A Difference of Opinion in One Part
Ed asked me if I would put my Difference of Opinion: A Look at C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud into one long document as opposed to three separate parts (part I, part II, part III). I actually wrote this originally as one long, 12 page piece and I now present it (below) to you in that original form, subtracting the extra introductory and conclusory materials that were added to aid the reader when I turned the piece into three separate parts. I should also add that credit should be given to Dr. Armand J. Nicolai, author of the Question of God, for the idea of comparing C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud.
It is hard to imagine a fundamentally more important question than if God exists or not. Arguably, all of eternity is at stake. While this is not a good reason for belief by itself, this very issue led to Pascal’s argument for a wager on the question of God (Hick 59). If I “bet” on God, I lose relatively nothing if I am wrong, but if I bet against God, I have everything to lose. Whether true faith can come from such a pragmatic, cynical approach to belief is a topic for another day, but it does demonstrate how important belief in God is, if theists are right in their arguments.
The idea of belief, or lack thereof, by rational calculations, on the other hand, is sometimes argued as an unrealistic view of how we come to believe. In the video the Question of God, skeptic Michael Schemer argues that part of his reason for joining the camp of skeptics was that he liked the people in that “community” better, and, he asserts, theists would do well to admit that purely emotional reasons are part of the reason why we believe as we do as well (“A Transcendent Experience”).
To an extent, Schemer may be correct in reference as to why a lot of people come to believe or disbelieve. Few of us are willing to give up the time necessary to do a thorough rational analysis of whether we should believe, instead choosing to simply build up arguments after the fact to support where we stand. However, the cases of C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud are not typical cases at all. In these two men we see two of the most brilliant minds of the late nineteenth through the middle twentieth centuries who did more than simply follow an emotional appeal to their positions, and once there, they did not continue to sit idly on a sandy foundation, but continued to build a strong, systematic defense of their respective beliefs. Both grew up in religious homes and both became skeptics in their youth, but one returned to faith and one did not.
The two books under consideration, Mere Christianity and Future of an Illusion, demonstrate the opposite sides that these two men fall on, but with a distinct difference worth mentioning early on. C.S. Lewis builds up to his deeper chapters by first demonstrating the reasonableness of believing in the divine origin of Biblical teachings in a manner that can be judged by the individual, but Freud’s polar theory on the origins of religious teachings does not have a method to verify itself by. As Lewis notes early on, most people will agree that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” (52). The rub is that a man who was just a good teacher would never say the things Jesus said; to the contrary, Lewis asserts, a mere human saying what Jesus did would not be a “great moral teacher” at all. As Lewis put it, that is “patronizing nonsense.”
We must therefore choose one of the following options concerning such a person: that person was an evil liar, an insane person or was exactly what he claimed to be. Now, of course, the case could be made that the early Christians distorted what Jesus said to fit their needs, but it seems that the claim of the deity of Christ was so ingrained in the early church, it is hard to imagine that Jesus did not accept that attribute being applied to him.
Given this, we receive an easy way of testing Jesus’ claims. We should read the words of Christ and, it is likely we will find that these do not sound like the words of a liar or a lunatic. If he was not a liar or a madman, then we have but one choice: we must accept the claims that Jesus gave. Now, someone could argue that Jesus was sincerely mistaken about this issue, but that takes us back to the state of being mad; I might be misguided on my understanding of a certain mathematical formula without being mad, but if I claim to be the God of all the universe and am not, I must be either mad or lying – I cannot just be sincerely mistaken. Lewis says the choice is obvious to him; Jesus was not a liar or a madman (53). If we can say this, then we have established that the origin of Christianity is God Himself.
