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Oh, What a Difference God Makes! 
The Religious Beliefs and Lives of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis.

a review of
The Question of God. C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate 
God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life 
by Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., M.D. 
New York: The Free Press, 2002; paperback edition, 2003
244 pages.

A review essay by Elizabeth S. Bowman, M.D.

Did you ever wonder what kinds of lives and beliefs produced Sigmund Freud’s diatribes against belief in God and religion (Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices, 1907; The Future of an Illusion, 1927; Moses and Monotheism, 1939), or C. S. Lewis’s hopeful Christian parable, The Chronicles of Narnia? How was it that two men from similarly difficult childhoods turned out so differently in their religious outlook and writings? This book gives us a peek into the impact of living with angry atheism (Freud) and of being gripped by Jesus Christ, as Lewis was in adulthood. For Christian readers, the results are encouraging, especially for those facing illness or death. 

The Question of GodThis book grew from a course that psychoanalyst Armand Nicholi has taught at Harvard for a quarter century, comparing and contrasting the philosophical arguments of the British author, Oxford critic, and Christian apologist, C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) with those of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis and parent of modern psychiatry. Initially teaching a Harvard undergraduate course on Freud, Nicholi noted that class discussion ignited when the course addressed Freud’s religious philosophy. Because of that interest, the course evolved into a comparison of the life philosophies of Freud and Lewis and was also offered to Harvard Medical students. 

“The purpose of this book,” Nicholi writes, “is to look at human life from two diametrically opposed points of view: those of the believer and the unbeliever” (Pg 5). He examines basic life issues in light of these two conflicting views, asking the reader to consider both views objectively. He attempts to be even-handed as he quotes their letters and draws from interviews with their friends, but the sheer contrast between Lewis’s vibrant post-conversion joy and peace in the face of death, and Freud’s pessimism and life-long terror of death, overwhelms the possibility of neutrality. Nicholi covertly presents an apologetic for faith through these authors’ eloquent words and their life stories.

What should we believe? 

This book is divided into two sections: the first, “What Should We Believe?” examines the biographies of Freud and Lewis, and contrasts their positions on the existence of God, the existence of a Universal Moral Law, and their spiritual versus scientific materialist world views. In each chapter, Nicholi sums up the essential issue and position of each protagonist in a pithy opening paragraph, then explores the relevant life events and viewpoints of each man on the chapter’s topic, contrasting them and including extensive quotations that give the reader a flavor of Freud’s pessimistic outlook and Lewis’ optimism and peace after his conversion. 

The opening chapter of their biographies and their life vignettes at the end of each chapter are the best parts of this book. They give us memorable stories to illustrate the impact of Freud’s and Lewis’s beliefs. The opening chapter, which explores each biography in some detail, offers invaluable insight into the role each man’s early childhood losses and adolescent educational experiences played in their each arriving in adulthood as committed atheists who disliked people. While Freud remained an atheist until death (but probably not beyond that, I imagine!), Lewis was converted to Christianity around age 30 and wrote extensively about his conversion, the subsequent change in his world view, and the credibility of Christianity in a modern world. He became the twentieth century’s most famous, and perhaps most effective Christian apologist. Nicholi’s light easy prose transforms potentially heavy material into fast enjoyable reading, especially as he relates these men’s world views to their life experiences. I could hardly put this book down.

How should we live? 

The second section of this book, “How Should We Live?” explores the implications of Lewis’s and Freud’s philosophies of life. This section includes chapters on happiness in life, the role of sex in happiness, the nature of love, the problem of pain and suffering, and the reality of death. These are precisely the key issues that these authors grappled with in their lives and philosophical writings. We face these same issues. Dr. Nicholi summarizes them with accuracy, revealing his extensive knowledge of both Lewis’s and Freud’s works in his quotations of their letters to friends and family, as well as their major works. He also mentions personal interviews with Freud’s daughter Anna and others who knew Freud and Lewis. He did his homework. 

In this book’s second section. Nicholi illustrates the implications of Lewis’s Christian spiritual world view and of Freud’s scientific materialism by first laying out their usually completely opposed beliefs, and then ending each chapter by discussing their lives — where the rubber of their philosophies met the road of living. Inevitably, the depressed, anxious, and deeply neurotic Freud comes off as far more miserable and dysfunctional than Lewis (at least after Lewis’s conversion). Before Lewis’s conversion, the two men sounded like peas in a pod. 

For the reader who is unfamiliar with Freud’s life, this book is an eye opener. Before reading it, as a psychiatrist, I was aware of how conflicted, neurotic, and miserable Freud was; but I did not realize the depth and duration of his depressions or his life-long preoccupation with fear of his own death until Nicholi pointed them out in quotations from Freud’s letters. In enumeration of Lewis’s post traumatic stress disorder symptoms after fighting in World War I, Dr. Nicholi’s clinical expertise especially shines through. He clarifies the personal psychology at work to produce the very different adult lives of these otherwise similar brilliant professors and authors. These perspectives make this work understandable for readers without clinical training in mental health sciences. 

