Lewis and Freud: A Virtual Debate over God


Knight Ridder Newspapers

Does God really exist?

Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis placed the question at the forefront of their musings, discussing them at length in books and other writings.

For more than 25 years, Dr. Armand Nicholi has taught a popular course at Harvard University in which students deconstruct the lives and arguments of Freud, one of the 20th century’s chief spokesmen for atheism, and Lewis, who came to faith at age 31.

Nicholi’s research led to a surprisingly successful book, “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life” (Free Press, $15). More than 75,000 copies have been printed, and it is the basis of a PBS series that will air this fall.

“Everybody is preoccupied with this issue at some level,” Nicholi said. “People often don’t allow themselves to think about it unless they wake up at 3 a.m. and they think about the meaning of their lives.”

There is no evidence that Freud and Lewis ever met, Nicholi said. But, he adds, had such a meeting occurred, “I think they would have really had a great relationship. They would have respected each other’s minds.”

As he researched Lewis, he was struck by how closely his life paralleled that of Freud. Both men knew physical and emotional suffering, were leaders in their respective fields and seemed consumed with the question of God.

“Freud raises a question; Lewis attempts to answer it,” Nicholi said. “It was as though they were arguing at a podium.”

Freud was born in 1856. He grew up in a devoutly Jewish family and attended Hebrew school but abandoned faith as a teen. He experienced the virulent anti-Semitism in early 20th-century Europe.

While Freud declared his lack of belief early, he felt compelled to argue against the existence of God all of his life, up until his death in 1939. Freud believed faith in a heavenly God is simply a way for people as adults to find a substitute for parents. And it provides comfort in the face of life’s brutal vicissitudes and the sense of helplessness people experience when thinking about mortality.

“He felt if you base your life on a false premise, that can only lead in the long run to disillusionment and bitter disappointment,” Nicholi said.

Lewis once declared religion as nonsense, as well. “Christianity was mainly associated for me with ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry,” he once wrote. “No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference. But Christianity placed at the center what seemed to me a transcendental Interferer.”

Like Freud, Lewis, born in England in 1898, suffered from depression and struggled with close relationships. At 9, his mother died.

Lewis, too, embraced atheism as an adolescent. He survived the horrors of the trenches during World War I; he was injured as friends perished. Eventually, he established his academic career as a literary scholar. He found himself drawn to Christians for friendship. In 1925, a much-admired intellectual and atheist admitted to Lewis one evening after dinner that substantial evidence actually supported the Gospels as history. “He was very bothered by that,” Nicholi said.

Lewis, well-versed in mythology, read the New Testament for the first time — in Greek.

He noticed that, unlike the great myths of literature, the story of Jesus was not a beautifully crafted tale; rather, it was one written by uneducated Jews who wrote what they saw, or what they were told.

During one late-night talk with H.V.V. Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien, his devout friends argued that the previous myths of a god coming to Earth to save humanity were actually “signposts” pointing to the story of Jesus. The New Testament myth, they argued, was the one myth that was true.

Shortly after that discussion — during a motorcycle ride to a zoo — Lewis accepted Jesus as his Lord and savior and became perhaps England’s “most dejected and reluctant convert.”

Following his transformation, Lewis experienced immense literary success, including the popular “Chronicles of Narnia,” allegories of the Christian faith, and “The Screwtape Letters.”

Lewis used his writing skills to counter Freud’s arguments, which he once embraced. He noted the biblical perspective of life includes substantial pain and despair — not much to wish for. And it calls for believers to abandon their will for God’s will.

He believed a power existed outside the universe, a power that humans intuitively know exists.

“He says, ‘We don’t have a need for something that doesn’t exist. We have a need for water, and there is water. We have a need for food, and there is food. We have a need for sex, and there is sex. We have a need for God, and there is God,’ ” Nicholi said.

Freud and Lewis agreed on this: The question of God is a central issue for humanity.

“Here is a door behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you,” Lewis wrote. “Either that’s true or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud on record.”

The series based on Nicholi’s book will be called “The Question of God” and will air on PBS stations in early fall.

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