A review of The Question of God by Armand Nicholi

Free Press, 2003.

One of the most popular courses offered at Harvard University is taught by Armand Nicholi. In it he compares and contrasts the lives and ideas of two significant thinkers: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. The content of that course comprises the material found in this riveting and incisive book.

Both Lewis and Freud thought deep and wide about many important issues: the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of morality, true happiness, human sexuality, suffering and pain, and the existence of God. On nearly all of these issues the two thinkers came to quite different conclusions. Yet interestingly the two came from somewhat similar backgrounds.

Both men were gifted with formidable intellects and wrote widely. Both suffered significant losses in their early years. Both had conflicts with their fathers. Both had a religious upbringing which they later repudiated. Lewis later abandoned his atheism and converted to Christianity, while Freud remained an atheist.

While the two appear to have never actually met (Freud died in 1939; Lewis was born in 1898), they would have had some lively exchanges had they did so. This book comes as close as we can get to lining up their two divergent worldviews. And those two worldviews can simply be described as that of the materialistic/naturalistic versus the spiritual/supernatural. One says that this world and all that is in it can be explained solely in terms of the physical, while the other says the physical world is supplemented, explained, and sustained, by the spiritual.

Thus the question of God. As mentioned, both men were raised in religious homes but both men rejected that upbringing. But after 30 years of atheism Lewis realized that he was wrong. It was this change of heart and mind that explains the wide gulf between their belief systems.

Freud was not only a non-believer, but he actively and aggressively attacked theism. Religion, claimed Freud, is for the ignorant and childish. Believers are deluded and primitive, he chided. Following Feuerbach, he argued that the notions of God and the spiritual are simply wish-fulfillments and human projections of inner needs. As such they are illusions and false beliefs. When people become more educated they will abandon such juvenile concepts as the divine and the supernatural.

Lewis sees things quite differently. Many of the demands of the Christian worldview, for example, are not something a person would wish for. The Gospels inform us that followers of Jesus must abandon their own desires and die to self. This is not need-fulfillment but need-rejection.

Indeed, the Christian faith never promises the absence of pain and suffering: quite the opposite. We are told to expect persecution and admonished to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Hardly the stuff of wish-fulfillment.

Moreover, the wish for something may indicate that that thing actually exists. How else do we account for the universal desire for the transcendent? This is more than just projecting childhood images of one’s father onto the world at large. This universal hunger indicates a universal reality. As Lewis put it, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Of course Freud is most widely known for his views on sex. And as in other areas, his thinking differs markedly from Lewis. The views of Freud on human sexuality are well known. In his defence, he seemed more interested in the freedom to speak about sex than to necessarily act on sex, but his views nonetheless have had a lasting, often harmful, impact.

Lewis challenged the idea of Freud that sexual repression can lead to neuroses. Lewis said repression is not the same as suppression. The latter is the conscious control of one’s impulses, and a necessary component of civilisation. It is not the  control of sexuality that is unhealthy, but the lack of control.

And simply being open about our sexuality, or at least our discussion of it, is not the panacea that Freud seemed to suppose. In recent decades we have been embarrassingly open about sexual discussion, but we do not seem the better for it. Instead, our revolution in sexuality has led to a whole range of problems, from busted marriages and ruined families to sexually transmitted diseases and teen promiscuity.

Not surprisingly, Freud felt that real happiness was primarily tied up in the satisfaction of our sexual needs. Lewis thought otherwise. He felt that happiness will always be elusive if directly sought after. It can be obtained indirectly, as a by-product, if we live our lives in accordance with our design. And we are designed to have a relationship with our creator.

Indeed, argues Lewis, all our attempts to obtain happiness will fail until we realize the primary purpose of our lives: to be in relationship with the Peron who made us. Happiness is only found in God, and God cannot give it apart from himself. So refuse God and you forfeit the path to happiness.

Other areas of difference are explored. Taken together, they provide a very nice contrast between two competing philosophies of life: the materialist versus the spiritual. In short, this book describes the difference of God and the difference he makes. Freud’s atheism had a profound effect on all that he thought and wrote about. So too did Lewis’s theism. The question is, which worldview best explains the world we find ourselves in, and which one gives us a proper grounding for hope, meaning and a satisfied life?

Nicholi is to be congratulated for taking some of the deep questions about life and living and putting them into this very accessible and readable account. He has made Lewis and Freud come alive, and has presented his readers with a clear contrast in conflicting worldviews.

The question of God is one that all of us must grapple with. And “The Question of God” by Nicholi is a great vehicle for that task.

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