Karl Popper on Religion, Science and Toleration

“I have insisted that we must be tolerant. But I also believe that this tolerance has its limits. We must not trust those anti-humanitarian religions which not only preach destruction but act accordingly. For if we tolerate them, then we become ourselves responsible for their deeds.”

That comes from a lecture by Popper on science and religion, delivered in 1940 in New Zealand as a contribution to a series of ten university extension lectures on ‘Religion: Some Modern Problems and Developments’. Popper gave four lectures and the others were delivered by religious ministers. Much of the text turned up in The Open Society and its Enemies and some that did not has been reprinted in After the Open Society edited by Jeremy Shearmur of the ANU and Piers Norris Turner at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A summary of the main ideas in the book can be found here.

One of the themes is Popper’s desire to bring together rather than divide people of good will. This does not mean glossing over differences or holding back from criticism of mistakes but it does mean taking a stand on common ground when it exists. I think that Popper would be surprised and disappointed by the militant atheists. He was a secular humanist, however he argued that the dispute between religion and science in the 19th century was a thing of the past because it was based on each side trespassing on the territory of the other. Science is concerned with the way the world works and it does not presume to answer questions about morality or the purpose of life. Religion is a rival for science when it tries to trespass on the territory of science to describe how the world works. The antagonism is intensified when each side thinks that they have hold of the criteria to decide the issue with certainty.

For Popper, science is not about certainty and it is not about consensus. It is about for ever improving conjectural theories. Still, because science evolved out of the religious mythology that men first invented to explain the world, and because most religions are “true belief” religions, there is a strong and unhelpful tradition of “true belief” science. The result is an awful lot of dogmatism in both science and religion.

Popper’s views on religion

It is necessary to make it quite clear that I am speaking here about religion in a very general way. Although I always have Christianity in mind, I want to speak in sufficiently general terms to include all other religions and especially religions like Buddhism, Islam or Judaism. Everybody agrees that these are religions. I shall…extend the term even further.

He suggested that a person can be considered religious if he or she has some faith that provides a basis for practical living, in the manner of people who appeal to an orthodox religious faith to guide their moral principles, their actions and their proposals for social improvement. He insisted that science has no answers in the search for these principles, though of course science and technology become all-important once we have decided on our aims.

By invoking the idea that we are all motivated by some kind of faith (which he chose to call our religion) he hoped to get over the dispute between the militant atheists (who he regarded as proponents of the religion of atheism) and people of orthodox religious beliefs. He wanted to get past the issue “Have you a religion or not” to address the question “What are the principles of your religion?” – “Is it a good religion or a bad religion?”

He was in favour of “good” religions, including the faiths of secular humanists, which promote the core values of the great religions – honesty, compassion, service, peace and especially the non-coercive unity of mankind. Against these good religions he identified the evil religions of totalitarianism (communism and fascism), and the persecution of heretics. He pointed out that even as science can be misused, so can religions, including Christianity.

This lecture was delivered when the greatest evil in the world was the National Socialism of Germany. Militant Islam was not in the picture, but his thoughts on the limits of tolerance should exercise our minds as we contemplate the world today (see the extract at the start of the post). How do we take a stand and where do we draw a line against the intolerance of the various bad religions such as militant Islam and the degenerate form of left liberalism that has become prominent among the Western elites and political classes?

Uniting humanitarians. Popper on public and private values

In Part IV of After the Open Society there is correspondence and draft papers on the theme of uniting the people of good will who find themselves on different sides of various debates, especially moderate socialists and classical liberals. Popper was a social democrat and he also described himself as a kind of old-fashioned liberal, tracing that line of descent through John Stuart Mill and before him von Humboldt. Popper saw a danger when governments try to do more than relieve clear-cut suffering and put in place the minimal conditions of civil order, rule of law etc where people can make their way independently.

The thesis which I intend to elaborate and discuss in this paper is so simple that to some it may appear to be trivial. My thesis is that while misery is a matter for public policy, happiness is not.

The implication of this position in the current Australian context is that symbolic things like “Sorry” saying, the Republic, gay marriage and changing the Constitution to recognise this or that group are off the public agenda, or at the bottom of the “to do” list. Changing these things will make some people happy (and other people unhappy) but so far as the relief of misery is concerned they do not rate. By this criterion they are not issues for the public/political agenda. You could probably put anti-global warming strategies in the same category of symbolic gestures that make no difference, apart from diverting resources that might he used to alleviate suffering in public health and disability services for example.

