Beneath the Surface, Carl Jung’s Ideas Are
Contrary to Ethics, Philosophy and Theosophy
Erich Fromm
Carl Jung, who had Nazi sympathies (left), Sigmund Freud (center) and Erich Fromm
An Editorial Note:
Among the false impressions still accepted in some esoteric and
even theosophical circles is the apparently brilliant idea that the
works of Carl G. Jung are compatible with the divine wisdom, or
with Ethics, or with esoteric philosophy and theosophy. In fact, Jung
was against Ethics. He had sympathies for Nazism. He promoted the
Ningma book “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”, which purports to teach
how to avoid the law of Karma in post-mortem states.  There are traces of
anti-Semitism in his books. Jung says – with Hitler – that, if a falsehood is
believed, then such falsehood is true. This is of course false, as Fromm
shows in the following text. It is also obviously anti-theosophical. In his
personal correspondence (“Briefe” in German language), Jung wrote that
he saw no value in Metaphysics (letter to Mr. S. Iyer, dated 09 January
1939) or in Theosophy (letter to Mr. Oscar Schmitz, dated 26 May 1923).
The following text by Erich Fromm clarifies some of  the aspects of  Jung’s
ideas. It  shows Jung’s lack of true affinity with divine wisdom or universal
ethics. It is reproduced from the book “Psychoanalysis and Religion”, by
Erich Fromm, New Haven – Yale University Press, copyright 1950, third
printing, 1961, 120 pp., Chapter II, pp. 10-20, entitled “Freud and Jung”.
As to Freud’s position regarding conventional religions, the student of theosophy
should take into consideration the Letter 10 of “The Mahatma Letters” (T.U.P.
edition, Pasadena, California),  in order to understand that, in spite of their obvious
limitations, Freud’s views have, after all, various important points in common with
the esoteric philosophy, and Ethics and respect for truth are not the least among them.
(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)
Freud dealt with the problem of religion and psychoanalysis in one of his most profound and brilliant books, “The Future of an Illusion”. Jung, who was the first psychoanalyst to understand that myth and religious ideas are expressions of profound insights, has dealt with the same topic in the Terry Lectures of 1937, published under the title “Psychology and Religion”.
If I now attempt to give a brief summary of the position of both psychoanalysts it is with a threefold purpose:
1. To indicate where the discussion of the problem stands now and locate the point from which I want to proceed.
2. To lay the groundwork for the following chapters by discussing some of the fundamental concepts used by Freud and Jung.
3. A correction of the widely held view that Freud is “against” and Jung “for” religion will permit us to see the fallacy of such oversimplifying statements in this complex field and to discuss the ambiguities in the meanings of “religion” and “psychoanalysis”.
What is Freud’s position in regard to religion as expressed in “The Future of an Illusion”?
For Freud, religion has its origin in man’s helplessness in confronting the forces of nature outside and the instinctive forces within himself. Religion arises at an early stage of human development when man cannot yet use his reason to deal with these outer and inner forces and must repress them or manage them with the help of other affective forces. So instead of coping with these forces by means of reason he copes with them by “counter-affects”, by other emotional forces, the functions of which are to suppress and control that which he is powerless to cope with rationally.
In this process man develops what Freud calls an “illusion”, the material of which is taken from his own individual experience as a child. being confronted with dangerous, uncontrollable, and un-understandable forces within and outside of himself, he remembers, as it were, and regresses to an experience he had as a child, when he felt protected by a father whom he thought to be of superior wisdom and strength, and whose love and protection he could win by obeying his commands and avoiding transgression of his prohibitions.
Thus, religion, according to Freud, is a repetition of the experience of the child. Man copes with threatening forces in the same manner in which, as a child, he learned to cope with his own insecurity by relying on and admiring and fearing his father. Freud compares religion with the obsessional neuroses we find in children. And, according to him, religion is a collective neurosis, caused by conditions similar to those producing childhood neurosis.
