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Faith as a Character Trait1


Erich Fromm
(1942b-e)
First published under the title Faith as a Character Trait, in: Psychiatry. Journal for the
Study of Interpersonal Process, Washington (The William Alanson Psychiatric Foundation),
Vol. V (1942), pp. 307-319; parts of it were revised and reprint in E. Fromm, Man for Himself, New York (Rinehard and Winston) 1947, pp. 197-210. - The numbers in {brackets} refer
to the pages of this first English publication.

Copyright 1942 and 1947 by Erich Fromm; Copyright 2011 by The Literary Estate of
Erich Fromm, c/o Dr. Rainer Funk, Ursrainer Ring 24, D-72076 Tuebingen / Germany. Fax:
+49-(0)7071-600049; E-Mail: frommfunk[at-symbol]aol.com. - Translation into Italian by
Daniele Grasso.

Faith is not one of the concepts that fits into the intellectual climate of the present day
world. It customarily is used only by those whose thinking is oriented in a religious
frame of reference. Faith then generally means faith in God or in certain religious doctrines. Religious as well as non-religious persons think of faith as something in contrast to
rational and scientific thinking. To them, faith is a belief in something which cannot be
proven and understood rationally. This a-rational quality of faith has led many religious
thinkers to divide a realm of facts in which science is the master from a realm of phenomena which transcend facts, where scientific thinking has no place and only faith
rules. The non-religious thinker commonly regards this division as 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 which cares only for results
that are intelligible and can be proven.
The modern attitude towards faith resulted in the long drawn-out struggle against
the authority of the Church and its claimed control over any kind of thinking. Thus,
skepticism towards faith is bound up with the very achievements of modern thinking.
This constructive side of modern skepticism is obvious; but there is another side which
has been accorded altogether too little recognition.
Observing the character structure of modern man and the contemporary social
scene one is led to believe that the current widespread lack of faith no longer has the
productive aspect it had generations ago when the fight against faith expressed emancipation from spiritual shackles; that today lack of faith is often, if not always, identical
with profound although inarticulate despair. Skepticism and rationalism, once productive forces in the history of thought, have come to be but rationalizations for relativism
and uncertainty. The superstition has grown that the gathering of more and more facts
will eventually, inevitably result in increased knowledge of the truth. Truth itself has be1 The views expressed in this paper were presented to the members of a seminary on the psychology of faith
held under the auspices of the National Council on Religion in Higher Education in 1941-1942. The members
of this seminary were theologians, psychologists and anthropologists. I am indebted to them for their suggestions and the stimulation of my own thinking.

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come a metaphysical concept and scientific thinking intentionally confines itself to gathering information. Behind a front of alleged rational certainty, a profound uncertainty
prevails which makes people ready to accept or to compromise with any philosophy or
value that is impressed upon them.
The man attempting to live without faith becomes sterile, and hopeless and afraid
to the very core of his being. He must resign himself to clinging desperately to an inner
and outer status quo, while finding that he has no defense against even the most completely irrational philosophies and doctrines. Was then the development of modern
thinking away from and against faith a fatal error? Must we return to religion unless we
are willing to accept the kinds of heathen doctrines which spread their gospel with concentration camps and dive-bombers? Is faith really an essentially religious {308} phenomenon, only a matter of faith in God or religious doctrines? Is it bound up with religion and destined to share its historical fate? Is faith by its very nature something in contrast to or divorced from rational thinking. Or is there on the other hand a less specific
faith which is an essentially basic attitude within the person towards life, a character trait
which pervades all his experiences? Can maxi face reality without illusions yet live by his
faith? Is the absence of a religious faith by necessary implication a denial of any faith?
Cannot one arrive at a new concept of faith cast entirely in secular terms? If so, does not
faith become one of the most significant topics about which the psychologist has an obligation to think? These are questions which this paper will discuss and for which tentative answers will be found. The psychological conditions of this different kind of faith
and the character structure in which it is rooted will be considered in particular.
Not being customary, it is therefore somewhat difficult to think of faith not essentially as faith in something but of faith as an inner attitude the specific object of which is
of secondary importance only. It may be helpful to remember that the term faith as it is
used in the Old TestamentEmunah--means nothing but firmness and thereby denotes a certain quality of human experience rather than any content of a belief in something. There are other human attitudes which while usually related primarily to a certain
object, are essentially attitudes the objects of which are of but secondary importance.
This, for instance, is true of love. Love is a lingering quality in a personality which refers
in its manifestations to certain objects but which is not brought into existence by these
objects.2
The same is true of character-conditioned, as contrasted with reactive, hatred.
This is not essentially caused by a threat or attack but rooted in a destructiveness which
is continually present in the persons character structure.
A particularly helpful approach to the problem of faith as a character trait can be
found in discussing tile problem of doubt. Doubt, too, is usually recognized in terms of a
doubt of this or that assumption, or of this or that person, but it can also be described as
an attitude pervading the person, so that there is but secondary importance to be accorded the particular object on which he happens to fasten his doubt.
To understand the phenomenon of doubt, it is helpful to differentiate between rational and irrational doubt. I shall presently make this same discrimination with regard
Compare discussion of love and hatred in E. Fromm, Selfishness and Self-Love, in: Psychiatry (1939) Vol.
2, pp. 507-523, and in E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom; New York, Farrar and Rinehart, 1941 (ix and 305
pp.); p. 114.
2

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to the phenomenon of faith.


