Posts Tagged ‘Lamarckianism’

Review of Book on New Atheist Myths Now Up on Magonia Review Blog

November 1, 2019

The Magonia Review of Books blog is one of the online successors to the small press UFO journal, Magonia, published from the 1980s to the early part of this century. The Magonians took the psycho-social view of encounters with alien entities. This holds that they are essentially internal, psychological events which draw on folklore and the imagery of space and Science Fiction. Following the ideas of the French astronomer and computer scientist, Jacques Vallee, and the American journalist, John Keel, they also believed that UFO and other entity encounters were also part of the same phenomenon that had created fairies and other supernatural beings and events in the past. The magazine thus examined other, contemporary forms of vision and belief, such as the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. It also reviewed books dealing with wide range of religious and paranormal topics. These included not just UFOs, but also the rise of apocalyptic religious faith in America, conspiracy theories, ghosts and vampires, cryptozoology and the Near Death Experience, for example. Although the magazine is no longer in print, the Magonia Review of Books continues reviewing books, and sometimes films, on the paranormal and is part of a group of other blogs, which archive articles from the magazine and its predecessor, the Merseyside UFO Bulletin (MUFOB), as well as news of other books on the subject.

I’ve had a number of articles published in Magonia and reviews on the Review of Books. The blog has just put my review of Nathan Johnstone’s The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion (Palgrave MacMillan 2018).  The book is a critical attack on the abuse of history by New Atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and so on to attack religion. He shows that the retail extremely inaccurate accounts of historical atrocities like the witch hunts and persecution of heretics by the Christian church and the savage anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union in order to condemn religion on the one hand, and try to show that atheism was not responsible for the atrocities committed in its name on the other. At the same time he is alarmed by the extremely vitriolic language used by Dawkins and co. about the religious. He draws comparisons between it and the language used to justify persecution in the past to warn that it too could have brutal consequences despite its authors’ commitment to humanity and free speech.

The article is at: if you wish to read it at the Magonia Review site. I’ve also been asked to reblog it below. Here it is.

