…religion is for the unification of mankind. True religion is the source of love and agreement amongst men, the cause of the development of praiseworthy qualities, but the people are holding to the counterfeit and imitation, negligent of the reality which unifies, so they are bereft and deprived of the radiance of religion. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 179.
A Baha’i since my youth, I have always been fascinated by the opinions of the intellectually and spiritually accomplished regarding the Baha’i Faith, the latest major revelation from God, brought to the world by two Prophets, Baha’u’llah and his forerunner, the Bab.
Recently, a passage in the well-known humanist philosopher Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society came to my attention through some alert friends: Ismael Valesco, Carol Rustein, Dr. Robert Stockman, and Dr. Udo Schaefer. Fromm’s passage teaches us both what we should and should not conclude when we discover something that reads as if it has been literally lifted from the Baha’i sacred writings.
Now I happen to have Fromm’s book in my library. But somehow I didn’t get around to reading it carefully, and so, until now, I had missed his significant prediction of a coming future world religion:
….In fact, for those who see in the monotheistic religions only one of the stations in the evolution of the human race, it is not too far fetched to believe that a new religion will develop which corresponds to the development of the human race. The most important feature of such a religion will be its universalistic character, corresponding to the unification of mankind which is taking place in this epoch; it would embrace the humanistic teachings common to all the great religions of the East and of the West; its doctrines would not contradict the rational insight of mankind today, and its emphasis would be on the practice of life, rather than on doctrinal beliefs.
Such a religion would create new rituals and artistic forms of expression, conducive to the spirit of reverence towards life and the solidarity of man. Religion can, of course, not be invented. It will come into existence with the appearance of a new great teacher, just as they have appeared in previous centuries when the time was ripe. In the meantime, those who believe in God should express their faith by living it; those who do not believe, by living the precepts of love and justice and–waiting. – The Sane Society, p.352.
Fromm’s vision of a future world religion is so remarkably close to the Baha’i Faith that one suspects a direct connection. The Baha’i parallels are just too blatantly obvious: evolutionary development, a unified humanity, progressive revelation, a new teacher, an emphasis on spirituality rather than doctrine, the harmony of faith and reason, etc. Scholar Ismael Valesco alleges, in fact, that Fromm had a Baha’i correspondent:
The source is Kosher. I heard it many times from Hugh McKinley himself, and I am working on his biography… [McKinley was one of the first Bahá’ís to settle on Cyprus]. McKinley, was living in a little Greek island and writing the literary column of the Athens Daily Times. He reviewed new books in it, and took the opportunity to correspond with their authors, striking solid friendships with great figures such as Kathleen Raine, Helen Shaw and May Sarton. One of these exchanges took place with Erich Fromm, in which Hugh questioned Fromm’s dismissal of religion, and engaged in a debate that led Fromm to change his treatment of the subject subsequently.
Was the avowed atheist Erich Fromm endorsing the Baha’i Faith as the religion of the future? The answer to that question is probably not. Let me amplify Valesco’s statement of Fromm’s “dismissal of religion.”
The roots of Fromm’s thought lie 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 Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man, 1961). He based his entire psychological outlook 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. Like many intellectuals who 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 that stifled the freedom of individual conscience. The new teacher of the age who Fromm envisions is not a theistic prophet, one who speaks on behalf of God, but a humanistic teacher like Marx, who Fromm believed would spread an enlightened ideology.
However, the theistic reader could make an alternate reading of Fromm’s passage. It could be read as his concession to the validity of the unnamed Baha’i Faith and its progressive teachings. And for that, we would have to thank Mr. Hugh McKinley.