Faith as a Character Trait - Problems of Humanistic Ethics

Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics - Erich Fromm 2013

Faith as a Character Trait
Problems of Humanistic Ethics

Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief in denying them.—Emerson

Faith is not one of the concepts that fits into the intellectual climate of the present-day world. One usually associates faith with God and with religious doctrines, in contradistinction to rational and scientific thinking. The latter is assumed to refer to the realm of facts, distinguished from a realm transcending facts where scientific thinking has no place, and only faith rules. To many, this division is untenable. If faith cannot be reconciled with rational thinking, it has to be eliminated as an anachronistic remnant of earlier stages of culture and replaced by science dealing with facts and theories which are intelligible and can be validated.

The modern attitude toward faith was reached after a long drawn-out struggle against the authority of the church and its claim to control any kind of thinking. Thus skepticism with regard to faith is bound up with the very advance of reason. This constructive side of modern skepticism, however, has a reverse side which has been neglected.

Insight into the character structure of modern man and the contemporary social scene leads to the realization that the current widespread lack of faith no longer has the progressive aspect it had generations ago. Then the fight against faith was a fight for emancipation from spiritual shackles; it was a fight against irrational belief, the expression of faith in man’s reason and his ability to establish a social order governed by the principles of freedom, equality, and brotherliness. Today the lack of faith is the expression of profound confusion and despair. Once skepticism and rationalism were progressive forces for the development of thought; now they have become rationalizations for relativism and uncertainty. The belief that the gathering of more and more facts will inevitably result in knowing the truth has become a superstition. Truth itself is looked upon, in certain quarters, as a metaphysical concept, and science as restricted to the task of gathering information. Behind a front of alleged rational certainty, there is a profound uncertainty which makes people ready to accept or to compromise with any philosophy impressed upon them.

Can man live without faith? Must not the nursling have “faith in his mother’s breast”? Must we all not have faith in our fellow men, in those whom we love and in ourselves? Can we live without faith in the validity of norms for our life? Indeed, without faith man becomes sterile, hopeless, and afraid to the very core of his being.

Was, then, the fight against faith idle, and were the achievements of reason ineffectual? Must we return to religion or resign ourselves to live without faith? Is faith necessarily a matter of belief in God or in religious doctrines? Is it linked so closely with religion as to have to share its destiny? Is faith by necessity in contrast to, or divorced from, rational thinking? I shall attempt to show that these questions can be answered by considering faith to be a basic attitude of a person, a character trait which pervades all his experiences, which enables a man to face reality without illusions and yet to live by his faith. It is difficult to think of faith not primarily as faith in something, but of faith as an inner attitude the specific object of which is of secondary importance. It may be helpful to remember that the term “faith” as it is used in the Old Testament—“Emunah”—means “firmness” and thereby denotes a certain quality of human experience, a character trait, rather than the content of a belief in something.

For the understanding of this problem it may be helpful to approach it by first discussing the problem of doubt. Doubt, too, is usually understood as doubt or perplexity concerning this or that assumption, idea, or person, but it can also be described as an attitude which permeates one’s personality, so that the particular object on which one fastens one’s doubt is of but secondary importance. In order to understand the phenomenon of doubt, one must differentiate between rational and irrational doubt. I shall presently make this same discrimination with regard to the phenomenon of faith.

Irrational doubt is not the intellectual reaction to an improper or plainly mistaken assumption, but rather the doubt which colors a person’s life emotionally and intellectually. To him, there is no experience in any sphere of life which has the quality of certainty; everything is doubtful, nothing is certain.

The most extreme form of irrational doubt is the neurotic compulsion to doubt. The person beset by it is compulsively driven to doubt everything he thinks about or to be perplexed by everything he does. The doubt often refers to the most important questions and decisions in life. It often intrudes upon trifling decisions, such as which suit to wear or whether or not to go to a party. Regardless of the objects of the doubt, whether they are trifling or important, irrational doubt is agonizing and exhausting.

The psychoanalytic inquiry into the mechanism of compulsive doubts shows that they are the rationalized expression of unconscious emotional conflicts, resulting from a lack of integration of the total personality and from an intense feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. Only by recognizing the roots of the doubt can one overcome the paralysis of will which springs from the inner experience of powerlessness. When such insight has not been attained, substitute solutions are found which, while unsatisfactory, at least do away with the tormenting manifest doubts. One of these substitutes is compulsive activity in which the person is able to find temporary relief. Another is the acceptance of some “faith” in which a person, as it were, submerges himself and his doubts.