Nathan Johnstone. The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

The New Atheists is a term coined to described the group of militant atheists that emerged after the shock of 9/11. Comprising the biologist Richard Dawkins, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, the philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and A.C. Grayling, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the astronomer Victor Stenger, and others, they are known for their particularly bitter invective against all forms of religion. The above claim to stand for reason and science against irrationality and unreason. But while they are especially protective of science, and who gets to speak for it or use its findings, they are cavalier regarding theology and the humanities, including history.
Johnstone is appalled by this attitude. Instead of respecting history and its scholarship, he compares Dawkins, Harris et al to hunter-gatherers. They are not interested in exploring history, but rather using it as a grab-bag of examples of atrocities committed by the religious. In so doing they ignore what historians really say about the events and periods they cite, and retail myth as history. These he regards as a kind of ‘Black Legend’ of theism, using the term invented in the early twentieth century by the Spanish historian Julian Juderas to describe a type of anti-Spanish, anti-Roman Catholic polemic. He states his book is intended to be just a defence of history, and takes no stance on the issue of the existence of God. From his use of ‘we’ in certain points to describe atheists and Humanists, it could be concluded that Johnstone is one of the many of the latter, who are appalled by the New Atheists’ venom.
One such religious doubter was the broadcaster John Humphries,  the author of the defence of agnosticism, In God We Doubt. Humphries stated in the blurb for the book that he considered himself an agnostic before moving to atheism. Then he read one of the New Atheist texts and was so shocked by it he went back to being an agnostic. The group first made its debut several years ago now, and although New Atheism has lost some of its initial interest and support, they’re still around.
Hence Johnstone’s decision to publish this book. While Dawkins’ The God Delusion was published almost a decade ago, the New Atheists are still very much around. They and their followers are still on the internet, and their books on the shelves at Waterstones. Dawkins published his recent work of atheist polemics, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide a few weeks ago at the beginning of October 2019. He accompanied its publication with an appearance at Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he was speaking about why everyone should turn atheist.
The events and the atrocities cited by the New Atheists as demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion are many, including the Inquisitions, the witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the subjugation of women, colonialism, the slave trade and the genocide of the Indians, to which they also add human sacrifice, child abuse, censorship, sexual repression and resistance to science. These are too many to tackle in one book, and it confines itself instead to attacking and refuting New Atheist claims about the witch-hunts, the medieval persecution of heretics, and the question of whether Hitler was ever really Christian and the supposed Christian origins of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
The book also tackles historical movements and figures, that the New Atheists have claimed as atheist heroes and forerunners – the ancient Greek Atomists and two opponents of the witch-hunts, Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee. It then moves on to examine Sam Harris’ endorsement of torture in the case of Islamist terrorists and atheist persecution in the former Soviet Union before considering the similarity of some New Atheist attitudes to that of religious believers. It concludes with an attack on the dangerous rhetoric of the New Atheists which vilifies and demonises religious believers, rhetoric which could easily provoke persecution, even if its authors themselves are humane men who don’t advocate it.
Johnstone traces these atheist myths back to their nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century origins, and some of the books cited by the New Atheists as the sources for their own writings. One of the most influential of these is Charles MacKay’s 1843 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In many instances he shows them to be using very dated, and now refuted texts. With some of the modern works they also draw on, examination shows that often they ignore the authors’ own conclusions, which may differ considerably, or even be the complete opposite of their own.
In the case of the witch-hunts, Johnstone traces the oft-quoted figure of over nine million victims to an early nineteenth century German author, Gottfried Christian Voigt, who extrapolated it from the murder of the thirty witches executed in his home town of Quedlinburg from 1569 to 1683. He assumed this was typical of all areas throughout the period of the witch-hunts. The figure was picked up by the radical neo-Pagan and feminist movements of the 1970s. But it’s false. The real figure, he claims, was 50,000. And its intensity varied considerably from place to place and over time. The Portuguese Inquisition, for example, only killed one witch c. 1627. In other places, the inquisitors were conscientious in giving the accused a fair trial. Convictions for witchcraft were overturned and evidence was taken to prove the accused’s innocence as well as guilt. The Roman Inquisition also demanded the accused to provide a list of their enemies, as their testimony would obviously be suspect.
In regions where the discussion of witchcraft had resulted in the mass trial and execution of the innocent, the religious authorities imposed silence about the subject. Johnstone rebuts the statement of some Christian apologists that the Church was only complicit in these atrocities, not responsible for them. But he shows that they were an anomaly. Nearly all societies have believed in the existence of witches throughout history, but the period of witch-hunting was very limited. The problem therefore is not that religion and belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to persecution, but how to explain that it doesn’t.
He shows that the Church moved from a position of initial scepticism towards full scale belief over a period of centuries. The witch-hunts arose when maleficium – black magic – became linked to heresy, and so became a kind of treason. As an example of how secular and political motives were also involved in the denunciations and trials, rather than just pure religious hatred, he cites the case of the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier’s case was the basis for Aldous Huxley’s novel, The Devils of Loudoun, which was filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils. Here it appears the motives for the trial were political, as Grandier had been an opponent of the French minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Johnstone also considers that as secular societies have also persecuted those they consider to be politically or morally deviant there exists in humanity a need to persecute. This means finding and identifying an anti-group, directly opposed to conventional society, whose existence and opposition demonstrates the value of that society.
The medieval persecution of heretics may also have been due to a number of causes and not simply due to the malign attitudes of religious believers. There was a period of nearly 700 years between the execution of the Roman heretic, Priscillian, in the fourth century and the revival of persecution the early eleventh. This arose in the context of the emergence and development of states and the expansion of papal and royal power, which involved church and crown extending their power over local communities. At the same time, the papacy attempted reforming the church, at first in response to popular demand. However, it was then faced with the problem of clamping down on some of the popular reform movements when they threatened to run out of its control.
As the case of the Waldensians shows, the line between orthodoxy and heresy could be an extremely fine one. Johnstone also raises the question here of whether one of the most notorious medieval heretical groups, the Cathars, ever existed at all. It is possible that their existence is an illusion created by the categories of heresies the inquisitors had inherited from the Church Fathers. These were forced onto a group of local communities in the Languedoc, where popular piety centred around the Good Men and Women. These were highly respected members of the community, who were believed to live exemplary Christian lives. They were therefore due proper respect, which to the inquisitors looked like heretical veneration.
Hitler’s Christianity is also highly debatable. The little reliable testimony states that he was indeed Roman Catholic, but doesn’t provide any evidence of a deep faith. He certainly at times claimed he was a Christian and was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. But an examination of some of these quotes shows that they were uttered as a rebuttal to others, who stated that their Christian beliefs meant that they could not support Nazism. This raises the question of whether they were anything more than a rhetorical gesture. There is evidence that Hitler was an atheist with a particular hatred of Christianity. This is mostly drawn from his Table Talk, and specifically the English edition produced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The atheist polemicist, Richard Carrier, has shown that it is derived from a French language version, whose author significantly altered some of the quotes to insert an atheist meaning where none was present in the original. However, Carrier only identified a handful of such quotes, leaving forty requiring further investigation. Thus the question remains undecided.
