… a thought making crooked all that is straight.

Circles and lines – Erich Fromm II

Erich Fromm, in his book Psychoanalysis and Religion (specifically p. 24-38), speaks of the general compulsion in humanity to transcend the disharmony of living, to make sense of his condition. Because man is mind and body, he needs more than just a thought-system, and more than mere physical satisfaction.

The choice is therefore not IF religion but WHICH religion – any thought system that invokes a sense of devotion he considers a religion. Consequently he cites an unprecedented focus on one or both parents as a form of ancestor cult. Totemism is expressed in the exclusive devotion by a person to his state or political party. He gives an example of fascism or Stalinism to illustrate the religious vigour that people apply to this kind of “modern-day” Totemism.

The difference between such religious forms and a neurosis is that in a society where ancestor worship is accepted, the worshipper finds acceptance and understanding, he can share his thoughts and feelings. Otherwise he is isolated. This feeling of isolation is the sting to the neurosis!

Once a doctrine (however irrational) has been established in a society, people will rather believe it than feel ostracised and isolated (cf. the example of fascism and Stalinism).

Ideally monotheistic religion (as Fromm says) should protect man from falling back into regression, should protect man against ancestor, totem or idol worship (e.g. devotion to the power of the capitalist market – money and profit as idol form). This would be the case if religion managed to succeed in its stated ideals. But history has shown that religion capitulates to secular power again and again, concerned more with dogma than with practising ‘religious’ traits such as loving your fellow man.

Can we continue to trust religions to represent these ideals? Or should we start to separate religious needs from organised religion to prevent a further collapse of our moral structure?

Fromm distinguishes between two forms of religion (as a general concept):

authoritarian and humanistic religion.

Authoritarian religion is where the religious experience is based on the surrender to a power transcending man. The main virtue is obedience; the cardinal sin is disobedience. In contrast to the omnipotence of god, man is insignificant, weak and powerless. Submission to this overruling power is the way he escapes the feelings of isolation. Through surrender he loses independence and integrity as an individual, and feels protected and PART of the awe-inspiring power. Man is subject to experiencing self-loathing and a feeling of poverty of mind, grateful to be subsumed into the omniscient god-mind.

Humanistic religion is centred around man and his strength. Man should develop reason to understand and a relationship to his fellow men and the rest of the universe; he must find his place in the world. He must develop powers of love for himself and for others and experience solidarity with all living beings. This religious experience is the experience of oneness with All. The aim is strength not powerlessness; the virtue is self-realisation not obedience. Faith is certainty of conviction based on one’s experience of thought and feeling, not blind dogma taken on the pure merits of the person proposing the dogma. Here, God is a symbol of man’s own power which he tries to realise in life, not a symbol of force and domination with power OVER man.

These are two forms at opposite ends of the spectrum and yet they can exist within one religion at the same time.

On the surface of it we can see Christianity as an authoritarian religion, and surprisingly witchcraft as a humanistic one. I say surprisingly, not because I would have expected it to fall under an authoritarian structure, but because I did not think it had such an established moral structure as might be necessary to call it humanistic. That is based on my own misunderstandings. But another thing that these notes make clear to me, is where in my life there is still an old hangover from the authoritarian religion of my childhood. This split between authoritarian and humanistic has suddenly enabled me to draw some very clear lines and circles in myself. I can see now some of the things that have been holding back my spiritual progress – the lack of self-love, the doubt – these are things belonging to my past and to a religion I don’t hold any more. Yes, the two focal Christian (although originally and still Jewish) commands of Love the Lord your God (authoritarian), and Love your neighbour as your self (humanistic) are a combination of these two. Yet as Fromm points out major religions have consistently capitulated to secular power and sacrificed the humanistic aspect. I think in some ways I have been guilty of the same things in my life. How interesting that reading Fromm should confirm and reassert my humanistic path, and clear my head of the final vestiges of that authoritarian god-form: a step forward on my path as witch.

© starofseshat 2008

7 responses

  1. Peace Seshat,

    Some very interesting ideas and thoughts here, as always. An immediate response to these ideas is that authoritarianism and humanism (in the terms you have defined them) exist within all religious traditions because they exist within human beings (who, after all, manifest religious traditions).

    I suppose, in some ways, we are talking about the differences between an ‘other’ oriented faith/spirituality/religion and a ‘self’ oriented one. To my way of thinking, self and other are the twin poles of life itself: to know self is to the other and to know the other is to know the self.

