Paul Popenoe (1888-1979) was a leading figure in the American eugenics movement, publishing his book Applied Eugenics in 1918. The following chapter, “Religion and Eugenics,” is taken from it.
After writing Applied Eugenics, Popenoe noticed the rising divorce rates in his time and decided to work as a marriage counselor. Popular evangelical radio show host James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, got his start at Popenoe’s Institute of Family Relations. Dobson, of course, is not a eugenicist and doesn’t incorporate hereditarianism in his work; doing so would offend members of his audience. The shift from Popenoe to Dobson therefore represents the transition from eugenics to behaviorism, not only on the Right but to some extent in mainstream culture.
Popenoe’s perspective seems to be more insightful, however, as most outcomes in life are the result of a combination of genes and environment. Of particular interest is his juxtaposition of instinct and reason, claiming instinct motivates people to pair up and have kids but that reason makes them hesitate. Religious people have more children, and thus seem to be more “instinctive” in this regard, but they are also less intelligent on average. The contrast between intelligence and instinct is something sociobiologist Satoshi Kanazawa has investigated in his Savannah-IQ hypothesis, claiming that high intelligence evolved to cope with environments outside the African Savannah (a surreptitious criticism of blacks), and as such intelligent people’s interests tend to deviate to a greater extent from those which most of their human ancestors would have developed while living on the African Savannah for 200,000 years before leaving it. Of course, the most essential instinct would be procreation. One is probably more hesitant to procreate when one is more intelligent than instinctive — although it is possible to be both intelligent and instinctive. Popenoe seeks to align intelligence with instinct by aligning eugenics with religiosity.
Popenoe notes the relationship between altruism and intelligence, stating that “[w]ith increasing intelligence, it is probable that a religion tends to emphasize the interests of all rather than the benefits to be derived by one.” For him, a eugenic religion is an altruistic religion. It’s not so much about how one person can get ahead, but about how the group can get ahead.
Popenoe sees religion as a kind of precursor to virtue: “Ethics is a knowledge of right conduct; religion is an agency to produce right conduct. And its working is more like that of instinct than it is like that of reason.” Religiousness is a kind of instinct sensitization which motivates not only virtuous conduct, but the discovery of scientific knowledge. Knowing the scientific method won’t do a person much good if he doesn’t have an instinct to be honest. We have gained much scientific knowledge but have unlearned several truths that are obvious. For example, we know more about human biology, but we’ve unlearned the difference between male and female, as well as the difference between black and white. Even animals can distinguish between different breeding groups; every species that reproduces sexually can do so. Thus, denying the existence of biological race and gender is a herculean effort at playing dumb with respect to one’s instincts, perhaps in order to seem like one of those smart people who lack them. Modern people don’t lack knowledge, but rather the instinct to embrace it — especially in its most obvious forms.
If the truth benefits good people by increasing their fertility, then increasing honesty is eugenic, and if religion increases honesty, then religion is eugenic. Of course, religion must not only inspire people to want to tell the truth, but also to be brave enough to do so despite incurring social punishment.
For the record, I don’t necessarily agree with all the points Popenoe makes, but it’s a thought-provoking read.
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Man is the only animal with a religion. The conduct of the lower animals is guided by instinct, and instinct normally works for the benefit of the species. Any action which is dictated by instinct is likely to result in the preservation of the species, even at the expense of the individual which acts, provided there has not been a recent change in the environment.
But in the human species reason appears, and conduct is no longer governed by instinct alone. A young man is impelled by instinct, for instance, to marry. It is to the interests of the species that he marry, and instinct therefore causes him to desire to marry and to act as he desires. A lower animal would obey the impulse of instinct without a moment’s hesitation. Not so the man. Reason intervenes and asks, “Is this really the best thing for you to do now? Wouldn’t it be better to wait awhile and get a start in your business? Of course, marriage would be agreeable, but you must not be shortsighted. You don’t want to assume a handicap just now.” There is a corresponding reaction among the married in respect to bearing additional children. The interests of self are immediate and easily seen, the interests of the species are not so pressing. In any such conflict between instinct and reason, one must win; and if reason wins it is in some cases for the immediate benefit of the individual but at the expense of the species’ interests.