Johnstone also examine the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the point of view of the theorists of political religion. These consider that humans are innately religious, but that once secularisation has broken the hold of supernatural religion, the objects of veneration changes to institutions like the state, free market capitalism, the New Man, Communism and so on. Those who follow this line differ in the extent to which they believe that the Nazis were influenced by religion. Some view it as a hydra, whose many heads stood for Christianity, but also Paganism in the case of Himmler and the SS. But underneath, the source of the real religious cult was the race, the nation and Hitler himself. If these theorists are correct, then Nazism may have been the result, not of a continued persecuting Christianity, but of secularisation.
He also considers the controversial view of the German historian, Richard Steigmann-Gall, whose The Holy Reich considered that the Nazis really were sincere in their Christianity. This has been criticised because some of the Nazis it examines as examples of Nazi Christian piety, like Rudolf Hess, were minor figures in the regime, against vehement anti-Christians like Alfred Rosenberg. He also shows how the peculiar views of the German Christians, the Nazi Christian sect demanding a new, Aryan Christianity, where Christ was blond and blue-eyed, and the Old Testament was to be expunged from the canon, were similar to certain trends within early twentieth century liberal Protestantism. But the German historian’s point in writing the book was not simply to put culpability for the Nazis’ horrors on Christianity. He wanted to attack the comfortable distance conventional society places between itself and the Nazis, in order to reassure people that they couldn’t have committed such crimes because the Nazis were different. His point was that they weren’t. They were instead uncomfortably normal.
The New Atheists celebrate the ancient Greek Atomists because their theories that matter is made up of tiny irreducible particles, first put forward by the philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, seem so similar to modern atomic theory. These ancient philosophers believed that these alone were responsible for the creation of a number of different worlds and the creatures that inhabited them by chance.
Some of these were forms that were incapable of surviving alone, and so died out. Thus, they appear to foreshadow Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. New Atheist writers bitterly attack Aristotle, whose own rival theories of matter and physics gained ascendancy until Atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. The natural philosophers behind its revival are credited with being atheists, even though many of them were Christians and one, Pierre Gassendi, a Roman Catholic priest. Their Christianity is thus seen as nominal. One also takes the extreme view that Galileo’s prosecution was due to his embrace of the atomic theory, rather than his argument that the Earth moved around the Sun.
But scholars have shown that the ancient atomic theory grew out of particular debates in ancient Greece about the fundamental nature of matter, and cannot be removed from that context. They were very different to modern atomic theory. At the same time, they also held beliefs that are to us nonsense as science. For example, they believed that the early creatures produced by atoms were fed by the Earth with a milk-like substance. They also believed in the fixity of species. Even where they did believe in evolution, in the case of humanity, this was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Aristotle’s views won out over theirs not because of religious narrow-mindedness or ignorance, but because Aristotle’s had great explanatory power.
The scientists, who revived it in the seventeenth century, including Boyle and Newton, were sincere Christians. They believed that atoms created objects through divine agency because the ancient Greek explanation – it was all chance without a theory of momentum – genuinely couldn’t explain how this could occur without God. As for Galileo, the historian who first suggested this extreme and largely discredited view, believed that he was a victim of papal politics, and that there had also been a party within the Vatican and the Church, which supported his theories.
Discussing the two witch-hunters celebrated by the New Atheists as atheist, or at least, Sceptical heroes, the book shows that this was not the case. Dietrich Flade seems to have been accused because he had fallen out with an ecclesiastical rival, Zandt, for being too lenient on the accused witches. But he also appears to have been protected by the church authorities until the accusations of witchcraft by accused witches became too many to ignore.
The other Sceptical hero, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit priest, who became convinced of the innocence of those accused of witchcraft through attending so many to the stake. He then wrote a book condemning the trials, the Cautio Crimenalis. But he was no sceptic. He believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, but considered it rare. The use of torture was wrong, as it was leading to false confessions and false denunciations of others, which could not be retracted for fear of further torture. Thus the souls of the innocent were damned for this sin. But while good Christians were being burned as witches, many of the witch-hunters themselves were in league with Satan. They used the hunts and baseless accusations to destroy decent Christian society and charity.
But if the New Atheists are keen to ascribe a wide number of historical atrocities to religion without recognising the presence of other, social and political factors, they deny any such crimes can be attributed to atheism. Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in God, and so cannot be responsible for inspiring horrific acts. Johnstone states that in one sense, this is true, but it is also a question about the nature of the good life and the good society that must be constructed in the absence of a belief in God. And these become positive ideologies that are responsible for horrific crimes.
Johnstone goes on from this to attack Hector Avelos’ statement that the Soviet persecution of the Church was only a form of anti-clericalism, which all societies must go through. Johnstone rebuts this by describing the process and extent of Soviet persecution, from the separation of church and state in 1917 to the imposition of atheism by force. Churches and monasteries were closed and religious objects seized and desecrated, religious believers arrested, sent to the gulags or massacred. These persecutions occurred in cycles, and there were times, such as during the War, when a rapprochement was made with the Orthodox Church. But these periods of toleration were always temporary and established for entirely pragmatic and utilitarian purposes.
The goal was always the creation of an atheist state, and they were always followed, until the fall of Communism, by renewed persecution. The wartime rapprochement with the Church was purely to gain the support of believers for the campaign against the invading Nazis. It was also to establish state control through the church on Orthodox communities that had survived, or reappeared in border areas under Nazi occupation. Finally, the attack on the clergy, church buildings and religious objects and even collectivisation itself were done with the deliberate intention of undermining religious ritual and practice, which was considered the core of Orthodox life and worship.
Sam Harris has become particularly notorious for his suggestion that atheists should be trusted to torture terrorist suspects because of their superior rationality and morality compared to theists. Harris believed it was justified in the case of al-Qaeda suspects in order to prevent further attacks. But here Johnstone shows his logic was profoundly flawed. Torture was not introduced into medieval judicial practice in the twelfth century through bloodthirsty and sadistic ignorance. Rather it was intended as a reasonable alternative to the ordeal. Human reason, and the acquisition of evidence, was going to be sufficient to prove guilt or innocence without relying on supposed divine intervention. But the standards of evidence required were very high, and in the case of a crime like witchcraft, almost impossible without a confession.
The use of torture was initially strictly limited and highly regulated, but the sense of crisis produced by witchcraft resulted in the inquisitors abandoning these restraints. Similarly, Harris’ fear of terror attacks leads him to move from reasonable suspects, who may well be guilty, to those who are simply members of terrorist organisations. They are fitting subjects for torture because although they may be innocent of a particular offence, through their membership of a terrorist organisation or adherence to Islamist beliefs, they must be guilty of something. Finally, Harris also seems to see Islamism as synonymous with Islam, so that all Muslims everywhere are seen as enemies of the secular Western order. This is exactly the same logic as that which motivated the witch-hunts, in which witches were seen as the implacable enemies of Christian society, and so exempt from the mercy and humane treatment extended to other types of criminal.