By irrational doubt I do not mean the kind of doubt which is the intellectual reaction against an improper or plainly mistaken assumption but rather a doubt which colors
the persons whole life and pervades all his experiences, whether emotional or intellectual. This doubt is one of the basic factors in his approach toward life. To him, there is
no experience in any sphere of life which has the quality of certainty; everything is
doubtful, nothing is certain.
The neurotic phenomenon of obsessional doubt offers a picture of irrational doubt
in its most extreme and thereby most overt forms. The person is driven by a compulsion
to doubt everything he thinks or does. The doubt refers often to the most important
questions and decisions, such as to ones state of grace or ones moral obligations. It often refers to trifling decisions such as which suit to wear, or whether or not to go to a
party. Although the content of the doubts may seem trifling, the mental state of the person can be agonizing. He may go on for hours beset with constantly recurring doubts
whether he should do this or that, until he is exhausted and unable to do anything.
Close examination of the roots of such doubts by the psychoanalytic procedure has
shown that compulsive doubting results, broadly speaking, from unsolved {309} emotional conflicts, especially one between love and hatred. One also recognizes that the
inability to solve this type of conflict are the results of a lack of integration within the
whole personality and a profound feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. A solution
is only possible when there is awareness of the real roots of the doubts, a growing integration of the total personality and an overcoming of. the paralysis of will which springs
from the inner experience of powerlessness. Sometimes, when this genuine solution of
the doubt has not occurred, other solutions are found which, while unsatisfactory, at
least do away with the paralyzing and eventually unbearable aspects. One of these is
compulsive activity: the person tends constantly to do something in order to overcome
the state of doubt. Another is the suppression of all rational thinking and the acceptance
of some faith in which a person, as it were, submerges himself and his doubts.
While compulsive doubt is by no means uncommon, it is not the most common
form in which modern man experiences his doubt. The typical form of doubt is not an
active, tormenting kind of doubt, but an attitude of indifference. For this attitude everything is possible, nothing is certain. Modern man has given up the expectation that anything can be certain or to be relied on. This indifference is rooted not so much in an unsolved emotional conflict as in a profound resignation which in itself results from the
psychological position of modern man; isolated, bewildered, feeling powerless, and experiencing life not in terms of his own experiences but in terms of the experiences he
feels he is supposed to have. In other words, being an automaton who thinks and feels
as he is supposed to feel. In this automatized person, active doubt has disappeared and a
complete relativism, uncertainty with regard to everything, has taken its place.
Entirely different from irrational doubt is the state that can be called rational doubt.
By this I mean the doubt which questions any assumption the validity of which rests on
belief in an authority and not on ones own experience. This doubt can be seen to be a
productive factor in the growth of personality. The child accepts many things on the
unquestioned authority of his parents. In the process of emancipating himself from their
authority, in developing his own self, he questions such beliefs, be they stories such as
the legend of the stork, or be they the legends which parents build up about their own

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personality. In the process of growing up, the child starts to doubt these legends and the
awakening of his critical capacities is directly proportionate to his becoming free from
submission to parental or other authority.
Historically, rational doubt was one of the mainsprings of modern thought. From
Descartes on modern philosophy received most fruitful impulses from such doubt. As in
the case of personal development, the rise of rational doubt was linked up with the
process of popular emancipation; emancipation from the authority of the Church and
from the authority of the State. Although not every thinker in the modern tradition
broke away from these authorities, it has been the general trend that rational doubt
emerged in the process of social and political emancipation from clerical and secular authorities.
The nature of this doubt is entirely different from that of irrational doubt. It is not
rooted in an unsolved emotional conflict, nor in dependency on authority, but in freedom and independence. It is not compulsive but arises when it is warranted. Rational
doubt is only possible if the personality has attained the amount of integration which
permits one to free oneself from submission to authority, to establish ones own
.independence, and to rely on ones own thinking.
In regard to faith, I wish now to make the same differentiation which was made
with regard to doubt: that between irrational and rational faith. By irrational faith I
mean an unshakable belief in a person, idea, institution or symbol which does not result
from ones own experience or from ones own thinking, but which is based on ones
emotional submission to authority. {310}
This definition warrants some qualifications; first, as to the kind of authority, and
second, as to the meaning of submission to an authority.
Authority is not a quality one person has, in the sense that he has property or
physical qualities. Authority refers to an interpersonal relation in which one person looks
upon another as somebody superior to him. But there is a fundamental difference between the kind of superiority-inferiority relation which can be called one of rational authority and the one which can only be described as irrational.
An example will show what I have in mind. The relationship between teacher and
student and that between slave owner and slave are both based on the superiority of
the one over the other. The interests of teacher and pupil lie in the same direction. The
teacher is satisfied if he succeeds in furthering the education of the pupil; if he fails to do
this, the failure is his and the pupils. The slave owner, on the other hand, wants to exploit the slave as much as possible; the more he gets out of him, the better he is satisfied.
At the same time, the slave seeks to defend as best he can his claims for a minimum of
happiness. These interests are definitely antagonistic, as what is of advantage to the one
is detrimental to the other. The superiority has a different function in the two cases; in
the first, it is the condition for helping the person subjected to the authority; in the second, it is the condition for his exploitation.
The dynamics of authority in these two types are also different; the more the student learns, the less wide is the gap between him and the teacher. He becomes more
and more like the teacher himself. In other words, the authority relationship tends to
dissolve itself. But when the superiority serves as a basis for exploitation, the distance
becomes intensified through its long duration.
Another way of differentiating between rational and irrational authority--or, as also

