Erich Fromm

Psychoanalysis and Religion

Review by Kim Han-Kyung, 2001

Fromm, Erich. Psychoanalysis and Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950.

As a social scientist and psychologist, Erich Fromm suggests a somewhat different definition of religion from those definitions generally in use in the field of phenomenology of religion, which are narrower. For Fromm, religion is “any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion” (21). With this definition of religion, Fromm contends that secular systems such as fascism, authoritarianism, and all the different kinds of idealism deserve the name of religion. In addition, by using the term, “private religion,” he gives the title of religion to neurosis, craving for success, money, and the like.

There is no human being who does not have a religious need. Almost every sector of human life reflects religious need and its fulfillment. For example, Fromm sees a kind of totemism in a person whose devotion is to the state or her political party, and a religion of cleanliness in a lot of American soldiers during the World War II, who thought highly of English and Germans and lowly of French and Italians. If this is the case, religious experiences are not unusual or extraordinary in everyday human life. Yet, to analyze those phenomena systematically, Fromm employs a distinction between “authoritarian and “humanistic” religions.

Authoritarian Religious Experience

Authoritarian type of religion presupposes the existence of a higher power which takes control over a human being. The most crucial element in the authoritarian religious experience is the surrender to this transcending power. This surrender is often accompanied by a feeling of one’s own misery, and at the same time, a feeling of being protected. By surrendering to a transcending being, one loses one’s independence and integrity. That is why, in turn, one feels it important to resort to the the transcending being.

Humanistic Religious Experience

Humanistic religious experience has no dimension for a transcending divine being. Thus, the sense of being overwhelmed, “absolute dependence,” or obedience are unfamiliar to this type of religious experience. Humanistic religious experience can accept the concept of God or gods, but only in the sense that ideas of God or gods are no more than another way of expressing a higher part of human being.

At a glance, this distinction between “authoritarian” and “humanistic” religious experience might seem to be similar to the distinction between “theistic” and “non-theistic” religions. However, Erich Fromm may have the eyes of a psychologist or historian who does not care about or challenge the preceding identity of respective religions. Fromm claims that both authoritarian and humanistic religious experience cut through the distinction between “theistic” and “non-theistic” religions.  For example, Fromm sees a typical humanistic religion in Jesus when he said, “Heaven is in you.” Some later traditions of Buddhism include very authoritarian religious experiences. Fromm thinks that the socio-economic situation in a culture or society is more important in the emergence of a certain type of religious experience than the identity or the tradition of respective religions.