From this Johnstone then goes on to consider how the New Atheists’ image of atheism and the process of abandoning belief in God resembles religious attitudes. Their belief that atheism must be guarded against the dangers of falling back into religious belief mirrors Christian fears of the temptation to false belief, such as those of the Protestant reformers towards the persistence of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, their ideas of abandoning God and so attaining the truth resembles the Christian process of conversion and membership of the elect. And the vitriol directed at the religious for continuing to believe in God despite repeated demonstrations of His nonexistence resembles the inquisitors’ attitude to heretics. Heresy differs from error in that the heretic refuses to be corrected, and so must be compelled to recant by force.
The book also shows the dangers inherent in some New Atheist rhetoric about religious believers. This runs in contrast to much New Atheist writing, which is genuinely progressive and expresses real sympathy with the marginalised and oppressed, and which advocates trying to see the world through their eyes. But no such sympathy is granted religious believers. They are described as children, who may not sit at the same table as adults. Or else, following the logic of religion as a virus, proposed by Dawkins, they are described as diseased, who do not realise that they have been infected and even love their condition.
Bringing children up religious is condemned as child abuse. A.C. Grayling is shown to have a utilitarian attitude in his own advocacy of secularisation. He first states that he supports it for creating multiculturalism, but then contradicts himself by stating that he looks forward to it undermining religion. This was the same attitude the Soviets initially adopted towards religion. When it didn’t disappear as they expected, they resorted to force. Peter Boghossian wants atheist ‘street epistemologists’ – the atheist version of religious street preachers – to attack believers’ religious beliefs in public. They are to take every opportunity, including following them into church, in order to initiate ‘Socratic’ discussions that will lead them to questioning their faith.
Johnstone states that this is an implicit denial of theists’ right to conduct their private business in public without atheist interference. It’s in line with the New Atheist demands that religion be driven from the public sphere, into the churches, or better yet, the home. The metaphor of disease and infection suggests that what is needed is for religious believers to be rounded up against their will and forcibly cured. It’s the same metaphor the Nazis used in their persecution of their victims.
He quotes the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who is dismayed when he hears atheists describing religion as a mental disease from which believers should be forcibly treated. As for the statement that religious upbringing equals child abuse, the seriousness of this charge raises the question of how seriously the New Atheists actually see it. If Dawkins and co. really believe that it is, then their lack of demand for state intervention to protect children from indoctrination, as they see it, from the parents shows that they don’t treat child abuse seriously.
The New Atheist rhetoric actually breaks with their concrete recommendations for what should be done to disavow believers of their religious views, which are actually quite mild. This is what Johnstone calls the ‘cavalierism of the unfinished thought’. They may not recommend coercion and persecution, but their rhetoric implies it. Johnstone states that he has discussed only one of several competing strands in New Atheist thinking and that there are others available. He concludes with the consideration that there isn’t a single atheism but a multiplicity of atheisms, all with differing responses to religious belief. Some of them will be comparably mild, but most will involve some kind of frustration at religion’s persistence. He recommends that atheists should identify which type of atheist they are, in order to avoid the violent intolerance inherent in New Atheist rhetoric. This agrees with his statement at the beginning of the book, where he hopes it will lead to an atheist response to religion which is properly informed by history and which genuinely respects religious believers.
The book is likely to be widely attacked by the New Atheists and their followers. Some of its conclusions Johnstone admits are controversial, such as the view that the Cathars never existed, or that the persecution of heretics was an integral part of the forging of the medieval state. But historians and sociologists of religion repeatedly show that in the persecutions and atrocities in which religion has been involved, religion is largely not the only, or in some cases even the most important reason. Johnstone’s views on witchcraft is supported by much contemporary popular and academic treatments. His statement that the figure of over nine million victims of the witch-hunt is grossly exaggerated is shared by Lois Martin in her The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials 2002). The Harvard professor, Jeffrey Burton Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972) also shows how Christian attitudes towards witchcraft passed from the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi to belief as the responsibility for its persecution passed from the bishops to the Holy Office.
Early law codes treated maleficium – black or harmful magic – purely as a civil offence against persons or property. It became a religious crime with the development of the belief that witches attended sabbats where they parodied the Christian Eucharist and worshiped Satan. A paper describing the scrupulous legality and legal provisions for the accused’s defence in the Roman Inquisition can be found in the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe IV: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankerloo and Stuart Clarke eds., (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 2002). Other writers on religion have noted the similarity between the late medieval and early modern witch-hunts and paranoid fears about Freemasons, Jews and Communists in later centuries, including the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges and McCarthyism. They thus see it as one manifestation of the wider ‘myth of the organised conspiracy’. See Richard Cavendish, ‘Christianity’, in Richard Cavendish, ed., Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Orbis 1980) 156-69 (168-9).
The Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church is described by Rev. Timothy Ware in his The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin 1963). Ludmilla Alexeyeva also describes the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church, along with other religions and national and political groups and movements in her Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Connecticutt: Wesleyan University Press 1985). R.N. Carew Hunt’s The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1950) shows how leading Communists like Lenin believed atheism was an integral part of Communism and the Soviet state with a series of quotations from them. An example of Lenin’s demand for an aggressive atheism is his speech, ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968). 653-60.
It is also entirely reasonable to talk about religious elements and attitudes within certain forms of atheism and secular ideologies. Peter Rogerson in many of his well-reasoned articles in Magonia pointed out how similar some of the sceptics’ attacks on superstition and the supernatural were to narratives of religious conversion. His attitude is shared with some academic sociologists, historians and political theorists. Peter Yinger’s section on ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in The Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by Whitfield Foy (London: Open University Press 1978) 537-554, has articles on the ‘Religious Aspects of Postivism’, p. 544, ‘Faith in Science’, 546, ‘Religious Aspects of Marxism’, p. 547, ‘Totalitarian Messianism’ 549, and ‘Psychoanalysis as a Modern Faith’, 551. For some scholars, the similarities of some secular ideologies to religion is so strong, that they have termed them quasi-religions.
While some atheists resent atheism being described as religion, this term is meant to avoid such objections. It is not intended to describe them literally as religions, but only as ideologies that have some of the qualities of religion. See John E. Smith’s Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Macmillan 1994). New Atheism also mimics religion in that several of the New Atheists have written statements of the atheist position and edited anthologies of atheist writings. These are A.C. Grayling’s The Good Book and Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist. The title of Grayling’s book is clearly a reference to the Bible. As I recall, it caused some controversy amongst atheists when it was published, as many of them complained that atheism was too individual and sceptical to have a definitive, foundational text. In their view, Grayling’s book showed the type of mindset they wanted to escape when they left religion.
The fears of the terrible potential consequences of New Atheist rhetoric despite the avowed intentions of its authors is well founded and timely. There have been sharp complaints about some of the vitriolic rhetoric used to attack particular politicians in debates about Brexit which has resulted in assault and harassment. At the same it was reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after the publication of Boris Johnson’s column in which he described women wearing the burqa as looking like letterboxes. Neither religion, nor secularism and atheism should be immune from criticism. But Johnstone is right in that it should be correctly historically informed and careful in the language used. Otherwise the consequences could be terrible, regardless of the authors’ own humane feelings and sympathies.

