Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
The Question of God

The Exalted Father

Armand Nicholi: Lewis, like Freud, associated the spiritual worldview with his father, recalling discussions in which the father encouraged him to attend church and become a believer. Is it possible that Freud's atheism and the atheism that Lewis embraced for the first half of his life can all be explained in part on the basis of early negative feelings toward their fathers Is it possible that our early life experiences, especially our relationships with our fathers, colors our attitude in later life toward this whole concept of an ultimate authority? What do you think from your own observations? From your own personal experience?

Louis Massiah: I'm curious — why just the father? I mean, why not mother and father? Or mother? There's something not entirely intuitive in that.

Armand Nicholi: Freud does mention parental authority, but because the father is often the strongest symbol of that parental authority, he speaks of the father as a Heavenly father.

Doug Holladay: My own father juxtaposed what you just led us into, since he died a rabid atheist. He wanted to remind me on his deathbed that he didn't believe the worldview that I had been embracing. There certainly is a dynamic there that I don't fully understand, but I know it was important to me to carve out my own way, and it actually uh, I haven't fully resolved why I did that. Part of it was the hound of heaven pulling me, and part of it was probably an adolescent rebellion against my father's strong atheism.

Armand Nicholi: So you're saying that this need to be independent from your father, to rebel against what he embraced, to be your own person, was an influence.

Winifred Gallagher: I think a very important issue that this initial question about the father raises is that in order to have a mature spiritual life, you have to move beyond God as the parent in the sky. I think it's almost inevitable that you start out there as a child, because that is your model of an authority or a caregiver or providence. But I think if you're really going to become a thinking person of faith, you have to realize that that's a childish vision of God. The best you can do at a certain point. And then you have to move beyond that to something way different than your daddy.

Armand Nicholi: And how do you do that?

Winifred Gallagher: I think it's a process.

Armand Nicholi: I mean, how do you change your image that's formed as a child influenced by the parental authority?

Winifred Gallagher: I think we have a great deal of information now from other spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhism, Hinduism, the African faiths — things that have allowed us to see God or the sacred or ultimate reality, whatever you want to call that thing, from very different perspectives than just the Judeo-Christian monotheistic God father. So I think we have a more multi-dimensional way to look at the issue that these guys were struggling with, which was very Freudian.

Armand Nicholi: Once Freud defines his worldview, he writes that "the doctrine that the universe was created by a being resembling a man, but magnified in every respect, a kind of superman, reflects the gross ignorance of primitive peoples" According to Freud, God does not make us in his image – we make God in our image. Now, does that argument make sense today?

Jeremy Fraiberg: I'm a fan of Freud and a fan of his arguments. But just because you wish that something is so doesn't mean that it isn't so. What Freud's saying is that if you look at the data and you want to come up with the simplest theory – he'd say, well, maybe instead of saying that a God's there, it makes more sense to say that these are universal human wishes, and the best explanation as to why people around the world come up with different conceptions of God is because there's this universal need for explanations, comfort, order in the face of chaos and disorder.

Armand Nicholi: Would you say then that these are feelings both Lewis and Freud are describing, but they don't have anything to do with the reality of God's existence?

Frederick Lee: I disagree. Feeling can reflect truth. What if the feeling, or the need to be in communion with an ultimate being, is put there by design? Then that feeling is a reflection of truth.

Michael Shermer: How would you tell whether it was or wasn't?

Frederick Lee: That's the – that's the difficulty.

photos of conversation participants