Review of Armand Nicholi, The Question of GodThe Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. Free Press, 2002. Reviewed by Jeffrey Shallit.
If you wanted to contrast the secular and Christian world views, you might well resort to the approach used in The Question of God: choose two famous exponents of these outlooks, and have them engage in a mock debate by quoting from their public and private works. You could compare their views on a variety of subjects: is there a god? What is the source of human happiness? How should we view love and sex? What can account for pain and suffering? Is death final? In answering these questions, you wouldn't have to rely on their ideas alone; their life stories would also serve to convince readers about which choice works better.
Ah, but whom to choose?
If you wanted the non-believers to win, you could choose Isaac Asimov versus discredited evangelist Jim Bakker. If you wanted the Christians to win, you could choose Woody Allen versus Mother Teresa (although, as Christopher Hitchens demonstrated in The Missionary Position, Mother Teresa wasn't quite as saintly as claimed).
Armand Nicholi, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has chosen C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud in his well-written but ultimately unconvincing book, and therein lies the problem. Why choose Freud as a representative of non-believers? After all, Freud's "scientific" theories are now largely discredited. Freud and Lewis came from completely different backgrounds. Freud led an unhappy and unfulfilled life. Born in 1856 and dying in 1939, Freud was born 42 years before Lewis and died 24 years prior to Lewis' death. Probably they never met and they weren't exactly close contemporaries.
It's not as though there weren't any other possible choices to represent the atheists. Indeed if you're looking for someone who shared Lewis' language, was, like Lewis, associated with Cambridge University, whose life span encompassed Lewis's, and is widely viewed as a representative of the secular viewpoint, one man leaps immediately to mind: Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the British philosopher and mathematician. Why wasn't Russell chosen to debate Lewis? I suspect the reason isn't just because Nicholi is, owing to his profession, intimately familiar with Freud's ideas. No, I suspect the real reason is because the outlooks of the Christian and the non-believer are not symmetric.
To a Christian, the failure of others to adhere to his religion is not simply regrettable; it is deleterious and even deadly, since the non-believer's very soul is at risk. Since the danger is so great, no tactic to remedy the situation can be eschewed. As Martin Luther candidly admitted, "What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church? [...] a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them."
On the other hand, to most non-believers, theists represent a vaguely annoying puzzle. We can't understand what's so convincing about the god story; to us the tales surrounding various gods are evidently myth and superstition. We find theists are often earnest, but a little misguided, and it would probably be better if more people were non-believers. As long as theists leave us alone and don't demand we worship their gods, though, we're not too troubled that there are others that don't believe as we do.
The Question of God illustrates this dichotomy perfectly. At the beginning, Nicholi adopts a pretense of objectivity, claiming "We will look at both views as objectively and dispassionately as possible and let the arguments speak for themselves." But by the end of the book, all pretense is gone. Nicholi urges his audience to read the Bible, and the book concludes with the following sermon by C. S. Lewis:
"We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always easy to penetrate. The real labor is to remember to attend. In fact to come awake. Still more to remain awake."
Upon reading this passage, I felt as if I had narrowly escaped a tent revival. What could be more insulting to the non-believers? According to Nicholi and Lewis, those who do not accept Christian dogma are just "evad[ers]". They are asleep and not "awake". This is not rational argument -- it is merely cant. And it puts the lie to the claim of objectivity.
But it's not just the concluding passage where Nicholi's bias is evident. He never disputes any aspect of Lewis's thought, but he often takes issue with Freud, as in the following excerpt:
"Freud calls his worldview 'scientific,' because of its premise that knowledge comes only from research. Of course, this basic premise cannot itself be based on scientific research. Rather, it is a philosophical assumption that cannot be proven."
Along the way, Nicholi resorts to some howlers. He falsely claims that "logically one cannot prove a negative"; in fact, I prove negative statements all the time in my theoretical computer science classes. He claims that "historians rank Freud's scientific contributions with those of Planck and Einstein", but his source for this claim is an article in Time and a book on "mood genes". There is no mention of the work of Frank Cioffi, who has convincingly demonstrated that Freud was a pseudoscientist.
Nicholi's Chapter 2 implies that there are only two choices: either "the universe is ... simply an accident that just happened", or there is a single Creator responsible for the order we see and intensely involved in our personal lives. But there are many other possibilities not explored; for example, there could be infinitely many universes, each with its own set of laws. Maybe god is a deist god, uninterested and uninvolved after creation. Perhaps there are many gods, each separately responsible for some aspect of the universe. What rules out infinitely many gods receding into the infinitely distant past, with god n+1 creating god n at time -n? We aren't told. Oddly enough, all these omissions and errors just happen to tip the scale in Lewis's behalf.