Expelled, the Holocaust and Herder

May 2, 2008

One of the aspects of Ben Stein’s documentary, Expelled, which has been particularly controversial is the film’s examination of the connection between Darwinism and the Holocaust.  Of course the film as a whole has attracted bitter criticism for its critical stance towards the scientific establishment’s absolute rejection of any criticism of the theory of Natural Selection, and its persecution of those scientists who claim that the theory is wrong. However, Stein and the movie’s producers have been particularly attacked for stating the link between Darwinism and the Holocaust. The film’s many critics have declared that Nazism was not based on Darwin’s theories, and that evolutionary scientists today absolutely condemn biological racism and the genocide perpetrated by the Third Reich.

Evolutionary Theory and the Development of Fascist Racial Ideology

Now historians of fascism have pointed to the strong influence Natural Selection had on the development of Fascist ideology. The historian Roger Eatwell has noted that

‘Arguably the most important nineteenth-century scientific development in its impact on political ideology was Darwinism. Charles Darwin published The Origins of Species in 1859. Others quickly realized that some of the key ideas, especially “survival of the fittest” and “natural selection,” could be adapted for political ends-though there were diagrements over what the implications were. In one version, Darwinism seemed to point to the need for minimal state intervention in order to allow free competition. In another, Darwinism was taken as highlighting the need for the state to take on the role fo selection to ensure survival-especially in the battle with the less developed but virile and martial races. The strong appeal of the latter position needs understanding against a more general background of scientific-racial-thought. In particular, further impetus toward statist-racism came in the form of eugenics, which was pioneered by leading scientists such as the German Ernst Haeckel. The eugenicists were worried about the way that moral laws prevented the working of natural selection, for example in taboos on euthansia. A critical theme of theirs was the need to regenerate national or European racial stock.’ 1

Social Darwinist views similarly developed in Britain, where ‘the development of the understanding of the principle of heredity and the laws of genetics led to frighteningly utopian ideas of scientific breeding and pure racial types achieved through eugenic experiments.’ 2 The principle of survival of the fittest, when applied to humanity, was interpreted to mean that the most technologically advanced groups and races were the fittest, and thus superior to other ethnic groups. 3 In fact it’s moot how much of the scientific racism and eugenic policies of the Nazis goes back to Darwin himself. The British Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, attempted to support his racist views using quotations from Darwin, Huxley and contemporary evolutionary scientists. 4 However, Darwinism was not the only theory of evolution to influence British scientific racist theorising. Neo-Lamarckian biologists, such as Benjamin Kidd, had proposed a theory of ‘social heredity’ in which human groups or races could inherit characteristics acquired through learning. This was later used by Fascists to suggest that changes in the leadership of the state would produce rapid changes in society over a short period. In fact, Lamarckianism was disproved by Galton’s Stirp theory and Weissmann’s experiments, which seemed to show that there was no link between reproductive cells and those of the rest of the body. Racial characteristics were not acquired, but were the products of genetic inheritance. 19th and early 20th century scientific racists also viewed racial mixing as an unsuitable ‘outcrossing’, which would weaken the parent gene pool. Most Fascists, however, ignored the fact that evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetics did not imply this conclusion.

The difference between the Darwinian and Lamarckian views of evolution held by the various British Fascist groups did not result in the mutual contradiction of their respective racist ideas, but merely a difference in emphasis, though expressed in vehement ideological debates over whether culture created race, or whether race determined culture. 5 Lamarckianism, however, had anti-racist implications through its suggestion that races could acquire new values and psychological perspectives through learning and culture. In fact, however, 19th century racial theorists declared that such Lamarckian evolution only operated within the more advanced races, as those who were considered inferior were declared to have come to the end of their evolution and were no longer able to respond to environmental challenges. 6

As for Mosley, before the Second World War his racial theories were Neo-Lamarckian in origin, deriving his views on race from the heroic vitalism of Thomas Carlyle, Nietzsche, Spengler and Wagner, and particularly George Bernard Shaw’s critique of Darwinism in Back to the Methuselah, which stated that humanity had the mind and will power to evolve to a higher type, rather than being simply the product of Natural Selection. However, Shaw considered that the creation of this superior humanity would partly be the product of eugenic breeding. 7

In Germany Social Darwinism was promoted in the 19th and early 20th centuries through Ernst Haeckel’s pantheistic Monistenbund or Monist League. Haeckel’s view of evolution differed so radically from Darwin’s that it effectively replaced Darwinism. 8 In particular, it was Haeckel’s follower, Wilhelm Ostwald, who became president of the Monistic League in 1911, who founded a ‘Monistic Cloister’ devoted to advocating Social Darwinist policies in economics, eugenics and euthanasia. 9 Hitler himself seems to have taken his views of a racial struggle between aryans and their racial inferiors from racist, Neo-pagan magazines such as Lanz Von liebenfels’ Ostara, which he had read as a destitute drifter in Vienna. As early as 1930 August M. Knoll of the university of Vienna ridiculed the Nazis in front of his students by pointing out the similarity of the Fuhrer’s ideas and those of the notorious Neo-pagan magazine. 10 Hitler does not cite Darwin in either Mein Kampf or his Table Talk. Undoubtedly he picked up his ideas on evolution second or third-hand. Nevertheless, the conception of evolution as the struggle between the fittest, conceived as the most brutal or predatory, was a strong component of Hitler’s entire world-view. ‘The earth continues to go round, whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal.’ 11 Unfortunately, just because Hitler took his view of race and the ‘survival of the fittest’ from low, fringe magazines does not mean that the ideas themselves were at all disreputable. They weren’t. Although race was debated at the popular level in cafes throughout Europe, and racial ideas publicised in cheap pamphlets in London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, the belief that race was ‘the key to the achievement recorded in a nation’s history’ was general. 12 Such racist theorising extended throughout society, from the lower to the ruling classes. The British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, stated that ‘no man will treat with indifference the principle of race. It is the key to history.’ 13 There was little that was new in the Nazis’ racial and eugenics policies. In 1895 Ernst Hasse, supporting the 1891demands of the Pan-German League, had advocated the deportation of Jews and Slavs and the annexation of Poland, Ruthenia, Serbia, Belgium, Romania and the Baltic States with the statement ‘We want territory even if it belongs to aliens, so that we may fashion the future according to our own needs’. 14 It was the Nazi demands for lebensraum in all but name. As for the Nazi eugenics programme, every aspect of it ‘had been anticipated by the spokesmen of various schools of social Darwinism; and even though they had not demanded the extermination of whole nationalities, their ideas were in line with the inhuman projects which showed such a basic contempt for human life.’ 15 Tragically and horrifically, radical racialism and eugenics was not simply the province of a few marginal, fringe ideologues, but was was acceptable and influenced a considerable part of the European and American political and scientific establishment. Now Darwin certainly was not responsible for scientific racism. That was the product of racial theorists such as Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau in France and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who became Wagner’s son-in-law, in Germany. 16 However, Darwin certainly considered that there were racial differences, and his theory of evolution offered further scientific justification for already existing theories that viewed human progress as the product of struggle.

