This reading is drawn from a public broadcasting service program called "The Question of God." It is modeled on a course of that title taught each year at Harvard College. I have chosen a small segment of the whole. You would enjoy reading the whole thing by gong to  

This discussion is excerpted from a much longer one on a program called the Question of God.  The first paragraph describing the series reads like this:

The Question of God, a four-hour series on PBS, explores in accessible and dramatic style issues that preoccupy all thinking people today: What is happiness? How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? How do we reconcile conflicting claims of love and sexuality? How do we cope with the problem of suffering and the inevitability of death? Based on a popular Harvard course taught by Dr. Armand Nicholi, author of The Question of God, the series illustrates the lives and insights of Sigmund Freud, a life-long critic of religious belief, and C.S. Lewis, a celebrated Oxford don, literary critic, and perhaps this century's most influential and popular proponent of faith based on reason.

Below, I have chosen just a few of the segments in this discussion.  See for the full series.  --Bob Zomermaand

The Exalted Father

Armand Nicholi: Lewis, like Freud, associated the spiritual worldview with his father, recalling discussions in which the father encouraged him to attend church and become a believer. Is it possible that Freud's atheism and the atheism that Lewis embraced for the first half of his life can all be explained in part on the basis of early negative feelings toward their fathers Is it possible that our early life experiences, especially our relationships with our fathers, colors our attitude in later life toward this whole concept of an ultimate authority? What do you think from your own observations? From your own personal experience?

Louis Massiah: I'm curious — why just the father? I mean, why not mother and father? Or mother? There's something not entirely intuitive in that.

Armand Nicholi: Freud does mention parental authority, but because the father is often the strongest symbol of that parental authority, he speaks of the father as a Heavenly father.

Doug Holladay: My own father juxtaposed what you just led us into, since he died a rabid atheist. He wanted to remind me on his deathbed that he didn't believe the worldview that I had been embracing. There certainly is a dynamic there that I don't fully understand, but I know it was important to me to carve out my own way, and it actually uh, I haven't fully resolved why I did that. Part of it was the hound of heaven pulling me, and part of it was probably an adolescent rebellion against my father's strong atheism.

Armand Nicholi: So you're saying that this need to be independent from your father, to rebel against what he embraced, to be your own person, was an influence.

Winifred Gallagher: I think a very important issue that this initial question about the father raises is that in order to have a mature spiritual life, you have to move beyond God as the parent in the sky. I think it's almost inevitable that you start out there as a child, because that is your model of an authority or a caregiver or providence. But I think if you're really going to become a thinking person of faith, you have to realize that that's a childish vision of God. The best you can do at a certain point. And then you have to move beyond that to something way different than your daddy.

Armand Nicholi: And how do you do that?

Winifred Gallagher: I think it's a process.

Armand Nicholi: I mean, how do you change your image that's formed as a child influenced by the parental authority?

Winifred Gallagher: I think we have a great deal of information now from other spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhism, Hinduism, the African faiths — things that have allowed us to see God or the sacred or ultimate reality, whatever you want to call that thing, from very different perspectives than just the Judeo-Christian monotheistic God father. So I think we have a more multi-dimensional way to look at the issue that these guys were struggling with, which was very Freudian.

Armand Nicholi: Once Freud defines his worldview, he writes that "the doctrine that the universe was created by a being resembling a man, but magnified in every respect, a kind of superman, reflects the gross ignorance of primitive peoples" According to Freud, God does not make us in his image – we make God in our image. Now, does that argument make sense today?

Jeremy Fraiberg: I'm a fan of Freud and a fan of his arguments. But just because you wish that something is so doesn't mean that it isn't so. What Freud's saying is that if you look at the data and you want to come up with the simplest theory – he'd say, well, maybe instead of saying that a God's there, it makes more sense to say that these are universal human wishes, and the best explanation as to why people around the world come up with different conceptions of God is because there's this universal need for explanations, comfort, order in the face of chaos and disorder.

Armand Nicholi: Would you say then that these are feelings both Lewis and Freud are describing, but they don't have anything to do with the reality of God's existence?

Frederick Lee: I disagree. Feeling can reflect truth. What if the feeling, or the need to be in communion with an ultimate being, is put there by design? Then that feeling is a reflection of truth.

Michael Shermer: How would you tell whether it was or wasn't?

Frederick Lee: That's the – that's the difficulty.



The Human Condition

Armand Nicholi: Freud says that it seems not to be the case that there's a power in the universe which watches over the well-being of individuals with parental care, and brings all their affairs to a happy ending. Earthquakes, tidal waves, conflagrations, make no distinction between the good and what we consider the evil. And when it comes to relationships between people, uh, the good often come away with the short end of the stick. How do you explain that? Freud says, "The notion that good is rewarded and evil punished by the government of the universe just does not seem to square with reality." But Lewis, in response, points out that the government of the universe is temporarily in enemy hands. Do any of these arguments make sense today? And have they in any way influenced your own personal worldview?