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may be said, leadership--is with regard to their source. The source of irrational authority
is always in the last analysis, power. This power can be physical or mental, it can be realistic or only relative in terms of the anxiety and helplessness of the person submitted
to this authority. Power on the one side, fear on the other, are always the buttresses on
which irrational authority is built. Rational authority, on the other hand, has its source
in competence. By this I mean that the person whose authority is respected functions
competently in the task with which he is entrusted by those whom he leads. He need
not intimidate them nor arouse their admiration by magic qualities; as long as and to
the extent to which he leads them, competently helping instead of exploiting, his authority is based on rational grounds and does not call out irrational awe. There is no society--and could scarcely be one--without authority and leadership. A pseudo-problem is
often presented in the alternatives: authority or no authority. The real question is: is the
authority to be of a rational or an irrational character. In this lies the essential difference
between democratic and fascist authority and leadership.3
A second point which I must explain before discussing the concept of irrational faith
is the connection between masochistic submission and intellectual processes. There is
ample empirical evidence that a person who has given up his own independence and
inwardly submitted to an authority tends to substitute the authoritys experience for his
own. This holds true not only with regard to thinking but also with regard to any other
kind of emotional and physical sensation. The most impressive illustration of this is to be
found in the hypnotic situation where one person surrenders completely to the authority of another and, in the state of {311} the hypnotic sleep, finds himself in a situation of
complete powerlessness towards the hypnotist. In this particular constellation, the person under hypnosis is ready to think and feel not what he really thinks and feels but
what the hypnotist makes him think and feel. Furthermore for a while after the hypnotic sleep, suggestions which have been given by the hypnotist will operate in such a
manner that he says and thinks and feels things which are not the simple results of his
own mental activity but which have been put into him by the hypnotist during the
hypnotic sleep. If the hypnotist, for instance, has suggested to him that somebody has
stolen something from him, he will in the post-hypnotic situation have an unshakable
conviction that this is the case, regardless of his having no basis for this conviction in any
real experience of his own. It is based entirely on the words the hypnotist uttered during
the hypnotic sleep.
While the hypnotic situation has the advantage of experimentally demonstrating
most clearly the connection between submission to an authority and the thought processes, there are many relatively commonplace situations which exhibit the same mechanism although sometimes not as clearly. One example is the semi-hypnotic situation
which occurs in certain mass reactions to a leader equipped with a strong power of sug3 The authority of the psychoanalyst toward his patient can also be of either kind. Many of the arrangements of the classic analytic procedure tend to overawe the patient with the analysts authority. The analysts attempt to behave like a mirror and many other elements of the analytic atmosphere tend to intimidate a normal person, not to speak of a neurotic person who is already frightened. This situation of irrational authority also decreases the value of the patients insights, since the analysts interpretations may be
accepted more on the basis of irrational authority than because they are genuine insights springing from the
patients experience. The analyst should have authority; but only that which comes from his competence in
understanding the patient.