Fascism as Partial Product of 18th Century Enlightenment Political Theory

Obviously much of the criticism of Stein’s suggestion in Expelled that there was a direct link between Darwin’s ideas and the Holocaust comes from supporters of Darwinism who believe that this misrepresents and maligns both Darwin’s theory and Darwin himself, if not the whole of contemporary biology, following Theodosius Dobzhansky’s comment that ‘nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution’. Yet the suggested link between Darwinism and the Holocaust goes beyond questioning the morality of a specific scientific theory, but by implication renders the assumed relationship between rational knowledge and morality itself extremely questionable. Since Plato it’s been assumed that rational knowledge and the usse of reason in understanding the world leads to moral progress. During the Enlightenment, rational knowledge and the search for truth through reason became associated with the sciences, and it was through science that ignorance, superstition and barbarism could be combatted.

Thus, in the view of the Enlightenment philosophes, ‘a logically connected structure of rules, laws, generalisations, susceptible of demonstration or, at least in practice, of a high degree of confirmation (and, where required, of application appropriate to differing circumstances) could, at least in principle, be constructed, and could replace the chaotic amalgam of ignorance, laziness, guesswork, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy, and above all, what Helvetius called ‘interested error”, which enabled the cunning and the strong to dominate and exploit the stupid, ignorant and weak, and had throughout human history been largely responsible for the vices, follies, and miseries of mankind. Only knowledge, that is, the growth of the sciences, could rescue mankind from these largely self-induced evils.’ 17 However, this assumption that science leads to freedom, wisdom and moral progress, in short, enlightenment in the fullest sense of the word, becomes extremely problematic with the connection between the genocidal tyranny of the Nazi regime and the basis of their policies in evolutionary biology. After all, in their brutality, intolerance, militarism and absolute rejection of democracy in favour of a fanatical personal cult of the leader, the Nazis represent the complete opposite of Enlightenment values and civilisation. Indeed, some historians have suggested that Fascism ‘was a negation of the Enlightenment, part of a counterrevolution that rejected the basic assumptions of “modernity”.’ 18 For historians such as Ernst Nolte, Fascism was not part of the great political projects of Liberalism and Marxism, and so could only be explained as the product of the reactionary traditions following, and attempting to counteract, the French Revolution. 19 Yet in many respects Fascism was also a product of Enlightenment political theories. The idea of politics as an activist campaign against evil, in which the individual should surrender to the general will, is found in Rousseau. 20 Similarly, the French Revolution in its attempts to establish who possessed legitimate power, created the distinction within democracy, considered as popular sovereignty, between those who were held to be the true, proper possessors of political power and their opponents, who should be excluded from it, even exterminated. Thus, one French revolutionary declared that only those of his species were truly human. The aristocracy weren’t members of his species, and so he shot them. 21 Thus the French Fascist, Robert Brasillach, enthusiastically remarked on how little the French Revolution had to do with individual liberty and international peace, declaring that with the Revolution ‘a lost bell rang out beginning a long night of turmoil sleeplessness. Everywhere peoples could be heard singing, each in in their own way, “Nation, Awake! Arise!”.’22 Similarly, the concern of Enlightenment political theorists, such as Rousseau, with an inner freedom corresponding to modern notions of self-realization, and the identification of the citizen’s real self with the general will, produced a collectivist ideal of freedom that did not necessarily correspond to any constitutional state. Indeed, Rousseau considered that true freedom might involve absolute submission to a sole legislator, who was the only person able to express the general will of the people, a concept almost identical to the Fascist notion that true freedom consisted in the absolute submission of the people to their leader. The scholar J. Hallowell, remarking on the similarity between Rousseau’s and the Fascist idea of the leader expressing the people’s general will, stated that in that sense Fascism had not murdered Liberalism, but that Liberalism had committed suicide. 23 Fascism characteristically viewed life as struggle. Mussolini, in his The Doctrine of Fascism, declared that Fascist ethics viewed life as ‘duty, ascent, conquest’, an attitude not very different from Kant’s statement in The Dispute of the Faculties that ‘the being endowed with freedom is not content to enjoy a pleasant life.’ 24 Thus, although Hitler and the other leading Nazis propounded an ideology of struggle using the terminology of Social Darwinism, it was not based in the details of Darwinism but in Haeckel’s use of Darwinian theory to express Kant’s ethics of activism. 25 Even the view of warfare as inherently beneficial to be actively pursued for itself by the state was not entirely unique to Fascism. Turgot, in his 1750 On the Successive Advances of the Human Mind stated that ‘it is only through turmoil and destruction that nations expand and civilisations and governments are in the long run perfected.’ 26 Long before Fascism, and its concept of violence as a central part of political life arose, the Enlightenment political theorists had created a new, activist style of politics that established a strong connection between freedom, virtue and terror. In the view of some scholars, this activist tradition in modern politics generally, beyond the Fascist fringe, makes the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime entirely explicable.  ‘Once this is appreciated, it is not very difficult to understand such aspects of twentieth-century activism as the organized destruction of the Jews by Nazism. Destruction and fanaticism, after all, had become morally respectable parts of the western tradition as soon as the new activist style had won general acceptance.’ 27 Fascism is therefore a paradox that it is both a product of the Enlightenment and a reaction to it. 28 Thus, however immoral the Nazi regime was, and how much it appears to conflict with the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, nevertheless it was also a product of particular Enlightenment political attitudes and claimed the same basis in science, no matter how spurious this appeared in practice.