Jeremy Fraiberg: How can you believe in a Christian God when there are things in this world like little girls getting abducted, sexually tortured repeatedly and then hacked up into pieces. That just happened in Toronto, where I come from. I mean, this is unspeakably evil. And awful. And how could a good God let that happen?

Doug Holladay: He couldn't. The Old Testament documents seem to argue that the world isn't what it was intended to be. So I would say those things are because God's given free will, this world is on its own trajectory. But this is not Plan A, I'd say. This is Plan B, which is a broken world, that free reign of evil is everywhere.

Margaret Klenck: I wouldn't say that the spiritual worldview is that there are these two forces in the world, sort of Manicheism. I mean, I don't think we need to go to "All good God, all horrible devil." I think I can begin to get my mind around, and my heart around, a God who has a shadow, the way we do. A God who, because there's light, there will be dark. That there is a sense that this is all part of the entity. I don't believe that we're living in plan B. I think this is — I think this is plan. This is the plan.

Armand Nicholi: That God planned the evil?

Margaret Klenck: No, I don't picture a God sitting there with, like, a calculus and figuring all this out and saying, "Ah, and if I do this, this'll happen, if I do that, that'll happen." I don't relate to that God. I relate to a force that has set this in motion, and that enjoys the free will, not in a sadistic way, but in the way that I believe we're made in God's image, which is to be in relationship. If we can't be in relationship — if there's no evil, if there's no bad, if there's no sad, there can be no love, there can be no good.

Louis Massiah: I think I'm following what you're saying. It's not to say that we want evil, that we want bad, but confronting those forces actually helps us to rise to another level. Without struggle, you know, where would we be?

Jeremy Fraiberg: Hold on — this free will argument is really flawed in a number of ways. First of all, free will addressed only the third of the list of three things that Freud listed as being sources of pain — namely, the things that people do to other people. It says nothing at all about the decay of our bodies — people suffer horrible diseases, terrible pain, that has nothing to do with free will. Natural disasters, earthquakes, volcanoes, what does that have to do with free will?

Doug Holladay: If we are in fact living in enemy territory, then our life is lived in reality knowing there's evil in the world, and we've got these skirmishes all along the way. We're having fights where we have one victory — Nelson Mandela's released, this good thing happens, but there is evil, there's no question who's in charge of this world order. That is the spiritual worldview, as Lewis has articulated it. And it seems to me that if you don't get that, if I don't understand that the world is terribly different than God's plan A, then you're kind of surprised all the time by evil. I think Lewis is saying, "Don't be surprised by evil ... . "

Margaret Klenck: No, no, he's not surprised by evil... Nobody's surprised by evil. I mean, I think the point is —

Doug Holladay: No, if you just say everything's God, everything's good, I think the worldview that says there's real evil everywhere, and our job in life is to fight against that

Winifred Gallagher: A big piece of this for the religious person, though, whether it's Buddhism or Christianity or Judaism, or — the person of faith says, "Despite all this terrible stuff, I am putting my trust in the fact that it's still part of what will turn out to be a good picture."

Suffering and death

Armand Nicholi: How do you equate an omnipotent, all loving being with what we've come to expect and experience in our lives? How do we cope with the problem of suffering?

Frederick Lee: There is no reconciliation. I think the definitive explanation, as far as from the spiritual worldview, is what was said in the book of Job, and this is a book that I cannot understand, and there is no answer to it. There is a wager —

Michael Shermer: But God's a sadist in that —

Frederick Lee: Exactly. There is a wager between God and the devil ...

Margaret Klenck: But we're back into dualism.

Frederick Lee: And the wager is Job only obeys you because you've blessed him, and God says, "Fine, torture him devil, do everything, but you can't kill him." And so he's tortured to the extreme, loses all his children, wealth, gets boils, and at the very end, you know, when his wife is telling him, "Curse God and die," he says, "No, I will remain faithful." Okay, but he still wants an account from God — "Why are you doing this to me? I have not been sinful. I have not committed anything that deserves this."

Jeremy Fraiberg: So why do you believe?

Frederick Lee: Because, as Lewis says, the problem of pain is only a problem because one believes in the spiritual worldview. In other words, faith creates the problem of pain.

Michael Shermer: Right. So just get rid of the faith, and that's it. There is no God —

Frederick Lee: Then there's no problem.

Jeremy Fraiberg: So what theory of the universe makes most sense given the data? Well, if you start with the premise that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, and then you run up against the data that bad things are happening to good people for no particular reason, it seems as though you can't reconcile the data to your theory.

Doug Holladay: I don't think I can know what I really believe, unless I'm challenged and face something that's beyond my capacity to deal with. When I've had periods like that, they have in a funny way strengthened me. During the challenging moments, like when friends are going through a divorce or they lose a child, it does matter what you believe. It absolutely matters.

Winifred Gallagher: One of my children got cancer, in perfect health, I just got a call from college one day. And it was such a horrible experience. It's much more horrible than getting it yourself, because there's nothing you can do. And the thing that amazed me about it was that in my worst moments I realized that I still thought that life was beautiful.