Freud’s analysis of the psychological roots of religion attempts to show why people formulated the idea of a god. But it claims to do more than to get at these psychological roots. It claims that the unreality of the theistic concept is demonstrated by exposing it as an illusion based on man’s wishes. [1]
Freud goes beyond attempting to prove that religion is an illusion. He says religion is a danger because it tends to sanctify bad human institutions with which it has allied itself throughout its history; further, by teaching people to believe in an illusion and by prohibiting critical thinking religion is responsible for the impoverishment of intelligence.[2]
This charge like the first one was leveled against the church by the thinkers of the Enlightenment. But in Freud’s frame of reference this second charge is even more potent than it was in the eighteenth century. Freud could show in his analytic work that the prohibition of critical thinking at one point leads to an impoverishment of a person’s critical ability in other spheres of thought and thereby impedes the power of reason. Freud’s third objection to religion is that it puts morality on very shaky grounds. If the validity of ethical norms rests upon their being God’s commands, the future of ethics stands or falls with the belief in God. Since Freud assumes that religious belief is on the wane he is forced to assume that the continued connection of religion and ethics will lead to the destruction of our moral values.
The dangers which Freud sees in religion make it apparent that his own ideals and values are the very things he considers to be threatened by religion: reason, reduction of human suffering, and morality. But we do not have to rely on inferences from Freud’s criticism of religion; he has expressed very explicitly what are the norms and ideals he believes in: brotherly love (Menschenliebe), truth, and freedom. Reason and freedom are interdependent according to Freud. If man gives up his illusion of a fatherly God, if he faces his aloneness and insignificance in the universe, he will be like a child that has left his father’s house. But it is the very aim of human development to overcome this infantile fixation. Man must educate himself to face reality. If he knows that he has nothing to rely on except his own powers, he will learn to use them properly. Only the free man who has emancipated himself from authority – authority that threatens and protects – can make use of his power of reason and grasp the world and his role in it objectively, without illusion but also with the ability to develop and to make use of the capacities inherent in him. Only if we grow up and cease to be children dependent on and afraid of authority can we dare to think for ourselves; but the reverse is also true. Only if we dare to think can we emancipate ourselves from domination by authority. It is significant in this context to note that Freud states that the feeling of powerlessness is the opposite of religious feeling. In view of the fact that many theologians – and, as we shall see later, Jung too to a certain extent – consider the feeling of dependence and powerlessness the core of religious experience, Freud’s statement is very important. It is expressive, even though only by implication, of his own concept of religious experience, namely, that of independence and the awareness of one’s powers. I shall attempt to show later on that this difference constitutes one of the critical problems in the psychology of religion.
Turning now to Jung we find at almost every point the opposite of Freud’s views on religion.
Jung begins with a discussion of the general principles of his approach. While Freud, though not a professional philosopher, approaches the problem from a psychological and philosophical angle as William James, Dewey, and Macmurray have done, Jung states in the beginning of his book:
“I restrict myself to the observation of phenomena and I refrain from any application of metaphysical or philosophical considerations.”[3]  
He then goes on to explain how, as a psychologist, he can analyze religion without application of philosophical considerations. He calls his standpoint “phenomenological, that is, it is concerned with occurrences, events, experiences, in a word, with facts. Its truth is a fact and not a judgement. Speaking for instance of the motive of the virgin birth, psychology is only concerned with the fact that there is such an idea, but it is not concerned with the question whether such an idea is true or false in any other sense. It is psychologically true in as much as it exists. Psychological existence is subjective in so far as an idea occurs in only one individual. But it is objective in so far as it is established by a society – by a consensus gentium.”[4]
Before I present Jung’s analysis of religion a critical examination of these methodological premises seems warranted. Jung’s use of the concept of truth is not tenable. He states that “truth is a fact and not a judgement,” that “an elephant is true because it exists.”[5] But he forgets that truth always and necessarily refers to a judgement and not to a description of a phenomenon which we perceive with our senses and which we denote with a word symbol. Jung then states that an idea is “psychologically true in as much as it exists.” But an idea “exists” regardless of whether it is a delusion or whether it corresponds to fact. The existence of an idea does not make it “true” in any sense. Even the practicing psychiatrist could not work were he not concerned with the truth of an idea, that is, with its relation to the phenomena it tends to portray. Otherwise he could not speak of a delusion or a paranoid system.
