Freud, C. S. Lewis, and the Question of God


Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis were both haunted all their lives by a deep yearning with no easily identifiable object — a transcendent longing that Freud called Sehnsucht and that Lewis called Joy. Freud, however, saw in human desire the basis for projection and illusion, while Lewis argued that, like other innate human desires, this longing must have a real object, if not in this life, then in some other.

"Freud didn’t really understand what this desire in him was," says Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, who for a quarter century has compared and contrasted Freud’s and Lewis’s worldviews in a popular course at Harvard Medical School. "It was a deep-seated yearning that he didn’t understand. At one point in his life he said he thought it was for just reliving some early childhood experience with his father. Later he thought that it might be a desire for a life of another kind, a world of another kind. And Lewis said that this was the central theme of his life, this deep-seated desire that he called Joy. He [also] uses the same word that Freud uses [Sehnsucht] to describe it."

The Question of God, airing in two parts on PBS September 15 and 22, is an extension of Dr. Nicholi’s course and of his book The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, published by the Free Press. Over the course of its four hours, The Question of God blends biographical surveys of Freud’s and Lewis’s intellectual and metaphysical journeys, panel discussions of believers and unbelievers moderated by Dr. Nicholi, expert interviews with authorities like Peter Kreeft and Harold Blum, and dramatic readings from Freud’s and Lewis’s writings with actors portraying the two thinkers.

Although Freud and Lewis never met and certainly never debated one another, Dr. Nicholi regards the matching of their views against one another as a logical one. Each was among the most influential proponents of their respective atheistic and theistic worldviews, which Nicholi calls "secular" and "spiritual," and each was a vocal critic of the worldview held by the other. Freud regarded religious belief as "an illusion," while Lewis considered atheistic materialism not only "a great myth" but "self-refuting."

Freud, in particular, "still influences our culture a great deal," Nicholi says. "He’s influenced our language — there’s no stronger influence you can have on a culture than to influence the language. We use terms like ‘psychosis,’ ‘neurosis,’ and ’Freudian slip’ without realizing where the words come from."

As a popular proponent of a 2000-year-old system of thought rather than a founder of a new discipline, Lewis’s cultural contribution may not be as revolutionary as Freud’s. Yet as "perhaps the twentieth century’s most popular proponent of faith based on reason," Nicholi says he has arguably done more than any other Christian thinker and writer to articulate and promote a sustained rational response to atheistic materialism in the post-Freudian age.

In particular, Lewis strongly rebutted Freud’s interpretation of religious belief as a form of wish fulfillment, of God as "merely a projection of a childish wish for the protection of the father," in Nicholi’s words. Lewis argued, first of all, that there is a psychological dynamic of fear fulfillment as well as wish fulfillment, and secondly that men have reasons to wish God not to exist as well as to wish for his existence.

In fact, Nicholi points out that according to Freud’s own theory of a universal subconscious Oedipal desire in man to kill his father and marry his mother, a man would seem to have at least as plausible a psychological basis for wanting to do away with the Father in heaven as wanting to believe in him, and that Lewis could as easily explain Freud’s belief in these terms as Freud could Lewis’s belief.

"Lewis makes a good point," Nicholi says, "when he says that… according to Freud’s theory one has both positive and negative feelings toward the father, and that the negative feelings might cause the wish that God not exist be as strong as the wish for his existence. Lewis thinks that’s not a good argument — that one cancels the other out."

Even at four hours, The Question of God only scratches the surface of Nicholi’s 300-plus page book (and presumably of his Harvard course). The biographical sketches and dramatic readings offer a fine introduction to the lives and philosophical pilgrimages of these two men.

The panel discussions are more of a mixed bag. The selection of the seven panelists seems curious; there appear to be at least a couple of theists and a couple of atheists, but several of the participants seem to represent neither Lewis’s reasoned faith nor Freud’s reasoned unbelief, but a vague spirituality that has little to do with the views of either of the two subjects.

On the atheist side, the producers recruited Michael Shermer, the director of the Skeptics Society and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, along with attorney Jeremy Fraiberg, a man who argues for a living. On the Christian side, however, there is no full-time apologist or polemicist of faith. (There is a scientist, Harvard physician Frederick Lee, as well as an investment banker, Douglas Holladay.) Asked about this, Nicholi concedes that there was "maybe not enough" representation of Christian apologetics on the panel.

Taken as a whole, though, the series offers much thought-provoking fodder for conversation, debate, and philosophical inquiry. Its ready-made discussion points regarding God, belief and unbelief, suffering and evil, and the meaning of life would be ideal in a philosophy or religion class, or just an evening with friends, relatives, or neighbors of various persuasions.

"One of the reasons I wrote the book and one of the reasons I teach the course," says Nicholi, "is that I think that everyone, whether they realize it or not, has a worldview, and everyone has some form of either Freud’s secular worldview or Lewis’s spiritual worldview.

"Hopefully the series will be used as a discussion tool to invite friends and neighbors to all sit together or to all watch the DVD, and use the material as a discussion tool, because I do think that it opens up avenues of discussion with people whom you might not ordinarily feel comfortable discussing [these matters] with."