The typical form of contemporary doubt, however, is not the active one described above but rather an attitude of indifference in which everything is possible, nothing is certain. An increasing number of people are feeling confused about everything, work, politics, and morals and, what is worse, they believe this very confusion to be a normal state of mind. They feel isolated, bewildered, and powerless; they do not experience life in terms of their own thoughts, emotions, and sense perceptions, but in terms of the experiences they are supposed to have. Although in these automatized persons active doubt has disappeared, indifference and relativism have taken its place.

In contrast to irrational doubt, rational doubt questions assumptions the validity of which depends on belief in an authority and not on one’s own experience. This doubt has an important function in personality development. The child at first accepts all ideas on the unquestioned authority of his parents. In the process of emancipating himself from their authority, in developing his own self, he becomes critical. In the process of growing up, the child starts to doubt the legends he previously accepted without question, and the increase of his critical capacities is directly proportionate to his becoming independent of parental authority and to his becoming an adult.

Historically, rational doubt is one of the mainsprings of modern thought, and through it modern philosophy, as well as science, received their most fruitful impulses. Here too, as in personal development, the rise of rational doubt was linked with the growing emancipation from authority, that of the church and the state.

In regard to faith, I wish to make the same differentiation which was made with regard to doubt: that between irrational and rational faith. By irrational faith I understand the belief in a person, idea, or symbol which does not result from one’s own experience of thought or feeling, but which is based on one’s emotional submission to irrational authority.

Before we go on, the connection between submission and intellectual and emotional processes must be explored further. There is ample evidence that a person who has given up his inner independence and submitted to an authority tends to substitute the authority’s experience for his own. The most impressive illustration is to be found in the hypnotic situation where a person surrenders to the authority of another and, in the state of hypnotic sleep, is ready to think and feel what the hypnotist “makes him” think and feel. Even after he has awakened from the hypnotic sleep he will follow suggestions given by the hypnotist, though thinking that he is following his own judgment and initiative. If the hypnotist, for instance, has given the suggestion that at a certain hour the subject will feel cold and should put on his coat, he will in the posthypnotic situation have the suggested feeling and will act accordingly, being convinced that his feelings and acts are based on reality and initiated by his own conviction and will.

While the hypnotic situation is the most conclusive experiment in demonstrating the interrelation between submission to an authority and thought processes, there are many relatively commonplace situations revealing the same mechanism. The reaction of people to a leader equipped with a strong power of suggestion is an example of a semi-hypnotic situation. Here too the unqualified acceptance of his ideas is not rooted in the listeners’ conviction based upon their own thinking or their critical appraisal of the ideas presented to them, but instead in their emotional sub, mission to the speaker. People in this situation have the illusion that they agree, that they rationally approve of the ideas the speaker suggested. They feel that they accept him because they agree with his ideas. In reality the sequence is the opposite: they accept his ideas because they have submitted to his authority in a semi-hypnotic fashion. Hitler gave a good description of this process in his discussion of the advisability of holding propaganda meetings at night. He said that the “superior oratorical talent of a domineering apostolic nature will now [in the evening] succeed more easily in winning for the new will people who themselves have in turn experienced a weakening of their force of resistance in the most natural way than people who still have full command of their energies and their will power.”64

For irrational faith, the sentence “Credo quia absurdum est”65—“I believe because it is absurd”—has full psychological validity. If somebody makes a statement which is rationally sound, he does what, in principle, everyone else can do. If, however, he dares to make a statement which is rationally absurd, he shows by this very fact that he has transcended the faculty of common sense and thus has a magic power which puts him above the average person.

Among the abundance of historical examples of irrational faith it would seem that the Biblical report of the liberation of the Jews from the Egyptian yoke is one of the most remarkable comments on the problem of faith. In the whole report, the Jews are described as people who, though suffering from their enslavement, are afraid to rebel and unwilling to lose the security they have as slaves. They understand only the language of power, which they are afraid of but submit to; Moses, objecting to God’s command that he announce himself as God’s representative, says that the Jews will not believe in a god whose name they do not even know. God, although not wanting to assume a name, does so in order to satisfy the Jews’ quest for certainty. Moses insists that even a name is not sufficient surety to make the Jews have faith in God. So God makes a further concession. He teaches Moses to perform miracles “in order that they may have faith that God appeared to you, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The profound irony of this sentence is unmistakable. If the Jews had the kind of faith which God wished them to have, it would have been rooted in their own experience or the history of their nation; but they had become slaves, their faith was that of slaves and rooted in submission to power which proves its strength by its magic; they could be impressed only by another magic, not different from but only stronger than the one the Egyptians used.