Opposition to Scientific Racism through Cultural Relativism of Franz Boas

The scientific racism and eugenics policies promoted by the Nazis in Germany, and by other organisations and scientists across Europe and America was challenged by a number of other, leading scientists and scholars. One of the foremost opponents of scientific racism was Franz Boas, who became Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A German Jew, he condemned such the racist interpretation of history and eugenics as ‘irremediably dangerous’, vehemently opposed anti-semitism and the Nazi regime in Germany, aiding refugees from their tyranny in New York. His work, The Mind of Primitive Man, aided the civil rights campaign in America by stating that Black Americans would be just as capable of performing their duties as citizens as Whites if they were given the opportunities to do so. It’s been stated that Boas did more than anyone else in the 20th century to combat racism. 29

Boas based his rejection of ideas of racial superiority on cultural diversity and relativism. He declared that ‘culture is … the result of innumberalbe interacting factors and there is no evidence that the differences between human races, particularly not between the members of the white race have any directive influence upon the course of development of culture.’ 30 Boas considered that each culture should be viewed as an entity in its own right, as the product of its own history. All cultures were produced and formed by history, and each culture, or indeed custom, could only be understood only through attempting to construct their cultural history. 31

Similarity between Anthropological Views of Boas and 18th Century Views of History, Nationality and Culture by Vico

Boas’ view that each culture is unique and can only be understood on its own terms, through its own history is very similar to those of the 18th century philosophers Giambattista Vico and Gottfried Herder. Reacting against Cartesian rationalism and the rejection of Humanism in favour of mathematics and science, Vico instead argued in his La Scienza Nuova of 1725 that mathematics was not a system of laws that governed reality, but merely a set of rules that allowed one to analyse and predict the behaviour of objects in space. 32 However, the applicability of mathematics to the study of nature was limited, as while mathematics was the product of the human mind, nature was not, and so the conclusions offered by natural science were necessarily less sure. The only sure knowledge could be of what humanity had made itself. Thus Vico advocated history as offering a surer knowledge than that of the natural sciences. 33 While contemporary philosophers believed that there was a timeless criteria for assessing art and culture, Vico claimed that each stage of human civilisation produced its own art, based on its own particular aesthetic ideas. The artistic expressions of these cultures were neither better nor worse than those which preceeded or followed them, but had to be judged on their own criteria.  34 Unlike Boas, Vico was not a cultural relativist. He did not advocate a historical relativism, but was trying to create a science that was true, because it rested on the principles by which culture and language, and hence knowledge itself, were historically produced. 35 In his own time, Vico was an obscure writer in his own time, and discussion of his ideas has, with the exception of Jules Michelet and Benedetto Croce, largely began in the 1960s. Contemporary philosophers and historians are interested in Vico because he provided a precedent for the view that the knowledge of humanity was different from that of nature, historical relativism and that it is possible to know with certainty what it is to be human regardless of the findings of modern science because of people’s common humanity. 36

Herder’s View of the Plurality of societies in Human Cultural History also Similar to Boas and Vico 

This belief that human cultures were unique and should be judged on their own terms was shared by Herder, who became general superintendent in of the Lutheran clergy in the German state of Saxe-Weimar in 1776. In his Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit – ‘Ideas for the Philosophy of the History of Humanity’, published between 1784 and 1791, he articulated a similar view of the uniqueness of individual human cultures. Contemporary French philosophes such as Diderot, Helvetius, Holbach and Voltaire believed that there was only a single, universal civilisation, of which one culture, then another, constituted its greatest expression in a particular epoch, and judged all cultures, previous and contemporary, by a single set of criteria which were held to have universal validity. Herder, on the other hand, considered that all civilisations had their own schwerpunkt – their own centres of gravity – and it was only through an appreciation of each culture’s individual centre of gravity that their character and value could be understood. Societies produced their arts, customs, religion, ethical codes, and indeed their entire national life through an integrated communal life developed through immemorial tradition. 37 There was not one, single human civilisation, but a plurality of civilisations, and the need to belong to a particular community through common language, history, feeling, habit and tradition was a human need as basic as eating or drinking. 38 For Herder there was nothing more barbarous than the destruction of another’s cultural heritage, and condemned the Romans for destroying the cultures of the peoples they conquered, and, despite his position as a Lutheran clergyman, the Church for forcibly baptising the Balts and British missionaries for spreading Christianity in India and elsewhere in Asia, where it was an alien element, whose imposition, and the social systems and forms of education also introduced by the British would destroy and distort their natural cultural development. 39 An early pioneer of folklore, he was interested in mythology as the expression of the way in which a particular people viewed nature. A people could only be not through politics or conquest, but through their language and shared symbols, the inward consciousness and outward culture that united a people. He was therefore strongly interested in folklore, including myths, fairy tales and folk songs. 40 He considered the mechanical model of human society, influenced by the natural sciences, produced by the French philosophes dangerous simplistic. In Herder’s view, these considered society as the product of mechanical, causal factors or the arbitrary desires of individual monarchs, legislators and military generals. However, the forces that affected and informed cultures and their history differed from society to society and age to age and so were impossible to reduce to simple formulas. 41People could only be creative and prosper in their native countries. While the unconscious, spontaneous influence of one culture on another was acceptable, conscious imitation of other cultures and countries led only to artificiality, and lower standards in life and art. 42 Herder was not a nationalist, and saw all the cultures of humanity as flourishing peacefully together. 43 Nevertheless, he inspired cultural nationalism in the subject nations of the Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and Russian empires, and political nationalism in Austria and Germany although he deeply detested it. 44 Some historians have found the origins of the Nazi idea of the German people’s unique mystical identity in Herder’s conception of the unique history and characteristics of each nation and ethnic group. 45 Herder’s vision of humanity and society was far more pluralistic. As a Lutheran pastor, he believed that God acted in history, as humanity was also part of nature, which was God’s creation. Humanity thus, to Herder, in their ‘wildest extravagances and passions must obey laws, not less beautiful and excellent than those, by which all the celestial bodies move.’ God implanted into humanity the quest for its own fulfilment, and humanity’s purpose was the achievement of their full humanity. Although the main theme of his book was the origins of European society in ancient Greece and the beginning of the modern age in the Renaissance, he viewed the progress of human culture as the product of different peoples and their values. 46 He was certainly not an advocated of the domination and destruction of one nation or culture by another.