Now with reason dominant over instinct in man, there is a grave danger that with each man consulting his own interests instead of those of the species, some groups and even races will become exterminated. Along with reason, therefore, it is necessary that some other forces shall appear to control reason and give the interests of the species a chance to be heard along with the interests of the individual.
One such force is religion. Without insisting that this is the only view which may be taken of the origin of religion, or that this is the only function of religion, we may yet assert that one of the useful purposes served by religion is to cause men to adopt lines of conduct that will be for the good of the race, although it may sacrifice the immediate good of the individual. Thus if a young Mohammedan be put in the situation just described, he may decide that it is to his material interest to postpone marriage. His religion then obtrudes itself, with quotations from the Prophet to the effect that Hell is peopled with bachelors. The young man is thereupon moved to marry, even if it does cause some inconvenience to his business plans. Religion, reinforcing instinct, has triumphed over reason and gained a victory for the larger interests of the species, when they conflict with the immediate interests of the individual.
From this point of view, we may, paraphrasing Matthew Arnold, define religion as motivated ethics. Ethics is a knowledge of right conduct; religion is an agency to produce right conduct. And its working is more like that of instinct than it is like that of reason. The irreligious man, testing a proposition by reason alone, may decide that it is to the interests of all concerned that he should not utter blasphemy. The orthodox Christian never considers the pros and cons of the question; he has the Ten Commandments and the teachings of his youth in his mind, and he refrains from blasphemy in almost the instinctive way that he refrains from putting his hand on a hot stove.
This [article] proposes primarily to consider how eugenics can be linked with religion, and specifically the Christian religion; but the problem is not a simple one, because Christianity is made of diverse elements. Not only has it undergone some change during the last 1900 years, but it was founded upon Judaism, which itself involved diverse elements. We shall undertake to show that eugenics fits in well with Christianity; but it must fit in with different elements in different ways.
We can distinguish four phases of religion:
- Reward and punishment in the present life. The believer in these processes thinks that certain acts possess particular efficacies beyond those evident to his observation and reason; and that peculiar malignities are to be expected as the consequence of certain other acts. Perhaps no one in the memory of the tribe has ever tested one of these acts to find whether the expected result would appear; it is held as a matter of religious belief that the result would appear, and the act is therefore avoided.
- Reward and punishment in a future life after death. Whereas the first system was supposed to bring immediate reward and punishment as the result of certain acts, this second system postpones the result to an after-life. There is in nature a system of reward and punishment which everyone must have observed because it is part of the universal sequence of cause and effect; but these two phases of religion carry the idea still farther; they postulate rewards and punishments of a supernatural character, over and above those which naturally occur. It is important to note that in neither of these systems is God essentially involved. They are in reality independent of the idea of God, since that is called “luck” in some cases which in others is called the favor or wrath of God. And again in some cases, one may be damned by a human curse, although in others this curse of damnation is reserved for divine power.
- Theistic religion. In essence this consists of the satisfaction derived from doing that which pleases God, or “getting into harmony with the underlying plan of the universe,” as some put it. It is idealistic and somewhat mystic. It should be distinguished from the idea of doing or believing certain things to ensure salvation, which is not essentially theistic but belongs under (2). The true theist desires to conform to the will of God, wholly apart from whether he will be rewarded or punished for so doing.
- Humanistic religion. This is a willingness to make the end of ethics the totality of happiness of all men, or some large group of men, rather than to judge conduct solely by its effects on some one individual. At its highest, it is a sort of loyalty to the species.
It must be noted that most cults include more than one of these elements — usually all of them at various stages. As a race rises in intelligence, it tends to progress from the first two toward the last two, but usually keeping parts of the earlier attitude, more or less clearly expressed. And individual adherents of a religion usually have different ideas of its scope; thus the religious ideas of many Christians embrace all four of the above elements; others who equally consider themselves Christians may be influenced by little more than (4) alone, or (3) alone, or even (2) alone.