Popper briefly addressed the ethics of the situation and suggested that most moral/ethical philosophy adds no value to public debates, and simple imperatives like ‘help people in distress’ or simply the Golden Rule would cover about nine tenths of what is required in the way of moral or ethical principles. He also sounded a warning about movements that demand heroic sacrifices of the current generation in order to achieve some distant heaven on earth. He drew a distinction between concrete evils (which are the agenda of politics) and positive goods (which are properly regarded as the private agenda). The positive good of happiness is very much on the private agenda.

If a man falls in the street and breaks his leg, it is the duty of everybody who happens to be on the spot to help. But it is not my duty to ensure that my neighbour should enjoy his glass of beer, nor to convince him that there are better things than beer.

He then moved on to the differences between liberals and socialists. The socialists assert that the state should provide much more than the minimum. Popper, like the liberals, saw this as an ever-present danger that the state will grow, and corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies with it. He had a foot in each camp, not a comfortable position and one that made him owned and disowned by both sides (mostly disowned). His aim was to find some way to reconcile the differences between the two camps.

He thought this could be done by addressing simultaneously the evils that each side identified, that is, by addressing the downsides of too much liberalism (unlimited economic freedom and no public welfare) and on the other side too much state power (loss of freedom in the servile state, bureaucratic or worse). He thought that this resolution was blocked by the degree of attachment on each side to their pet loves and hates – on one side the love of economic freedom, on the other side the utopian vision of socialism.

Against the socialists he insisted that state control was not a panacea, every extension of state power and influence is dangerous, outcomes must be constantly checked for downsides (to learn from mistakes) . The maximum domain of freedom must be protected, especially in thought and opinion (memo to Bob Brown) with minimum intrusion on freedom of markets (one conservative critic mistakenly thought his “protective state” means trade protection!).

Against the liberals he insisted that the protective state should stand ready to protect people from “economic power” which he saw expressed in the form of monopolies and from the suffering of mass unemployment. Possibly due to the influence of the young Colin Simkin in NZ who was enamoured of Scandanavian social democracy and possibly Keynes as well, Popper wanted the state to guarantee full employment. With some justification Popper saw mass unemployment as the second major evil, after war, but he tragically misread the play regarding the causes of unemployment and of monopolies.

The liberals had the worse of the arguments and the policy developments since the late 19th century. Bismark pioneered the welfare/warfare state, Lloyd George was probably a watershed in Britain, Hoover in the US, Whitlam and Fraser in Australia (building on the foundations of the Australian Settlement after Federation which underwrote Australia’s steady decline from first place in per capita income in the 19th century).

Big Government interventionism achieved bipartisan support, while the socialists took no notice of Popper’s warnings (silly fellows!) and classical liberalism managed a partial recover in recent times, to be greeted with abuse from both sides of politics. Interventionism, vote-buying and Keynesianism have brought the EU and the US to the brink of ruin, and the jury is out as to whether people of good will in different parties can do better than Popper managed a generation ago.

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27 Responses to Karl Popper on Religion, Science and Toleration

  1. Turtle

    Thanks, Rafe. I learn a lot from you. You’re a champion. Sorry.

  2. Tintarella di Luna

    Good morning Rafe

    Thank you so much for posting this, like Turtle I learn so much from you. Champion by name and nature.

  3. Ellen of Tasmania

    I agree with Popper in that ‘we are all motivated by some kind of faith’. We are all ‘religious’ in the sense that we all hold to presuppositions, and they are usually the things we don’t want to argue about. There is no neutrality and when people say they want to argue from a position of neutrality, they usually mean they want to argue from the position of their presuppositions.

    Understanding this helps to explain why the long slow march through the institutions was so important to the left.

  4. handjive

    “I have insisted that we must be tolerant. But I also believe that this tolerance has its limits. We must not trust those anti-humanitarian religions which not only preach destruction but act accordingly. For if we tolerate them, then we become ourselves responsible for their deeds.”