But Jung’s approach is not only untenable from a psychiatric standpoint; he advocates a standpoint of relativism which, though on the surface more friendly to religion than Freud’s, is in its spirit fundamentally opposed to religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. These consider the striving for truth as one of man’s cardinal virtues and obligations and insist that their doctrines whether arrived at by revelation or only by the power of reason are subject to the criterion of truth.
Jung does not fail to see the difficulties of his own position, but the way in which he tries to solve them is unfortunately equally untenable. He tries to differentiate between “subjective” and “objective” existence, in spite of the notoriously slippery quality of these terms. Jung seems to mean that something objective is more valid and true than something that is merely subjective. His criterion for the difference between subjective and objective depends on whether an idea occurs only to one individual or is established by a society. But have we not been witnesses ourselves of a “folie à millions,” of the madness of whole groups in our own age?
Have we not seen that millions of people, misguided by their irrational passions, can believe in ideas which are not less delusional and irrational than the products of a single individual? What meaning is there in saying that they are “objective”? The spirit of this criterion for subjective and objective is that of the same relativism which I commented on above. More specifically, it is a sociological relativism which makes social acceptance of an idea the criterion of its validity, truth, or “objectivity.” [6]
After discussing his methodological premises, Jung presents his views on the central problem: What is religion? What is the nature of religious experience? His definition is one which he shares with many theologians. It can be summarized briefly in the statement that the essence of religious experience is the submission to powers higher than ourselves. But we had better quote Jung directly. He states that religion “is a careful and scrupulous observation of what Rudolph Otto aptly termed the ‘numinosum,’ that is, a dynamic existence or effect, not caused by an arbitrary act of will. On the contrary, it seizes and controls the human subject which is always rather its victim than its creator.” [7]
Having defined religious experience as being seized by a power outside of ourselves, Jung proceeds to interpret the concept of the unconscious as being a religious one. According to him, the unconscious cannot be merely a part of the individual mind but is a power beyond our control intruding upon our minds. “The fact that you perceive the voice [of the unconscious] in your dream proves nothing at all, for you can also hear the voices in the street, which you would not explain as your own. There is only one condition under which you might legitimately call the voice your own, namely, when you assume your conscious personality to be a part of a whole or to be a smaller circle contained in a bigger one. A little bank clerk, showing a friend around town, who points out the bank building, saying, ‘And here is my bank,’ is using the same privilege.”[8]
It is a necessary consequence of his definition of religion and of the unconscious that Jung arrives at the conclusion that, in view of the nature of the unconscious mind, the influence of the unconscious upon us “is a basic religious phenomenon.”[9] It follows that religious dogma and the dream are both religious phenomena because they both are expressions of our being seized by a power outside ourselves. Needless to say, in the logic of Jung’s thinking insanity would have to be called an eminently religious phenomenon.
Does our examination of Freud’s and Jung’s attitudes toward religion bear out the popularly held opinion that Freud is a foe and Jung a friend of religion? A brief comparison of their view shows that this assumption is a misleading oversimplification.
Freud holds that the aim of human development is the achievement of these ideals: knowledge (reason, truth, logos), brotherly love, reduction of suffering, independence, and responsibility. These constitute the ethical core of all great religions on which Eastern and Western culture are based, the teachings of Confucius and Lao-tse, Buddha, the prophets and Jesus. While there are certain differences of accent among these teachings, e.g., Buddha emphasizing reduction of suffering, the Prophets stressing knowledge and justice, and Jesus brotherly love, it is remarkable to what extent these religious teachers are in fundamental agreement about the aim of human development and the norms which ought to guide man.
Freud speaks in the name of the ethical core of religion and criticizes the theistic-supernatural aspects of religion for preventing the full realization of these ethical aims. He explains the theistic-supernatural concepts as stages in human development which once were necessary and furthering but which now are no longer necessary and are in fact a barrier to further growth. The statement that Freud is “against” religion therefore is misleading unless we define sharply what religion or what aspects of religion he is critical of and what aspects of religion he speaks for.
