Erwin R. Goodenough – Terror and Anxiety is the Essence of Religion

Image: Smithsonian Mag, Ashoke Gosh, ‘on complition to their worship they bow down to pray their likings to God.’

Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough (1893-1965) was a scholar of the history of religion who specialized in early Christianity and the religions of the Hellenistic period. Like a number of other theorists, Goodenough was interested in the essence of religion, namely, what is religion’s fundamental element that without which it could no longer be called or viewed as religion (1).

Goodenough believed that religion is innate to the human being and suggested it to be one of “two or three” basic aspects of human life. He views religion as something basically human and wished to identify a “common religious element” which can be discovered in humankind’s religious history. Goodenough’s central idea is that religion’s roots are to be found within the powerful and pervasive human desire for security,

“The common element is that of a devotion to something of which the people committed seem to themselves to dependent, in which they hope for security, or in which they actually find it. Whether it is by the security given by a fetish, by a ritual, by a creed, by a church, by the loving Jesus, by one’s social status, by a substantial bank account, by a title (whether the title be “president of the bank,” “professor,” or “marquis”), or by creativity in art or science, when one or more of these become the focus of our lives, we have accepted the security as our religion” (2).

Goodenough, in what appears to be a psychological explanation of religion, proposes that human beings sought relief from anxiety and threats to their existence. They also wanted to learn about the world so that they could use this knowledge to control it. It is ultimately this security obtained through control which enabled this relief. Goodenough linked the human being’s desire for security against the threats of existence to Rudolf Otto’s (1869-1937) concept of the mysterium tremendum.

Otto proposed the idea of “the Holy” which he referred to as the numinous (3). The numinous is an intangible and unseen yet compelling reality that inspired both fascination and dread within human beings, and that is always present within religious experience and awareness. Otto said that the numinous consisted of two elements which were bound together, the tremendum and the mysterium. By tremendum he meant awe, majesty, and urgency. By mysterium he meant something wholly other and distinct from everything else yet despite such distinctiveness, the mysterium still attracts and fascinates. Goodenough fancied Otto’s concept that human beings feared the tremendum, and then used it to denote religion being “man’s adjustment to the tremendum… [it] best conveys the most terrifying part of our predicament, the very inchoateness of the terror without and within us” (4).

As noted, Goodenough believed human beings are not only motivated to learn about the world but they also possess the drive to bring it under their control. The result was the desire to control the tremendum by appeasing it and befriending it. However, such was also the attempt to befriend something intimidating:  “by the rituals, he also keeps himself from consciously facing the tremendum’s unfathomable depth and power, the actual abyss of the uncontrollable” (5).

Goodenough viewed his theory as a variation of Otto’s from whom he obtained important concepts. For example, Otto’s idea of the tremendum involved the human discovery of the Holy, and how its elements of awe and dread interlocked together. Otto was clear that the Holy included elements that are not necessarily negative, such as that it also fascinates, attracts, and inspires awe. Goodenough’s variation is far more negative in that he viewed human beings to be subject to a very dominating and daunting power.

Goodenough did not intend to explain religion away. He insisted that he had a positive view of religion and even acknowledged that it possessed a useful function. He believed that the tremendum could be controlled to direct human desires, fancies, and visions to improve personal and collective environments.


1. Capps, W. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 27.

2. Goodenough, E. R. 1965. The psychology of religious experiences. p. 6

3. Strenski, I. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. p. 87.

4. Goodenough, E. R. 1965. Ibid. p. 6.

5. Goodenough, E. R. 1965. Ibid. p. 7.


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