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The Question of God, A New PBS Series

This week’s eSkeptic is a review of the forthcoming PBS documentary two-part series, The Question of God, airing on PBS stations nationally on successive Wednesday evenings, September 15th and 22nd. The series is based on the book of the same title by the Harvard psychiatrist Armand Nicholi, itself based on a course he teaches at Harvard on science and religion, through the eyes of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis. I participated in the series as one of their round-table discussants. I have not seen the series yet so I do not know when these discussions occur, but the following review by Stephen Asma, a skeptical colleague, was just published in the Chronicle Review (copyright © 2004, Sept. 12), and reprinted here with Stephen’s permission. It is a brilliantly written and insightful commentary not only on the book and documentary, but on the subject of science and religion itself, so I thought the eSkeptic readership would find it interesting and entertaining. —Michael Shermer

The Question of God

Stephen T. Asma’s review of PBS’s new series

If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name in a Swiss bank.” This classic Woody Allen line reminds us of the age-old difference between goats (skeptics) and sheep (believers). Goats are looking for some evidence (Allen obviously goes beyond the pale of reasonable evidence, but hey, it’s a joke), while sheep think that either the evidence is all around, albeit coded, or the demand for evidence is itself a sign of impious arrogance.

On September 15th and 22nd, PBS will present a miniseries called The Question of God based on Harvard psychiatry professor Armand Nicholi’s popular course comparing the theories and biographies of Sigmund Freud (goat extraordinaire) and C. S. Lewis (exemplary sheep). Nicholi has taught the Harvard course on Freud and Lewis for over twenty-five years, turning it into a 2002 book, from which the PBS series takes its title, organization, and inspiration. The book is a deeper examination, as its weighty subtitle promises, of the debate over “God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life”, but the PBS series also does an admirable job of synthesizing some of this vast subject matter.

Most people are aware of the basic philosophical disagreement. Freud, who referred to himself as a “Godless Jew”, argued that religion is a “mass delusion” which formally enshrines our “infantile” longing for an all-powerful protective (but also threatening) father figure. Lewis, a literary scholar and poet, converted and became an apologist for Christianity after Oxford pals (like J.R. Tolkien) convinced him that the Bible was a “true myth” and Jesus must be “the Lord” because no other explanation of the Gospels makes sense.

With a fairly clever multi-format structure, the show is able to weave together dramatic recreations of Freud’s and Lewis’s lives, interviews with experts (like Freud archivist Harold Blum or Lewis specialist Peter Kreeft, among others), and a present-day conversation, facilitated by Nicholi, between notable goats and sheep (Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer, religion writer Winifred Gallagher, Harvard physician Frederick Lee, Jungian analyst Margaret Klenck, filmmaker Louis Massiah, attorney Jeremy Fraiberg, and entrepreneur Douglas Holladay). Frequently, though not always, the formats are woven in such a way that the limits of one style of exploration (e.g., the dramatic narrative) are nicely remedied by shifting to another format style (e.g., the contemporary roundtable debate). Sometimes, for example, the biographical material on Freud and Lewis helps us to better understand aspects of their formal arguments, and switching again to the panelist debate helps bring a vitality and relevance to the historical material. The resulting effect is a balanced survey of both the specific theories and beliefs of Freud and Lewis, as well as an illustrative sampling of the ways that this material has been digested by our contemporary culture. Teachers and students of philosophy, religious studies, and psychology, will find much to chew on here, and the series could be successfully employed in the classroom as a launching-pad for discussions and more systematic investigations.

The deeper organizing principle of the series, however, is rather unconvincing. Repeated throughout the program is Nicholi’s basic justification for focusing on Freud and Lewis. He sees them as quintessential representatives of secularism and spiritualism respectively, and he declares that “few people have influenced the moral fabric of contemporary Western civilization more than Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis.” But the claim that either of these thinkers had any real influence on the “moral fabric of Western civilization” is highly dubious. Furthermore, Nicholi suggests the bolder thesis that each of these competing world views, the secular versus the spiritual (which he arguably interprets as “defying” versus “surrendering” dispositions) represents different aspects of our psyches and we eventually choose to side with one or the other paradigm. The meaning of our lives then, according to Nicholi, is determined by which world-view we choose: God or no God?

On the face of it, this dramatic fulcrum seems uncontroversial. The meaning of life does seem to teeter on a point of metaphysics. This elevation of metaphysics is the kind of indignant protest that a philosophy professor makes just as the administrators are poised to cut the major. I think I’ve said something defensive like this myself at many cocktail parties. But is it really true? Is it true that a secular or spiritual commitment really makes a big difference in our moral behaviors, our attitudes toward family, work, politics, love, and meaning? The program says it, but doesn’t show it. In fact, many scenes and exchanges show evidence of the exact opposite.

Does one’s view of God significantly impact one’s pursuits of “happiness”, “love”, and “morality”? While there is an astounding amount of affirmative lip-service to this idea in popular culture, the fact is that true believers and skeptics seem to love their families, pursue fulfilling work, submit to moral duty, etc., in exactly the same way and measure. Even the comparative biographies of Freud and Lewis, which Nicholi thinks reveals the “meaning difference” of world views, fails to evidence any divergence of concrete day-to-day values. In fact, contrary to pious expectation, the atheistic Freud was arguably a much more fulfilled family-man, a devoted pater familiaris with 6 kids, while Lewis, who droned incessantly about love, only briefly tasted a little of the erotic and filial forms in his 60s—otherwise, he was a life-long loner.

