Vincent's Reviews > The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life

The Question of God by Armand M. Nicholi Jr.
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Apr 10, 12

bookshelves: religious-studies, philosophy, dreck, christianity
Read from March 29 to April 06, 2012

Indulge me, if you will, in this little scenario. You are told that you will bear witness to a debate between two great minds over life’s most import questions and the moderator promises to remain completely objective. Debater #1 is then immediately placed in a soundproof cage and is allowed to simply ramble about anything he desires. He is also unaware that he is in a debate. Debater #2 responds to Debater #1 whenever he wishes, sometimes not even addressing the same subject, yet this is a small matter as Debater #1 is not allowed to respond. Meanwhile, the moderator is sporting an obvious hard-on for Debater #2, massaging his shoulders and backing him up whenever possible. How long will it take you to realize you are being shammed?

The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, purports to be an objective examination of the topics at hand using the writings of Freud and Lewis to counterpoint each other, Freud representing the “materialist worldview” and Lewis the “spiritual worldview” – in other words, atheism and theism. The author, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., justifies this by the fact that Lewis was influenced by Freud early in his life but eventually converted to Christianity and wrote responses to Freud’s ideas, and if these writings are examined beside each other something like a debate emerges. In this Nicholi is overstretching what constitutes as a debate. Indeed, there is no record of the two men ever meeting or corresponding and they belonged to two distinct and separate generations.

Right from the start his premise is flawed. He claims that “Freud still serves as a primary spokesman for materialism” (4). Does he? What materialist turns to Freud for guidance these days? Who turns to Freud for anything these days, aside for jokes about the Oedipal Complex and Penis Envy? Nicholi does not back up his statement and immediately sets up a straw man. This is even after he has admitted that the “criticism and controversy surrounding him” have grown since his death (2).

Nevertheless, Nicholi wishes to tie the validity of his subjects’ arguments to the way in which they lived their lives, though he also admits that “we do well to keep in mind that human beings do not always live what they profess, nor profess what they live” (5). Nicholi wants it both ways and will take either when it is convenient to his perspective. Regardless, this notion is false and rests the measurement of truth not on fact or logic but on the happiness and conduct of a particular individual. By this reasoning, the American values laid forth in the Declaration of Independence are null and void because its author was a hypocritical slave holder. Please leave your equal rights at the door as you leave, thank you very much. In essence, what Nicholi has laid the groundwork for and will in short order begin to execute is a hatchet job on Freud, who is about as difficult to hatchet as butter, and will vicariously claim victory over the materialist viewpoint due to Freud’s personal faults.

His establishment of Lewis is also manipulative. He sets Lewis up to represent the “spiritual worldview” to contrast the “materialist” one, claiming that they are mutually exclusive because “one of them begins with the premise that God does not exist, the other with the premise that He does” (8). But this is far too restrictive a use of the broad term “spiritual,” which in many definitions is not at all incompatible with the materialist worldview, as many forms of spirituality do not suppose a belief in immaterial realities. By categorizing Lewis as he does, Nicholi is employing a semantic sleight of hand, attempting to mask Lewis’s true focus, or perhaps trying to gain him more sympathy with a generally positive word. However, as one reads the so-called debate it becomes glaringly obvious that Freud and Lewis are not speaking of the same things – Freud is speaking of science (as it was understood in his time) and religion in general while Lewis is speaking specifically of Christianity. Unlike Freud, Lewis is still viewed as a standard – of Christian apologetics. Either way, Freud and Lewis are too narrow in their arguments and discipline to properly represent either proposed worldview.

Nicholi states that “we will look at both views as objectively and dispassionately as possible and let the arguments speak for themselves” (6). Yet the author continually interjects himself into the conversation, usually to admonish Freud on his contradictions (no matter how minor and insignificant) and to praise Lewis. Freud is given the majority of individual analysis while Lewis shows up only when it is convenient for the author to counter Freud, like a strong man at his side. Lewis is even used to basically psychoanalyze Freud, but Freud is not used to psychoanalyze Lewis. It is clearly a lopsided argument and further injures the book by giving it a disjointed quality.

At one point Nicholi remarks: “As with much of Freud’s teachings, the great psychiatrist offers a partial truth that supports his philosophy but omits crucial aspects that question his conclusions” (50). Yet the same can equally be said of Lewis (and Nicholi, for that matter), who uses false assumptions, circular logic and empty metaphors to make his arguments, which he then wraps up in admittedly seductive language (the man new how to weave a vibrant fabric of words). Freud, on the other hand, was no seducer. Yet on Lewis the author once again is conveniently silent. In the final paragraph of Chapter 2 Nicholi even casually writes: “In sum, Freud and Lewis’s arguments can be subjected to tests of evidence and plausibility” (56). Wait, what? Freud and Lewis’s arguments, you say? And yet the author has just spent several pages tearing through Freud and not Lewis. The materialist has been subjected to the stated tests and Lewis has not. In fact, Lewis is largely given a free ride throughout the book.

Nicholi employs a modern arsenal of psychology, genetics, neuroscience, and even (generally erroneous) Gallup polls to contradict Freud, but not Lewis. Even in instances when Lewis is patently wrong Nicholi remains silent, or worse, lays credence, such as when the author accepts Lewis’s judgment of the gospels when he refers to them as the “eyewitness accounts of the New Testament” (89), and yet biblical scholarship has shown them to be anything but. This fact would topple Lewis’s argument and it is therefore conspicuous that Nicholi does not intercede. When Nicholi does decide to lend his psychiatric expertise to question Lewis, it is usually frivolous, such as when he questions to what degree Lewis’s conversion was intellectual or emotional. Nicholi, unsurprisingly, suspects he felt it more profoundly than he admits (92). Gee, thanks for the valuable insight, doctor.

Nicholi enters the scene at other odd times. For instance, when he discusses a psychological study he conducted about the positive effects of religious experience on believers’ personal lives. He says that the paper was done “several years ago” (80) although at the time of the book’s publication it was close to thirty years. He briefly presents the findings of this study as a means to counter Freud’s negative assessment of belief and yet says nothing about it possibly laying support for Freud’s grounding of religious belief in Darwinist terms, as a once useful residual evolutionary trait.

In Nicholi’s analysis of Freud and Lewis’s atheism, we are told to view their rejection of God in terms of their unresolved issues with their fathers. According to the author, Freud continually lived with an unfulfilled longing, his thoughts towards his father leading to his continual denial of God’s existence. Lewis, on the other hand, is depicted as overcoming that obstacle, as removing his blinders and finding God’s grace. In the end, the author informs readers that we should follow Lewis’s example, that “we owe it to ourselves to look at the evidence [for God], perhaps beginning with the Old and New Testaments” (244).

I have no issue with Christian apologetics that are truthful from the start about what they are and what their intentions will be. It is a simple courtesy owed to the reader. What I thought might be an interesting thought experiment turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The thin disguise of objectivity that Nicholi has veiled around this book quickly erodes with each turn of the page. Critical readers who are appropriately resentful to such deception will leave this book feeling bitter and betrayed. You have been warned.
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