught flat footed on this, and sees between its population and the populations of other countries, a genetic enhancement gap?

    —Santi

    —Santi

  10. santitafarella says:

    Shamelessly:

    You might (ironically for an atheist) hold certain anti-eugenic principles as “sacred” (your word). And religion may well be as irrational as you claim, but here’s a fact. Tinkering with the human genome and with embryos has long been TABOO within the major religious traditions. Based on reason or not, taboos tend to keep people away from certain behaviors, and to fear them on visceral grounds, and the fact is that atheism unlooses humanity from taboos and forces humanity to ground their taboos in pragmatic and rational justification (as opposed to simple religious sanction). This makes it much more likely that eugenics will be coming in the very near future. China, for example, is an atheist nation with top flight geneticists, and there appears to be nothing publicly functioning within that atheist culture that would make tinkering with the human genome taboo.

    Thus if you don’t think that, as we speak, there are no “black sites” in China or elsewhere in the world where some funky genetic experiments are going on in secret, I think that you are kidding yourself. For good or ill a broad religious taboo is in the process of being breached, and will continue to be breached, and if it goes horrendously wrong religion will not be to blame.

    I would like to offer an analogy: Hinduism has long held a taboo against the eating of cows. It may be irrational (from an atheist perspective) to have such a taboo, but it effectively prevents the widespread popularity of McDonalds in India. There may be a few McDonalds restaurants in the big cities, and around the airports that Westerners frequent, but an atheist country like China is going to be much more fertile grounds for McDonalds (for good and for ill) than India is. If McDonalds spreads throughout India someday, whatever good or ill it might bring to the country, you won’t be able to blame the results on the orthodox Hindus.

    The world of the future will be, for better or worse, different from today not because of currently functioning religious taboos, but because those taboos will be absent from the equation. Atheists will have their wish soon. The world will function much more “rationally” in the future. The elite atheist, agnostic, and secular scientists of today (and those in the near future) are about to take over the genetic destiny of humankind (against the taboos of religion), and if they make something wonderful of it, they’ll own it. Religion will get no credit for what the world will have become. But as Colin Powell also told President Bush about invading Iraq: “If you break it, you own it.” That will be true too.

    As an atheist devoted to breaking down irrational religious taboos, you might still want to be careful what you wish for.

    —Santi

  11. Samuel Skinner says:

    “Hitler was a crude eugenicist, and he believed that he was implementing the essence of what Darwinism had discovered (survival of the fittest)”

    Not really. His justification for why aryans were better is that they were desendants of giants and… lets just say he didn’t do the research.

    “Will we say that they have been given an unfair advantage over the unenhanced?”

    It will be ignored and they will look at their test scores and grades.

    “Imagine the panic of a nation that is caught flat footed on this, and sees between its population and the populations of other countries, a genetic enhancement gap?”

    That only applies if the benefits are huge and the costs are minor. Understanding the brain enough to make it function more efficiently is hard and the expense is accidentally crippling the offspring.

    “It may be irrational (from an atheist perspective) to have such a taboo,”

    Actually there are cultural reasons why this is the case. It helps benefit the poor and insure that they at least have something while… what? Alot of traditions do have a rationale.

    As for you fears out what the future will look like…

    http://yudkowsky.net/obsolete/singularity.html

  12. Anonymous says:

    It’s possible that there are atheists who are social Darwinists.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s