The most drastic contemporary phenomenon of irrational faith is the faith in dictatorial leaders. Its defenders attempt to prove the genuineness of this faith by pointing to the fact that millions are ready to die for it. If faith is to be defined in terms of blind allegiance to a person or cause and measured by the readiness to give one’s life for it, then indeed the faith of the Prophets in justice and love, and their opponents’ faith in power is basically the same phenomenon, different only in its object. Then the faith of the defenders of freedom and that of their oppressors is only different inasmuch as it is a faith in different ideas.

Irrational faith is a fanatic conviction in somebody or something, rooted in submission to a personal or impersonal irrational authority. Rational faith, in contrast, is a firm conviction based on productive intellectual and emotional activity. In rational thinking, in which faith—is supposed to have no place, rational faith is an important component. How does the scientist, for instance, arrive at a new discovery? Does he start with making experiment after experiment, gathering fact after fact without having a vision of what he expects to find? Rarely has any important discovery in any field been made in this way. Nor have people arrived at important conclusions when they were merely chasing a phantasy. The process of creative thinking in any field of human endeavor often starts with what may be called a “rational vision,” itself a result of considerable previous study, reflective thinking, and observation. When the scientist succeeds in gathering enough data or in working out a mathematical formulation, or both, to make his original vision highly plausible he may be said to have arrived at a tentative hypothesis. A careful analysis of the hypothesis in order to discern its implications and the amassing of data which support it, lead to a more adequate hypothesis and eventually perhaps to its inclusion in a wide-ranging theory.

The history of science is replete with instances of faith in reason and vision of truth. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were all imbued with an unshakable faith in reason. For this Bruno was burned at the stake and Spinoza suffered excommunication. At every step from the conception of a rational vision to the formulation of a theory, faith is necessary: faith in the vision as a rationally valid aim to pursue, faith in the hypothesis as a likely and plausible proposition, and faith in the final theory, at least until a general consensus about its validity has been reached. This faith is rooted in one’s own experience, in the confidence in one’s power of thought, observation, and judgment. While irrational faith is the acceptance of something as true only because an authority or the majority say so, rational faith is rooted in an independent conviction based upon one’s own productive observing and thinking.

Thought and judgment are not the only realm of experience in which rational faith is manifested. In the sphere of human relations, faith is an indispensable quality of any significant friendship or love. “Having faith” in another person means to be certain of the reliability and unchangeability of his fundamental attitudes, of the core of his personality. By this I do not mean that a person may not change his opinions but that his basic motivations remain the same; that, for instance, his capacity or respect for human dignity is part of his self, not subject to change.

In the same sense we have faith in ourselves. We are aware of the existence of a self, of a core in our personality which is unchangeable and which persists throughout our life in spite of varying circumstances and regardless of certain changes in opinions and feelings. It is this core which is the reality behind the word “I” and on which our conviction of our own identity is based. Unless we have faith in the persistence of our self, our feeling of identity is threatened and we become dependent on other people whose approval then becomes the basis for our feeling of identity with ourselves. Only the person who has faith in himself is able to be faithful to others because only he can be sure that he will be the same at a future time as he is today and, therefore, to feel and to act as he now expects to. Faith in oneself is a condition of our ability to promise something, and since, as Nietzsche pointed out, man can be defined by his capacity to promise, that is one of the conditions of human existence.

Another meaning of having faith in a person refers to the faith we have in the potentialities of others, of ourselves, and of mankind. The most rudimentary form in which this faith exists is the faith which the mother has toward her newborn baby: that it will live, grow, walk, and talk. However, the development of the child in this respect occurs with such regularity that the expectation of it does not seem to require faith. It is different with those potentialities which can fail to develop: the child’s potentialities to love, to be happy, to use his reason, and more specific potentialities like artistic gifts. They are the seeds which grow and become manifest if the proper conditions for their development are given, and they can be stifled if they are absent. One of the most important of these conditions is that the significant persons in a child’s life have faith in these potentialities. The presence of this faith makes the difference between education and manipulation. Education is identical with helping the child realize his potentialities.66 The opposite of education is manipulation, which is based on the absence of faith in the growth of potentialities and on the conviction that a child will be right only if the adults put into him what is desirable and cut off what seems to be undesirable. There is no need of faith in the robot since there is no life in it either.

