Book Review: The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (Armand M. Nicholi Jr.)

Book Review: The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (Armand M. Nicholi Jr.)

The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

Freud vs. Lewis

Down goes Freud… Down goes Freud… Right Hook! Right Hook!

No, its not quite like that. But this is a theoretical / hypothetical debate between C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud as written by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr. I found this on the philosophy shelf in BAM (Books – A – Million) and picked it up on a whim. The title is interesting enough, and the premise is pretty promising.

Sadly, it just doesn’t live up to a true debate, and its certainly far from a knock out drag out fight or a prize champion fight. But before I dive too far into the book, lets get a little backstory on Sigmund Freud, C.S. Lewis, and even the author – Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

Sigmund Freud

The iconic photo of Sigmund Freud

The quick bio from Wikipedia:

Sigmund Freud (/frɔɪd/ FROYD,[2] German: [ˈziːkmʊnt ˈfʁɔʏt]; born Sigismund Schlomo Freud; 6 May 1856 – 23 September 1939) was an Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for evaluating and treating pathologies seen as originating from conflicts in the psyche, through dialogue between patient and psychoanalyst,[3] and the distinctive theory of mind and human agency derived from it.[4]

Freud was born to Galician Jewish parents in the Moravian town of Freiberg, in the Austrian Empire. He qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1881 at the University of Vienna.[5][6] Upon completing his habilitation in 1885 he was appointed a docent in neuropathology and became an affiliated professor in 1902.[7] Freud lived and worked in Vienna having set up his clinical practice there in 1886. Following the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, Freud left Austria to escape Nazi persecution. He died in exile in the United Kingdom in 1939.

In founding psychoanalysis, Freud developed therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association and discovered transference, establishing its central role in the analytic process. Freud’s redefinition of sexuality to include its infantile forms led him to formulate the Oedipus complex as the central tenet of psychoanalytical theory.[8] His analysis of dreams as wish-fulfillments provided him with models for the clinical analysis of symptom formation and the underlying mechanisms of repression. On this basis Freud elaborated his theory of the unconscious and went on to develop a model of psychic structure comprising id, ego and super-ego.[9] Freud postulated the existence of libido, sexualised energy with which mental processes and structures are invested and which generates erotic attachments, and a death drive, the source of compulsive repetition, hate, aggression, and neurotic guilt.[9] In his later work Freud developed a wide-ranging interpretation and critique of religion and culture.

Though in overall decline as a diagnostic and clinical practice, psychoanalysis remains influential within psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, and across the humanities. It thus continues to generate extensive and highly contested debate concerning its therapeutic efficacy, its scientific status, and whether it advances or hinders the feminist cause.[10] Nonetheless, Freud’s work has suffused contemporary Western thought and popular culture. W. H. Auden‘s 1940 poetic tribute to Freud describes him as having created “a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives”.[11]

Sigmund Freud (Wikipedia)

One of the most prolific psychologists of his day – and still today; a household name, and one synonymous with psychoanalysis – Sigmund Freud is a ‘behemoth’ in the intellectual and psychological fields. Coining nearly as many terms and phrases as William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud is the reason we think of “Freudian Slips” or the “Oedipus Complex” or “the Ego”, “ID”, “the unconscious”, “psychotherapy”, and much more.

A paramount of thought and intellectual rigor in his field, Sigmund Freud paved the way for deeper understanding of how our brains work and why we do and think the things we do and think. While much of his work has been somewhat debunked or pushed to the margins with the higher emergence of science rigor and thought in the more modern era, he still paved the way to get to where we are now.

His works include:


Case histories

  • 1905 Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (the Dora case history)
  • 1909 Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy (the Little Hans case history)
  • 1909 Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis (the Rat Man case history)
  • 1911 Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (the Schreber case)
  • 1918 From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (the Wolfman case history)
  • 1920 The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman[279]
  • 1923 A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis (the Haizmann case)

Papers on sexuality

  • 1906 My Views on the Part Played by Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses
  • 1908 “Civilized” Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness
  • 1910 A Special Type of Choice of Object made by Men
  • 1912 Types of Onset of Neurosis
  • 1912 The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life
  • 1913 The Disposition to Obsessional Neurosis
  • 1915 A Case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psycho-Analytic Theory of the Disease
  • 1919 A Child is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Origin of Sexual Perversions
  • 1922 Medusa’s Head
  • 1922 Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality
  • 1923 Infantile Genital Organisation
  • 1924 The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex
  • 1925 Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes
  • 1927 Fetishism
  • 1931 Female Sexuality
  • 1933 Femininity
  • 1938 The Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence

Autobiographical papers

You can find his full bibliography here – Main article: Sigmund Freud bibliography.

