Erich Fromm on Modern Idolatry: Where Psychotherapy and Religion Intersect

modern-day-idols“The threat to the religious attitude lies not in science but in the predominant practices of daily life.” writes Erich Fromm in his famous work, “Psychoanalysis and Religion.” He explains that, “man has ceased to seek in himself the supreme purpose of living and has made himself an instrument serving the economic machine his own hands have built. He is concerned with efficiency and success rather than with his happiness and the growth of his soul.”

This description of our situation (written in the 1950’s, but as relevant as ever) is a description of modern idolatry. Idolatry, in Fromm’s thought, is not a strictly religious term, and has less to do with the worship of a particular object and more to do with an orientation, an attitude towards life. It is an attitude which seeks the deification of things: of a nation, of business, machines, success, health, etc.

Reading through Fromm the thought occurred to me that even one’s attitude towards God can be idolatrous. This seems clear enough. If one is using God as a means to material ends, as is a popular mode today (simply turn on any number of “Christian” television programs to get your fill of health and wealth worshipping) then without a doubt one’s orientation towards God is idolatrous. But it goes deeper than that.

Take Moses. Moses stands as perhaps the highest ideal of a prophet presented in the Old Testament, yet one of the first lessons God taught him during his stay in the wilderness was to rid his thinking of idolatry. Something as seemingly benign as asking for God’s name revealed this all too human need to put a name with an object of worship. In one of the most memorable scenes in the Bible God tells Moses, “I am that I am.”

A better English rendering of the phrase is “I am being that I am being.” Much can be made of this “name” but what seems logical (and I am not a Hebrew scholar by any stretch) is that in using this phrase God revealed Himself as very “being” and not as an object existing alongside all other objects in the universe. This revelation had the effect of drawing Moses’ attention away from symbolic labeling of God with a proper name (names in ancient times had the dual purpose of identifying and defining of a person). God’s name reveals that He is beyond all things and is not a mere object of worship. He is, as Christ would later reveal, the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

The way, truth, and life are not objects to be handled and manipulated but a reality to unite with, to enter into – in this case, God through the person of Jesus Christ. To worship God is to be integrated into His life. This orientation battles with our human need to deify the objects of our affection, whatever they may be; it is why the Christian life is at once an “easy yoke” and a “light burden,” yet a rigorous striving to “enter through the narrow gate.”

But the purely secular person (if such a being exists) is not off the hook. He/she is still oriented to substitute what is real with what is illusory, what is authentic with what is inauthentic, as an unconscious method of deferring painful and fearful realities for another time. The irreligious person is every bit as inclined as the religious person to slap labels on realities outside their control in order to reduce them to something intellectually manageable; to neatly categorize them rather than enter into them, to struggle with them.


Erich Fromm

The twin brother of this is the act of making trivial things into things of supreme concern, that is, of deifying them, which is the hallmark of neurosis.

The deification of things is the ground upon which one loses touch with oneself and his or her real existential concerns, resorting instead to chasing phantoms as a way of coping. This is the very battle ground where Fromm believes that psychoanalysis and religion intersect and work together to heal the individual.

On a personal note, I am a practicing Orthodox Christian and a professional psychotherapist. In my studies and experience the aims of psychotherapy (generally speaking) and the liturgical life of the historic Church, as touching the issue of mental health, seem to me to have many more points of mutual benefit than of conflict. This basic understanding of the need to worship as fundamental in human nature is something both fields contribute to in significant ways. The notion of idolatry crossing the threshold of religion and entering into the purview of psychotherapy as presented by Fromm has lead me to think afresh about this issue of just how close the two fields work.

Exciting stuff if you’re a psychology-theology nerd like me.

Thanks for reading.

17 thoughts on “Erich Fromm on Modern Idolatry: Where Psychotherapy and Religion Intersect

  1. I was raised Roman Catholic but I’m not a practicing Catholic. Calling God “he” and seeing God as a father is a trigger for me. My father has (I am certain) undiagnosed bipolar disorder. And we do not have a good relationship. I have been diagnosed with bipolar II. The father figure is warped for me. I don’t feel comfortable with the idea that God is a “he”.

