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Eugenics: The Disturbing Skeleton in the Secular Closet

Photo by Scot Goodhart on Unsplash

It ain’t pretty having a skeleton in your closet. You hide it. You keep it out of sight. The last thing you want is for it to be exposed.

But skeletons are often better exposed and dealt with openly, than covered up. Exposing skeletons can teach us things we might not otherwise know.

Recently I stumbled across a disturbing skeleton in the secular closet. I’ve rarely if ever heard it talked about by secular authors. Like many a skeleton it’s a source of shame and regret.

What is this skeleton? It’s eugenics: the selective breeding of human populations (including forced sterilisations) to improve the gene-pool. This was advocated by many secular thinkers in the name of science, reason, and progress.

So lets have a close look at this skeleton, before seeing what it can teach us.

1) Eugenics: The Disturbing Skeleton In The Secular Progressive Closet

In his book, Making Sense of God—An Invitation to the Skeptical, author Tim Keller shares some surprising research:

Thomas C. Leonard of Princeton University shows that a century ago progressive, scientific-based social policies were broadly understood to entail the sterilization or internment of those persons deemed to have defective genes.

Keller continues:

In 1926 John T. Scopes was famously tried under Tennessee law for teaching evolution. Few people remember, however, that the textbook Scopes used, ‘Civic Biology’ by George Hunter, taught not only evolution but also argued that science dictated we should sterilize or even kill those classes of people who weakened the human gene pool by spreading “disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country”. This was typical of scientific textbooks of the time. [1]

Eugenics taught in the science classroom? That’s a chilling thought.

And it happened here in Australia too—particularly in Victoria. In 1876, Henry Keylock Rusden—Secretary of the Royal Society of Victoria and foremost atheist— wrote cheerily of “exterminating the inferior Australian and Maori races” and controlling ‘the propagation of the imprudent, the diseased, the defective and the criminal”  in the name of “survival of the fittest.”.[2] In the following century, secular luminaries such as Richard Berry (Professor of Anatomy at Melbourne University) and Frank Tate (director of education) ardently championed eugenics—their efforts finally bearing fruit in legislation designed to sterilise “slum dwellers, homosexuals, prostitutes, alcoholics, as well as those with small heads and with low IQs.” (Read more here)

Henry Keylock Rusden—Secretary of the Royal Society of Victoria and foremost atheist—wrote cheerily of ‘exterminating the inferior Australian and Maori races’ and controlling ‘the propagation of the imprudent, the diseased, the defective and the criminal’  in the name of ‘survival of the fittest.’

Now, yes, many skeletons reside in closets because the people at the time didn’t know any better: they were well-intentioned but ignorant, perhaps.

Or, as in the case of Church child abuse scandals, they acted in direct opposition to the clear teaching of the New Testament. (Unlike science textbooks promoting eugenics, there were no Christian books promoting the abuse of children.)

But the frightening thing about the eugenics movement is that it makes scientific and rational sense:

2) Science and Reason Alone Can Support Eugenics

Just ask the secular-progressives from early in the 20th century.

Eugenics makes scientific sense. As Keller points out:

The link between genetic makeup and various forms of antisocial behaviour has never been disproved; indeed, the opposite is true. Recent studies, for example, show that a particular receptor gene decreased boys likelihood to stay in school, even with a compensatory support and help from teachers and parents.

He concludes:

There are many links of hereditary genes to disease, addictions, and other problematic behaviour. Thomas Leonard argues that “eugenics and race sciences were not pseudosciences in the…Progressive Era. They were sciences.” ‘[3]

In other words, as chilling as it sounds, from a purely rational-scientific perspective, it was logical to conclude that it would be more socially and economically cost effective if those genetically prone to non-productive lives did not pass on their genetic code. [4]

And yet, nearly all secular-progressives today are horrified by the thought of sterilizing or killing classes of people who weakened the human gene pool.

So what happened? Why are the secular-minded folk of today horrified by the thought of eugenics?

Did science show them the error of their ways?

Not at all.

3) Science Did Not Get Rid of the Push for Eugenics

The horrors of WW2 showed the immorality of eugenics. Eugenics was supported up until after World War II. As Keller points out:

It was the horrors of World War II, not science, that discredited eugenics…the death camps aroused the moral intuition that eugenics, while perhaps scientifically efficient, is evil. [5]

And so there is where eugenics—the disturbing skeleton in the secular closet—can teach us some profound things about life.

And it gets to the heart of what many modern westerners believe about morality: that science and human reason alone can teach us right from wrong.

But if science and human reason alone weren’t able to show that eugenics (of all things!) is morally wrong, then can science and reason alone tell us right from wrong?

4) Science and Human Reason Alone Cannot tell us Right from Wrong

Something more is required. If you believe that eugenics is wrong, then you must find support for your conviction in some source beyond science and the strictly rational cost-benefit analysis of practical reason. Science and reason alone are not enough. [6]

Science and reason are wonderful and powerful tools. But like any tool, they cannot in and of themselves tell us whether a particular use of the tool is moral, or immoral.

So, a knife can be wielded by an attacker on the streets of London to stab pedestrians. Yet that same model knife can also be used by a chef to cook food for the homeless. But neither the knife, nor science, nor human reason alone can tell you which use is moral, or immoral.

This was summarised nicely in a speech that was written but never delivered at the Scopes monkey trial:

Science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine … Science does not [and cannot] teach brotherly love.’ [6]

And so the modern world is left with a dilemma.

5) Science and Reason Alone are Not Enough To Show Us How To Live Our Lives.

In a 2016 interview with Adam Cohen (author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and The Sterilization Of Carrie Buck) NPR’s Terry Gross described herself speechless as Cohen revealed the involvement of liberal heroes such as Teddy Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes in the eugenics movement. These men, despite their reputation as “progressives” weren’t really progressive at all. Was anybody? Yes, as a matter of fact. While Gross cited Christian opposition to abortion as evidence of moral backwardness, Cohen (perhaps grudgingly) acknowledged that there was a time when they were on the right side:

The Catholic Church was actually fairly heroic on this issue … And in many states, when there was a eugenic sterilisation bill before the legislature, the people who showed up to oppose it were Catholics, they were priests, they were nuns. And there were states like Louisiana with high Catholic populations where eugenic sterilisation laws were voted down really because of the Catholic Church.

How willingly we close the door on those embarrassing skeletons of our past—especially when they don’t fit with the narrative we want to tell. How easily respectable and educated people embrace opinions that appear monstrous in hindsight.

Bit if this disturbing skeleton in the secular closet teaches anything, it’s that science and reason alone are not enough for making sense of life. More is needed—much more.

And this is a problem for our post-Christian western world: we’re now entering uncharted territory where the secular narrative dominates, telling us we live in an atheistic, closed universe.

That’s precisely what the secular-progressives held to in the early 20th century. And they left some disturbing skeletons in the closet.

Such as eugenics.

First published at

[1] Tim Keller, Making Sense of God—An Invitation To The Skeptical (Penguin Group USA, 2018), 12-13 (Emphasis added).

[2] Tom Frame, Evolution in the Antipodes: Charles Darwin and Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009), 103-104.

[3] Keller, Making Sense of God, 13.

[4] Keller, Making Sense of God, 13.

[5] Keller, Making Sense of God, 13.

[6] Keller, Making Sense of God, 13.

[7] Cited in Keller, Making Sense of God, 13.