Two Men and Two Worldviews

Part I - Deciding What to Believe

“Belief consists of accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief, in denying them.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Click here for Part II of this article.

Whether we realize it or not, each of us has a worldview—that is, a basic set of assumptions about the world and human existence that forms the bedrock of our values, goals and priorities. But how do we decide which worldview to embrace among the smorgasbord of belief systems out there?

Across the worldview continuum lies a presuppositional fault line. On one side of the rift is an impersonal, unsupervised cosmos in which man is left to create meaning out of his otherwise meaningless existence. On the other side is a creation, filled with road signs that point to One whom man is designed to glorify and enjoy forever. Respectively, these are the non-theistic and theistic worldviews.

Deciding which is true involves considering three things: coherence, correspondence, and conclusion.

Testing for coherence, we determine whether the tenets of a worldview are logically sound. For instance, the claim “there is no such thing as absolute truth,” is itself a statement of absolute truth rendering it internally incoherent. Much of transcendentalism and postmodernism is built on such syllogistic quicksand.

Next there is correspondence, meaning how a worldview stacks up against what we know from history and from our own experience. When researcher Gregory Paul published data on societal health as a function of religion, he concluded that “the more secular, pro-evolution democracies” experience greater social health. Of course, the only way Mr. Paul could come to such an outlandish conclusion is by ignoring the history of ethnic cleansings, mass murders, and religious and political persecution inflicted by atheistic societies he conveniently left out of his study.

Lastly, we consider a worldview’s conclusion. If followed faithfully, where will a worldview lead and would it be livable? Our concern here is not primarily with what followers do, but what their worldview says they ought to do; recognizing that every belief system has its hypocritical, misguided or weak devotees.

For example, although Christians have been guilty of many of the same evils as non-Christians, how would things have differed had they consistently adhered to the Sermon on the Mount, or even the minimal requirements of the Decalogue?

Likewise, despite his utilitarian philosophy advocating euthanasia for “useless eaters,” ethicist Peter Singer spent huge sums of money to care for his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother. But what would society look like if he, and the rest of us, took, seriously, his “high moral position” of exterminating those who are a burden to society?

Only by passing a belief system through the filters of coherence, correspondence, and conclusion can we adequately judge its claims. While there are any number of ways to approach such a task, perhaps the most instructive is to examine how a worldview plays out in the lives of its champions.

In the book, The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life, Harvard psychiatry professor Dr. Armand Nicholi has done exactly that.

Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis are key figures on the polar ends of the worldview spectrum. Arguably, Freud stands as the twentieth century’s patron saint of scientific materialism; and Lewis, as the most effective apologist for Christianity of the last hundred years.

As its title suggests, Nicholi’s book juxtaposes the thoughts these two men had on life’s most important questions. But he also delves into how those thoughts affected their lives and the world around them.

Nicholi’s choice of Lewis and Freud is uniquely valuable for many reasons: Among other things, each man was highly gifted intellectually; each became an atheist as a young man despite having early religious influences; each had conflicted relations with his father; both experienced the rejection of peers and the tragic loss of loved ones; both were victims of malice by those in the religious community; and both were influential in shaping the moral ideals of Western culture.

The similarities, in nature and nurture, of Freud and Lewis are nothing less than eerie. Even the qualitative feature of their lives is remarkably similar. It’s only after Lewis made the hard turn from atheism that his life took on a completely different character and began to diverge significantly and irrevocably from that of Freud, who remained a steadfast atheist.

By interweaving the views of Freud and Lewis into the narrative of their lives, Nicholi gives us an objective look into their respective belief systems. But what are the major tenets of those systems?

To be complete, a worldview must address the big questions of life: How did it begin? What went wrong? What is the solution? How should we live? And, how will it end? Accordingly, we will examine what the worldviews of Freud and Lewis had to say about these fundamental questions.

How did it begin?
Freud admired Charles Darwin, applying his theory of common descent to his own theories about human drives and emotions. While Freud may not have had a full-orbed theory of cosmogenesis, he accepted the absurdity of human existence in an insensate universe. As a consequence, life had no inherent meaning for Freud. To the contrary, “the moment man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence,” Freud wrote Marie Bonaparte. As to the claim that man is created in God’s image: “No,” said Freud, “God is created in man’s image.”

Lewis held similar views before his conversion. But afterward he believed in a creative God who entered His creation at a particular point in history. Lewis also realized that if man is a creation, his existence has intrinsic meaning. What’s more, Lewis believed, man was implanted with a longing to experience the purpose for which he was created.

What went wrong?
Freud considered the reality of human suffering one of the most powerful arguments against God. The losses of his childhood nanny and, later, his favorite daughter and grandson, combined with the bitter anti-Semitism he experienced throughout life, all worked to galvanize his conviction that man is alone in an dangerous, uncaring world.

Instead of a benevolent hand guiding man along his hazardous journey, Freud concluded that “obscure, unfeeling, and unloving powers determine men’s fate.”

Although Lewis experienced many of the same life disappointments as Freud, he came to understand them in view of the Fall: Included in God’s perfect creation were creatures with free will to choose good or evil; in time they went wrong, allowing the virus of sin to enter and begin its work of corruption and decay; and ever since, man has been living in “enemy-occupied territory.”

What is the solution?
As a materialist, Freud trusted the omnipotence of science and the infallibility of reason. He also believed that men, educated to know good, would do good. As for God—He was part of the problem—a universal projection of the “uneducated,” a wish fulfillment, a childish fantasy. Freud’s advice? “Grow up!” Seek not comfort in philosophy and religion, but accept reality and endure the vicissitudes of Fate “with resignation.”

The mature Lewis came to realize that the cure for the human condition rested not in education of the human mind, but in transformation of the human heart. In contrast to Freud, Lewis exhorts us to “Wake up!” and realize we were designed to run on a certain fuel, God Himself. To run on any other means exacerbating our condition.

How should we live?
In Freud’s view, ethics and morality are inventions of man. Even the Ten Commandments, Freud insisted, derives from human need and experience rather than external Authority. Consequently, what is moral is what is self-evident. And, what is self-evident will govern the passions of the enlightened (and willing!) masses.

Lewis, on the other hand, believed the moral law could no more be a product of invention than could the law of gravity. Lewis cited the similarities in, what he termed, the Tao between cultures of the modern and ancient worlds. For Lewis, the universality of the Tao was irrefutable evidence of its supernatural origin, from which, the most complete revelation was disclosed in the Bible.

How will it end?
Freud referred to death as the “end of the fifth act of this rather incomprehensible and not always amusing comedy.” Death was not something to fret and obsess over, but something to accept and, even, will. For, in a Freudian sense, the end of conscious existence was the highest pleasure for those whose life had become too painful to endure.

In contrast, Lewis viewed death not as the end of a final act, but as the beginning of a new one. Neither was death an escape from pain, but an entry point to joy, inexpressible. In a letter to a seriously ill friend, Lewis wrote, “There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Having provided a thumbnail sketch of the beliefs of these two men, next time we will examine the impact their views had on them and their followers. Stay turned.

“Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (St. Paul)

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a Centurion of the Wilberforce Forum. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at:

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or Prison Fellowship. Links to outside articles or websites are for informational purposes only and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.