When an Atheist Met a Believer

It’s not a book review, it’s a personal note. smile emoticon

Last weekend I decided to read a riveting book. The tittle is “The Question of God”, with the catcher “C. S Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and The Meaning of Life”. This book is written by Dr. Armand Nicholi, JR., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Book_Debate GodI’m interested to read the book for at first sight and for two reasons. First, the tittle made me curious. The question of God is one that all of us grapple with. Second, the writer is a psychiatrist with certain background made me had assumed that he would relatively objective. It is not a book about choosing belief or unbelief. From the blurb, I knew he had no intention to encourage reader to be atheist or believer. He did not presupposed which man–Freud the devout atheist or Lewis the atheist-turned-believer–is correct in his views.

On “The Question of God”, there is no record of Freud and Lewis actually meeting, Dr. Nicholi makes readers wish they did. When Lewis began teaching at Oxford, he was in his twenties, and Freud was already in his mid-seventies.
Dr. Nicholi attempted to set up a debate on the most important issues humanity faces. He ask questions like “Is there an Intelligence Beyond the Universe?’, “Is All Love Sublimated Sex?”, “Is the Pursuit of Pleasure Our Only Purpose?”, and “What is the Meaning of life?”. He dig into everything about both their beliefs and their personal lives.

Both Freud and Lewis suffered significant losses in their early years, as do we all. Both of them had a religious upbringing which both later repudiated, as do some of us, including me. smile emoticon Lewis later abandoned his atheism and converted to believer, while Freud remained an atheist. Then, how about you? Your thinking may will differ markedly from me, or may will be same. grin emoticon

GOD. Both Freud and Lewis received religious instruction as children. Something happened in the minds of them. Both of them describe strong negative feelings toward their fathers when they were children–feelings that they wrote about often as adult. Freud remembered all his life the disgust and bitter disappointment he felt as a boy of ten years when hearing that his father refused to defend himself against anti-Semitic bullies who pushed him off the sidewalk.

Lewis also had a conflict-ridden relationship with his father. Long after his father’s death. he realized his conflict with his father was more his doing than his father’s. “With the cruelty of youth I allowed myself to be irritated by traits in my father which, in other elderly men, I have since regarded as lovable foibles,” he wrote in his autobiography.

Freud’s atheism and the atheism Lewis embraced for the first half of his life may be explained in part on the basis of early negative feeling toward their fathers. Both rejected their faith after they left home, Lewis for boarding school and Freud for college. Freud thought that people who embraced the spiritual worldview suffered from neurotic illness that sometimes bordered on a psychosis. Ckckckc! In fact, a Gallop poll published in early 2000 indicate that 96% of Americans report the believe in God and 80% believe they have a personal relationship with God. Are so many American really emotionally ill?

For the first thirty years of his life, Lewis shared Freud’s atheism. He recalled that, “religious experiences did not occur at all. I was thought the usual things and made to say my prayers and in due time taken to church.” But Lewis found himself bored and disinterested. He pursued this form of religiosity mechanically, “without feeling much interest in it.” A decade later, as faculty member at Oxford, Lewis experienced a radical change, from atheism to belief based on the Old and New Testaments. He described his worldview in eleven words: “There is one God and Jesust Christ is His only Son.” Later, Lewis gave more detail, all humanity can be divided into “the majority who believe in some kind God or gods, and the minority who do not.

LOVE and SEX. Freud and Lewis wore extensively about sexuality. Freud said that when you look at people’s behavior, their one purpose in life is to be happy and that “sexual (genital) love is the prototype of all happiness.” Lewis strongly disagree. He believe there are other, more lasting sources of happiness. Satisfaction of the desire for sex, like satisfaction of the desire for food, is only one of many God-given pleasures. He considered Freud much too preoccupied with sex. Both Freud and Lewis realized human sexuality can be a source of great pleasure and a vehicle for expressing the tenderest, most sub-lime feeling, but also a source of pain itself.

Freud is most widely known for his views on sex. He seemed more interested in the freedom to speak about sex than to necessarily act on sex. Freud appears to have had a considerably more restricted sexual life than Lewis. Most biographers agree that Freud had no sexual experience before his marriage at thirty. Freud was married to Martha Bernays, a women who grew up in a strictly observant Ortodox Jewish family. Sex before or outside of marriage was forbidden. Freud had had six children and he loved no one in the world more than his daughter Sophie.

His sexual activity during marriage appears to have lasted only a few years. Can it possible that the father of the new sexual freedom restricted his own sexuality to only ten of his eighty-three years of life? If so, why?
Freud become an atheist in his teens and stuck with it to the end. Freud not only a non-believer, but he actively attacked theism. He believed that people accepted the religious worldview because of their fear of death and their wish for permanence. On 23 September 1939, Freud finally choose to end his life by euthanasia, by morphine injection.

Lewis’case is quite the opposite with Freud. Lewis describes his state of mind before his transition as extremely pessimistic and of having no desire that life continue in any form. “Nearly all that I believed to be a real I thought grim and meaningless,” he said. “I was so far from wishful thinking that I hardly thought anything true unless it contradicted my wishes,” he continued.

Lewis’s conversion brought inner quietness and tranquility.He “prepared” for death with not only cheerfulness, calmness, and inner peace, but with actual anticipation. How could that? Perhaps, we find the answer in his own word, “If we really believe what we say we believe–If we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wondering to find home’, why should we not look forward to the arrival?” Lewis’s brother Warren wrote that Lewis knew he was going to die and was calm and peaceful in light of that awareness.

The writing of Freud and Lewis help us understand one difficulty we often have in our tendency to distort our image of God. In my opinion, this is an incisive and useful book for anyone who need religion or who has question “does God exist?”

Depok, 31 March 2015.

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Filed under Book I Read, Writing&Journalism

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