- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr. has been discussing the question of God for more than 25 years. As an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he teaches a class that compares the secular beliefs of Sigmund Freud with the spiritual beliefs of C.S. Lewis.

The popularity of Dr. Nicholi’s course has lead to a four-hour documentary on PBS, which airs tomorrow and Sept. 22. It also will be released on videocassette and digital video disc, with a companion book. As the life stories of Freud and Lewis are told, analysts comment on the two philosophies. Dr. Nicholi also moderates a round-table discussion among people with varying points of view.

“Everyone has a worldview, which is our attempt to make sense of our existence on this planet,” Dr. Nicholi says. “It’s about how you answer the most basic issues of life. Is there an intelligence beyond the universe? Is there a universal moral law? How do you decide what’s right and wrong? Where does that come from? What is happiness? Everyone wants it and almost no one can really define it. What is love? … How do you deal with the problem of suffering? … How do you possibly process the fact that we will not be on this Earth very long, when we have a burning desire for permanence?”

As part of the documentary, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, speaks on behalf of the spiritual worldview of Lewis.

While an atheist in medical school at the University of North Carolina, Dr. Collins first read “Mere Christianity” by Lewis, who died in 1963. Dr. Collins says he found the logical thinking breathtaking, but threatening because it caused his “house of cards” to collapse.

Lewis, a professor at Oxford University and Cambridge University, argued that if there is a God, he would have put in people the desire to know him. Mr. Lewis wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

When “first things,” such as God, are put in their proper place, the result is joy, Lewis espoused. “It is after you have realized that there is a real moral law, and a power behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that power — it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk,” Lewis wrote.

“It was clear that the arguments that I had constructed in a sort of schoolboy way against the rationality of faith were really seriously flawed arguments that you could drive a truck through,” Dr. Collins says. “I realized something I had completely not anticipated, that you could approach faith from a logical perspective and arrive at the conclusion that it is more plausible to believe in God than to disbelieve in God.”

Although today Dr. Collins finds a harmonious relationship between science and faith, he struggled for about a year, trying to reconcile the two worlds. Other books by Mr. Lewis include “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Great Divorce,” “The Problems of Pain,” “Miracles,” “A Grief Observed,” “The Abolition of Man” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

“I began, after a while, to get the sense that [becoming a believer] was inevitable,” Dr. Collins says. “It became very uncomfortable … sleeplessness … invading my thoughts, when I was supposed to be focusing on some medical issue. … The ‘Hound of Heaven’ was after me. … On a trip to the Northwest, … I got the sense that I could not delay another minute and made this conscious decision to accept the existence of God, as someone who cared about me and to whom I wanted to seek fellowship. That was 27 years ago.”

In Freud’s secular worldview, God is merely a form of “wish fulfillment,” or the regressive longing for a parent’s protection, says Dr. Harold Blum, executive director of the Sigmund Freud Archives in New York City.

“We humans are always engaging in wish-fulfilling fantasies,” Dr. Blum says. “The girl that wants to be the beautiful princess and the boy that wants to be the hero.”

As the father of psychoanalysis, Freud justified the role of a God who rewards or punishes, as the representation of parents who prohibit and permit. He wrote about the “Oedipal complex,” the notion that men desire to possess their mothers sexually and want to exclude their fathers. He also popularized the idea of “id,” which is based on the pleasure principle.

Freud believed prayer was a way of crying out for a parent’s intercession, says Dr. Blum. He thought prayer and religious ceremonials were forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder to protect against fear.

Freud also stated that “scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality.”

“The Future of an Illusion,” “Moses in Monotheism” and “The Interpretation of Dreams” are some of Freud’s most famous writings.

Further, Freud proclaimed sexual freedom, although it is likely that he was a virgin on his wedding day and remained faithful during his marriage. At the end of his life, he committed assisted suicide through morphine and the help of Dr. Max Schur, after suffering from mouth cancer for about 16 years.

“Freud was interested in understanding the origin and significance of religion,” Dr. Blum says. “That lead him to think about the role of religion for the individual and society as a whole.”

Most people have belief systems that are similar to either Lewis’ or Freud’s, says Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College.

“You can’t take a comfortable halfway position,” Mr. Kreeft says. “You can only choose between being a good philosopher and a bad one. A bad one is someone who doesn’t realize they are asking philosophical questions all the time, passively choosing if you don’t deliberately choose.”

As a student at Harvard University, Jeremy Fraiberg, a lawyer at Torys LLP, with offices in New York City and Toronto, took Dr. Nicholi’s class. Mr. Fraiberg participates in the round-table discussion in the documentary.

“Various sorts of things can prompt you to think about what the meaning of life is and whether God exists … when I see things that are extraordinarily beautiful,” he says. “Or when you feel helpless and when you suffer, when people die who you love.”

The PBS documentary seeks to portray both Lewis and Freud fairly, says J. Douglas Holladay, an executive producer of the documentary.

“We tried to create a safe table where people with varying points of view can be respected,” he says. “We decided to put Lewis in the best possible light and Freud in the best possible light and let their intelligent debate be shown.”

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