There is no reason to believe that any one of these types of religion is the only one adapted to promoting sound ethics in all individuals, nor that a similar culture can bring about uniformity in the near future, since the religion of a race corresponds to some extent to the inherent nature of the mind of its individuals. Up to a certain point, each type of religion has a distinct appeal to a certain temperament or type of mind. With increasing intelligence, it is probable that a religion tends to emphasize the interests of all rather than the benefits to be derived by one; such has been clearly the case in the history of the Christian religion. The diverse elements of retribution, damnation, “communion with God” and social service still exist, but in America the last-named one is yearly being more emphasized. Emphasis upon it is the marked characteristic of Jesus’ teaching. With this rough sketch of religious’ ideas in mind, the part religion can play at the present day in advancing the eugenic interests of the race or species may be considered. Each religion can serve eugenics just as well as it can serve any other field of ethics, and by the very same devices. We shall nm over our four types again and note what appeals eugenics can make to each one.
1. Reward and punishment in the present life. Here the value of children, emotionally and economically, to their parents in their later life can be shown, and the dissatisfaction that is felt by the childless. The emotions may be reached (as they have been reached in past centuries) by the painting of Madonnas, the singing of lullabies, by the care of the baby sister, by the laurel wreath of the victorious son, by the great choruses of white-robed girls, by the happiness of the bride, and by the sentiment of the home. Here are some of the noblest subjects for the arts, which in the past have unconsciously served eugenics well. In a less emotional way, a deep desire for that ” terrestrial immortality ” involved in posterity should be fostered. [Hereditarianism] might play a large part in religion. It should at least be brought home to everyone at some point in his education. Man should have a much stronger feeling of identity * with his forebears and his progeny. Is it not a loss to Christians that they have so much less of this feeling than the Chinese?
It may be proposed in opposition that such conceptions are dangerously static and have thereby harmed China. But that can be avoided by shifting the balance a little from progenitors to posterity, if people should live more in their children than they now do, they would be not only anxious to give them a sound heredity, but all the more eager to improve the conditions of their children’s environment by modifying their own.
It may be objected that this sort of propaganda is indiscriminate — that it may further the reproduction of the inferior just as much as the superior. We think not. Such steps appeal more to the superior type of mind and will be little heeded by the inferior. They will be ultimately, if not directly, discriminative.
Insofar as the foregoing appeals to reason alone it is not religion. The appeal to reason must either be emotionalized or colored with the supernatural to be religion.
2. Reward and punishment in a future life. Here the belief in the absolute verbal inspiration of sacred writings and the doctrine of salvation by faith alone are rapidly passing) and it is therefore the easier to bring eugenics into this type of religion.
Even where salvation by faith is still held as an article of creed, it is accompanied by the concession that he who truly believes will manifest his belief by works. Altruism can be found in the sacred writings of probably all religions, and the modem tendency is to make much of such passages, in which it is easy for the eugenist to find a warrant. What is needed here, then, is to impress upon the leaders in this field that eugenic conduct is a “good work” and as such they may properly include it along with other modern virtues, such as honest voting and abstinence from graft as a key to heaven. Dysgenic conduct should equally be taught to be an obstacle to salvation.
3. Theism. The man who is most influenced by the desire to be at one with God naturally wants to act in accordance with God’s plan. But God being omnibeneficent, he necessarily believes that God’s plan is that which is for the best interests of His children — unless he is one of those happily rare individuals who still believe that the end of man is to glorify God by voice, not by means of human betterment.
This type of religion (and the other types in different degrees) is a great motive power. It both creates energy in its adherents, and directs that energy into definite outlets. It need only be made convincingly evident that eugenics is truly a work of human betterment, — really the greatest work of human betterment, and a partnership with God — to have it taken up by this type of religion with all the enthusiasm which it brings to its work.
4. Humanistic religion. The task of enlisting the humanist appears to be even simpler. It is merely necessary to show him that eugenics increases the totality of happiness of the human species. Since the keynote of his devotion is loyalty, we might make this plea:
Can we not make every superior man or woman ashamed to accept existence as a gift from his or her ancestors, only to extinguish this torch instead of handing it on?
