God, C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate Book Review

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God, C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the meaning of Life

Dr. Armand J. Nicholi, Jr.

Full Book Title: The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love and Sex and The Meaning of Life

Complete Publishing Information: New York: Free Press, 2003.

Armand J. Nicholi covers a wide spectrum of philosophical beliefs in his work of non-fiction, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love and Sex, and the Meaning of Life. Essentially, this manuscript pits the tenets of Sigmund Freud vs. those of C.S. Lewis in regards to one of the key questions of metaphysics -- whether or not there is a God, and if so or if not, how that reality should impact the living. The viewpoints of these two men were diametrically opposed on this subject. Freud was a staunch atheist all of his life, a champion of materialism and reason. Lewis, however, was an atheist who converted to Christianity during his adult life and went on to become one of the most industrious authors and novelists regarding Christian theology. As such, Nicholi has enlisted two of the most preeminent believers of atheism and theology to construct an artificial debate on the subject, which is largely based on a series of course he taught at Harvard University for several years. The author himself acknowledges that "The main purpose of this book is to look at human life from two diametrically opposed points-of-view: those of the believer and the unbeliever" (Nicholi 5).

Since the chief aim of the author is to debate the various viewpoints of these two men and the worth of theology and atheism, respectively, he has organized the book in way in which the primary viewpoints of these two thinkers is easily comparable. Many of their main ideas are contrasted side by side on the page, so that the reader can make up his or her own mind about their veracity, applicability, and general value. Moreover, it is quite clear that each man was cognizant of the opposing viewpoint of the other. The author does well to contrast these counterarguments as well, which aids in the overall comprehensive nature of this work. Another significant boon about the way the author has chosen to organize this book is that the ramifications of each of the men's position -- such as considerations which apply to aspects of love and marriage, suffering and pain, as well as the overall significance of life and its counterpart death are categorized in the same places for an easy comparison of their viewpoints.

Still, the most potential drawback to this book involves an analysis of the question of bias in the Nicholi's presentation of the material and in his own comments about the stances both Lewis and Freud take. His premise in writing this manuscript is to be non-partisan so that readers can form their own conclusions about the arguments presented by the aforementioned authors. Still, Nicholi is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and at the Massachusetts General Hospital. These credentials, as well as the copious citations and information he presents about Lewis and Freud, make it quite clear that this work is well-researched and planned out, so that there is credibility to the sources used. Such sources include not only personal correspondences from Leis and Feud, but many of their philosophical literature which explicate the viewpoints considered in their personal writing. No scholar can dispute these sources or their accuracy. However, because this book is written by an eminent professor of the nation's first institution of higher learning in a decidedly Christian college, or perhaps because Nicholi has his own partisan views on the subject, there is a definite bias (although it extremely subtle) detected throughout the majority of the pages in this manuscript.

The bias is inherently towards the viewpoint of Lewis. This statement is true in a number of different ways. Firstly, the book purports to be a discussion of the value of materialism vs. spiritualism, and atheism vs. spiritualism. However, the book is really about Christianity vs. atheism and materialism. Other religions are largely not addressed in this manuscript. Or, perhaps more accurately, a good deal of this manuscript is comparing the values of Christianity to those of atheism. From a logical and even rhetorical point-of-view, then, Nicholi is effectively 'stacking the cards' and setting the reader up for a foregone conclusion -- despite the fact that he claims to be presenting evidence from a non-partisan viewpoint.
Other points of bias are found in the way the author ultimately describes the outcomes of the personal lives of Freud and Lewis. To his credit, one of the strengths of this book (in addition to the well-researched sources Nichols uses) is his penchant for detailing the intimacies of the lives of a both writers from a biographical perspective. However, it is quite clear that the author contextualizes Lewis' conversion as the focal point in his belief system and as a shift in focus in the book itself. After discussing the labored, methodological way in which Lewis read the New Testament in Greek and converted, Nicholi largely discusses Lewis as glowing in his decision with a number of tangible benefits including happiness and more fulfilling relationships with his friends. Freud, however, is largely depicted as a drug abuser in his younger days who spends the rest of his life unhappy and increasingly morose -- both personally and in his professional convictions. Perhaps the author himself might claim that such a conclusion is simply the result of logical, dispassionate research -- but the prudent reader might discern more than just a hint of bias towards Christianity in a book written in a Christian country.

Additionally, the methodology selected by Nicholi is somewhat suspect. He does not merely oppose the ideas of theism and atheism and enable the reader to decide which is the best or more advantageous one. He contrasts the lives lived by these two men with one another. The relevance of their personal lives to the philosophies they espoused regarding metaphysics and God is tenuous, at best. For instance, the author includes statements from Freud alluding to the fact that the psychologist did not think highly of humanity on the whole, and considered himself better than other people Lewis, on the contrary, became highly comfortable with and a believer in mankind after his conversion. There is not a direct correlation between these facts and the contrast between materialists and spiritualists. Not all materialists are misanthropic (which does not mean Freud was either), and certainly not all spiritualists like everyone else and have lots of friends and raucous good times. Still, far too often than this reader is comfortable with, Nicholi implies that the personal fate of these two men is somehow intrinsically linked to their cosmology regarding God. And, such a statement is not even plausible, let alone true.

Additionally, in terms of the methodology employed by Nicholi in composing this novel, Freud is somewhat at a disadvantage in this book due to the fact that he never read any of Lewis' works nor responded to them. Lewis, however, was well acclimated with Freud's theories and was able to personally respond to many of them before the former died. Therefore, some of the arguments that Lewis makes regarding spiritualism are more specific and focused around viewpoints of Freud's than Freud's are regarding Lewis. In this respect, Lewis is able to rejoin or respond to specific points in Freud's theories, which also angles the book more in the former's favor.

Ultimately, one can successfully argue that this book is worth reading for the simple fact that it does attempt to tackle a fundamental question of existence -- is there a god or not. Such questions are of importance to people in this world. Additionally, Nicholi presents some highly useful information about Freud and Lewis, and their professional, philosophical writings. The fact that much of this material is contrasted with the each man's opposing viewpoint makes it fairly accessible to decide a reader's opinion about specific facets of their arguments. Additionally, this is a good book to read to help decipher the bias towards Christianity which is highly prevalent within Western society.

The book could have been significantly improved, however, had the author dedicated less attention towards the personal lives of Freud and Lewis as case studies. Doing so is slightly irrelevant to the larger philosophical works that these the writers produced. Furthermore, using the lives of these two men as examples representing how an individual will end up if he or she chooses to live as an atheist or a theist (or as a Christian, actually) narrows the argument considerably. There is no way that the lives of these two men are representative of the fates of people who choose one side or another. However, Nicholi attempts to imply that because Lewis was happy towards the end of his life and actually….....

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