    Within Islam (which literally means ‘surrender’ or ‘submission’), the idea of obedience to God is of course strongly present. However, what does it mean to speak of disobedience or sin? A deeper understanding of sin is that it is separation – or the turning away from God. We turn our selves elsewhere and refuse to surrender ourselves fully. Allah!

    Perhaps we misunderstand surrender, or perhaps it might be an unhelpful translation, as the term conjures up images of force and power from the Other side. Of course, within Islamic thought, God IS all powerful and could easily force obedience – but that would serve no purpose, as it vitiates free will. Perhaps surrender is really the giving up of the false layers of ego you spoke of in another recent post?

    I suppose, because religions are also made to live in the world, they must necessarily develop a way of relating to ‘secular’ power – they must offer their followers ways in which they can understand and relate to this issue. Authority is, of course, an issue of immense significance – primarily because it has so often been misused. But then, as I have seen myself, the lack of ‘external’ forms of authority can also be used to bolster the personal authority of more or less charismatic individuals. That is, wider notions of authority can act as a necessary counter-balance to personal charisma (I’m thinking David Koresh/Waco here).

    In the Islamic tradition, the relationship of faith and power/politics is a complex and controversial one. Essentially, the Islamic tradition does not see a necessary division between these different spheres of life – all of it is supposed to be for God. People, though, act differently.

    On a personal note, I find religious authority an interesting issue. As I have gradually learned to see past surface differences, I have also seen myself far less concerned with constantly referring to external authorities (know thyself indeed).

    Abdur Rahman

    August 8, 2008 at 12:33 pm

  2. starofseshat

    Shalom Abdur,
    Well, that’s the thing: I agree that in the major religions there are aspects of authoritarianism and humanism as defined by Fromm. But I really can’t identify the authoritarian thread in witchcraft. Maybe (and this is a big maybe), the humanism of witchcraft is a useful counterbalance to the increasing authoritarianism in our governments and societies. I don’t know if I believe that, but it’s a point worth considering.
    In general I am very pessimistic and think that the major religions overall fail in what they attempt to do. This is a personal response: Christianity failed me, or maybe I failed it! Either way, I don’t particularly view the authoritarian aspect as something positive.
    Do we need both the authoritarian side AND the humanistic side to achieve a balance? I am doubtful. Maybe (a lot of maybes in this response!) we are at a stage in existence where we NEED to shirk off this authoritarianism to return to the heart of the issue – to know ourselves, instead of projecting an image of our worthlessness on to an overpowering God-image, consequently abdicating self-responsiblity because our focus is on our own salvation. Surely we might achieve more in society if our motives were based strongly within humanism (as defined by Fromm)? The additional problem with an authoritarian aspect (even if only partially prevalent in a religion) is that you then have a tendency to ‘be in the right’ and to judge others to ‘be in the wrong’. After all, if their authoritarian image differs from yours, who is right? Do we then have a battle of the gods? No, because each believer will just disregard the other as wrong and by definition unworthy of the salvation of their god.
    Authoritarianism as defined by Fromm seems to me quite a dangerous thing. The humanistic view of unity in all living beings is no cop-out – it’s hard to achieve but surely more worthy of striving for, IMO.
    I haven’t finished the book yet, so maybe (!) my thoughts will develop. These are my thoughts at the moment, anyway.
    I’d be interested to hear further thoughts from you 🙂

    August 8, 2008 at 4:08 pm

  3. Shalom Seshat,

    I agree with your thoughts: there is great risk in an authoritarian approach – or rather, in one that allows a human being to cover their own drive to power in the cloak of the divine. I think this, in itself, is a human problem. It exists in the Islamic tradition, for sure and it exists elsewhere – though the structures of particular traditions also greatly affect how such things manifest. I would agree, though very much as an outsider, that within contemporary Paganism it would be hard to find an organised, authoritarian structure – precisely for the reasons you state. Indeed, in this regard, most of my recent learning has come via your good self (and the Green Witch and Mereth too). Indeed, GW touched on these very issues recently when she wrote of her reservations of an organising trend or movement in contemporary Paganism. That said, as I understand things, even in supposedly humanistic traditions the potential for a localised, personalised authoritarianism also exists. By this I simply mean that some Pagans, like some Christians, Buddhists or Muslims, may get far more of an ego-buzz from authority than they should and then attempt to use this to control others.