I was frustrated at times when Nicholi passed over without comment what seemed to me (as a psychiatrist) obvious psychodynamics in Freud’s and Lewis’s lives. Eventually, however, he makes clear how the early losses of Lewis’s mother (at age nine) and two other family members, followed by painful rejection by his father and chilling child abuse in an English boarding school, destroyed Lewis’s ability to attach to belief in God and turned him into an introverted proud snob, per Lewis’s own description. His trauma in WWI further deepened his cynicism until God’s Spirit drew him to a conversion (on a bus ride to the zoo!) that is little short of a miracle. 

Nicholi joins other psychiatric commentators in tracing Freud’s atheism to his profound ambivalence toward his father, to his life-long experiences of rejection of his theories by colleagues, professional discrimination and outright hatred from anti-Semitic Christians and Nazis, and to the impact of the thoroughly atheistic scientific materialism that was becoming the “religion” of western culture during his medical training. Freud attributed his long delay in obtaining a coveted university professorship to religious discrimination against Jews. Unfortunately, this was probably partly true. 

Freud felt intense rivalry with his devout Jewish father and intense love for his very young mother who was the age of several of his father’s older sons. His theory of the Oedipus complex, like his religious beliefs, was birthed in his personal experiences. He despised his father’s economic failures and his passive acceptance of public religious abuse that Freud’s father described to his son. In contrast, the figures whom Freud admired were successful academic physicians and scientists who mentored him and modeled materialistic atheism. Given the cold hatred he experienced from “Christian” culture, it is small wonder he was unable to believe and that he attacked his father symbolically in his life-long attacks on religion and “father” God. 

I found this a chilling lesson in the importance of loving our neighbors and not discriminating against them. I wonder, would the twentieth century’s most famous advocate for atheism have attacked belief in God with such fervor if Christians had acted like Christ toward their Jewish brother, Sigmund? Nicholi provides us with some tantalizing tidbits about Freud (like his being celibate during the last 43-45 years of his marriage, and Freud’s decision to choose euthanasia by pain medications at life’s end), but does not explain them beyond saying that they reflect on Freud’s depression and pervasive life-long pessimism. Nicholi implies that Freud’s pessimism is a result of his religious world view. This can’t be conclusively proven, but the suggestion is plausible. 

Nicholi presents Lewis as scarred by his mother’s death, adolescent physical abuse by a clergy schoolmaster, and the trauma of front line combat and injury during WWI. He describes Lewis’s introversion and pessimism prior to his conversion in stark contrast to Lewis’s joyful embracing of close friendships and zest for life afterwards. He quotes Lewis on his complete change of character after conversion (e.g., from avoiding and disliking people to embracing close friendships; from not dating to enjoying a lusty marriage in late life) and supplements it with material from interviews with Lewis’s friends, who describe their long walks, pub talks, and experiences with Lewis on his death bed. Freud died fearfully. Lewis went in peace, despite dying much younger than Freud.

Separating biography from theory 

For mental health professionals, a saving grace of this book is that Nicholi clearly distinguishes Freud’s scientific theories from his philosophical writings and utilizes the helpful insights of the former (e.g., transference of feelings about parents or ourselves onto our images of God) to help us understand the latter. He enables us to see that Freud’s views on religion and his philosophy of life were his personal views, related to his unresolved internal conflicts (his psychological injuries). Nicholi presents these views, as well as Freud’s revolutionary theories that liberated human thinking about our emotional and mental lives; but he does not equate them. Armand Nicholi is on solid gound in separating Freud’s scientific and religious works; most other critics of Freud’s religious works do the same (Meissner, 1984; Rizzuto, 1979, 1998). 

Freud caricatured religion by highlighting its most pathological aspects. He had little first-hand experience with either Jewish or Christian religion, and no understanding of internalized spiritual experiences. His lack of spiritual experience showed. The “religious” fervor of his attacks on belief in God and their persistence as he approached death betrayed their source in his unresolved psychological conflicts. At the same time, he was respectful of the beliefs of his close friend, Oskar Pfister, a Lutheran pastor in Switzerland with whom he carried on frequent correspondence for three decades. Freud entertained Pfister in his home and treasured their friendship.

Separating Freud’s writings on religion from his psychodynamic theory 

Despite Freud’s brilliance in psychodynamic theory, he had no expertise or authority in religious matters. Taking his religious philosophy as seriously as his psychological developmental theory would be like attributing equal authority to a psychiatric case study and a treatise on astrophysics, both written by me (a psychiatrist). I have little knowledge of astrophysics (and no authority writing about it). Christians can affirm the power of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, and of psychological defenses and some of his developmental theories without believing his religious theories. You can be Christian and use Freud’s psychological works. When it comes to religion, however, I suggest looking at Carl Jung’s theories (Clift, 1982) or utilizing modern object relations approaches to religion (Ana-Maria Rizzuto, 1979) that illuminate how our God images are based in our relationships with ourselves and our parents. The reader can read Nicholi’s book and still appreciate Freud. 