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gestion. Here too the unqualified acceptance of what he says is not rooted in the conviction of the listeners based upon their own thinking or critical appraisal of the ideas presented to them, but instead in their emotional submission to the speaker, through which
they have surrendered their own integrity and substituted the speakers thoughts for
their own thinking. People under these circumstances usually live under the illusion that
they agree with the leader; that is, that they rationally approve of the conclusions to
which he has come. They often feel that they follow him because they agree with what
he says. In reality the sequence is the opposite. Primarily they are ready to submit, they
tend to enter into a masochistic relationship to some authority, the particular kind of
leader succeeds in putting himself across as such an authority and they then believe in
what he says because they have submitted in this emotional sense. Hitler gives an excellent description of this process when he discusses the advisability of holding propaganda
meetings at night. He says 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.4
For irrational faith, the sentence credo quia absurdum est5--I believe because it is absurd--has full psychological validity. If somebody makes a statement which is rationally
sound, he does what, in principle, everybody else can do. If, however, he dares to make
a statement which is rationally absurd, he shows by this very fact that he as a person has
a magic power which the average person is lacking. Such a person easily offers himself as
an object for masochistic submission and to the person who submits himself to him, believing in his statements because of this submission, their very absurdity enhances the
faith.
History offers countless examples of irrational faith. I shall quote two: one from
legendary, and one from contemporary, history. The biblical report of the liberation of
the Jews from the Egyptian yoke is a most remarkable comment on the problem of
faith. In the whole report, the Jews are described as having the souls of slaves. Although
they suffer from their enslavement, they are afraid to rebel and unwilling to fight for the
uncertainties of freedom. They only understand the language of power, are afraid of it
and submit to it; they are unable to have faith in God since they are lacking the experience of freedom. Knowing all this, Moses objects to Gods command to announce himself as {312} Gods representative by saying that the Jews will not believe in a God of
whom they do not even know the name. God, although as the report stresses not wanting to assume a name, mentions a name to satisfy the Jews quest for certainty. Moses
insists that even a name is not enough certainty to make the Jews have faith in God. So
God makes a further concession. He teaches Moses to do 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 faith as God wants it, it would be the faith rooted in their own experience, the history of their nation; but they have become slaves, their faith is one of slaves, rooted in
the submission to power which proves its strength by its magic, and they can be im4
5

Hitler, Adolph, Mein Kampf, New York; Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939 (xx and 994 pp.); p. 710.
A popular, although somewhat distorted version of a sentence by Tertullian.

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pressed only by another magic which is not different from but only stronger than the
one the Egyptians use.
The contemporary phenomenon of irrational faith which is oppressing everyone is
in its very nature in no way different from the one which I just quoted. To be sure, millions of Germans have no faith of any kind whatsoever in the Nazis. Many of them
obey because they have to yield to superior force; still more of them submit because
they have lost faith in anything and are resigned to being dominated by the Nazis.
Among the Nazi gang are certainly many who are as cynical as human beings can be,
without faith in their Fhrer, in their idea, or in anything else. But the ones who are
germane to the topic are those who have faith in Nazism, those who firmly believe in
Hitlers ideas, in his honesty, in his genius, in the legend which he and his henchmen
spread about him. From the ranks of these believers came the young soldiers who reportedly came down in their parachutes shouting I want to die for the Fhrer. Have
they not faith? Have they not an unshakable conviction of the righteousness of their
cause, in the validity of their Fhrers doctrines, even in the most absurd and irrational
ones? Are they not ready to prove this faith by laying down their lives for their ideas?
If faith is to be defined only in these descriptive categories, they certainly have faith;
but so also must every holder of any unshakable conviction which has not been proved
rationally have faith; and among people in these categories, one might grade faith and
judge it strong in direct proportion to its irrationality. According to such a view, for example, the faith of Francos soldiers and that of Madrids defenders was the same; they
merely had faith in different ideas and different leaders?
This view is not particularly helpful. The mere descriptive categories conceal the fact
that we are dealing with two radically different kinds of faith. The difference is not only
in the object of faith but in the very nature of the faith. The defenders of the Spanish
Republic--as I shall show later to be the case with all defenders of freedom and of the
dignity of man--were prompted by rational faith; the Fascists on the other hand were
and are inspired by irrational faith. They are a group of people whose personality structure is characterized by masochistic attachment to an overwhelmingly strong power outside of themselves, represented by the Fhrer, the party, the race. They have given up
the integrity of their personal selves. They are driven by a passionate striving to become
unimportant as persons, nothing more than particles in a powerful authority, and in this
way to find orientation and to participate in the glamor and success of that authority.
Their faith is rooted in this masochistic attachment. It is not based on any conviction
which springs from personal mental activity; it is unshakable just so long as the authority
to which they submit has power. It will disintegrate when their idols turn into dust.
What is the difference between a rational faith and this irrational state of mind? Irrational faith is defined as an unshakable conviction about somebody or something
which is rooted in masochistic submission to an--irrational--authority. By rational faith, I
understand the quality of firmness and unshakability which characterizes convictions
based not on submission to an authority but arising {313} spontaneously from the very
nature of genuine intellectual and emotional activity. Irrational faith is rooted in passivity and submission, rational faith in the free action of human personality.
When one speaks of conviction one usually refers to the result of thought processes.
However, there are other kinds of convictions, related to emotional and sensual spheres
of life. There is conviction of ones love for another person, of ones aesthetic judgment;