Freud on the other hand begins by demonstrating his theories on the origin of religion, namely, of the primal horde (53-54) and wish fulfillment projection (21). In this text, Freud concentrates primarily on the latter, but he asserts they are not different theories, but rather two parts of the same puzzle (28-29). Therefore, since Freud sees the projection ideas explained in Future of an Illusion as simply adding to his earlier statements, it makes sense to consider the problem of the “son-father relationship” (primal horde) theory of the origin of religion before looking at Freud’s primary theory in the book. There is one problem with the primal horde theory that causes a significant impairment to what he assumes based on it: the historicity of this theory’s occurrence is generally rejected today by experts such as anthropologists (“Freud’s theory”). That is, it would appear that Freud did not properly examine the evidence before positing the theory (Hick 34, Scupin 30) and therefore his own suggestion appears to fit his definition of an illusion (Freud 40). Moreover, as Lewis notes, when wandering away from the area of curing neuroses, as he does when discussing theories of the origin of religions, Freud is merely speaking “as an amateur” (89). The issue of evidence presents a serious difficulty in boosting this theory, needless to say. This is not to say that Freud should be written off wholesale. If we substitute his primal horde for Emile Durkheim’s view on the origin of religion, we end up with a bit more stable theory, and in fact, Freud spends a significant amount of time discussing religion in terms of keeping people civilized (Freud 17), something that sounds a lot like what Durkheim had to say. Freud also posits religion as a calming agent for keeping the status quo of society, rather like Marx (62).
However, the theory of religion as an abstraction of society has serious flaws too. Many religions, especially the ones that command the majority of adherents today, have at sometime, past or present, been destructive to the status quo of society rather than helpful in keeping it unified (Hick 32). Christianity may have helped unify the Roman Empire, but before that, it was a schismatic movement that was divisive to the ideas of the Jews and the Romans. Likewise, we can look throughout history and find cases concerning Islam, Buddhism and so on, wherein the religious sentiment did anything but aid in the status quo of society. This is a theory on shaky ground, to say the least.
Now, so far, it has been demonstrated that Freud’s attempt to get his foot in the door of arguing against religion can be quickly rebuffed, but C.S. Lewis’s argument, while not able to convince everyone who reads it, is much harder to dismiss wholesale as a flawed argument. Generally people do like to think that we can tell the difference between the writings of a “great teacher” and a madman, and C.S. Lewis puts the reader to the challenge of doing just that. In other words, the foundation of Freud’s assumptions, the “horde” and “civilization” theories, both seem to be less easily testable than what Lewis uses to base his rationale for arguing for Christ.
As I noted above, Freud uses two main theories, and so I shall now address the second one. Freud backs up his position with another argument, that of projection (21). According to Freud, we wish for a great father in the sky to protect us from the things we cannot control. He suggests that this is merely an extension of the childhood notion that one’s father will protect one from anything bad that might happen. One’s earthly father cannot protect against great problems such as death and evil, so we move on to project a “great father” to take care of that. Now it is true that a religion like Christianity does indeed apply a lot of father imagery to God, but should this be cause to disturb the believer? If God is the creator of everything, would it not make sense that our earthly father has some of the attributes of our heavenly Father? According to Lewis, everything on earth has some hint of the goodness of God. Even bad actions are based on the pursuit of something good, he asserts, but that good has been distorted, abused or otherwise corrupted (44). Therefore, it makes sense that a human father’s attributes might be somewhat of a microcosm of the creator who made him; the earthly form may be a corruption of the Heavenly one, but that does not rule out its connection. Moreover, is it that hard to imagine that God would make us in a way that has a tendency to “project” the macrocosm? Surely God would make us inclined to look for Him (Hick 35), even if He wished to keep the universe relatively religiously ambiguous for the purpose of preserving free will or for some other reason.
We run into a problem here that Freud simply cannot mount. If the Christian claim is right, and God created us, it is impossible for us to reason ourselves beyond God, and therefore anything that we look at can be argued to be “tainted” by being only the creation looking at the creator. If God has created everything, including our reason, how can we ever presume anything we think is not influenced by God? Freud even noted, in defense of psychoanalysis, that those who disagreed with him would likely use his very own system of psychoanalysis to argue against his points (47), just as I have done above.
Unlike the case with the believer who can assert having experienced God calling at us and nagging at us until we finally come to belief, there can be no experience to validate the Freudian view for a person, much less in a way that everyone can accept. Therefore it might be good to turn back to Pascal’s wager for a moment and reflect on the truth of it. Unless we find ourselves completely unable to believe, why would one accept Freud’s argument of conjecture when Lewis can offer a system whereby we can authenticate his claims with personal experience? I can experience God and I can experience the absence of God, but I can only experience either if God exists for if God does not exist, what is it like for Him to be absent from me? Said another way, I cannot know God is not there unless I know what it is like for God to be there. This is a serious conundrum for a skeptic trying to prove religion an illusion.
