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Book Forum: History of Psychiatry   |    
The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:1797-a-1800. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.10.1797-a
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Evanston, Ill.

By Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. New York, Free Press, 2002, 295 pp., $25.00.

This book apparently arose out of a course that Dr. Nicholi has been giving, first to undergraduates and then "for the last ten years to the Harvard Medical School students" (p. 5). Why this course was given and especially why it was given to Harvard Medical School students is not explained; the book jacket tells us only that there are now hundreds of Nicholi’s former students. The author, although he deals at length with some of Freud’s writings, is not a psychoanalyst. He is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital, a very prestigious affiliation indeed. He is an actively practicing psychiatrist and "serves as a consultant to government groups, corporations, and professional athletes."

The book is written in a pleasant style and is clearly meant as a book for the general public, not for scholars. It has a journalistic ambiance, and Nicholi is a skilled popularizer and rhetorician.

Nicholi attempts to juxtapose in some manner the views of Sigmund Freud and the views of C.S. Lewis on the subject of religiosity. What actually emerges from the book, as far as I could gather, is that Nicholi has used the views of Lewis to attack Freud and argue not just for the existence of God but for the validity of the Christian religion. It appears to me that a religious Moslem or a religious Jew or a religious Hindu or Buddhist would be just as annoyed with this book as a Freudian psychoanalyst.

Freud and Lewis probably never met and never had a discussion; Lewis was of a generation later than Freud. We are given a number of Lewis’s arguments against Freud’s views, but we are not given any arguments by Freud against Lewis, whom I doubt he ever heard of; if he did, he might have abruptly dismissed him as a guilt-ridden neurotic. The net result of this book is that the views are not juxtaposed but, rather, Lewis’s responses to Freud serve the author Nicholi as a rhetorical vehicle to express disparagement of Freud’s point of view.

Of course it is true that Freud wrote a great deal and some of his writings were not consistent over a long life, and in general Nicholi is right when he argues that Freud was excessively harsh and annoyed with the human practice of religion. It is also true that Freud suffered greatly from Christian anti-Semitism, that he was a great believer in the power of reason to eventually rescue our extremely troubled species, and that he was somewhat contemptuous of the value of religious belief.

Nicholi states, "The purpose of this book is to look at human life from two diametrically opposed points of view: those of the believer and the unbeliever (Freud divided all people into these two categories)" (p. 5). Actually, Nicholi is invidiously comparing the point of view of science or materialism, which he uses Freud’s writings to exemplify, with that of the Christian religion. He makes much of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, which took place in the gentle ivory-tower ambiance of Oxford University where he taught philosophy for many years, quite a different place from the harsh streets of Vienna.

Nicholi uses a number of rhetorical tricks. For example, we are told twice (p. 7 and p. 55) about a Gallup poll indicating that 80% of Americans believe they have a personal relationship with God and that 96% of Americans report they believe in God. Nicholi uses this sort of information to make Freud sound like he was standing against a large clamor of disagreement. Indeed, Freud and psychoanalysis have opposed hugely popular views on a number of subjects, such as the so-called innocence and purity of children. The fact that a belief is popular does not have anything to do with whether it is correct.

On the whole, Nicholi gives a fairly accurate picture of Freud’s background and statements with a few minor exceptions. For an example of the latter, he states that Freud "disliked" music (p. 15) and that "he appeared to possess a strange attraction to Rome" (p. 15), an attraction that Nicholi hints might have to do with contradicting Freud’s views on religion. That Freud was a serious student of history and deeply interested in ancient civilizations is not mentioned in this context, nor are his frequent citations from the operas of Mozart and others.

The unpleasant childhood of Lewis is well presented, and it is clear from the beginning that Lewis lived on hope. He seems to have been abused by a boarding school headmaster and that he was just as disbelieving in God and Christianity in his younger years as Freud was. Nicholi concludes chapter 1, on the lives of Freud and Lewis, with the following peculiar statement: "What caused Freud to continue to reject the rich spiritual heritage of his family and to remain an atheist?" (p. 35). Although we have reason to ask why Lewis underwent a conversion, why does there have to be a cause for Freud’s not undergoing a conversion? Once Freud had grown past adolescence and, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, had rejected religion, there is no reason to think that something caused him not to change his mind. The implication once more is that he ought to have changed his mind.

Nicholi is right in stating that it is only an assumption that all knowledge comes from science and no knowledge comes from revelation and that this was Freud’s view. Speaking of religious belief, however, Nicholi asks, "How did Lewis overcome his resistance to belief? He did, and Freud did not. Freud cannot tell us why" (p. 50). Again, the author assumes there has to be some reason for Freud’s not changing his mind.