Armand Nicholi: That God is ultimately good? Is that what you're concluding?

Winifred Gallagher: That the difference between us and God, the test — I can't think of any other way of expressing it — that Job had, was "are you willing to" — because you have, if you're a person of faith, you have a good experience of God, you've experienced the sacred in some meaningful, positive way, or you wouldn't be on this path to begin with. So for that person, are you still going to believe the positive stuff when some negative stuff happens to you? That's the issue.

Armand Nicholi: Let me just ask one quick question, though. Did you feel, during that experience, like what several people here just said — that God is a sadist?

Winifred Gallagher: No, because my God is not up there and I'm down here. God is right here, right now in some way. God — one thing we know about God is, whatever you think God is, God is not that. God is deeply mysterious, and, and is somehow here right now in everything with us, so that when my son and I were agonizing about what he was going through, God was agonizing with us.

Armand Nicholi: Now, how do we come to terms with what Freud called the painful riddle of death? He makes the interesting observation that our unconscious does not believe in its own death. It behaves as if it were immortal. Perhaps Lewis would say that our minds refuse death because death was not part of the original plan of creation. Does our worldview actually help resolve this problem? How does this work in your life, or the lives of your family and friends?

Jeremy Fraiberg: It absolutely affects your life and the way you deal with death, because if you believe in the life after death, then it's only a temporary goodbye, and not a permanent goodbye. So that's very comforting. So I could see it being incredibly comforting, and that's precisely Freud's argument, that's exactly what we'd wish it to be. And, therefore, it's not surprising that people would come to believe in this sort of thing.

Now, if you believe there is not an afterlife, as I do, it makes death frightening. I mean, I'm afraid of dying. I'm afraid of dying because of the unknown. I don't know what lies next. I also know that, if I die, I won't be able to see other people — I suppose I wouldn't know the difference, but if people around me die, that could be it forever, and that's obviously extremely painful. And I don't have something to latch onto, and say, "Well, you know what, could be a few more years, and I'll join them in a better place." It might be it forever.

Michael Shermer: I don't believe there's an afterlife at all — this is all there is. For example, when my mother was dying, she had these brain tumors. They kept taking them out, they kept coming back. And this went on and on for 10 years. You know, I felt from the moment this started happening, that since I'll never see her again and she's not going anywhere and neither am I, this is it — every single moment I could have with her, everything I could say to her that was loving, all that just to me was incredibly enhanced by the fact that there is nothing else.

Margaret Klenck: I don't look forward to an afterlife. I'm assuming that this energy that I live in, this libido that exists in me, is released into the universe, and continues life. I mean, energy doesn't disappear. And my experience working with dying people over the years in the hospital, is that there is energy that leaves. I've seen it. I've witnessed it. There's energy, it goes somewhere. So my feeling is, I have no idea.

Louis Massiah: I don't use "afterlife." That's not part of my concept. But, but I do believe in a conservation.

Armand Nicholi: But what does that mean, conservation?

Louis Massiah: I think that matter is conserved, energy is conserved. Folks who I have loved who have died, their influence stays with me. I hear their words, I see their work, I see the influence that they've had on so many people, so I realize that it continues.

Michael Shermer: In memory, you mean?

Louis Massiah: More than in memory. It's real. I mean, I think of, you know, writers, people like Toni Cade Bambara. I mean, her words, the way she animated communities as a cultural worker. That stays with me.

Armand Nicholi: Isn't there a difference between memory that goes on, and existence in another —

Louis Massiah: I don't know, but it's the energy, our lives have been changed as a result of people that have gone through it, and to me, that — that's the continuity.

Jeremy Fraiberg: We haven't spoken much about hell here, which I think is actually an obstacle of faith for some people. That is, if God is all good, and all powerful, forget the fact that bad things happen to good people, but what about people like Michael and me who have been struggling with these questions? It would seem kind of unfair if we had to suffer for eternity because we didn't believe after doing the best we could living according to our lights. I find that a very troubling concept.

Frederick Lee: I find it terribly troubling.

Jeremy Fraiberg: But you believe in it.

Frederick Lee: Well, I don't know that — there's not enough description in the scriptures to know, you know, whether there are nine circles, and that, you know, they're ordered in a certain way, I know, I know the New Testament scripture says, uh, there's gnashing of teeth. Sounds pretty bad, but —

Doug Holladay: No, it says fire and burning.

Frederick Lee: Right, he says — Lewis says "Well, it just means separation from God." And that's — during your life, that's what you've tried to do, you've tried to turn away from God and not pay attention to him, and so in your afterlife, that's what you're going to get, and that's all there is." And that's really bad because who wants to be separated for eternity from their creator?

Armand Nicholi: Lewis makes an interesting description of life as being, um, made up of decisions, and that every decision we make either draws us closer to the creator or further away from him, and that we, in one sense, determine our — the direction we end up in, by how we make these decisions, how we live our life.

Copyright © 2004 WGBH Educational Foundation


Last modified: Tuesday, May 12, 2020, 4:28 PM