An intro into Erich Fromm’s book “Psychoanalysis and Religion”

Transcribing today from Erich Fromm’s book Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950), beginning on page 1:


Never before has man come so close to the fulfillment of his most cherished hopes as today. Our scientific discoveries and technical achievements enable us to visualize the day when the table will be set for all who want to eat, a day when the human race will form a unified community and no longer live as separate entities. Thousands of years were needed for this unfolding of man’s intellectual capacities, of his growing ability to organize society and to concentrate his energies purposefully. Man has created a new world with its own laws and destiny. Looking at his creation, he can say, truly, it is good.

But looking at himself what can he say? Has he come closer to the realization of another dream of mankind, that of the perfection of man? Of man loving his neighbor, doing justice, speaking truth, and realizing that which he potentially is, an image of God?

Raising the question is embarrassing since the answer is so painfully clear. While we have created wonderful things we have failed to make of ourselves beings for whom this tremendous effort would seem worthwhile. Ours is a life not of brotherliness, happiness, contentment but of spiritual chaos and bewilderment dangerously close to a state of madness—not the hysterical kind of madness which existed in the Middle Ages but a madness akin to schizophrenia in which the contact with inner reality is lost and thought is split from affect.

Let us consider only some of the news items which we read every morning and evening. As a reaction to the water shortage in New York prayers for rain are suggested in churches and simultaneously rainmakers attempt to produce rain by chemical means. For over a year flying saucers have been reported; some say they do not exist, others that they are real and a new part of our own or a foreign power’s military equipment, while others quite seriously claim that they are machines sent from the inhabitants of another planet. We are told that never has America had such a bright future as in the mid portion of the twentieth century, while on the same page the probability of a war is discussed and scientists argue whether the atomic weapons will or will not lead to the destruction of the globe.

People go to churches and listen to sermons in which the principles of love and charity are preached, and the very same people would consider themselves fools or worse if they hesitated to sell a commodity which they knew the customer could not afford. Children in Sunday school learn that honesty and integrity and concern for the soul should be the guiding principles of life, while “life” teaches us that to follow these principles makes us at best unrealistic dreamers. We have the most extraordinary possibilities for communication in print, radio, and television, and we are fed daily with nonsense which would be offensive to the intelligence of children were they not suckled on it. It is proclaimed by many voices that our way of life makes us happy. But how many people of these times are happy? It is interesting to remember a casual shot in Life magazine some time ago of a group of people waiting on a street corner for the green light. What was so remarkable and so shocking about this picture was that these people who all looked stunned and frightened had not witnessed a dreadful accident but, as the text had to explain, were merely average citizens going about their business.

We cling to the belief that we are happy; we teach our children that we are more advanced than any generation before us, that eventually no wish will remain unfulfilled and nothing will be out of our reach. The appearances support this belief, which is drummed into us endlessly.

But will our children hear a voice telling them where to go and what to live for? Somehow they feel, as all human beings do, that life must have a meaning—but what is it? Do they find it in the contradictions, double talk, and cynical resignation they encounter at every turn? They long for happiness, for truths, for justice, for love, for an object of devotion; are we able to satisfy their longing?

We are as helpless as they are. We do not know the answer because we even have forgotten to ask the question. We pretend that our life is based upon a solid foundation and ignore the shadows of uneasiness, anxiety, and confusion which never leave us.

To some people return to religion is the answer, not as an act of faith but in order to escape an intolerable doubt; they make this decision not out of devotion but in search of security. The student of the contemporary scene who is not concerned with the church but with man’s soul considers this step another symptom of the failure of nerve.

Those who try to find a solution by returning to traditional religion are influenced by a view which is often proposed by religionists, that we have to choose between religion and a way of life which is concerned only with the satisfaction of our instinctual needs and material comfort; that if we do not believe in God we have no reason—and no right—to believe in the soul and its demands. Priests and ministers appear to be the only professional groups concerned with the soul, the only spokesmen for the ideals of love, truth, and justice.

Historically this was not always so. While in some cultures like that of Egypt the priests were the “physicians of the soul,” in others such as Greece this function was at least partly assumed by philosophers. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle did not claim to speak in the name of any revelation but with the authority of reason and of their concern with man’s happiness and the unfolding of his soul. They were concerned with man as an end in himself as the most significant subject matter of inquiry. Their treatises on philosophy and ethics were at the same time works on psychology. This tradition of antiquity was continued in the Renaissance and it is very characteristic that the first book which uses the word “Psychologia” in its title has the subtitle Hoc est de Perfectione Hominis (This is of the Perfection of Man). It was during the Enlightenment that this tradition reached its highest point. Out of their belief in man’s reason the philosophers of the Enlightenment, who were at the same time students of man’s soul, affirmed man’s independence from political shackles as well as from those of superstition and ignorance. They taught him to abolish those conditions of existence which required the maintenance of illusions. Their psychological inquiry was rooted in the attempt to discover the conditions for human happiness. Happiness, they said, can be achieved only when man has achieved inner freedom; only then can he be mentally healthy. But in the last few generations the rationalism of the Enlightenment has undergone drastic change. Drunk with a new material prosperity and success in mastering nature, man no longer has considered himself the primary concern of life and of theoretical inquiry. Reason as the means for discovering the truth and penetrating the surface to the essence of phenomena has been relinquished for intellect as a mere instrument to manipulate things and men. Man has ceased to believe that the power of reason can establish the validity of norms and ideas for human conduct.

This change in the intellectual and emotional climate has had a profound impact on the development of psychology as a science. Notwithstanding exceptional figures like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the tradition in which psychology was a study if the soul concerned with man’s virtue and happiness was abandoned. Academic psychology, trying to imitate the natural sciences and laboratory methods of weighting and counting, dealt with everything except the soul. It tried to understand those aspects of man which can be examined in the laboratory and claimed that conscience, value judgments, the knowledge of good and evil are metaphysical concepts, outside the problems of psychology; it was more often concerned with insignificant problems which fitted an alleged scientific method than with devising new methods to study the significant problems of man. Psychology thus became a science lacking its main subject matter, the soul; it was concerned with mechanisms, reaction formations, instincts, but not with the most specifically human phenomena: love, reason, conscience, values. Because the word soul has associations which include these higher human powers I use it here and throughout these chapters rather than the words “psyche” or “mind.”

[Bold emphases mine.]

Stopping there on page 6.

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One Response to An intro into Erich Fromm’s book “Psychoanalysis and Religion”

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