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one can even speak of a conviction of ones sexual desire for a certain person.
It seems to be best to start the discussion of rational faith with reference to the
sphere of thinking.
If a person has thought and arrived at a conclusion as the result of a series of acts of
thinking, the idea at which he has arrived has for him the quality of certainty; he has
faith in it. It is most significant that he has arrived at his idea as a result of his act of
thinking. Thoughts which have not thus originated in the person himself never carry this
peculiar quality of certainty with them; they are borrowed and are not derived by personally real steps from experience. However stubbornly and fanatically they maybe
held, be clung to, the very strength of the conviction but expresses how much they are
needed, how necessary they are in the masochistic personality. This compulsive clinging
is entirely different from the certainty which accompanies what I call rational faith.
A few illustrations may clarify this point. Let me start with an illustration from a
childs life.
A little girl has a mother who is insincere, sadistic and who manipulates the child according to her own interests and with no respect for the peculiarities of the child. At the
same time, she is convinced--and tries to convince the child--that she is a loving and considerate mother. If the little girl does not succumb to the authority of the mother but
emancipates herself from this authority, she will think critically, become aware of the
mothers nature, examine her own experiences and by this process of observing and
thinking arrive at the conclusion that the picture her mother has about herself is false.
She will arrive at a rather accurate picture of her mothers real character. To be sure, the
children of such mothers seldom succeed in freeing themselves to the degree which permits such independent thinking. But when it happens, where insight comes into being as
a result of genuine thinking, the child arrives at a conviction the certainty of which cannot be shaken by any further exercise of the mothers power or even by the fact that
other people with whom the child comes in contact seem unquestionably to have
adopted the mothers legend about herself. This certainty of the conclusion to which the
little girls own thinking has led her is rational faith. The particular aspect of faith which
this illustrates is the fact that faith does not succumb to power, whether it be personal
power or the force of convention, public opinion or common sense.
If I have thought and if the results of my thinking are wholly mine, I have faith in
these results regardless of anyones disapproval or threats. To those who do not appreciate the courage and originality often needed by a child in order to arrive at a true picture of his parents, this illustration may seem to deal with a situation which is not important enough to deserve the application of the term faith. Yet, this situation is essentially not different from the more obvious one, where an adult, a philosopher, a scientist, a political leader, has arrived at certain conclusions out of his own thinking, with a
conviction of rightness which amounts to an unshakable certainty. There is no lack of
such men in history. Every kind of intimidation has been used against them; from threats
of torture or death to exposure to public ridicule. Their conviction remained unshaken.
Their thoughts were theirs, they had arrived at them, and they had faith in their thinking
which no power could destroy. They lived by this faith and often preferred death to
degradation or surrender.
The capacity to defy power, ridicule and slander, once a person has arrived at conclusions which he finds final and indubitable, is one aspect of rational faith; there {314} is

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another of equal importance. It concerns the very nature of original thinking.


How does anybody arrive at any significant conclusion? Does he sit down, make
experiment after experiment, gather fact after fact without having a vision of what he
expects--and thereby wants--to find? Rarely has any important discovery in any field
been made in this way. Nor, on the other hand, have people arrived at important conclusions when they were hunting a phantasy which had no validity in terms of reality
and was nothing but the expression of some inner need. The process of creative thinking
in any field of human endeavor is more complex than either of these processes. It starts
with what may be called a rational vision. Rational vision is itself a result of observation and thinking--sometimes of the observation of such minute or subtle details that the
observer is not fully aware of that which he had been observing. Any productive thinking starts with such vision, which is the root from which the further processes of thought
grow. No point in this process is identical with any other point with regard to the objective certainty arrived at. Increasing amount of thinking and of empirical data which support the hypothesis lend an increasing weight to the objective validity of ones conclusions. While the observer may start out with the conviction of a possible solution, he
becomes more and more certain of his conviction as he proceeds. If his thinking is to be
considered rational he has to face all evidence without falsifying or suppressing any part
of it. This process goes on until he finds some definite proof that his original vision was
essentially correct, even if most imperfectly designed. Once such definite proof is established, no faith is required to believe in the result, excepting in the sense of the capacity to withstand power or public opinion. Once America had been discovered, one did
not need faith to believe in its existence; what holds true of Columbus discovery holds
true of those of Copernicus, Newton, Curie and of all such pioneers of scientific thought.
But in the process which started with their rational vision and ended with indubitable
proof these men needed faith, rational faith rooted in the original nature of their thinking. Such faith is an indispensable attribute of rational creativeness.
In the case of the natural sciences any hypothesis is eventually provable by experiment and observation. In the social sciences, recourse to this type of proof is often prohibited by the very nature of the objects and methods. Assuming that an observer of the
German political scene in the Twenties by analyzing the economic, political and psychological structure of Germany had come to the conclusion that, barring certain improbable events, Nazism would conquer Germany between 1930 and 1935; he could not
have proved the validity of his conclusion until the victory of the Nazis had actually
happened. A psychoanalyst, analyzing dreams and phantasies of a patient may be convinced of the presence of certain unconscious drives and finds himself able to predict the
behavior of a patient under certain conditions; his proof of the conviction comes only
when the predicted has actually happened. Once a prediction has come true neither he
nor anyone else needs faith to recognize the fact; before it had happened he needed
rational faith to trust his conviction and to act upon it. Besides convictions of this kind,
there are others in which proof in terms of objectively observable events cannot occur
in the lifetime of a thinker; some even where such proof is not possible at all. This does
not follow from any irrationality of the assumption but from the particular logical structure of the field in which the assumption is made.
As already suggested, the realm of thought is not the only sphere of human experience in which rational faith is manifested. In the sphere of interpersonal relationships,