C.S. Lewis

The iconic photo of C.S. Lewis

Like Sigmund Freud – C.S. Lewis’s picture on Wikipedia is an iconic photograph of the author. The following biography comes from the quick biography section of Wikipedia:

Clive Staples Lewis, FBA (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963) was a British writer, literary scholar, and Anglican lay theologian. He held academic positions in English literature at both Oxford University (Magdalen College, 1925–1954) and Cambridge University (Magdalene College, 1954–1963). He is best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, but he is also noted for his other works of fiction, such as The Screwtape Letters and The Space Trilogy, and for his non-fiction Christian apologetics, including Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain.

Lewis was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings. Both men served on the English faculty at Oxford University and were active in the informal Oxford literary group known as the Inklings. According to Lewis’s 1955 memoir Surprised by Joy, he was baptized in the Church of Ireland but fell away from his faith during adolescence. Lewis returned to Anglicanism at the age of 32, owing to the influence of Tolkien and other friends, and he became an “ordinary layman of the Church of England“.[1] Lewis’s faith profoundly affected his work, and his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity brought him wide acclaim.

Lewis wrote more than 30 books which have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. The books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia have sold the most and have been popularized on stage, TV, radio, and cinema. His philosophical writings are widely cited by Christian scholars from many denominations.

In 1956, Lewis married American writer Joy Davidman; she died of cancer four years later at the age of 45. Lewis died on 22 November 1963 from kidney failure, one week before his 65th birthday. In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis was honoured with a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

C.S. Lewis (Wikipedia)

C.S. Lewis is known for his theological works and fiction writing. For younger readers he might be best known for his Narnia series of books (all seven of them) or his Perelandra series. For older readers he will be best known for his scholarly works on Christianity – Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, etc.

He was one of the founding members of the “Inklings” a group of writers that got together to discuss their writings and philosophical thoughts. Most notably J.R.R. Tolkien was also a member of this group.

Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

While he has no picture on Wikipedia, he does have an article on there.

Armand M. Nicholi Jr. (October 18, 1927 – June 22, 2017) was a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital. His clinical work and research focused on the impact of absent parents on the emotional development of children and young adults. He was the editor and coauthor of the classic The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry (3rd edition, 1999). He was also a founding board member of the Family Research Council.

Amand M. Nicholi Jr. (Wikipedia)

His only bibliographical listings is this book (published in 2002) and a PBS special titled “The Question of God”. The article goes on to say that he hosted / taught a course at Harvard about Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. Most likely a run through of this book.

The Great Debate

Before we get into the book review proper, lets discuss this ‘debate’ a bit. Frstly, as far as anyone knows – C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud never met, had any actual discussions or correspondence. Nicholi alludes to a time when they possibly might have met – but it seems purely speculative.

C.S. Lewis was a “born again Christian” and very adamant about his belief. Whereas Sigmund Freud was a devout atheist and very adamant about there being no God.

The debate that takes place in this book is purely fiction. It is written by Nicholi, thoguht up by Nicholi, and created by him. So the interpretations and thoughts are solely his.

Now, lets move onto the book review.

Book Review: The Question of God (Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.)

The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

Published September 2002, this hypothetical debate between C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud was written by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr. The GoodReads blurb for the work is as follows:

Throughout the ages, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have wrestled with the concept of — and belief in — God. It may seem unlikely that any new arguments or insights could be raised, but the twentieth century managed to produce two brilliant men with two diametrically opposed views about the question of God: Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. They never had an actual meeting, but in The Question of God, their arguments are placed side by side for the very first time.
For more than twenty-five years, Armand Nicholi has taught a course at Harvard that compares the philosophical arguments of both men. In The Question of God, Dr. Nicholi presents the writings and letters of Lewis and Freud, allowing them to “speak” for themselves on the subject of belief and disbelief. Both men considered the problem of pain and suffering, the nature of love and sex, and the ultimate meaning of life and death — and each of them thought carefully about the alternatives to their positions.
The inspiration for the PBS series of the same name, The Question of God does not presuppose which man — Freud the devout atheist or Lewis the atheist-turned-believer — is correct in his views. Rather, readers are urged to join Nicholi and his students and decide for themselves which path to follow.