Nicholi is impressed by the fact that some of his students who were atheists "acknowledged that whenever their plane hits turbulence they find themselves praying" (p. 51). It is hard to understand what this is meant to demonstrate, since it is well-known to military men that there are "no atheists in foxholes." Freud would clearly have retorted that the tendency to regression under stress is great and that regression implies magical thinking and, at its worst, delusion formation.

Nicholi tells us that "modern medical research has shown that extrinsic religiosity can have a negative effect on physical and emotional health, whereas intrinsic faith often has a scientifically demonstrative positive effect" (p. 52). Many of the publications he cites for this statement maintain that people who are sick get consolation from religious belief, which is certainly true and again offers a demonstration that severe stress produces regression and magical thinking, which is consoling and keeps hope alive. But I doubt if there is general scientific agreement in the medical profession that religious belief produces or enhances physical and emotional health and healing and so, like exercise, is to be recommended to all.

There is no doubt that Freud was very dismissive of conversion experiences and oceanic feelings and the like. Nicholi extends this rhetorically to having Freud claim that everyone who embraces the spiritual world view is emotionally ill (p. 55). It is up to the reader to assess these kinds of statements and arguments and pick and choose what he or she finds valid.

I was impressed with chapter 3, "Conscience: Is There a Universal Moral Law?" because I had thought that the Kantian idea of the existence of conscience serving as some kind of proof of religion had been largely given up, now that we understand the powerful effect parents have on the formation of the superego. Here again the reader will have to decide.

Some of Lewis’s rhetoric is presented without comment and refutation by Nicholi, in marked contrast to his frequent challenging of Freud’s position. For example, Lewis writes, "The doctrines of repressions and inhibitions" imply that "the sense of shame is a dangerous and mischievous thing" (p. 65). How that is implied is not made clear. I know of no psychoanalysts who are against the sense of shame that we all feel when we have failed to live up to our expectations for ourselves. I know of no psychoanalyst who thinks the sense of shame is per se or intrinsically pathological.

It seems to bother Nicholi that Freud in a letter wrote that he was "better than other people." First, it happens to be true. Second, it is taken out of context and used by Nicholi to speculate that Freud had a problem with self-esteem, whereas Lewis was "appalled" by the "terrible things" he found out "about my own character," which, says Nicholi, made him realize his need for outside help, representing a step in "his transition to a spiritual world view" (p. 75).

An important hint is given that another approach to this debate might be possible. By dividing the world into materialists and spiritualists, as he says Freud did, Nicholi admits that Plato is hard to place alongside G.K. Chesterton in the "spiritualist" category, and he is correct. The conclusion from this might be that the division is inadequate, and that one does not have to choose between Freud’s militant atheism and Lewis’s mystical Christianity; there are many other possibilities.

Nicholi thankfully does not try to provide speculative psychoanalytic interpretations of why Lewis converted and why Freud was an atheist. We don’t know why Lewis had his conversion experience or what it meant to him; what we do know is that all human decisions, beliefs, and actions represent compromise formations made by the ego in order to satisfy the conflicting demands of the id, the superego, and the external world.

Nicholi’s bottom line is that Freud, described by Nicholi as a depressed cocaine abuser in his younger years, became an unhappy, pessimistic, grumpy old man flailing wildly at religion until the end of his life because he never found cause to undergo a religious conversion. Lewis, on the other hand, underwent a religious conversion, found the true Christian faith, and became transformed into a serene Bottisatva, a pleasant, loving, giving, and gentle person. The implications of this for the undergraduate students and the medical students in his courses, as well as for the general lay public for whom this book seems to be addressed, are obvious and will undoubtedly be welcomed.

In his discussion of depression in chapter 5, Nicholi the psychiatrist makes no differentiation between the depressive disorder diagnosed in our consulting room and the fact that many Americans are unhappy. There seems to be no recognition of the possibility that depressive disorders have genetic and neurobiological components, whereas even a person with perfectly normal genes and neurophysiology can certainly suffer from sustained unhappiness due to the circumstances of his or her life and the culture in which he or she must survive.

In the same chapter Nicholi uses Lewis’s approach to illustrate his own attitude toward mental illness and toward the difficulties in living that we all experience. Lewis, like the medieval thinkers, emphasized the "free will" that God gave humans and explained unhappiness and evil in the world as a matter of the misuse of free will. This implies that if individuals made the right decisions and had the right attitudes there would not be evil causing unhappiness and misery in the world. Taking this farther, Nicholi illustrates his cognitive approach on pages 115 and 116, where he explains "as a psychiatrist" why Lewis "changed from a wary introvert with very few close relationships to a personable extrovert with scores of close friends and colleagues" (p. 115). This, we are told, had to do with Lewis’s reading of the Old and New Testaments "seriously," his understanding of the importance of "loving one’s neighbor by wanting the best for him and exercising one’s will to act accordingly" (p. 116), and the realization with his conversion that death no longer marked the end of life so that everyone is immortal and worthy of our attention.