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the term faith is sometimes used in two different meanings: to have faith in somebody
and to be faithful to somebody. What is it to have faith in somebody? One of its
meanings is to be certain of the reliability and unchangeability of certain fundamental attitudes within another person. Thus, today, particularly acute concern may attach to the
question of whether a person is apt {315} presently to become a Fascist. Of some people, one feels entirely certain that no power in the world will make them Fascists, of
some others it is equally certain that they would turn Fascist forthwith, if some inhibitions and dangers were to be removed. I use Fascism as an example not merely because
it bears so much on one of the most important problems of the present world situation,
but also because it deals with an attitude which is not subject to change as long as the
person himself remains unchanged. This is not the case with some attitudes. A person
may have had a strong attitude against war and under the influence of changing conditions, have reversed this attitude without reversing himself. Of many other attitudes and
opinions the same can be said. But there are certain parts of anyones personality system
which are not subject to change without fundamental alteration in his self. Thus, it may
be in the core of a persons self that he refuses to sell out his conviction for material advantages or even to preserve his freedom or his life. Again, he may be incapable of violating other peoples integrity and of using them as tools for selfish ends--betraying those
who trust him. In a personality sufficiently firm and integrated, such attitudes, if they are
his, will be unshakable and unchangeable--barring exhaustion from torture and similar
physical circumstances. To be certain of this in another person is one meaning of having
faith in him.
There is another meaning of having faith in a person; in this meaning faith refers to
the potentialities of the person as contrasted with their realization. This is the faith
which the mother feels toward her new born baby; that it will live, grow, walk, talk,
and smile. However, one does not usually think of faith with regard to such expectations. The growth of the child in its obvious physical and mental capacities occurs with
such regularity that the miracle of this growth appears to many as a commonplace
event. This kind of faith is more rare with regard to those potentialities in a person
which do not develop with such regularity. An artistic gift, intellectual capacities, emotional sensitivity, or a sense of dignity are such potentialities which the observer may
find in a growing child. They are there as something which can grow and realize itself;
they also can be. stifled and never become manifest. These potentialities are real, to recognize them is not an illusion, yet they are different from the developed, manifest talent
or ability. It does not take faith to believe in an accomplished artist or in an accomplished writer but it takes faith to recognize the seeds of this future accomplishment in
the child, and to trust that they will grow and blossom. This kind of faith in growth and
realization of what now is only potentiality is one of the most important factors in human relations. As a matter of fact, it is the most important attitude in any parent,
teacher, or psychoanalyst. A parents lack of this kind of faith can be seen, again and
again in psychoanalytic interviews, to have been one of the contributing forces which
blocked and undermined the childs development.
But one must not think of this type of faith only in connection with the adults attitude towards children. People are prone to make this mistake because they are accustomed to thinking of growth only with regard. to the child, forgetting that anyone who
is living a full and productive life is demonstrating that the processes of growth and

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change did not stop when he became an adult but continued.


This faith in others has its culmination in a generalized faith in man. This faith found
its religious expression in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and its political expression in the
progressive political ideas of the last 150 years. It is based on the conviction that there
are potentialities in man which in the course of history are bound to carry him to a social order which is governed by equality, justice and love. Since no such society has yet
been achieved, the maintenance of the conviction calls for faith. This faith, however, is
rational. It is based on the observation and analysis of mans nature, of the development
of children, of the course of change among primitive peoples, and of the historical development of the current world-cultures. The faith in man is based on {316} knowledge
of mans nature, coupled with rational vision of the further development, and not on irrational delusions that exist because of personal needs.
The contrast between the faith in man and Hitlers faith in German world domination for the next thousand years can be used to throw more light on the nature of rational faith. Hitlers faith is a prediction of the future based on the calculation of present power and its preservation in the future. His vision is rooted in the assumption
that he will find means and ways to hold power for many generations to come. It is not
based on a vision of mans unfolding potentialities, existent but not yet materialized.
One sees in this very inability to recognize the enduring, unbreakable strength of what is
still small but growing, the- most striking evidence of the profound irrationality of Hitlers faith. He cannot see that mans longing for freedom, dignity, happiness are irrepressible forces which must ultimately destroy any force that seeks to deny them.
Nazism recognizes existing power but fails to recognize the future power of anything that is now weak. It is of the very nature of rational faith to be unimpressed by
power. A belief which finds reassurance in existing power and the expectation of its continuance is anything but rational faith. At best, it is a calculation, a predicting the future
according to the present; in this case it is a grave miscalculation, profoundly irrational in
its oversight of human potentialities and their growth. When despite the fact that all
power was in the hands of those whose doom they predicted, the Prophets predicted
the downfall of their country, they exhibited rational vision and rational faith. Those
who called them fools or criminals had confidence in but one reality--power. There can
be no rational faith in power; one can use it and hope to keep it; but power, which
seems to be the most real of all phenomena, has in the course of history proved to be
the most unstable. A rational faith at this stage of world history is confidence in the
strength of what will grow from the seeds of the present and clear vision of the destructibility of existing power.
Faith in others is no more divorced from faith in oneself than is love for others divorced from love of oneself. Faith in oneself is rooted in experience of the validity and
genuineness of ones own experience. It is, in the last analysis, the conviction of ones
own integrity and thereby ones identity. The conviction is not based on conforming to
other peoples idea of how the person should behave but on a self which is unique and
indestructible because it is rooted in his own genuine and original act of living. The
person who has faith in himself is able to be faithful to others, to promise; that is, to
be sure that he will be the same at a future time as he is today and therefore will feel
and act as he now expects.
Faith in oneself, like faith in others, implies also the recognition of potentialities and