The faith in others has its culmination in faith in mankind. In the Western world this faith was expressed in religious teens in the Judaeo-Christian religion, and in secular language it has found its strongest expression in the progressive political and social ideas of the last 150 years. Like the faith in the child, it is based on the idea that the potentialities of man are such that given the proper conditions they will be capable of building a social order governed by the principles of equality, justice, and love. Man has not yet achieved the building of such an order, and therefore the conviction that he can requires faith. But like all rational faith this, too, is not wishful thinking but based upon the evidence of the past achievements of the human race and on the inner experience of each individual, on his own experience of reason and love.

While irrational faith is rooted in the submission to a power which is felt to be overwhelmingly strong, omniscient, and omnipotent, in the abdication of one’s own power and strength, rational faith is based upon the opposite experience. We have this faith in a thought because it is a result of our own observation and thinking. We have faith in the potentialities of others, of ourselves, and of mankind because, and only to the degree to which, we have experienced the growth of our own potentialities, the reality of growth in ourselves, the strength of our own power of reason and of love. The basis of rational faith is productiveness; to live by our faith means to live productively and to have the only certainty which exists: the certainty growing from productive activity and from the experience that each one of us is the active subject of whom these activities are predicated. It follows that the belief in power (in the sense of domination) and the use of power are the reverse of faith. To believe in power that exists is identical with disbelief in the growth of potentialities which are as yet unrealized. It is a prediction of the future based solely on the manifest present; but it turns out to be a grave miscalculation, profoundly irrational in its oversight of human potentialities and human growth. There is no rational faith in power. There is submission to it or, on the part of those who have it, the wish to keep it. While for many power seems to be the most real of all things, the history of man has proved it to be the most unstable of all human achievements. Because of the fact that faith and power are mutually exclusive, all religions and political systems which originally are built on rational faith become corrupt and eventually lose what strength they have if they rely on power or even ally themselves with it.

One misconception concerning faith must be briefly mentioned here. It is often assumed that faith is a state in which one passively waits for the realization of one’s hope. While this is characteristic of irrational faith, it follows from our discussion that it is never true for rational faith. Inasmuch as rational faith is rooted in the experience of one’s own productiveness, it cannot be passive but must be the expression of genuine inner activity. An old Jewish legend expresses this thought vividly. When Moses threw the wand into the Red Sea, the sea, quite contrary to the expected miracle, did not divide itself to leave a dry passage for the Jews. Not until the first man had jumped into the sea did the promised miracle happen and the waves recede.

At the outset of this discussion I differentiated between faith as an attitude, as a character trait, and faith as the belief in certain ideas or people. So far we have only dealt with faith in the former sense, and the question poses itself now whether there is any connection between faith as a character trait and the objects in which one has faith. It follows from our analysis of rational as against irrational faith that such a connection exists. Since rational faith is based upon our own productive experience, nothing can be its object which transcends human experience. Furthermore it follows that we cannot speak of rational faith when a person believes in the ideas of love, reason, and justice not as a result of his own experience but only because he has been taught such belief. Religious faith can be of either kind. Mainly some sects that did not share in the power of the church and some mystical currents in religion that emphasized man’s own power to love, his likeness to God, have preserved and cultivated the attitude of rational faith in religious symbolism. What holds true of religions holds true for faith in its secular form, particularly in political and social ideas. The ideas of freedom or democracy deteriorate into nothing but irrational faith once they are not based upon the productive experience of each individual but are presented to him by parties or states which force him to believe in these ideas. There is much less difference between a mystic faith in God and an atheist’s rational faith in mankind than between the former’s faith and that of a Calvinist whose faith in God is rooted in the conviction of his own powerlessness and in his fear of God’s power.

Man cannot live without faith. The crucial question for our own generation and the next ones is whether this faith will be an irrational faith in leaders, machines, success, or the rational faith in man based on the experience of our own productive activity.