Eugenics is in some ways akin to the movement for the conservation of natural resources. In pioneer days a race uses up its resources without hesitation. They seem inexhaustible. Some day it is recognized that they are not inexhaustible, and then such members of the race as are guided by good ethics begin to consider the interests of the future.
No system of ethics is worth the name which does not make provision for the future. It is right here that the ethics of present-day America are too often found wanting. As this fault is corrected, eugenics will be more clearly seen as an integral part of ethics.
Provision for the future of the individual leads, in a very low state of civilization, to the accumulation of wealth. Even the ants and squirrels have so much ethics! Higher in the evolutionary scale comes provision for the future of children; their interests lead to the foundation of the family and, at a much later date, a man looks not only to his immediate children but to future generations of heirs, when he entails his estates and tries to establish a notable family line. Provision for the future is the essence of his actions. But so far only the individual or those related closely to him have been taken into consideration. With a growth of altruism, man begins to recognize that he must make provision for the future of the race; that he should apply to all superior families the same anxiety which he feels that his children shall not tarnish the family name by foolish marriages; that they shall grow up strong and intelligent. This feeling interpreted by science is eugenics, an important element of which is religion: for religion more than any other influence leads one to look ahead, and to realize that immediate benefits are not the greatest values that man can secure in life, — that there is something beyond and superior to eating, drinking and being merry.
If the criterion of ethical action is the provision it makes for the future, then the ethics of the eugenist must rank high, for he not only looks far to the future, but takes direct and effective steps to safeguard the future.
Theoretically, then, there is a place for eugenics m every type of religion. In practice, it will probably make an impression only on the dynamic religions, — those that are actually accomplishing something. Buddhism, for example, is perhaps too contemplative to do anything. But Christianity, above any
other, would seem to be the natural ally of the eugenist. Christianity itself is undergoing a rapid change in ideals at present, and it seems impossible that this evolution should leave its adherents as ignorant of and indifferent to eugenics and they have been in the past– even during the last generation.
Followers of other religions, as this chapter has attempted to show, can also make eugenics a part of their respective religions. If they do not, then it bodes ill for the future of their religion and of their race.
It is not difficult to get people to see the value of eugenics, — to give an intellectual adhesion to it. But as eugenics sometimes calls for seeming sacrifices, it is much more difficult to get people to act eugenically. We have at numerous points in this book emphasized the necessity of making the eugenic appeal emotional, though it is based fundamentally on sound reasoning from facts of biology.
The great value of religion in this connection is that it provides a driving power, a source of action, which the intellect alone can rarely furnish. Reason itself is usually an inhibitor of action. It is the emotions that impel one to do things. The utilization of the emotions in affecting conduct is by no means always a part of religion, yet it is the essence of religion. Without abandoning the appeal to reason, eugenists must make every effort to enlist potent emotional forces on their side. There is none so strong and available as religion, and the eugenist may turn to it with confidence of finding an effective ally, if he can once gain its sanction.
The task, as this [article] was intended to show, is a complex one, yet we see no insuperable obstacles to it. Eugenics need not become a part of the Christian religion, as a whole, until scientific education is much more widespread than at present, but it is not too soon to make a start, by identifying the interests of the two wherever such identification is justified and profitable.
We have endeavored to point out that as a race rises, and instinct becomes less important in guiding the conduct of its members, religion has often put a restraint on reason, guiding the individual in racially profitable paths. What is to happen when religion gives way? Unbridled selfishness too often takes the reins, and the interests of the species are disregarded. Religion, therefore, appears to be a necessity for the perpetuation of any race. It is essential to racial welfare that the national religion should be of such a character as to appeal to the emotions effectively and yet conciliate the reason. We believe that the religion of the future is likely to acquire this character, in proportion as it adheres to eugenics. There is no room in the civilized world now for a dysgenic religion. Science will progress. The idea of evolution will be more firmly grasped. Religion itself evolves, and any religion which does not embrace eugenics will embrace death.
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 One cannot draw a hard and fast distinction between reason and instinct in this way, nor deny to animals all ability to reason. We have simplified the case to make it more graphic. The fact that higher animals may have mental processes corresponding to some of those we call reason in man does not impair the validity of our generalization, for the present purpose.
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