Karl Popper on the Limits of Tolerance

popper“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.”  — Karl Popper

That comes from a lecture on science and religion, delivered in 1940 in New Zealand  in a university extension course, Religion: Some Modern Problems and Developments.  The lecture has been published in After the Open Society, edited by the ANU’s Jeremy Shearmur and Piers Norris Turner of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A summary of the main ideas in the book can be found here.

Popper wanted to bring together  people of good will, despite their differences. That was Hayek’s aim in The Road to Serfdom, which he addressed to the socialists of the world 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 intruding 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 it alone holds 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 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?”

Popper 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.

The lecture from which the introductory quote has been drawn was delivered when the greatest evil in the world was the National Socialism of Germany (and at the time when the communists of the world were supporting Hitler). 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. 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?

Rafe Champion is building an alliance of Popperian critical rationalists and Austrian economists.

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