It's certainly true, as Nicholi points out, that many of Freud's claims are not supported by evidence. Freud's dismissal of religious conversions as "hallucinatory psychosis", for example, is far too facile, and deserves criticism. Freud's belief connecting numerology with the date of his death is too bizarre to be taken seriously.
But although Lewis's ideas also turn out to be shallow and childishly naive in places, Nicholi never examines them critically. Here is Nicholi quoting Lewis on comparing two sets of moral ideas: "The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are in fact, measuring them both by a standard... You are in fact comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people's ideas get nearer to that real Right than others."
This is utter nonsense. Suppose I say that one type of music (say classical) is better than another (say jazz). Does this mean I am comparing them both with some idealized Real Music, and that some music gets nearer to the Real Music than others? No, it means that I judge music based on my own standards, using my own set of criteria.
Moral ideas can be judged in many ways. We can compare them by estimating which ones result in the greatest total good, summed over all members of society. Or we can judge moral ideas based on which ones result in the greatest good for those at the lowest ranks. Or we can use some entirely different calculus. The choice one makes in no way implies what Lewis says, that there is some capitalized Real Morality independent of human existence, any more than the choices one makes to evaluate music implies there is a Real Music. To his detriment, Nicholi accepts Lewis uncritically here. (He could benefit from reading accounts of morality based on evolutionary considerations, such as Robert Wright's popular treatment, The Moral Animal.)
Another problem is that Nicholi takes aspects of the lives of Freud and Lewis as emblematic of their worldviews. But generalizing from one example to all exemplars is subject to the error of small sample size. After his religious conversion, Nicholi tells us, Lewis changed his outlook "from a focus on himself to a focus on others". (Despite this, if Lewis ever spoke out with the goal of improving conditions in British society, there is no evidence of it in Nicholi's account.) On the other hand, many atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers are and were concerned with social justice. Charles Darwin gave money to help the destitute Fuegians he met on his travels. Long before the American Civil War, Robert Ingersoll opposed slavery and advocated for women's rights.
Lewis claimed that his conversion to Christianity was primarily "intellectual". But an intellectual decision is supposed to be based on evidence. How much work did Lewis actually do to establish that the Gospels were factual? Not very much at all, it seems. Nicholi says that a crucial role in Lewis's conversion was played by a chance remark by T. D. Weldon that the "historical authenticity of the Gospels was surprisingly sound". But the historical authenticity of Madame Bovary is also very sound; this does not mean that Emma Bovary was a real person or that the events in Flaubert's novel actually took place.
Lewis also attributed his conversion to his literary analysis of the Gospels: "Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends... They are not artistic enough to be legends." But there is at least one earlier story of a crucified man coming back to life: Herodotus told of the resurrection of Zalmoxis. Similarly, the Persian god Mithras has many features in common with Jesus: sent by a father-god, born of a virgin, and so on. Presumably Lewis would have dismissed those tales as a mere legend, but not the resurrection of Jesus.
Nicholi overstates the evidence for the historicity of Jesus by writing that "Lewis ... knew ... that He appeared in the writings of Roman and Jewish historians and therefore was more than a myth". But Nicholi fails to mention that at least one and possibly both of the mentions by Flavius Josephus are considered by many historians to be a later interpolation by Christians. He fails to note that the brief mention of Jesus by Tacitus was written about seventy years after the miraculous events were supposed to have taken place, and may only represent what Tacitus was told by Christians about Jesus.
To return to my question at the beginning of this review, why did Nicholi choose Freud and not Russell to represent the secularist viewpoint? Maybe the answer is that Russell lived a long, happy, and fulfilled life. Russell made significant contributions to both mathematics and philosophy. Russell spent much of his life campaigning for peace and civil rights and even went to jail for his beliefs. Russell wrote eloquently about the failure of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, to provide an intellectually compelling rationale for its claims, in famous essays such as "Why I Am Not a Christian". In recognition of his literary skills, Russell even won a Nobel Prize in literature, C. S. Lewis's own chosen profession. I suspect that Nicholi chose Freud because Russell would have cleaned Lewis's clock. Freud, by contrast, was an easy target.
Despite the praise it has garnered, this one-sided comparison of the secular and religious world views is phony from start to finish. Nicholi can't teach you much about what non-theists believe; for that you need to read Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Kai Nielsen, and a dozen others. It should come as no surprise that my university's copy of this book is stamped "Donated by Trinity Evangelical Missionary Church", or that Touchstone Magazine's Preston Jones labeled the book "a useful tool for evangelism". The Question of God is not what it pretends to be: an objective and dispassionate look at the evidence. It is an evangelical tract in disguise. Martin Luther, I suspect, would have approved.