    Literally having just read the ABC Religious blog, featuring Clive Hamilton’s latest fractured fairytale of monsters, giants and “earth scientists”, plus, more relevant, this pdf from the Buddhist Religious Centre: Simple and Practical Steps toward Mitigating Climate Change, then to read that quote above …

  5. handjive

    Plus this link:

    Earth masters: Playing God with the climate
    by Clive Hamilton (Allen&Unwin)

  6. Karabar

    An excellent read, Rafe.
    By abandoning logic and reason, folks seem to have turned to selective ignorance to act as their moral compass.
    I find it particularly frightening that, regardless of the caution in Genesis regarding the worship of a golden calf, and the warning in Timothy regarding false prophets, many of the major religions of the world have abandoned the very rational for their existence in saving souls, and instead pursue some cause of “saving the world”.
    In doing so, the faith based ignorant and gullible wish to destroy the very civilisation and affordable energy that dragged the human race out of misery in the first place.

  7. Tel

    All morality is based on exchange… I agree not to murder you while you sleep and in return I expect you to offer me the same in return. Tit-for-tat as they say.

    Tolerance is much the same, I tolerate things that might be a bit annoying, because I know there are times I can also be annoying. This business of crapping on about microaggression is nothing more than an elaborate way of being intolerant. Tit-for-tat once again.

    Trying to make a universal rule, while ignoring this principle of exchange just won’t work.

  8. Tim Neilson

    “Is it a good religion or a bad religion?”
    Wrong question. The proper question, always, is “is it true?” I know that that’s dangerous, because when some people believe that they have proof that their beliefs are true (inevitably falsely – and I say that as a believing Christian) then disaster usually ensues. But still, propagating beliefs without regard to their validity just because we think those beliefs are “good” produces disaster just as surely – think Lysenkoism, “climate science”, repressed memory therapy, and a host of others. In religion as much as in science the search for our best estimate of truth should be the sole objective.

  9. Empire

    Trying to make a universal rule, while ignoring this principle of exchange just won’t work.

    Hence the Golden Rule. Angels and arseholes can rapidly identify and avoid one another.

  10. Max

    My thesis is that while misery is a matter for public policy, happiness is not.

    In this country a Government that scrapped all the “Feel good stuff” e.g ABC, Arts Funding, Sports Funding, Climate Change, and Red Tape etc etc etc and simply partnered with existing charities to illeviate misery could seriously run with no debt and a flat tax rate of about 10 – 15% personal and company.

    This would boost employment and business like nothing else.

  11. Louis Hissink

    Champion post lad, champion, champion…to be uttered in the appropriate British dialect.

  12. Simon

    An older gentleman once told me, when I was twenty something, that you cannot pay enough for individual restraint, it is the test of integrity in all things. It’s what you are hoping for in every product, service and official you deal with. I assume Mr. Popper had a very similar philosophical start point.

  13. I got through a lengthy catholic education, 1950s-60s, without ever encountering a literal creationist or religious fundamentalist. First exposure was around age 16 when our college was shown the movie “Inherit the Wind”, from which I gathered there may once have been people in the US who doubted evolution. Still can’t claim to have met an anti-evolutionist, though they are probably around.

    On the other hand, I have met numerous well-educated people who think that there is a great battle going on between science and this fundamentalism one can never find – and they’re on the good sciency side. This “science” teaches that a dribble of sea level rise since the late 1700s, some fluctuations in Arctic Ice, and a ho-hum warming in a Holocene which has been nothing but warmings and coolings constitute a planetary crisis caused by man’s greed and heedlessness.

    Many of these defenders of science (against invisible fundamentalism) celebrate what they call Earth Hour. Immediately before Earth Hour, the participants, mostly urban and relatively prosperous, consume massive amounts of fossil fuel power (necessary for everything, including the manufacture, implementation and supplementation of the alternative power favoured by Earth Hour participants). Sixty minutes later the same people resume consuming fossil fuel power – a lot and in a hurry!

    So what’s a bizarre fundamentalist cult and what’s not?

  14. ChrisPer

    Forgive me for I have sinned.

    Clive Hamilton has another loony essay up at the conversation. I commented that you didn’t need to read it, it was Clive and therefore demagoguery.

    Comment gone.

    Forgive me for wasting my time.

  15. Eyrie

    Chrisper, too many of the essays at The conversation are looney exceeded only by the commenters who think of themselves as intellectuals. Most have clearly never thought critically about the things they are told.
    All in all it is a good argument for closing the Universities. We can have trade schools for the important skills.

  16. JohnA

    Tim Neilson #1738229, posted on July 15, 2015 at 9:25 am

    “Is it a good religion or a bad religion?”

    Wrong question. The proper question, always, is “is it true?” I know that that’s dangerous, because when some people believe that they have proof that their beliefs are true (inevitably falsely – and I say that as a believing Christian) then disaster usually ensues.

