Authoritarian and Humanistic Religion

In his book Psychoanalysis and Religion Erich Fromm draws a distinction between two types of religion: authoritarian and humanistic. He writes:

“The essential element in authoritarian religion and in the authoritarian religious experience is the surrender to a power transcending man. The main virtue of this type of religion is obedience, its cardinal sin is disobedience. Just as the deity is conceived as omnipotent or omniscient, man is conceived as being powerless and insignificant. Only as he can gain grace or help from the deity by complete surrender can he feel strength. Submission to a powerful authority is one of the avenues by which man escapes from his feeling of aloneness and limitation. In the act of surrender he loses his independence and integrity as an individual but he gains the feeling of being protected by an awe-inspiring power of which, as it were, he becomes a part.”

In his book Free to Be Human David Edwards expands Fromm’s description of authoritarian religion (which he renames power religion). He writes:

“Power religion, unlike true religious endeavour [for which Fromm used the term ‘humanistic religion’], has nothing at all do with the search for fundamental, adequate answers to human life, but is purely a means of justifying, enforcing and facilitating the exercise of power. Power religion does not consist in a particular set of beliefs, but in a set of functions supporting power. Because these functions remain essentially constant, we discover close similarities between versions of power religion widely separated by historical time, geography and superficial appearance. The differences between these beliefs represent a sort of superficial clothing over an essentially identical framework of underlying function. This unchanging framework operates to ensure that the mass of people:

1. Be over-awed and pacified by esoteric knowledge incomprehensible to, and therefore unchallengeable by, mere mortals who are not ‘in the know’.

2. Be incapable of forming a coherent picture of the world on the basis of which they might offer criticism of power.

3. Be intimidated into obedience and loyalty by reference to life threatening, ‘demonic’ enemies.

4. Be seduced into conformity by the promise of utopian future happiness.

5. Defer to and idolise their leaders.

Two versions of power religion which, while outwardly different, both satisfy the above requirements, are:

1. Traditional, theistic, church-based religion and
2. Modern, atheistic, corporate-based religion.”

In contrast, Erich Fromm’s description of humanistic religion is as follows:

“Humanistic religion, on the contrary, is centered around man and his strength. Man must develop his power of reason in order to understand himself, his relationship to his fellow men and his position in the universe. He must recognize the truth, both with regard to his limitations and his potentialities. He must develop his powers of love for others as well as for himself and experience the solidarity of all living beings. He must have principles and norms to guide him in this aim. Religious experience in this kind of religion is the experience of oneness with the All, based on one’s relatedness to the world as it is grasped with thought and with love. Man’s aim in humanistic religion is to achieve the greatest strength, not the greatest powerlessness; virtue is self-realization, not obedience. Faith is certainty of conviction based on one’s experience of thought and feeling, not assent to propositions on credit of the proposer. The prevailing mood is that of joy, while the prevailing mood in authoritarian religion is that of sorrow and of guilt.”

There is a relationship between the types of religion and the types of love: authoritarian religion is related to paternal love; humanistic religion is related to maternal love. In The Art of Loving Erich Fromm writes:

“This experience of being loved by mother is a passive one. There is nothing I have to do in order to be loved—mother’s love is unconditional. All I have to do is to be—to be her child. Mother’s love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved. But there is a negative side, too, to the unconditional quality of mother’s love. Not only does it not need to be deserved—it also cannot be acquired, produced, controlled. If it is there, it is like a blessing; if it is not there, it is as if all beauty had gone out of life—and there is nothing I can do to create it.” Our ability to trust in ourselves as humans, and therefore to practice humanistic religion, springs from our innate confidence in our own self-worth, which is acquired partly through receiving a mother’s unconditional love.

“The relationship to father is quite different. Mother is the home we come from, she is nature, soil, the ocean; father does not represent any such natural home. He has little connection with the child in the first years of its life, and his importance for the child in this early period cannot be compared with that of mother. But while father does not represent the natural world, he represents the other pole of human existence; the world of thought, of man-made things, of law and order, of discipline, of travel and adventure. Father is the one who teaches the child, who shows him the road into the world. Closely related to this function is one which is connected with socio-economic development. When private property came into existence, and when private property could be inherited by one of the sons, father began to look for that son to whom he could leave his property. Naturally, that was the one whom father thought best fitted to become his successor, the son who was most like him, and consequently whom he liked the most. Fatherly love is conditional love. Its principle is “I love you because you fulfill my expectations, because you do your duty, because you are like me.” In conditional fatherly love we find, as with unconditional motherly love, a negative and a positive aspect. The negative aspect is the very fact that fatherly love has to be deserved, that it can be lost if one does not do what is expected. In the nature of fatherly love lies the fact that obedience becomes the main virtue, that disobedience is the main sin—and its punishment the withdrawal of fatherly love. The positive side is equally important. Since his love is conditioned, I can do something to acquire it, I can work for it; his love is not outside of my control as motherly love is.”

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Posted on July 2, 2008, in Religion. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Fascinating! Makes perfect sense, especially when you think how male-dominated conventional religion tends to be, and how much focus of “Rahma” popular or mystical religion is. Thanks for taking the time to share your reading.

  1. Pingback: Are Jewish Idolators Fools? | Independent News Informer

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