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Sigmund Freud Debates C.S. Lewis

Harold Delaney,                                     

Course Description

The current course provides a bridge between the behavioral sciences and the humanities, and in particular draws upon the behavioral science discipline of psychology and the humanities disciplines of religious studies and philosophy. The fundamental question to be addressed is, as Freud termed it, “The Question of a Weltanschauung [worldview].” 

Arguably the most influential individual in the history of psychology, Sigmund Freud’s concepts such as ego, repression, and sibling rivalry have become part of our vernacular, and the sexual revolution he helped spawn, a pervasive feature of modern life. Freud’s atheism, like his focus on sexuality, is well known. One might think his life would have little in common with that of C. S. Lewis, the Oxford professor who wrote not only the Chronicles of Narnia but also numerous books arguing for belief. However, they faced many of the same struggles. Both experienced losses in their childhood: Freud lost his nanny; Lewis, his mother. Later in life, Freud battled cancer and Lewis agonized through the illness and death of his wife. Through such challenges, Freud and Lewis developed their perspectives on life’s deepest questions. 

Despite their similar life experiences, Freud and Lewis arrived at radically different worldviews. This class will focus on Freud and Lewis’ thoughts about sexuality and love, pain and suffering, and ultimate questions of human significance, such as the meaning of life and the existence of God. We will also be examining their biographies, trying to discern the commentary their lives offer on the viability of their views. Although they never met, juxtaposing their writings and life stories permits their diametrically opposed positions to stand out in bold relief for evaluation like two debaters on a stage. Participants in this seminar will enter into this debate, and in the process refine our own answers to some of life’s ultimate questions. 

Readings and Texts

Freud, S. (1975). The Future of an Illusion. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 
Lewis, C. S. (2001). A Grief Observed. New York: Harper San Francisco. 
Nicholi, A. M. Jr. (2002). The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. New York: The Free Press. 
Other primary sources will include excerpts from Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents and his extensive correspondence, and excerpts from C. S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain, and Nature and Supernature.

Films and Other Course Materials

Video clips and other resources from PBS series on The Question of God
The movie Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger

Student Requirements

Students will be asked to prepare regular written responses to Study Questions on the assigned readings, advocating or opposing the positions advanced by Freud and Lewis. Class sessions will require regular participation in small and large group discussion. Students will be required to write a term paper on a topic related to the course (e.g. evaluating empirical research on happiness or sexuality as the evidence relates to Freud or Lewis' philosophical perspectives; or examining from a behavioral perspective the role of psychological conditioning in shaping values or conversely examining research in positive psychology on how moral choices can promote well-being). Students will then make a Powerpoint presentation for viewing by others in the class based on research for the term paper. Students will also be asked to participate in a final formal debate addressing a series of issues from Freud or Lewis' perspective.

About the Instructor

Psychology professor Harold Delaney has directed the Psychology Honors Program and been teaching about Freud in the history of psychology for 25 years. He has written over 50 articles, co-authored a graduate text, and co-edited Judeo-Christian Perspectives on Psychology: Human Nature, Motivation, and Change, published by the American Psychological Association.