    Which leads on to the next two important questions:
    “Who defines ‘good’ and ‘bad'”?
    and
    “By what criteria are they defined?”

  17. Turtle

    I listened to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time episode on Popper.

    What impresses me most about Popper is the problem he had with people wanting to be part of ‘the spirit of the age’. What Germans call Zeitgeist.

    Some modern examples are: the 60s, gay marriage, climate change and bicycles.

    This is the reason I always loved Blackadder. Much of the comedy comes from Blackadder seeing through the follies of our age. The dramatic irony comes from us sympathising with Blackadder for being smart enough to see through the follies of his age, while being unpopular for it.

    Despite the fact that Blackadder’s writers are warmists (with totalitarian fantasies), a future episode of Blackadder set 100 years from now would in my mind feature Edmund surrounded by warmists. Baldrick, Percy etc. would all be warmists.

  18. .

    Baldrick would not be a warmist. He’s the fool if Blackadder was Shakespeare.

  19. .

    On mosomoso’s point:

    I have never met a Catholic creationist. Some of the ignorance about Catholics assumes that they’re fundies or evangelical in outlook.

    From this piss poor start, we expect people to lose generations of xenophobia or antisemitism?

    I don’t like the odds!

  20. Turtle

    Baldrick would not be a warmist. He’s the fool if Blackadder was Shakespeare.

    Baldrick would not be an activist warmist, but a follower type warmist. Just as he got caught up in the hype of, for example, silly hats for Sir Walter Raleigh’s return, stories of the Highwayman ‘The Shadow’, or Communist fervour, to choose examples from three different series.

    Yes, he would be a fool – that is his purpose. But not a wise fool, as in King Lear.

  21. Turtle

    I have never met a Catholic creationist. Some of the ignorance about Catholics assumes that they’re fundies or evangelical in outlook.

    Same. I remember when someone from my catholic family (I am an agnostic) joined the Pentecostals. She started raving about literal interpretations of the bible and we all disagreed. Our priest included.

    In modern times the Catholic Church has mostly kept a sensible head about science. Until a communist eco-fascist was given top job.

  22. J.H.

    Good stuff Rafe, very well written….. A little addendum if I may though.

    You wrote: “This lecture was delivered when the greatest evil in the world was the National Socialism of Germany.”

    At the time of the lecture in 1940, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany were allies and had co-invaded Poland, obliterating its sovereignty and dividing the country between them…. Stalin ordered the execution of the entire Polish officer corps which was carried out in the Katyn forest.

    Thus the utterly evil ideologies of Soviet Communism and National Socialism were allied and festering together. It was a dark time indeed for liberalism, democracy and capitalism and more reason for Popper to make his speech.

    Plus, considering the Holodomor perpetrated against the Ukrainian people by Stalin’s Soviet Union during 1932, it’s debatable which of these two evils were the greater…. The West having foolishly decided to engage in an alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union when Hitler and Stalin fell out with each other in 22 June 1941 and “overlook” the utter brutality and inhumanity of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

    The World outlook during 1939/41 period for the Western Democracies was a bleak time indeed.

  23. tgs

    Great post, Rafe. Very interesting and enjoyable to read.

  24. Austin Mangosteen

    Rafe, in respect to:

    Religion is a rival for science when it tries to trespass on the territory of science to describe how the world works.

    You are probably well aware the quest for the truth is at the heart of genuine religion and science. Therefore we acknowledge religion is more subjective and science is more objective. Yet both have a degree of subjectivity and objectivity. I expect you to be cognizant of the fact science is subject to the scientist’s presuppositions and worldview. Religion becomes objective when a person analyses the reality of his or her circumstances. This is evidenced in the questions: Where is the justice in being born to die? What are humans subjected to futility? Why can I conceive of eternity and infinity even though I am mortal and finite?

    Are you aware of the Simulation Hypothesis? If not,
    the Simulation Hypothesis suggests that science has proven God.

  25. In modern times the Catholic Church has mostly kept a sensible head about science. Until a communist eco-fascist was given top job.

    It has at all times, which is why it was until the 1800s its greatest benefactor.

  26. Rafe

    At the time of the lecture in 1940, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany were allies
    A nice point JH!

    See Hal Colebatch on the contribution of the local wharfies to the German war effort.

    https://quadrant.org.au/shop/books/australias-secret-war-unions-sabotaged-troops-world-war-ii/

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