Campus & Community

The Question of God

7 min read
Armand Nicholi: ‘Students always ask me, which side are you on? […] What I do is try to present an objective, dispassionate, critical assessment of both worldviews.’ Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell

Armand Nicholi’s seminar, which he has taught without interruption for the past 35 years, is now the basis for his book, ‘The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life.’

For Sigmund Freud there was considerable doubt. Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, didn’t just question religious belief, he attacked it as childish, escapist, and unworthy of a mature, rational mind.

The doctrines of religion, Freud wrote, “bear the imprint of the times in which they arose, the ignorant times of the childhood of humanity.” He asserted that “the religions of mankind must be classed among the mass delusions,” and that “when a man has once brought himself to accept uncritically all the absurdities that religious doctrines put before him … we need not be greatly surprised at the weakness of his intellect.”

In 1967, when Armand Nicholi, associate clinical professor of psychiatry, began teaching a seminar on Freud at Leverett House, he found that many of his students were disturbed by Freud’s rigidly materialist perspective.

“The students found Freud’s works very interesting, but unbalanced,” Nicholi said. “They wanted to know who would be a good counterpoint, someone who would be able to defend and define the spiritual worldview that Freud attacked.”

Nicholi remembered a book he had discovered as an intern, “The Problem of Pain” by C.S. Lewis. Someone had left the volume in the hospital library, and Nicholi picked it up, hoping it would help him deal with the suffering he was encountering, suffering that at the time nearly convinced him to leave medicine.

“I found it helpful, but I think I mistook the clarity and simplicity of the writing for superficiality. It was only later that I realized how profound it was.”

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was perhaps the 20th century’s best known Christian apologist, author of such books as “Mere Christianity,” “Surprised by Joy,” and “The Screwtape Letters.” An Oxford don, he also wrote extensively on the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and found time to compose “The Narnia Chronicles” and other works of fantasy for children and adults.

Why are we here?
What’s life all about?
Is God really real,
or is there some doubt?

– Monty Python, “The Meaning of Life”

And thanks to the play “Shadowlands” by William Nicholson (later a movie with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger) the poignant story of Lewis’ marriage to Joy Gresham has become well known.

Nicholi decided that Lewis would make a particularly apt counterpoint to Freud. There is no evidence the two ever met, nor did Freud live long enough to read any of Lewis’ principal works, but there is ample evidence that Lewis was familiar with the theories of Freud, whose impact on literary criticism at the time was considerable.

Moreover, until he was in his 30s, Lewis ardently embraced the same brand of militant atheism to which Freud subscribed. It was only after arriving at Oxford and coming under the influence of a group of Christian intellectuals including J.R.R. Tolkien that Lewis began to question his own unbelief, converting to Christianity in 1931.

“When I added Lewis as a counterpoint, the discussion in class ignited,” said Nicholi. “It’s been a fun course to teach because everyone’s interested in these issues.”

It must be fun. Nicholi has taught the seminar without interruption for the past 35 years and still hasn’t tired of it. Nor have the students. The course regularly receives accolades in the CUE Guide and attracts far more applicants than can be accommodated during a given semester.

For the past 11 years, Nicholi has also offered the seminar to students at the Medical School. He believes that for them, the issues raised are not only of vital personal interest but are professionally important as well.

“These are questions that medical students need to deal with. People facing life-threatening illness may wonder, ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ It’s vitally important for a doctor to understand a patient’s worldview.”

Now the spirited discussion that Nicholi has presided over for the past 35 years has been opened to a wider group of participants. Nicholi has written a book based on his course: “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life” (The Free Press, 2002).

As he does in his seminar, Nicholi avoids taking sides in the debate, but rather allows Freud and Lewis to speak for themselves. He also examines their lives to determine the impact of their beliefs. Ultimately, the book asks the question, which man was happier, more satisfied? Is it better to be a believer or an unbeliever?

Asked this question directly, Nicholi maintains a sphinxlike reticence.

“Students always ask me, which side are you on? Half of them assume that because I’m a psychiatrist I must be a materialist. Others who embrace a spiritual perspective may make the opposite assumption. What I do is try to present an objective, dispassionate, critical assessment of both worldviews.”

Nicholi’s book, however, tells another story. In response to the question of happiness, the evidence is clear: Lewis wins, hands down. After his conversion, or, as he called it, his transition, he underwent a profound change from gloomy, introverted pessimist to cheerful extrovert, described by a close friend as “great fun, an extremely witty and amusing companion … considerate … more concerned with the welfare of his friends than with himself.”

And contrary to Freud’s conviction that a spiritual worldview is incompatible with reason and intelligence, Lewis’ transition to Christianity came about as a result of a long and difficult period of critical reasoning and examination of the historical evidence. Determined to establish for himself whether Jesus was indeed the Son of God, Lewis read the New Testament in the original Greek, applying the rigorous methods he had learned as a literary scholar. Finally, he could not escape the conclusion that Jesus was exactly who he claimed to be.

Freud, by contrast, was a dour pessimist who argued violently with most of his friends and colleagues. His opinion of human nature was low. He once wrote to a friend that he found “little that is good about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or none at all.”

Faced with suffering in his own life or in that of others, Freud’s only answer was to “endure with resignation.” He followed this philosophy consistently, stoically enduring the pain and discomfort of the cancer of the palate that afflicted him in the last two decades of his life. He died by assisted suicide at the age of 83.

But Nicholi is quick to point out that whatever his limitations as a person, Freud remains the most important single figure in the study of the mind.

“Everyone in my profession owes a great deal to Freud,” Nicholi said. “Most forms of psychotherapy use one of more of the basic concepts that Freud developed. He’s revolutionized how we interpret human behavior in many disciplines.”

The debate between Freud and Lewis will soon reach an even wider audience. A four-hour PBS documentary based on the book is currently in production. Nicholi will appear in the production, alternating with dramatized episodes from the lives of the two men filmed on location in London and Vienna.

Nicholi hopes that the series will have the same sort of mind-expanding effect on TV audiences that his class has had on Harvard students, whatever their beliefs or predilections.

“I encourage students to understand the worldview they do not embrace. Although at first they find that unsettling, ultimately it will have a strengthening effect if they can confront the arguments and work through them. It may create doubt, but doubt is a part of belief.”