Conclusion: Scientific Racism Attacked and Partly Refuted through Non-Mechanistic, Pluralist Views of Humanity Articulated by Boas, Vico and Herder

Now Rousseau, Kant and Turgot clearly weren’t Fascists. Rousseau and Kant were ardent opponents of despotism, with Rousseau in particular a key figure in the development of modern liberal political theory. Nevertheless, the revolutionary, activist style of politics created by the French Revolution and its attempt to apply Rousseau’s theory of the general will to an entire nation of millions, rather than the individual Swiss cantons on whose direct democracy Rousseau based his theories, were developed in an authoritarian direction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the emergence of European Fascism. These movements drew upon Darwinism, as well as Lamarckianism and Vitalism, to support their intolerant views of race and nation. These evolutionary views, however, were interpreted according to the pre-existing view of the world, developed from the authoritarian interpretations political activism after the French Revolution, stressing struggle and the existence of an authentic nation or political class threatened by a terrible, oppressive and subversive outgroup.

The scientific racism and eugenics theories partly developed from the application of evolutionary theory to humanity was challenged and eventually refuted partly through a pluralistic view of humanity, which was developed in opposition to the Enlightenment view that there were universal rules that could be applied to humanity as whole, through which the qualities of nations and peoples could be objectively judged and valued. Now there are indeed severe problems with the cultural relativism propounded by Boas, and to a much lesser extent by Vico and Herder. There are objective moral values, which, it can be argued, transcend race and culture, so that tyranny and brutality is the same no matter which culture or ethnic group perpetrates it. Unfortunately, cultural relativism can also lead to the justification of attitudes, customs and regimes amongst particular ethnic groups which would be strongly condemned as oppressive and immoral in western society. Herder’s concept of Volk as the source of culture and civilisation was also developed by nationalistic cultural theorists to produce the vehemently racist idea of German ethnicist stressed by the Nazis, despite Herder’s own strongly anti-racist views. Nevertheless, the deeply immoral eugenics policies and the scientific racism that supported much of it was refuted not just on scientific grounds, but through counter-Enlightenment views that stress human cultural complexity and pluralism, rather than a simply mechanical reduction of the human sciences modelled on those of the natural world.  


1. R. Eastwell, Fascism: A History (London, Pimlico 2003), pp. 8-9.

2. R. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History, 1918-1985 (Oxford, Basil Blackwell 1987), pp. 16-7.

3. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 17.

4. See O. Mosley, Mosley – Right or Wrong? (London, Lion Books 1963), pp. 117-124.

5. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, p. 17.

6. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, pp. 17-8.

7. Thurlow, Fascism in Britain, pp. 17-19.

8. R. Noll, The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement (London, Fontana Press 1996), pp.47-8.

9. Noll, The Jung Cult, p. 50.

10. N. Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology (London, I.B. Tauris 1992), p. 194.

11. H. Trevor-Roper, ed., Hitler’s Table-Talk: Hitler’s Conversations recorded by Martin Bormann (Oxford, OUP 1988), p. 38.

12. ‘Race’, in J. Taylor and W. Shaw, A Dictionary of the Third Reich (London, Grafton Books 1987), p. 283.

13. Cited in P. Vansittart, Voices 1870-1914 (New York, Franklin Watts 1985), p. 81.

14. Vansittart, Voices, p. XV.  

15. J.C. Fest, The Face of the Third Reich (London, Penguin Books 1970), n. 4, p. 500.

16. J. Noakes and G. Pridham, ‘Introduction’, in J. Noakes and G. Pridham, eds., Nazism 1919-1945 – 1: The Rise to Power 1919-1934 (Exeter, Exeter Studies in History 1983), p. 3.

17. I. Berlin, ed. H. Hardy, Against the Current: Essay in the History of Ideas (Oxford, OUP 1981), pp. 163-4.

18. Eatwell, Fascism, p. 5.

19. N. Sullivan, Fascism, (London, J.M. Dent and Sons 1983), p. 13.  

20. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 43.

21. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 49.

22. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 48.

23. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 64.  

24. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 65.

25. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 66.

26. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 71.

27. Sullivan, Fascism, p. 68.

28. Eatwell, Fascism, p. 5.

29. C. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred: Anthropology and the Study of Religions (London, Cassell 1996), pp. 70-2.

30. F. Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York, the Free Press 1963), p. 71, cited in Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 71.

31. Bennett, In Search of the Sacred, p. 70.

32. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 94.

33. Berlin, Against the Current, pp. 94-5.

34. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 103.  

35. R. Smith, The Fontana History of the Human Sciences (London, Fontana Press 1997), p. 342.

36. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 345.

37. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.

38. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.

39. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.

40. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 348.

41. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.

42. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 13.

43. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 11.

44. Berlin, Against the Current, p. 12.

45. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 350.  

46. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 351.