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The Question of God

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Photo of Dr. Armand Nicholi
Dr. Armand Nicholi

An Interview with Dr. Armand Nicholi

Harvard University professor and author of The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life

Q: You have been teaching a popular Harvard course on the question of God for more than 30 years. What was it about the subject of faith versus science that originally sparked your interest?

A: As a practicing psychiatrist, I came to realize that one's worldview, or how one answers the basic questions concerning meaning, values, purpose, identity, motivation and destiny, influences not only who we are, but how we live our lives. Taking it to the next level, it was important for students, I felt, to have the opportunity to critically assess the arguments for both the worldview that they embrace and some form of the worldview they reject.

Q: Who are Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, and why did you choose to focus on Freud and Lewis specifically?

A: The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud's great impact on our culture has led historians to speak of the 20th century as the century of Freud. C.S. Lewis, a celebrated Oxford don whose literary and religious works, including the widely popular children's series The Chronicles of Narnia, is perhaps the 20th century's most popular proponent of faith based on reason. Together, Lewis and Freud, the believer and unbeliever, represent conflicting sides of ourselves. Both are eloquent and incisive spokespeople for the worldview the other attacks.

Q: You describe Lewis as a celebrated Oxford don, literary critic and perhaps this century's most influential and popular proponent of faith based on reason. What does it mean to base faith on reason?

A: Faith based on reason is faith based on critical assessment of evidence that leads one to a strong conviction. For example, assessing the historical authenticity of Biblical documents might strengthen one's conviction in what one believes is true or not true.

Q: How are Sigmund Freud's arguments relevant today?

A: More than sixty years after his death, Sigmund Freud continues to be a significant presence in our culture. His theories have influenced how we interpret human behavior. We now take for granted the basic psychoanalytic concept that our early life experiences strongly influence how we think and feel as adults. Likewise, his philosophical writings, advocating an atheistic philosophy of life, are more widely read today than his expository or scientific works. His philosophical writings have played a significant role in the secularization of our culture. To this day, Freud is the atheist's touchstone.

Q: Do Freud and Lewis agree on anything?

A: Yes, Freud and Lewis do in fact agree on certain points. They share an admiration for the great writers, such as Milton, and they both imply that the question of God's existence is the most important question.

Q: What argument does Freud use to prove God does not exist?

A: Sigmund Freud offers no proof, only arguments that God does not exist. Freud offers a psychological argument, that God is a projection of a childish wish for the protection of a father. Freud asserts that all religious belief is nothing more than wish fulfillment. Freud also offers the argument of human suffering, that the good as well as the evil suffer — thus, there is no Being who rewards for obeying his precepts.

Q: What does C.S. Lewis argue in response to Sigmund Freud's arguments that God does not exist?

A: In response to Sigmund Freud, C.S. Lewis argues that the universe, with its vastness and complexity, is filled with signposts, pointing with unmistakable clarity to an Intelligence beyond it.

Q: What do Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis say about a universal moral law?

A: Sigmund Freud does not believe that a universal moral law exists. Freud instead believes that we make up our moral code like we make up our traffic laws. C.S. Lewis disagrees. Lewis asserts that a universal moral law does exist, and that we discover this universal moral law much in the way we discover the laws of mathematics.