The Question of God (GoodReads)

I will be blunt and frank right out of the gate on this one – I found myself greatly disappointed, not enjoying it, and not a fan overall. There is a clear and obvious bias from the beginning moving forward; and it also seems like this was written just to posit his own research and to lend credibility to his own “research on born again Christians”.

It is interesting to see that this is written by a professor and psychologist, and one who even met with Anna Freud; because it seems far from a scholarly piece of work. Nicholi never quite gets into his groove when he discusses these two men. Sometimes he switches back and forth between them with each paragraph, and sometimes he devotes whole long sections to one man, before ending it and moving on to another long section for the next. He constantly throws in quotes, but never really addresses, evaluates, or analyzes them enough for the reader — he should be using quotes to get a sense for who the man is, pointing out unique characteristics, distinctions in personality, inconsistencies in worldview… but so often he leaves the quote hanging there and moves on to another idea.

One of the more frustrating parts is that he even gets some of C.S. Lewis’ works wrong. There were also key points in Lewis’s life that he got wrong or ignored. Nicholi refers to The Screwtape Letters as “an address at a dinner for young devils in training” — but this is not the format for The Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters are letters from one demon to another over a long period of time. It’s Screwtape Proposes a Toast that is formatted as an address at a dinner, which is section of prose Lewis added as an addendum to the book publication 15 years later. Nicholi also never addresses Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore at all, which is often claimed to have been romantic, in his section on sex and love.

This never gets going as a true debate. It never feels even handed or as if a true debate is at hand. And for being a debate, this discussion seems a little off – kilter. On the one hand you have a late 19th century scientist writing in the medical field, and on the other hand an early 20th century classicist/apologist, writing about literature and philosophy. It’s clear who Nicholi favors in this comparison, its amazing how shallow he takes some of Freud’s points. There’s a reason these two men never met or talked, and often this debate felt contrived, forced, and uneven.

There should be a clear cut line between “debate” and “Nicholi talking”, and there isn’t. The opening should also serve as the background information for both Lewis and Freud, and then move on from there. But instead, we get biographical information sprinkled throughout, some times even repetitively. Often Nicholi lapses into purely biographical information for these authors in his “debate” — something necessary only to a certain degree in a comparative book like this. Throwing out facts and quotes from a person’s life doesn’t make for a good “debate” unless you are actually going to contrast and juxtapose the two points of view. So often he throws out useless questions, but this is not a classroom where students need to think about these issues to study for a test — this is a scholarly, researched, analytical book that should be doing the thinking for the reader! So often I winced at formulaic questions like “So what was Freud’s views on topic A?” or “Can the answer to Freud’s views on this be seen in his life and writings?” or “So is love really only about sex?” (the last one is actually on page 162). Sometimes he even throws in his own perspective with a few “I did this…” statements, and two sentences later he’s quoting Freud saying “I think this…” with barely any transition. It’s disorienting for the reader to be tossed around so much. Nicholi even is so self-inflated as to put in a “I have often wondered why,” about the fact that Anna Freud never married. Why don’t you actually analyze why you think she never married, instead of commenting that you’re curious!? Nicholi needed an editor to chop stuff out and heavily rearrange his ideas. And make him write more.

I think that both Freud and Lewis have accurate views of the other’s worldviews. Freud says we come up with religion because we need that authority in our lives that we loose when we grow out of childhood. Lewis says, in terms of his own atheism at one point, says that quite often he was mad at God more than he didn’t believe in God. This is how I often find myself: though I can rationalize that there is no God, I often hate God for not existing. Lewis sees this kind of feeling as an innate desire for God that we all have, which to him is a main piece of evidence for God’s existence. I don’t see that as evidence of God’s existence, but I can see and feel the atheist’s anger at God and the believer’s need to create God.

Sadly, ultimately this never lives up to what a real debate could have been between these two men. It instead comes off as an exercise of Nicholi trying to push Lewis’s worldview (POV) and to also further lend credibility to some of his own ‘research’.

My GoodReads Rating: **
My LibraryThing Rating: * 1/2
Global GoodReads Rating (as of 9.6.23): 4.01

Some More Book Reviews

Some more book reviews for you to check out:

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