For Jung, religious experience is characterized by a specific kind of emotional experience: surrender to a higher power, whether this higher power is called God or the unconscious. Undoubtedly this is a true characterization of a certain type of religious experience- in Christian religions, for instance, it is the core of Luther’s or Calvin’s teachings – while it contrasts with another type of religious experience, the one, for instance, which is represented by Buddhism.
In its relativism concerning truth, however, Jung’s concept of religion is in contrast to Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. In these, man’s obligation to search for the truth is an integral postulate. Pilate’s ironical question “What is truth?” stands as a symbol of an antireligious attitude from the standpoint not only of Christianity but of all other great religions as well.
Summing up the respective positions of Freud and Jung we may say that Freud opposes religion in the name of ethics – an attitude which can be termed “religious”. On the other hand, Jung reduces religion to a psychological phenomenon and at the same time elevates the unconscious to a religious phenomenon. [10]
[1] Freud himself states that the fact that an idea satisfies a wish does not mean necessarily that the idea is false. Since psychoanalysts have sometimes made this erroneous conclusion, I want to stress this remark of Freud’s. Indeed, there are many true ideas as well as false ones which man has arrived at because he wishes the idea to be true. Most great discoveries are born out of interest in finding something to be true. While the presence of such interest may make the observer suspicious, it can never disprove the validity of a concept or statement. The criterion of validity does not lie in the psychological analysis of motivation but in the examination of evidence for or against a hypothesis within the logical framework of the hypothesis.
[2] He points to the contrast between the brilliant intelligence of a child and the impoverishment of reason in the average adult (Denkschwäche). He suggests that the “innermost nature” of man may not be as irrational as man becomes under the influence of irrational teachings.
[3] “Psychology and Religion”, p. 2.
[4] Ibid., p. 3. My italics.
[5] Ibid., p. 3.
[6] Cf. the discussion of universal versus socially immanent ethics in E. Fromm, “Man for Himself” (Rinehart and Company, 1947), pp. 237-244.
[7] Jung, “Psychology and Religion”, p. 4. Italics mine.
[8] Ibid, p. 47.
[9] Ibid, p. 46.
[10] It is interesting to note that Jung’s position in “Psychology and Religion” is in many ways anticipated by William James, while Freud’s position is in essential points similar to that taken by John Dewey. William James calls this religious attitude “both a helpless and a sacrificial attitude…. which the individual finds himself impelled to take up towards what he apprehends to be the divine.” (“The Varieties of Religious Experience” [Modern Library], p. 51.) Like Jung he compares the unconscious with the God concept of the theologian. He says: “At the same time the theologian’s contention that the religious man is moved by an external power is vindicated, for it is one of the peculiarities of invasions from the subconscious region to take on objective appearances, and to suggest to the Subject an external control.” (loc. cit. p. 503.) In this connection between the unconscious (or, in James’ terminology, the subconscious) and God, James sees the link between religion and the science of psychology.
John Dewey differentiates religion and religious experience. To him the supernatural dogmas of religion have weakened and sapped man’s religious attitude. “The opposition between religious values as I conceive them,” he says, “and religions is not to be bridged. Just because the release of these values is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religions must be dissolved.” (“A Common Faith” [Yale University Press, 1934], p. 28.) Like Freud he states: “Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing.” (loc. cit., p. 46.) Consult also John Macmurray’s position in “The Structure of Religious Experience” (Yale University Press, 1936.) He stresses the difference between rational and irrational, sentimental and vicious religious emotions. In contrast to the relativistic position Jung takes, he states: “No reflective activity can be justified except in so far as it achieves truth and validity, and escapes error and falsity.” (loc. cit., p. 54.)   
On the role of the esoteric movement in the ethical awakening of mankind during the 21st century, see the book “The Fire and Light of Theosophical Literature”, by Carlos Cardoso Aveline.  
Published in 2013 by The Aquarian Theosophist, the volume has 255 pages and can be obtained through Amazon Books.