"Psychoanalysis has demonstrated the ambiguous nature of our thinking processes. Indeed, the power of rationalization, this counterfeit of reason, is one of the most puzzling human phenomena. If we were not accustomed to it, man's rationalizing effort would clearly appear to us as similar to a paranoid system. The paranoid person can be very intelligent, make excellent use of his reason in all areas of life except in that isolated part where his paranoid system is involved. The rationalizing person does exactly the same. We talk to an intelligent Stalinist who exhibits a great capacity to make use of his reason in many areas of thought. When we come to discuss Stalinism with him, however, we are suddenly confronted with a closed system of thought, the only function of which is to prove that his allegiance to Stalinism is in line with and not contradictory to reason.
He will deny certain obvious facts, distort others, or, inasmuch as he agrees to certain facts and statements, he will explain his attitude as logical and consistent.
He will at the same time declare that the fascist cult of the leader is one of the most obnoxious features of authoritarianism and claim that the Stalinist cult of the leader is something entirely different, that it is the genuine expression of the people's love for Stalin. When you tell him that is what the Nazis claimed too, he will smile tolerantly about your want of perception or accuse you of being the lackey of capitalism. He will find a thousand and one reasons why Russian nationalism is not nationalism, why authoritarianism is democracy, why slave labor is designed to educate and improve anti-social elements. The arguments which are used to defend or explain the deeds of the Inquisition or those used to explain racial or sex prejudices are illustrations of the same rationalizing capacity.
The degree to which man uses his thinking to rationalize irrational passions and to justify the actions of his group, shows how great the distance which man has still to travel in order to become Homo Sapiens. But we must go beyond such an awareness. We must try to understand the reasons for this phenomenon lest we fall into the error of believing that man's readiness for rationalization is a part of "human nature" which nothing can change.
Man by origin is a herd animal.
His actions are determined by an instinctive impulse to follow the leader and to have close contact with the other animals around him. Inasmuch as we are sheep, there is no greater threat to our existence than to lose this contact with the herd and to be isolated. Right and wrong, true and false are determined by the herd. But we are not only sheep. We are also human; we are endowed with awareness of ourselves, endowed with reason which by its very nature is independent of the herd. Our actions can be determined by the results of our thinking regardless of whether or not the truth is shared by others.
The split between our sheep nature and our human nature is the basis for two kinds of orientations: the orientation by proximity to the herd and the orientation by reason. Rationalization is a compromise between our sheep nature and our human capacity to think. The latter forces us to make believe that everything we do can stand the test of reason, and that is why we tend to make it appear that our irrational opinions and decisions are reasonable. But inasmuch as we are sheep, reason is not our real guide; we are guided by an entirely different principle, that of herd allegiance.
The ambiguity of thinking, the dichotomy between reason and a rationalizing intellect, is the expression of a basic dichotomy of man, the coextensive need for bondage and freedom. The unfolding and full emergence of reason is dependent on the attainment of full freedom and independence.
Until this is accomplished, man will tend to accept for truth that which the majority of the group wants to be true; his judgment is determined by the need for contact with the herd and by fear of being isolated from it.
A few individuals can stand this isolation and say the truth in spite of the danger of losing touch. They are the true heroes of the human race, but for whom we should still be living in caves......"
Psychoanalysis and Religion
1950, Erich Fromm
Chapter III, An Analysis of Some Types of Religious Experience