Another key point of disagreement between Freud and Lewis is the origin of moral behavior. Freud makes the case that morality originates from evolutionary progress that leads to the need for civilization. To use his example, one might think it would be good to be able to kill off one’s rivals and then, with them out of the way, take their possessions for one’s own use (18). There is an obvious flaw in this idea that appears quite quickly, however: if I could do this, then so could everyone else, and they will likely do the same to me that I did to the person I killed. I would have to be a very strong person indeed to defend myself against this, and even then, I would likely be overpowered eventually (51-52). In a society without the standard trimmings of civilization, Freud notes that only one person can be happy, that person being the “tyrant,” and even he would want people to observe a prohibition on killing. Therefore it is not hard to make a case that people simply must act in specific ways, if only for the selfish reason of hoping others will return the favor. This makes reasonably good sense.
Lewis disagrees with this, not surprisingly, and suggests that we instead have an innate Moral Natural Law inside of us (4). Now, so far we are no further than we were before, since we have two authors presenting two polar viewpoints concerning the subject of morality. Lewis anticipates the critique from Freudian thinkers and answers it in its very own chapter. According to Lewis, it makes sense to assert that humans might have a type of herd instinct or other natural reasons linked to self-preservation to follow basic social conventions, but he then demonstrates a situation wherein this does not seem to apply all that well (9). According to Lewis, if I hear a person in danger cry for help, I will have two instincts come into play, a herd instinct and a self-preservation instinct. I want to help the fellow in trouble, but I do not want to die doing so. Despite this, I will likely feel that following the former instinct’s advice is the right thing to do, and may disregard the latter instinct’s warning.
Logically, if I have judged the two instincts and found one to be good and moral in contrast to the selfish and immoral behavior of the other, then I must have judged them both according to a higher standard (10). This, he asserts, is moral law; moral law, he explains, serves as the sheet music for the piano keys that are the instincts.
Moreover, Lewis brings in the example of judging Nazi morality against Allied morality (14). Perhaps a less well known example might be more suitable, since Nazi comparisons in present times often do little more than serve a technique for poisoning the well, but it does fit this example well. From purely a survival standpoint of the majority, we must question how we can prove that the Nazi’s morality was inherently bad compared to “Christian morality” (13). Yet we do want to assert that Nazi morality is indeed bad and the morality of the opposing forces was inherently better (regardless of the Allied nations’ goals of fighting the Nazi’s, at the very least, it can be said that we stopped the Nazis). Would it not have been easier for many to simply join the Nazis and not risk their lives fighting them?
Now, if things that go against my own self-preservation can be judged to be better, how can it be mere desire for a good society that leads me to act against my own interests? While we can explain away why I might agree not to steal, how do we deal with things that might end my own life for the benefit of others? Clearly, if I am going to be just plain dead, and not in an afterlife, I should have no reason to risk my life for others, since any benefits reaped will never be witnessed by me, should I die. It would therefore follow that I should be best off if I followed the example of Shakespeare’s Falstaff and “counterfeited” my death whenever danger arose, taking due note of the fact that honor is “insensible […] to the dead” (5.1.137-138).
Thus far, I have considered two major issues on which C.S Lewis and Sigmund Freud differed dramatically. On the other hand, we ought not discount the similarities in the arguments of the two men. Both Freud and Lewis advocated their ideas as key to improving civilization as a whole. Freud saw the atheism as the eventual pinnacle of evolution, although he conceded that the question of whether people would truly be better without God was up in the air (61). According to Freud, in an era casting away illusion, people would enter a time when λογος or reason would become the god of civilization (it is interesting that Freud chose a name used in the Bible to reference Christ as the “name” of his new atheistic god), eliminating what he feels to be a clear illusion for something that appears not to be, namely, science.
Lewis also tapped into evolutionary imagery, but with a substantial twist. Instead of suggesting that a biological/psychological evolution would come out of his arguments, he suggested that the spiritual rebirth of Christianity represented a sort of evolutionary leap that has simply been overlooked (220).
