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In this classic work a noted psychoanalyst assesses the persistent tension between traditional religion and the underlying philosophy of psychoanalysis, which many believe regards the satisfaction of instinctive and material wishes as the sole aim of life.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300000894
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/1959
  • Series: Terry Lectures Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 126
  • Sales rank: 792,510
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.39 (d)

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Psychoanalysis and Religion

By Erich Fromm


Copyright © 1950 Erich Fromm
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0203-4


The Problem

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 this mid portion of the twentieth century, while on the same page the probability of a war is discussed and scientists argue whether the atomic weapon 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 truth, 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 of the soul concerned with man's virtue and happiness was abandoned. Academic psychology, trying to imitate the natural sciences and laboratory methods of weighing 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."

Then came Freud, the last great representative of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the first to demonstrate its limitations. He dared to interrupt the songs of triumph of mere intellect. He showed that reason is the most valuable and the most specifically human power of man and yet is subject to the distorting effect of passions, and that only the understanding of man's passions can free his reason to function properly. He demonstrated the power as well as the weaknesses of human reason and made "the truth shall make you free" the guiding principle of a new therapy.

At first Freud thought that he was only concerned with certain forms of sickness and their cure. Slowly he became aware that he had gone far beyond the realm of medicine and had resumed a tradition in which psychology as the study of the soul of man was the theoretical basis for the art of living, for achieving happiness.

Freud's method, psychoanalysis, made possible the most minute and intimate study of the soul. The "laboratory" of the analyst has no gadgets. He cannot weigh or count his findings, but he gains insight through dreams, phantasies, and associations into the hidden desires and anxieties of his patients. In his "laboratory," relying only on observation, reason, and his own experience as a human being, he discovers that mental sickness cannot be understood apart from moral problems; that his patient is sick because he has neglected his soul's demands. The analyst is not a theologian or a philosopher and does not claim competence in those fields, but as a physician of the soul he is concerned with the very same problems as philosophy and theology: the soul of man and its cure.

If we thus define the function of the psychoanalyst we find that at present two professional groups are concerned with the soul: the priests and the psychoanalysts. What is their mutual relationship? Is the psychoanalyst trying to occupy the priest's domain and is opposition between them unavoidable? Or are they allies who work for the same ends and who should supplement and interpenetrate each other's field both theoretically and practically?

The former viewpoint has been expressed both by psychoanalysts and by representatives of the church. Freud's The Future of an Illusion and Sheen's Peace of Soul put the accent on opposition. C. G. Jung's and Rabbi Liebman's Peace of Mind writings are characteristic of attempts to reconcile psychoanalysis and religion. The fact that a considerable number of ministers study psychoanalysis indicates how far this belief in the blending of psychoanalysis and religion has penetrated the field of ministerial practice.

If I undertake to discuss the problem of religion and psychoanalysis afresh in these chapters it is because I want to show that to set up alternatives of either irreconcilable opposition or identity of interest is fallacious; a thorough and dispassionate discussion can demonstrate that the relation between religion and psychoanalysis is too complex to be forced into either one of these simple and convenient attitudes.

I want to show in these pages that it is not true that we have to give up the concern for the soul if we do not accept the tenets of religion. The psychoanalyst is in a position to study the human reality behind religion as well as behind nonreligious symbol systems. He finds that the question is not whether man returns to religion and believes in God but whether he lives love and thinks truth. If he does so the symbol systems he uses are of secondary importance. If he does not they are of no importance.


Freud and Jung

Freud dealt with the problem of religion and psychoanalysis in one of his most profound and brilliant books, The Future of an Illusion. Jung, who was the first psychoanalyst to understand that myth and religious ideas are expressions of profound insights, has dealt with the same topic in the Terry Lectures of 1937, published under the title Psychology and Religion.

If I now attempt to give a brief summary of the position of both psychoanalysts it is with a threefold purpose:

1. To indicate where the discussion of the problem stands now and to locate the point from which I want to proceed.

2. To lay the groundwork for the following chapters by discussing some of the fundamental concepts used by Freud and Jung.

3. A correction of the widely held view that Freud is "against" and Jung "for" religion will permit us to see the fallacy of such oversimplifying statements in this complex field and to discuss the ambiguities in the meanings of "religion" and "psychoanalysis."

What is Freud's position in regard to religion as expressed in The Future of an Illusion?

For Freud, religion has its origin in man's helplessness in confronting the forces of nature outside and the instinctive forces within himself. Religion arises at an early stage of human development when man cannot yet use his reason to deal with these outer and inner forces and must repress them or manage them with the help of other affective forces. So instead of coping with these forces by means of reason he copes with them by "counter-affects," by other emotional forces, the functions of which are to suppress and control that which he is powerless to cope with rationally.

In this process man develops what Freud calls an "illusion," the material of which is taken from his own individual experience as a child. Being confronted with dangerous, uncontrollable, and un-understandable forces within and outside of himself, he remembers, as it were, and regresses to an experience he had as a child, when he felt protected by a father whom he thought to be of superior wisdom and strength, and whose love and protection he could win by obeying his commands and avoiding transgression of his prohibitions.

Thus religion, according to Freud, is a repetition of the experience of the child. Man copes with threatening forces in the same manner in which, as a child, he learned to cope with his own insecurity by relying on and admiring and fearing his father. Freud compares religion with the obsessional neuroses we find in children. And, according to him, religion is a collective neurosis, caused by conditions similar to those producing childhood neurosis.

Freud's analysis of the psychological roots of religion attempts to show why people formulated the idea of a god. But it claims to do more than to get at these psychological roots. It claims that the unreality of the theistic concept is demonstrated by exposing it as an illusion based on man's wishes.

Freud goes beyond attempting to prove that religion is an illusion. He says religion is a danger because it tends to sanctify bad human institutions with which it has allied itself throughout its history; further, by teaching people to believe in an illusion and by prohibiting critical thinking religion is responsible for the impoverishment of intelligence. This charge like the first one was leveled against the church by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. But in Freud's frame of reference this second charge is even more potent than it was in the eighteenth century. Freud could show in his analytic work that the prohibition of critical thinking at one point leads to an impoverishment of a person's critical ability in other spheres of thought and thereby impedes the power of reason. Freud's third objection to religion is that it puts morality on very shaky grounds. If the validity of ethical norms rests upon their being God's commands, the future of ethics stands or falls with the belief in God. Since Freud assumes that religious belief is on the wane he is forced to assume that the continued connection of religion and ethics will lead to the destruction of our moral values.


Excerpted from Psychoanalysis and Religion by Erich Fromm. Copyright © 1950 Erich Fromm. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Foreword II,
I The Problem,
II Freud and Jung,
III An Analysis of Some Types of Religious Experience,
IV The Psychoanalyst as "Physician of the Soul",
V Is Psychoanalysis a Threat to Religion,
A Biography of Erich Fromm,

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