Meditation 2: Erich Fromm’s Faith in Humanist Ethics

Meditation 2: Erich Fromm’s Faith in Humanist Ethics March 3, 2012

The word “faith” is making the rounds in Humanist discussion circles for the bazillionth time this week. Here’s a reading on ethics by one of my favorite Humanist philosophers– Erich Fromm, another psychologist from the mid 20th century. Fromm had many, many inspiring things to say about the Humanist’s pursuit of a meaningful life. (And BTW, unlike a lot of other influential secular thinkers, Fromm actually used the word Humanism throughout his work! Sometimes we Humanists underestimate the value of just picking a useful term and putting it out there.) This one is notable today because Fromm acknowledged the dual sided nature of the term faith, and how on the one hand it can be incredibly important–not trivial at all– for secular people. Fromm ultimately had faith (!) in us to figure out the difference between the two meanings of the word and when we are talking about one or the other. Check out how much he was able, in 1947, to anticipate our contemporary debates and offer a thought-provoking contribution to them:

Faith as a Character Trait (from Man for Himself, chapter IV: the Problems of Humanistic Ethics)

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 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.

…[But] 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.

…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?

…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.”

I think it is this multivalent meaning that caused the organizers of today’s “Interfaith” movement to pick the word faith in the first place, rather than going with “Interreligious.” They may have both wanted to honor the complexity of the word, and/or wanted to pick a somewhat secular concept to cover over the less popular concept of religion, with all of the baggage and unhappiness the latter can carry. But yes, ultimately the word faith can be a secular term and an inspiring one at that. I for one am not prepared to concede it to religious people only. They can certainly use it. And so can I. And so can any of us. The important thing is that we use it well, towards pro-human, constructive, empowering ends.

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  • Y. A. Warren

    Science requires faith in the purity of the process.