Here again, Freud’s progress to a utopia is somewhat more problematic than Lewis’s because of history. Freud admits as much by having his fictional “skeptic of skeptics” point out the French Revolution with Robespierre and, in Freud’s present time, the U.S.S.R. as examples of failures in atheistic societies. Freud acknowledges the dismal track record at attempts to move a culture over to atheism, but suggests a more preferable method would be a slow easing away from religious belief, rather than a violent, quick revolution as the two cited examples had been.
Such a slow progression away from belief seems to be exactly what we are witnessing in the Western World now. Even in a country with a very high surveyed level of belief in God, such as the United States, attendance at churches has dropped every year for the last half century or so, and influence of religious thought in the common activities of Americans seems to be far less influential than in times past. Given this, perhaps we can look to today’s society in an attempt to weigh the usefulness of Freud’s assertion – are things getting better now that school prayer has been banned, nativity scenes do not dot municipal buildings, and many Americans prefer to spend Sunday on the links rather than praying for those who have been placed on their church prayer chain?
There is obviously some room for differing opinions here, but it seems that there are few who will say that our society is getting better. At best, we are forced to concede that the jury is still out or that clearly if this is better, it is a very subjective better. On the other hand, Lewis’s view of improvement carries some weight. Despite all the excesses of the church over the last two thousand years, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that it has done much good, especially when it was sticking closest to the Bible and its calling in general.
Does this mean that Freud is wrong? By no means, but it does bring to light that Freud has absolutely no historical reason to suspect that his ideology will bring about a better world, whereas Lewis can point to many examples of his side bringing about a better world. No one should believe in God merely because they believe it will bring about a better earth and not because they think He exists, but nevertheless, we can at least say that this is not a smear on the record of theists that must be overcome.
Obviously, which side one end up sympathetic to after reading these two books has a lot to do with which side one is already on. I make no attempt here to disclaim a bias of my own, which most certainly comes through clearly within these pages. On the flip side of the token, at the least, I hope to demonstrate that Freud’s theories depend a lot on conjecture, making him at best in no better position than that of Lewis. While we would expect a metaphysical, theistic system like Lewis’s to be unfalsifiable, it does seem somewhat troubling that Freud too uses many unfalsifiable claims despite his insistence that he is promoting reason and science over illusory wishes (71).
Interestingly enough, it is Freud’s theory that is impossible to prove right, not Lewis’s. There are numerous ways of expressing the idea that while theists will know if they are right, atheists never will. This actually harkens back to Pascal’s wager and its idea that one side of the bet can never really win and one has hardly anything to lose. As John Hick expresses in a more satisfying form than that of a bet, theism is ultimately verifiable, but only positively, not negatively. This is what he terms “eschatological verification,” the idea that those who agree with Lewis will know that they are right after death (103). Is this good science or mere pseudoscience? Ultimately, I think that discussion is irrelevant.
Eventually, everyone must answer the question of God. Even if it is impossible to posit a completely verifiable, scientific proof, that does not negate the need to deal with the question. As has been shown, the reverse assumption finds itself on equally shaky ground, and therefore we are forced to take a leap of faith. It is just a matter of which direction we choose to make that leap in after examining the available evidence.
I choose to leap to God, who reveals Himself in many ways — some perhaps not empirically testable — everyday.
“A Transcendent Experience.” The Question of God. 2004. Public Broadcasting System. 24 Mar. 2005
Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.
“Freud’s theory.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia Britannica Online 6 Apr. 2005 [http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article?tocId=26014].
Hick, John. Philosophy of Religion. 4th ed. Eaglewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1990.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. HaperCollins ed. New York: HaperSanFrancisco/Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.
Scupin, Ray. Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus. Editor Ray Scupin. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Shakespeare, William. “1 Henry IV.” The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Editors G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Join the Conversation
Re: A Difference of Opinion in One Part
Thank you. This goes in my library, forever to become a part of my collection of important documents.
Re: A Difference of Opinion in One Part
You’re welcome, Ed. Thanks for thinking highly enough of it to add it to your library — I’m honored.