So too, in the round-table conversation, a fascinating exchange about suffering occurs near the end of the series that again demonstrates the de facto irrelevance of “the God question” to the everyday values of our lives. Winifred Gallagher, a theist, discovered that her college-aged son was diagnosed with cancer. Her view of God as an immanent mysterious presence helped her to see that, in spite of the misfortune, “life is still beautiful.” On the other hand, hardcore atheist Michael Shermer relates a story of how his mother died of brain cancer, but his secular worldview (no afterlife) only gave more focus and depth to the remaining time that he and his mother shared together. And he explains that, instead of despair, his rejection of a transcendental otherworld leads him to love his daughter intensely because it means that this life and this moment are precious. While Gallagher and Shermer have diametrically opposed metaphysical commitments, they are both devoted to their families and both believe that life is something to be treasured. They differ on the ideas of global meaning, but beyond that arid abstraction they are akin on matters of local meaning.

Nicholi, who shows his hand more as a sheep in the epilogue of his book, suggests that there are “signs-posts” out in nature and in ourselves (longings) that reveal God and create some new sense of meaning for us once we let go of our “willful blindness.” Secularists, according to Nicholi, avoid “confronting the evidence” and remain, like Freud, “confused.” Thankfully, this pap is left out of the PBS series, but the general assumption, that God is a matter for objective Truth discovery rather than subjective hermeneutic construction, still serves as a major supposition of the show. Perhaps this is as it should be since a verification interest in God is how most Americans see the matter, but it leaves one wishing for some more symbolic/literary interpretations of religion (both Gallagher and Klenck try to take things in this direction but they flounder into New Age blather). The inclusion of William James’s more complex views on religious belief could have steered between the Scylla and Charybdis that Nicholi reinforces. And the program is so earnest to present things as an either-or choice between world-views that it gives short-shrift to Freud’s nuanced theory. Yes, according to Papa Freud, God is a fantasy and religion is literally false, but civilization owes tremendous debt to the controlling influence of this cultural super-ego. Freud regularly acknowledges the good that religion does in fashioning a people who are able to live together (by inhibiting their selfish drives). The PBS show emphasizes Freud’s “fantasy” statements, but deemphasizes his utilitarian praise for religion. That subtlety would only obscure the dichotomous good-guy/bad-guy opposition that works so well in a television format. I suspect that is also the reason why conciliatory models that combine science and religion (of which there are many) are barely touched on. Instead, we get a two-cultures version of a trained empirical scientist versus a literary scholar/poet–both of whom are wrestling in the same arena of truth. Most scientists and religion scholars today reject that wrestling match.

By exclusively focusing on the particular views of Freud and Lewis, Nicholi and the PBS series miss a great opportunity to flesh-out and strengthen the two world-views that they’re purportedly so interested in contrasting. For example, the show is more interested in Lewis’s “rational” Christianity (rather than the more fideistic tradition of Kierkegaard), but then they certainly could have offered better arguments from the likes of Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, or even Aquinas. After all, is anybody but a sheep really convinced by Lewis’s famous “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” argument? Jesus, according to Lewis, must be the Son of God because if he is not then his recorded statements in the gospels peg him as either a lunatic or a liar. And since he’s clearly not crazy or a liar, he must be Lord. Besides the obvious fact that there are several other ways (besides these three) to explain bold claims of messiah-status, most goats have no compunction about saying: okay, he was a lunatic or a liar.

There are other notable frustrations as well. I fully concede that any show must constrain its subject matter in order to get some depth, but many of the melodramatic dichotomies presented here are defused when one introduces other religions besides the Judeo-Christian tradition. Buddhism gets mentioned twice in the conversation segments, but no one says anything coherent or helpful about it. Crippling issues for Western religion, like how to reconcile the problem of evil or suffering with the three-omni God, are thoroughly neutralized in other religions like Hinduism, animism, and Buddhism. Even the ideas of death and immortality are completely different in Eastern spiritualism. One longs for a little international perspective in the otherwise fascinating discussion sections.

To the show’s credit, it does spend some time, both in the biographies and roundtable sections, articulating the major point of contention between goats and sheep, namely this problem of evil or suffering. C.S. Lewis famously saw suffering as a wake-up call. Pain and suffering, according to Lewis are produced by Satan, but God uses that pain to produce good. Most of my own students, being sheep, are quick to offer a similar viewpoint. I, like other goats, confess to not understand it. By analogy, it seems to me that we are asked to affirm a father’s goodness after he has allowed an aggressor to torture one of his children so that the other children might learn a valuable lesson from it. Goats stand with Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamozov, who doesn’t want to be there when, according to Christian doctrine, the lion will lie down with the lamb and the murder-victim will embrace the murderer. My students also rally around other Lewis-type solutions (offered up here by Klenck and Massiah) like the idea that evil only “looks” evil to our puny perceptions or: How would we recognize good, if we weren’t occasionally thumped by misfortunes? Most goats however, and here they are well represented by Fraiberg and Shermer, look at a case like the recent death of children in hurricane Charley and see no way to apply Lewis’s “solutions.”

On balance and despite some of my objections here, The Question of God serves well as an introduction to these complex issues. In the current media climate of news-bites, humiliating reality TV, and shrill oppositional politics, the real miracle is that an intelligent show about God was made at all.

Stephen Asma is professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. His forthcoming book for HarperCollins San Francisco is called The Gods Drink Whiskey: Philosophical Dispatches from the Tattered Land of the Buddha.

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