    I’m not sure that authority, in itself, is an entirely negative thing and moreover, I’m not sure that authority equals authoritarianism. For me, the final authority is God, in the sense I spoke of before, but the path I struggle to walk is very much one of not confusing our own egos with the small, still voice of God in our souls. Indeed, it is to understand that for all the profundity of thought that human beings can achieve, the real meaning exists only with/in the Divine. By authority, I do not mean the abdication of my own personal autonomy – Allah! Rather, I had an idea of a secondary balancing force – a counterweight.

    I do believe that we need more humanism (in the terms outlined above). We need it in how we deal with ourselves, others and the living planet – now more than ever. There is a great tendency amongst people of all backgrounds to think they’re right to the exclusion of everyone else. For me, and these are only my personal reflections, I always take everything back to the first principle of Islam:

    ‘La ilaha illa Allah’ – or ‘there is no god but God’ – or, more fully, ‘nothing has the right to be worshipped except God/Divinity’ – nothing, not even human constructions of religion, should get in our way of surrendering to the divine. Indeed, for me, surrender is a key term because as I see it, my humanity is based in/derived from God’s `divinity.

    Just a few thoughts. An interesting conversation, as ever.

    Abdur Rahman

    August 9, 2008 at 5:48 pm

  4. starofseshat

    Shalom Abdur,

    Ah, but I think there you are talking about something different to what Fromm means. He is not talking about humans being authoritarian, but about the God-form being authoritarian. The consequence is that man has to impoverish himself as unworthy to find acceptance with such a god – obey his rules or be damned (this is the sin of disobedience under such a thought system). Yes, there are then those who take on the mantel of such an authoritarian god and abuse “the will of god” to further political and social aims (capitulate to the secular) – and perhaps this tendency to capitulate is stronger/more destructive than under a humanistic thought structure (see below).

    However the idea of Big Knobs (and I use the term advisedly!) in paganism leaping to the fore of the pagan community on an ego-buzz is not (I think) based on an authoritarian God-form structure. I.e. they are not doing it because God demands it of them. They are doing it because they are egotistical twits who think that they have a clearer line to enlightenment and are hence superior to others – this is slightly different to an authoritarian religious capitulation.

    Maybe, in fact, this is the closest type of secular capitulation that we will get in a humanistic religion: love your fellow man and God – I will show you how to love in the most sacred/enlightened way possible and charge you £50 for it too! As opposed to the authoritarian response which might be: love your fellow man and God – if you don’t do it my way which is the way dictated by God, because I am his obedient servant, then I will kill you, because it is a just death in the eyes of god because you are godless and disobedient.

    (Hence [pure] authoritarianism could be viewed as more of a liability than [pure] humanism – but agreed, most religions have a combination of both, some religious expressions however tend more towards one or t’other end of the scale.)

    Also, just my thoughts 🙂 as I am still grappling with this very interesting idea of Fromm.


    August 10, 2008 at 4:15 pm

  5. starofseshat

    But since I can’t think of any major religion that doesn’t have an authoritarian structure, I guess I have to admit that humanity obviously needs this. A humanitarian thought system (as far as I have understood it) requires a higher level of personal responsibility that humanity is often not capable of – we are too selfish, ignorant and destructive; hence the need for an authoritarian thought system to keep us in line. Maybe this also harkens back to our underlying animal/primitive [sic] side which needs to know where we belong in the group, which needs to know there is a leader who can dominate, regulate extremes in the group and look after us – the wolf mentality. As such, it will be a continual struggle to maintain balance between the wolf as nurturer and the wolf as rabid hunter. Ever is the battle amongst humanity …
    Oh, I think I have depressed myself 😦

    August 11, 2008 at 7:54 am

  6. Shalom Seshat,

    Don’t be depressed! After all, the Divine brought all this about and God does not plant seeds without purpose. 🙂

    I do understand the distinction you’re drawing between human authoritarianism and authoritarian god-forms, but I think this issue is a very complex one. Perhaps, in a sense, we are dealing with issues of perception: although I will readily admit that the image of God, as constructed within the Islamic tradition, focuses on God’s power and majesty – and the human response to this is the surrender of false notions of self – I don’t think that surrender refers to self-abnegation or impoverishment. Quite the opposite in fact. Understood correctly, the surrender of self to the Divine is actually more about connection and the finding of true self, than it is about common notions of guilt and sin.