    Have a great weekend

    • La Panzona, thanks for you post. Your story is a familiar one (for me on a personal level). I’m curious if you would find it possible to allow God to dictate your concept of a father rather than your father to dictate your concept of God. It’s challenging when you come from a disfunctional childhood but if you can find a way it may be the source of healing between you and your father.

    • Thank you, Eric, for your response. Healing the relationship I have with my father would be a weight lifted for sure. In the practical sense, how would I allow God to dictate my concept of father? Through prayer? Or asking the question in my mind and waiting for the answer?

      Thank you

    • I think both of those ways are essential. If it were me (cause it was at one point) I would read the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, and also ask God to fill those places in your heart with his fatherhood where you lacked right fatherhood in your childhood. It’s not a venture in rationalism, and I’m not pretending it is, its a venture in faith. Our biological fathers at their best are pale shadows of our spiritual Father, who is the only one truly worthy of the title “father.” Just some thoughts.

    • If I might make a suggestion which I found useful, read the parable of the prodigal son from the point of view of the father, he loves his son so much that even when the boy effectively wishes him dead he does not punish him but sadly allows him to go his own way. When the boy finally comes to his senses and returns home the father is not waiting to say “I told you so”, there is no probationary period during which the son must earn back his father’s love and trust; the father is looking for his son, willing him to come back, and he runs to meet him and offer his forgiveness and joy at his son’s return even before the boy can make his prepared speech.
      When our earthly fathers fall short this story gives us a picture of a father whose love is unending, whose mercy is outrageous and whose welcome is as warm no matter how long we have been away from home.
      God bless you, and I pray that you might discover him as your true father.

    • Hi there, thank you for the suggestion. The problem is I’ve never had the really loving/unconditional love experience with any male figure in my life so it’s just such a foreign concept for me, the prodigal son’s father. That story makes me feel emptier. Sorry I know that’s probably not the response you wanted to hear. I see hope in my 2 boys that they will be loving husbands and fathers. Thank you 🙂

    • I am sorry that you have not experienced that unconditional love for yourself, as you are a father yourself though perhaps your love for your boys can give you a glimpse of the love God feels for you?

  2. The Bible instructs us not to worship images or idols.

    To think of a God is to image one, is to create one.
    To pray to a mental image or to a physical image is the same – idolatry.

    Tactically how might we avoid this trap, and connect with God in paryer?

    • The saints of the Orthodox Church routinely teach us to rid our minds of mental concepts of God during prayer. This doesn’t mean casting out orthodox dogma concerning God’s nature, but rather losing any self-fabricated mental image of God. Such images, they teach, only serve to distract and distort our communion with Him. This of course is easier said then done, but those saints who taught such things were often monks who made their life ambition to attain to such. It’s tough, but possible.

      Also, to your point about praying to a physical image, the Orthodox Church uses icons in its worship of God for the simple fact that Christ was revealed in the flesh, hence to make an image of Him for use in prayer is not to serve an idol, but to fix one’s attention on the incarnational realities of God. Of course, the phrase “praying to” should be replaced with “praying with” in the sense of using the icon as a reality of Christ’s presence, but not as THE object of worship. That indeed would be idolatry.

      That was free of charge. I know you didn’t ask about icons, but it was somewhat relevant for this Orthodox Christian writer. 🙂

  3. I enjoy your perspective. I find myself pondering similar things quite often. The Dylan song “gotta serve somebody” chorus plays through my head. Many people seem to be oblivious to this (what I would consider) fact. Our nature is complex and beautiful and tangled. In giving us the Church, God has given us just a glimpse of his genius and deep understanding of our needs.

  4. I’ve read To Have or To Be? and was thinking that the way Fromm was telling the story of God speaking to Moses, suggesting to refrain from idolatry etc. kind of reminded me of the Dao (ie. the Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao)

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