“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.