Monday, May 5, 2014

The question, part 2

A review of The Question of God, continued.
Chapter 2: The Creator; Is There an Intelligence Beyond the Universe?

Freud argued that as people became more educated they would forsake the “fairy tale of religion.” He wrote that the various religions “bear the imprint of the times in which they arose,” and that the notion that “the universe was created by a being resembling a man…reflects the gross ignorance of primitive people.”
As for Christianity, he wrote that the precepts of Jesus are “psychologically impossible and useless for our lives.” (Maybe that’s why few people have ever followed them.)
C. S. Lewis agreed with Freud up until, at about the age of 30, he underwent a radical conversion. He declared in the preface to his Mere Christianity that “There is one God…and Jesus Christ is His only Son.” He said that “God made the world…space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables…” and that there is “a Dark Power in the universe…created by God, and who was good when he was created, and went wrong.”
Oy vey! Where did I go wrong?
What went wrong with Lewis? The author of this book, Armand Nicholi, contends that Lewis was converted by the reading of certain authors and discussions with faculty members at Oxford, where he was teaching. You could just as well account for it by some sort of delusion or hallucination, for from this point on Lewis hardly ever made much sense, in my opinion.
Lewis often trotted out the heartwarming old story about free will, to explain why a good God could make a bad world. Because of our precious free will, which is, in Lewis’s words, “the only thing that makes possible any love or joy worth having,” we ourselves have botched things, but God, who “left us conscience, the sense of right and wrong,” wants us to put things back together.
It might occur to any reasonable person thinking on such matters: why didn’t God just make us—and the world—different from what we are? What’s so terrific and vital about free will? But no, Lewis turns out to be as blinkered a believer as he was an atheist.
Freud wrote, “It would be very nice if there were a God who created the world and (is) a benevolent providence…but it is a very striking fact that all this is exactly as we are bound to wish it to be.” In Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote of “The derivation of (religion) from the infant’s helplessness and the longing for the father…”and in The Future of an Illusion he asserted that the believer creates a God for himself, “whom he dreads, whom he seeks to propitiate, and whom he nevertheless trusts with his own protection.”
Lewis criticized Freud’s characterization of religion based on one’s ambivalence towards one’s parents, saying that the negative side of ambivalence would indicate a wish that God would not exist. But wishing that something didn’t exist isn’t the same as believing that it doesn’t.
Lewis, instead of acknowledging this, takes another tack. He says that wishing for something may be all the evidence we need for its existence. Because he had experienced throughout his life episodes of “longing” – brought on by gazing at some beautiful stretch of countryside, for example – he concludes that these “desires” were evidence of a Creator.
“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists,” he wrote, ignoring the question of which came first, the desire or the object of it; he then proceeds willy-nilly to this conclusion: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation (italics mine) is that I was made for another world.”
Of course, an equally “probable” explanation of such indefinable feelings is that they are vague wishes brought on by boredom, dissatisfaction or despair, and cannot properly be called “longings,” as every desire, indeed, must have an object. But this is the Lewis method – the blithe and breezy assumption of highly dubious premises, as a scaffold for erecting a theology that must be true.
(To be continued…)


Saturday, May 3, 2014

The question is moot

A review of The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. 

Sigmund Freud, here fondling his cigar
   Sigmund Freud never met C. S. Lewis, but the author of this book imagines a debate between the two on the subject of God (and some corollary topics). He also teaches a course at Harvard contrasting the two men’s “worldviews.”
   Nicholi calls Freud “the atheist’s touchstone,” and refers to Lewis as “perhaps the twentieth century’s most popular proponent of faith based on reason.” Lewis himself was an atheist for the first half of his adulthood, and Freud, indeed, was one of his touchstones. When he became a Christian he often challenged the ideas of Freud’s that he had earlier embraced. Or as Nicholi puts it in his prologue: “In subsequent writings, he (Lewis) provides cogent responses to Freud’s arguments…”—thus indicating early on where his own sympathies lie.
     Freud called religion “the universal obsessional neurosis,” and was a lifelong atheist, although as the author suggests he may have wavered in his disbelief from time to time. (In a letter to a friend he wrote, “Science of all things seems to demand the existence of God…”) Freud thought that one’s early, ambivalent attitude toward one’s parents formed the basis for one’s “deep-seated wish for God.”
   Freud’s atheistic underpinnings came largely from his reading of Ludwig Feuerbach, a German philosopher who, in his The Essence of Christianity, asserted that religion is just a projection of human need. “Divine wisdom is human wisdom…the secret of theology is anthropology…the absolute mind is the so-called finite subjective mind,” Feuerbach wrote.
   Lewis, like Freud, grew into an atheist as a teenager. His mother died horribly at home when he was 7, and Lewis recalled that his earliest “religious experience” was praying in vain for her life. He was sent to a miserable boarding school where, he said, he read his Bible, “lived in hope,” and “attempted to obey my conscience.” When the school closed he was sent to another, whose matron took him under her wing and shared her growing unbelief with him. Under her influence, and that of his reading in the classics, his faith began to collapse. Another teacher, William Kirkpatrick, helped drive the final nail in the coffin, although the corpse would be resurrected years later.

   (To be continued…)