Awhile back, I finished reading Armand Nicholi’s book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. Dr. Nicholi is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard and has taught a seminar on Freud & Lewis at Harvard for the past 35 years. The course eventually led to this book and a PBS series by the same name.

The book is an interesting read for anyone modestly interested in one or both of the characters– or anyone interested in the topics covered. The book is relatively easy to read with ample quotations from each author in addition to impressive biographical information. The book is divided into two sections: “What should we believe?” and “How should we live?” (with chapters in this latter section on Happiness, Sex, Love, Pain, and Death).

Why a study on Lewis and Freud? They were key players in their day– and have even greater influence now. Their worldviews and prescriptions are markedly different. And Lewis shared much of Freud’s worldview until his conversion to Christianity as an adult– allowing for a set of interesting comparisons between the two.

Lewis embraced an atheistic worldview for the first half of his life and used Freud’s reasoning to defend his atheism. Lewis then rejected his atheism and became a believer. In subsequent writings, he provides cogent responses to Freud’s arguments against the spiritual worldview… Their writings possess a striking parallelism. If Freud still serves as a primary spokesman for materialism, Lewis serves as a primary spokesman for the spiritual view that Freud attacked. (p. 4)

If both Freud and Lewis thought the question of God’s existence to be life’s most important question, let’s see how they arrived at their conflicting answers. And let’s see if their biographies– how they actually lived their lives– strengthen or weaken their arguments and tell us more than their words convey. (p. 9)

The early life experiences of Freud and Lewis show a striking parallelism. Both Freud and Lewis, as young boys, possessed intellectual gifts that foreshadowed the profound impact they would make as adults. Both suffered significant losses early in life. Both had difficult, conflict-ridden relationships with their fathers. Both received early instruction in the faith of their family and acknowledged a nominal acceptance of that faith. Both jettisoned their early belief system and became atheists when in their teens…” (p. 34-35)

All that said, we learn especially from his letters that Freud flirted with theism off-and-on throughout his life. He frequently quoted the Old and New Testaments; he often used phrases such as “if God so wills” and “God’s grace”; and his final book was entitled Moses and Monotheism (p. 50-51). He was a great admirer of the Apostle Paul– quoting him frequently, considering him one of “the great thinkers”, and remarking that he “stands alone in all history” (p. 78, 53).

Freud was also fascinated by the devil and referred to him often in his writings. He was strongly impacted by Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. The literary work he quoted most often was Goethe’s Faust. And the book he wanted to read before being euthanized was Balzac’s The Fatal Skin. Nicholi speculates that “Freud perhaps identified…with the devil himself– not as the embodiment of evil but as the ultimate rebel, defiant and refusing to surrender to Authority.” (p. 208)

Of course, there are many interesting points throughout the book. In concluding, let me share one that has been of use to me– in talking with people about theology and faith.

Freud argued that religion was a form of wish fulfillment, “a projection of human needs and wishes” (p. 42). But Lewis countered this…

…with the assertion that the biblical worldview involves a great deal of despair and pain and is certainly not anything one would wish for. He argued that understanding this view begins with the realization that one is in deep trouble, that one has transgressed the moral law and needs forgiveness and reconciliation…Although this biblical faith is “a thing of unspeakable comfort”, Lewis wrote, “it does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay”…

In addition, Lewis astutely notes that Freud’s argument stems from his clinical observations that a young child’s feelings toward the father are always characterized by a “particular ambivalence”– i.e., strong positive and strong negative feelings. But if these observations hold true, these ambivalent wishes can work both ways. Would not the negative part of the ambivalence indicate the wish that God does not exist would be as strong as the wish for his existence?”

Like many other aspects of faith, one can find some comfort with (relatively lame) arguments like “wish fulfillment”. Or one can follow the preponderance of the evidence. Beyond the facts and the logic, one must choose to believe– or not.

  • fred anderson

    i think our childhhod experoences are still ingrained us, but apostle paul wrote, ” when i was a child i thought as a child, but when i became a man all my childish ways were gone. so it that has to be corrected& paul wasa trying i think to bridge twp separate belief systems the gentile& jewish into obne package with christ. regrds andy