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the vision of their unfolding. It results from the experience of growth and, since growth
is an essential quality of life, it results from the experience of life. This experience is entirely different from the experience of a person who is incapable of rational faith; he believes in power because he is crippled in the ability to live. He is fascinated by death and
destruction, incapable of experiencing inner growth and life, and therefore cannot have
rational faith.
Irrational faith--as also irrational doubt--is characteristic of the authoritarian character, while rational faith is rooted in an opposite kind of character structure, that which is
characterized by freedom. This is the person who has emancipated himself from oppressing authority, who does not submit nor is an automaton conforming to other peoples
expectations; he has attained the strength and integration to be himself. This implies that
his relationship to others is one of equality and of solidarity, not one of submission or
domination. He is independent and yet related to others. He is capable of love; of love
not as an expression of submission, of love not as an affect of an essentially passive
nature, but of love as an active and passionate affirmation of another on {317} a basis of
equality with mutual respect for each others integrity.
One essential feature in this kind of character structure is genuine activity or productiveness. The meaning of productiveness becomes clearer. when it is compared with the
kinds of relatedness toward the world which are to be found in other types of character.
Several pathways are open for the person seeking satisfaction of his material and emotional needs. One is to produce the things he wants. Another is to expect them to be
given to him by somebody else. A third is to take them away from somebody. Yet another is to retain everything he has by spending nothing. The different types of personality are characterized by the prevalence of one of these attitudes.
It is obvious that in the sphere of material needs productiveness is a fundamental
necessity of human existence. If I want to survive, I must work, that is, I must produce
something, share in the productive process of the community. There are only two exceptions to this rule: the people who have the power to force others to work for them
or to rob them of what they have, and those-children, the aged and sick-who are helpless so that the community feeds them, although they produce nothing. What holds true
of material needs holds true for all other spheres of human activity. If a person is to be
liked as a companion, he must be stimulating to others in one way or another; if he
wants to be loved, he must be able to love; if he wants to be sexually attractive, he
must be sexually responsive. If he wants not to be left alone by others, he must be able
to offer something which makes them want to be with him. Since man needs as much
not to be alone as he needs to eat he is forced to be productive emotionally and intellectually as much as he is forced to work. The exceptions are also the same in both cases.
If a person has power over others, he needs no more to produce anything in terms of
inner activity than he needs to work economically. He has the other person in his
power-be the source of this power physical, economic or psychological-and therefore
possesses him without needing to be productive in order to retain him. The same holds
true for the person who has made himself powerless and has become dependent on
others at the price of his own integrity. Neither the one who has power nor the one

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who submits to it need be productive.6