    Although, as a human being, I have a certain ‘image’ of God, I repeatedly try to remind myself that is only that – an image – and emphatically NOT the reality. God is greater than any image I could ever possibly create. When groups of people with the same basic beliefs get together they create a shared vision (or image). Although this image may be based on a revelation (in the sense of a communication from the Divine itself), human minds are limited and so even that community image does not represent the reality of God.

    God, as understood in the Islamic tradition, is infinite – being beyond time, space, position, definition and so on. This certainly does give those with ego problems the peg on which they can sometimes hang their neuroses. However, it also means that such neuroses can be challenged theologically. That is, such things can be directly challenged (though this may not always be quite so publicly visible).

    I guess I am saying that although each tradition/religion has its own unique vision of the Divine/Absolute, given the nature of infinity (to be infinite), the possibility of abuse exists within each tradition (or god-form, though that phrase feels very strange to me). For myself, I really want to understand the various beliefs of the world and do not hold the assumption that all visions other than Islam are automatically invalid (or else I would not be here). Indeed, I have learnt a great deal in my conversations with you, GW and Mereth.

    My point is that I do not find the Islamic vision of God to be authoritarian in the negative sense you outline. Nor, I suspect, would many Muslims – though some clearly do. I would contend though that people do this because of their own internal issues, and the projection of these things onto God. I know what you mean about Big Knobs. Truly, they are found everywhere. Indeed, sometimes it seems as though you can’t leave your own house without bumping into some outstretched psychic phallus! (Now there’s a mental image) 😉

    I understand the point you make about authoritarian religious capitulation, but I think the issue is that such egotistical twits are actually abusing the god-forms of their tradition. I know little of Paganism and so I can’t really speak of this, other than through what I have read here and elsewhere. But, if someone within exactly the same tradition as yourself attempted to use their knowledge to serve their own neurosis, wouldn’t that be a perversion of your tradition’s undestanding (or image) of God – rather than it simply meaning that your tradition’s image itself was wrong?

    Sorry for taking up so much space to get to my main question. But, in my defence, I think this is an important (and very interesting) issue.

    As ever, thank you for your patience and honesty.

    Abdur Rahman

    August 11, 2008 at 11:07 am

  7. starofseshat

    Dear Abdur,
    Absolutely no need for apologies, I am thrilled to have your valuable input.

    I completely agree with everything you have written.
    I think my criticism of major religions is rather a despair at humanity in general and the justifications we give to do awful, unjustifiable things (not just the realm of religion). I want a solution – but it’s never that easy – hence despair!

    You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with the idea of “surrendering FALSE notions of self” and I think this is key here. I am struggling with a lot of this debate as I feel I am shifting some old barnacles – it is uncomfortable and slightly confusing for me. I’m still trying to see what I’ll look like without the barnacles! 🙂

    Yes, yes! True surrender is about connection and the finding of true self – thank you for bringing me back to a point that is very important to me.

    Somehow this false dichotomy of Fromm’s – which is very interesting from a discussion perspective – has shifted my view so I have lost sight of some things. Like I said, generally my perceptions are changing at the moment and I’m not sure where it will all settle. This is good though! Complacency has never been a spawning ground for growth.

    My impression of Islam, in particular of Sufism, in absolutely NOT that it is destructive or authoritarian in the negative terms outlined above – and I hope I didn’t give that impression. I really do think I am just facing my lack of hope in mankind (yes, grit and pearls, but there’s still an awful lot of grit!).

    Yes, any attempt to manipulate a tradition for neurotic purposes is a perversion – hm, and at the end of the day any capitulation is driven by human hands, right? And the thought-systems are essentially neutral. I think I have been projecting (as you said) too much disappointment at humanity onto the thought-system/religion, when ultimately it is human hands that pervert it. Oh dear, now I feel even worse about humanity! Can we get nothing right?! And then there is the question of how much man [sic] creates these thought-systems, and how much is an eternal truth that we try to interpret. Oh, this topic is expanding rapidly.

    BTW, ‘god-form’ for me is just another way of saying ‘god image’ – our perceptions of god are so varied, it’s difficult finding neutral terms that include everyone and exclude no one.

    Ooooh, psychic phallus – good image! Rather scary. But good image! 🙂 🙂

    Thanks, you have helped me get my head around some of the corners in Fromm’s arguments.

    August 11, 2008 at 11:31 am