Erich Fromm and the Bahá'í Faith
by Jack McLean2007-08-02
Eric Fromm's Passage from The Sane Society (1955)
This essay concerns what psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm may have known and gleaned from the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith. The passage below was redirected to me via Carol Rutstein and Dr. Robert Stockman. Bahá'ís would not fail to notice the more than striking similarities between Fromm's assertion of a coming future world religion and the Bahá'í Faith itself. Also reproduced, at end, is the significant clue to the textual parallel provided by Bahá'í scholar Ismael Velasco. (My thanks to Carol, Rob and Ismael for bringing this interesting question to my attention.)
In Fromm's case, however, things are not what they might first appear to be. I have clarified this point in my comment below. I happen to have Fromm's book The Sane Society in my library, but somehow I missed his significant prediction of a coming future world religion. Here is the quotation:
In his book The Imperishable Dominion: The Bahá'í Faith and the Future of Mankind (1983), which is based on a correlation of the Bahá'í teachings to modern, western, secular thought, Dr. Udo Schaefer devotes four paragraphs to Erich Fromm (see pp. 90-91). Schaefer's comments seem to me to be accurate. I will convey the gist of Dr. Schaefer's remarks here, while adding some other observations.
On the surface of it, Fromm's predictive vision seems so remarkably inspired and close to that of the Bahá'í Faith that one has to wonder how Fromm missed it. Bahá'ís, understandably, would read into Fromm's statement a close, perhaps unconscious, description of the Bahá'í Faith by an enlightened, believing spirit of the age. For all the important factors that count in Bahá'í belief seem to be there: evolutionary development, the unification of humanity, progressive revelation, a new teacher, an emphasis on spirituality rather than doctrine, the harmony of faith and reason, etc.
I wish that were true. But as some of you already know, Eric Fromm's statement must fall into the category of a description of a religionless religion. For, to put it simply, Erich Fromm was an atheist. The more complimentary phrase would describe him as a socialist humanist. His statement, as enlightened as it is, reminds me of a phrase from 2 Timothy 3:5 that men in "the last days ... will have a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof."
The roots of Fromm's thought are in psychoanalysis and Marxism. Although he rejected Freud and his psychoanalytical theory as being too repressive and too bourgeois, his admiration for Marx remained complete. (See his Marx's Concept of Man, 1961). His entire psychological project was based on a merger of Marxism and psychoanalysis.
Erich Fromm grew up in a devout, orthodox Jewish home. But early on, he renounced, not only Judaism but all religion, for like many intellectuals who can see only the dark side of religion, Fromm believed that religion had divided humanity and had done more harm than good. He also had a horror of totalitarian systems, having fled Nazi Germany to come to the United States. For him, religion was a repressive, totalitarian system and stifled the freedom of individual conscience.
However, Fromm's dilemma — again like many humanistic intellectuals — was that he could not entirely divest his project of the basic elements of world religion since he realized that religion stood out as one of the permanent features in human history and consciousness. Marx boasted about turning Hegel on his head to formulate his system of dialectical material; Fromm turned religion inside out. But regrettably, his new outside presentation of religion divested it of its most essential elements. Instead, he promoted a new humanistic, non-institutional "religious" consciousness while, as Saint Timothy's prophetic vision of the latter days rightly says it, "denying the power" of its Source.
Thus, the new teacher of the age that Fromm envisions and advocates, is not a theistic prophet, one who speaks on behalf of God (Gk. pro + theos), but a humanistic teacher, like Karl Marx, who will spread an ideology, however enlightened. The religionless religion that he advocates will come about in a post- religious age.
Was Hugh McKinley Fromm's Bahá'í correspondent?
Further light was cast on this question by Ismael Velasco. The following two emails were received from Ismael on July 2 and 3, 2007:
The reader may draw his or her own conclusions.