Some psychiatrists may also fuss about the fact that certain studies are taken as definitive when they are cited and that Nicholi, although he repeatedly refers to his research, cites no publications of this research. For example, we are told of his research with Harvard students who tell him that their sexual experiences after their religious conversion, when they followed "the strict biblical standard of chastity, or marriage with complete fidelity," were now much more satisfactory and no longer "a desperate attempt to overcome…loneliness" (p. 158).

Although Freud’s statements are often contradicted by Nicholi as they are reported to us, some very questionable beliefs of Lewis are allowed to pass without comment. For example, Nicholi writes, "Does sexual attraction always serve to bring a couple together so that, as they come to know each other, they eventually ‘fall in love’? Lewis believes that often they fall in love first and then find themselves sexually attracted" (p. 139). Movie makers and novelists please note.

Later in the book we are offered Nicholi’s solution to all successful relationships, Agape. He offers this to us "as a clinician," having noticed when consulting "with hospitals, universities, corporations, and others" that the problem is that there are conflicts between people "resulting from people acting primarily on feelings of rivalry, jealousy, hatred, revenge, or vindication" (p. 178). He seems not to notice that his "clinical experience" supports quite well Freud’s description of human relationships; the difference is that Nicholi believes that by an act of will one can stop doing these kinds of disturbing actions. This again to my mind hints at a cognitive approach to mental illness without reference to the unconscious and the power of the instinctual drives to take us over a cliff.

Nicholi repeatedly refers to Freud’s difficulties with colleagues, without explaining that some of these difficulties may have to do with the pathology of the colleagues, not with Freud’s personality. He portrays Freud as a friendless individual, which is simply historically not true. There is no mention of Freud’s inner circle of psychoanalysts and friends who loyally protected him nor of Freud’s enduring friendships over many years with his B’nai B’Rith colleagues. Nicholi is correct in quoting Freud’s letters to Oskar Pfister, the Swiss pastor with whom he remained friends for many years, in a correspondence that I have also alluded to in my own writings (1). Freud says, "I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have 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" (cited by Nicholi on p. 181). This is a correct assessment of Freud’s attitude, and the reader must decide if it is right or wrong.

Late in the book we are told that Lewis believed in devils and also are informed that "some scholars" believe that Freud felt that he "had made a pact with the devil" (pp. 208–209). Here references are cited, but nothing is said as to the validity of such claims. There have been many wild claims about Freud’s personal life in the literature, for he produced much enmity by his theories, and it is hard to find any evil for which he has not been held accountable. The reader deserves a careful assessment of some of these citations. That "devils" may simply represent the projection of "all bad" self and object representations is not considered.

Finally, whereas we are told that Lewis faced death "with not only cheerfulness, calmness, and inner peace, but with actual anticipation" (p. 239), Freud’s death is described quite differently: "Did Freud fear he would die in a frantic state of fear and panic?" (p. 229). Their two deaths are juxtaposed; the description of Lewis’s death comes from his brother, and the implication about Freud’s death is a speculation by Nicholi.

Perhaps the most astonishing paragraph in the book is the last one. Here we are told that if we are to try to answer the question of God, "We owe it to ourselves to look at the evidence, perhaps beginning with the Old and New Testaments" (p. 244). Try that out on a Hindu or a Buddhist friend or some member of the thousands of religions all over the world who ignore the Bible that is used by Christianity today. I am reminded of the time when President Ronald Reagan tried to deal with the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran by sending him a gift of the Bible.

In conclusion, although this book is not basically wrong in its description of either Sigmund Freud or C.S. Lewis, I found it to be primarily a rhetorical exercise in which the material is presented with the clear implication that a conversion to the Christian religion is a highly salutary event that would bring a person from their everyday misery and crabbiness to good interpersonal relations, felicity, and a conviction of life after death, as well as better mental and physical health. Why this is being taught to undergraduates, and especially to Harvard medical students, I do not understand. Many religious Christians will find this book most interesting and enjoyable, but I do not see that it has anything to offer to the practice of clinical psychiatry.

Chessick RD: Freud Teaches Psychotherapy. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 1980


Chessick RD: Freud Teaches Psychotherapy. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 1980

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