I felt great empathy for him after reading Nicholi’s description of Freud’s tremendous suffering during 30 surgeries in 16 years of dying of palate cancer. Sigmund Freud appeared lonely and, without God or a belief in afterlife, was very fearful of death and very hopeless and depressed. I pitied him by the end of the book. He illustrates Jung’s concept that “a diet of pure materialistic facts is a starvation diet.” (Clift, 1982 p. 89). 

Dr. Nicholi’s viewpoint on Freud’s life and religious philosophies and their relationship to his life events is mainstream and in line with more in-depth, psychological or theological treatments of this topic (Meissner, 1984; Küng, 1979, Rizzuto, 1998). While lacking the depth of Meissner’s or Rizzuto’s psychoanalytic analysis of Freud, and lacking the theological perspective that the Jesuit priest and psychoanalyst Meissner or theologian Kung bring to the topic, Nicholi presents an easily readable and highly enjoyable boiled down version of Freud’s spiritual and religious struggles.

Gender and language issues 

Nicholi also spares the reader the intensely male-centered language used by Meissner and others. While Dr. Nicholi does not appear to have caught on that male images of God are themselves transferences, he at least does not bombard the reader with male pronouns for humanity. That task is left to Lewis and Freud, whose quotations contain thoroughly male-centered language that reflect their era’s linguistic unconsciousness about gender. 

This is a highly readable book. I flew through the pages of The Question of God, enjoying the stark contrast of Lewis and Freud. In the end, I felt again cheered by the hope that Christianity (even the unquestioned and simple Creation-Fall-Redemption theology of Lewis) brings to the meaning of life, suffering, and death. 

The last chapter is on death. I have cancer — a very aggressive cancer — so I was paying rapt attention. Lewis’s faith and brilliant retorts to Freud’s works (that he obviously read) are faith-inspiring; they stirred God’s spirit within me and renewed my sense of hope as a child of God. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about Freud’s religious world views and about C.S. Lewis’s sparkling wit and clear defense of Christianity. Don’t expect a feminist approach in this book. It just isn’t there in language or concepts. If anything, this book is quietly male-centered. Still, it offers a thought-provoking bottom line: Our beliefs matter greatly — to our happiness, hope, and how we live our lives and face death.

Some lessons to be learned 

This book contains indirect warnings and powerful lessons. First is the influence we can have by living our faith openly in front of others. This lured Lewis, one of the great twentieth century Christian apologists, to Christ. How we live matters because others are watching us, and we influence them toward or away from God by our words — and, even more, by our actions. For Lewis, friendship combined with intelligent, informed explanations of belief were a powerful evangelistic tool in bringing him hope in Jesus. The kindness to Freud of atheistic scientific materialists was similarly influential in his becoming a powerful apologist for atheism. How we act and what we say matters. 

This book’s second lesson is to underscore the tremendous toll of suffering and stifling of belief imposed by religious prejudice (e.g., Freud’s painful experience of anti-Semitism). Third is the import of our basic world view for how we live our lives and face our deaths and the loss of loved ones (Freud was bitter about his daughter Sophie’s death. Lewis was bitter and angry at God for a time after losing his wife but regained peace after reconciling with God). This book’s fourth lesson is the futility and hopelessness of living and dying without the hope of afterlife with God. Last, this book vividly illustrates the lack of comfort offered by the materialist philosophy of science (the idea that the material world is the only reality). 

Although Dr. Nicholi presents autobiographical facts about both authors, allowing them to speak for themselves through extensive quotes, he is not neutral in his presentation of Lewis and Freud. He recurrently focuses on Lewis’s changed life after conversion (which Lewis wrote about at length) and on Freud’s continued hopelessness and misery. He persistently lets his protagonists present a low-key case for the psychological benefits of believing in God. Read this if you want your faith stimulated or renewed.

– Elizabeth S. Bowman, M.D.

References:

  • Clift, Wallace B. (1982). Jung and Christianity. The Challenge of Reconciliation. New York: Crossroad Publishing. 

  • Küng, Hans (1979). Freud and the Problem of God. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 

  • Rizzuto, Ana-Maria (1979). The Birth of the Living God. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. 

  • Rizzuto, Ana-Maria. (1998). Why Did Freud Reject God? A Psychodynamic Interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 

  • Meissner, William W. (1984). Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Elizabeth S. Bowman, M.D. is a psychiatrist, a long-time member of EEWC, and is Clinical Professor of Neurology at Indiana University School of Medicine. She also holds a Master of Sacred Theology degree. Dr. Bowman is the 2004 recipient of the Oskar Pfister Award from the American Psychiatric Association for significant contributions to the dialogue between religion and psychiatry.

 © 2004 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 27 number 4 Winter (January-March) 2004

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