Power over people is the very opposite of productiveness; as a matter of fact, it
paralyzes and eventually kills all productive abilities in both the one who has power and
the one who submits to it. On the other hand, any form of social organization which
excludes the possibilities of persons or groups having power over others will of necessity
stimulate and reinforce productiveness in all its members.
That productiveness is an integral part of the character structure, which is the basis
of rational faith, is especially significant with regard to one misconception about faith. It
is often assumed that faith implies a state of passive waiting for the realization of ones
hopes. Rational faith, which is certainty of ones own experience and firmness of conviction in the realization of ones rational vision, is rooted in the experience of growth, in
the active relatedness to man and nature and therefore inseparably linked with a state of
activity. An old Jewish legend expresses this thought beautifully. 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. Rational faith does not imply
passive expectation of a miracle but rather a certainty of ones vision and active courage
to act upon it.
Returning now to the question which was raised in the beginning, the difference between faith and belief in a certain object and faith as a human attitude, it will be seen
that I have described faith not in the former but in the latter sense. The question which
poses itself now is whether or not the attitude of faith has any {318} connection with the
object of faith. From what has been said, it must follow that there is such a connection.
The objects of rational faith cannot be divorced from the character structure from which
rational faith springs. The person in whom one finds the attitude just described necessarily has certain aims and not others: The aims may differ in various ways but they will
always be centered around freedom, love and productiveness. The attitude from which
rational faith springs determines the object of the faith. In the course of the development of mankind these objects have become more and more rational and have come
into an increasingly close relation to practical questions of social and political organization. In contrast, certain objects of faith, like the Nazi faith in world domination, could
not spring from the attitude from which rational faith arises. Such a faith proves by its
very objects that it is an irrational one, which means according to my definition, one
springing from an authoritarian character structure.
While it is evident that certain objects of faith are incompatible with rational faith,
it should not be concluded that the mere having of a suitable object of faith demonstrates that faith as human attitude is also present. There may be a conscious adherence
to certain objects of faith when the attitude of faith is lacking. The weight and genuineness of any faith in something is determined by the whole human attitude from which
faith springs.
Object and attitude of faith are closely connected, but the primary factor is the attitude, and it can exist even if in a persons awareness no object of faith is formulated;
One must, however, bear in mind that the lack of productiveness is not solely the result of the craving for
domination or submission, but that this craving in its turn results from an early blockage of productiveness
which in itself is caused by anxiety.
6

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while on the other hand, belief in certain contents of faith is but an empty shell when it
is not rooted in a corresponding attitude as part of the character structure.
If the contents of religious faith are considered from this viewpoint, it becomes clear
that there is no necessity for a disjuncture of religious faith versus secular faith, but that
in all religion and in any type of religion--including the Judaeo-Christian tradition--there
are trends which betray predominantly irrational, and others which betray predominantly rational faith. The churches might well recognize as a matter of their further development the advisability of critically examining the kind of faith concerned in their
doctrines, even though, as I see it, the future of faith will reveal itself less in traditional
formulations and symbols than in secular and rational contents.
Perhaps I have said enough to show how rational faith as a human attitude differs
from irrational faith, and how the one or the other occurs as a part of two different
character structures. If now one wishes to consider character structure in terms of typical
syndromes of character traits, it will be seen that the syndrome which includes irrational
faith must also show submission to irrational authorities, sadistic and masochistic strivings, and an absence of freedom and of productiveness. The syndrome of traits to which
rational faith belongs includes freedom, love and productiveness.
The question suggests itself at this point as to what personal and what social conditions, respectively, make for the occurrence of rational and of irrational faith. It must
follow from the connection between faith and character structure that this is a question
about the conditions which make for the one or the other character structure. While a
discussion of this subject is well beyond the scope of this paper,7 I shall touch on one
point which has high significance for understanding the contemporary political and social scene.
Irrational faith and the kind of character structures of which it is a part will be found
prevalent in any society built on the submission of one group of people to the power of
another, in which irrational authority prevails, and in which the principle is not recognized or is specifically denied that everyone is intrinsically his own purpose and not a
means for pursuing the ends of others. Irrational faith therefore is the kind of faith, and
the {319} only kind of faith, which imbues people living in a fascist system. Rational faith
can develop and come to prevail only in a social order built on the principle of the
equality and the dignity of man, in which each person has actively and responsibly to
participate in shaping his own life and the life of the community. Rational faith is thus
the outcome of true democracy. Why then do we of the United States find rational faith
by no means widely disseminated and a somewhat veiled indifference the relatively
prevalent attitude? This is a serious matter which may very well be faced squarely at this
juncture in the history of free societies.
If I am not mistaken, the widespread relativistic attitude springs from the fact that
the average citizen has not yet gained the experience of freedom, security, and active
participation in, and influence on the goals of, community activity. While solidarity and
mutual obligation receive considerable stress in time of war, the tendency in peace time
has been to foster irresponsible egotism. The overt authoritarian conditions of predemocratic cultures have largely been abolished, but in their place have appeared a
An attempt at such an answer will be found in E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom; New York, Farrar and
Rinehart, New York, 1941 (ix and 305 pp.); Chapters V and VII.

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congeries of anonymous authorities: science, common sense, and public opinion.


Few greater mistakes are possible than that of mistaking our prevailing relativism for
the achievement of rationality. It is, instead, a clear sign of what is wrong with our way
of life.
Hope lies neither in efforts to bolster up morale nor in turning half-heartedly to
renewals of irrational faith. The Nazis are past masters at these performances, but they
will presently discover that the modern industrial system is incompatible with irrational
kinds of faith.
To survive, man needs faith. To survive in the world of the present and the evolving future, everyone will need rational faith. It is only in a social order in which the democratic ideals are being more and more fully realized that the needed rational faith can develop and come to prevail.

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