Freud’s Last Session: A Clash of 20th-Century Titans Over Science and Faith

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Freud’s Last Session, a recent film, demonstrates the vitality of faith in conversation with science in the imagined dialogue between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis. We asked Carl Hofmann (M.Div, D.Min, Fuller Seminary) to review the film. Carl is senior associate pastor for engagement and congregational care at Grace Commons Church in Boulder, where he’s served since 2002. The church was a recipient of a Scientists in Congregations grant where they pioneered work that Science for the Church continues today. Carl is married to Rupali, and they have two young adult sons who live and work in Denver. Carl is a coffee and craft beer snob who loves to ride bikes.

The Question of God

Is faith in God childish wish-fulfillment (and a rejection of science) or is belief the most rational response to human longing and the best way to promote human flourishing? Two titans of 20th-century thought clash over these questions in Freud’s Last Session, a feature-length movie recently released by Sony Pictures. This fictionalized meeting in London between Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) and Oxford don C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode) is based on the play by Mark St. Germain (and inspired by psychiatry professor Armand Nicholi’s Harvard class and book The Question of God). In one corner is Freud, the flawed father and terminally ill atheist; in the other is Lewis, the Christian convert and world-famous apologist.

Even with their divergent worldviews, Lewis and Freud have startling similarities: both suffered significant pain and loss in their formative years; both had unhappy, alienated relationships with their fathers; both wrestled with theodicy (how a good and all-powerful God could allow human suffering); and both experienced complicated domestic relationships born from projection and attachment disorders. But given their similarities, the two responded in radically different ways to the possibility of faith.

At numerous points in the film, Freud claims the rational high ground of science for his rejection of belief in God. Yet it’s clear that many of Freud’s atheist conclusions (and the hypotheses that got him there) can’t be tested by the scientific method: ideas like projection, repression, attachment, the unconscious, and especially dream analysis involve as much art as they do science. At one point Freud even trots out Galileo in his prison cell as an argument against Christian belief, an argument which Lewis rightly dismisses as cherry-picking the worst examples of church leadership to prove his point.

With similar predictability, Freud presents the familiar conflict model between science and faith. He tells Lewis: “We speak different languages. You believe in revelation. I believe in science, the authority of reason. There is no common ground.” Lewis would strongly deny this. He was famous for adopting Immanuel Kant’s defense of belief from the “starry heavens above” (the vast natural world studied by science) and “the moral law within” (the divinely-instilled conscience shaped by revelation). The supposed antagonism between science and faith is more chimera than conflict. Lewis points this out to Freud when he asks, “Why does religion make room for science, but science refuses to make room for religion?” Why indeed?

In the film, Freud exhibits the bad habit often seen in the clash between science and Christian faith: a reductionist “nothing-buttery.” For Freud, belief in God is “nothing but” an infantile projection of unmet longings for a father figure to protect and provide. Freud demands that believers like Lewis “grow up” and acknowledge this pathetic projection. This is dismissive and unworthy of good science. How, in fact, can Freud prove his point? Lewis counters that a child’s ambivalence toward their father (both in adulation and antagonism) can just as easily lead away from God as well as toward God.

  • This PBS mini-series, The Question of God, hits some of the same themes raised in the essay.
  • Armand Nicholi’s book The Question of God also provides background for a related film.
  • Greg has written a post on C. S. Lewis and a book on “St. Clive” and how Lewis speaks to an age of science.
  • Our website has resources on C.S. Lewis and church ministry.
  • We also have a growing collection of resources in psychology, which are a bit more faith-friendly than is found in Freud.
  • Drew considered “nothing-buttery” a few years ago.

Struggles Toward and Against Faith

Freud’s Last Session shows Freud rejecting faith for more than scientific reasons. Young Freud’s loss of his nanny (who introduced him to Christianity) and his problematic relationship with his devout Jewish father contribute to his unbelief. His deep grief over the loss of his daughter Sophie and her son at age 5 compound his commitment to atheism. Clearly, logic, reason, and the scientific method may be factors in the formation of his worldview, but so too are trauma, pain, and loss.

Lewis’s own journey to belief (recall he was an atheist for almost half of his life) doesn’t play according to Freud’s expectations. For a variety of reasons, there was little wish fulfillment (and certainly no evidence of childish projections) in Lewis’s conversion. He finally bent the knee to God over the evidence he discovered in the gospel accounts, calling himself the “most dejected convert in all of England.” The divergent philosophies of both men are an admixture of early childhood history, pain and suffering, as well as thoughtful philosophical analysis. Their lives and the conclusions they reach give the lie to a mutually exclusive conflict model between science and faith. It’s just not that simple.

One of the more interesting themes in the movie presses beyond mere logic and rationality. Central to their conversation is the theme of joy (or what the Germans and Freud call Sehnsucht). It is the unfulfilled longing that hounds human life. Young Lewis first felt this when imagination and fantasy beckoned to him from a world beyond. This otherworldly call was echoed for Lewis in Norse myth. Finally, the persistent pang of Sehnsuchtled led the way to his belief as an adult. Lewis disagrees with Freud about the origin of this impulse. Rather than being childish wish fulfillment, Sehnsucht for Lewis functions like a divine homing beacon. It is proof that such an appetite must have its origin in God and thus find fulfillment beyond this world.

Freud and Lewis buffs will appreciate this film, but it drags and feels two-dimensional in many places. For a much richer treatment of their viewpoints, I recommend Nicholi’s book, The Question of God. It delves more deeply into their letters and writings and relies on accounts from close friends who knew them. Nicholi includes commentary from insights gleaned during his class at Harvard (and his research). Particularly compelling was his study of the psychological benefits and lifestyle impact of faith in his undergraduates. He discovered that those who came to faith in college often had significantly greater happiness (and less depression) than those who rejected faith. Their lives of faith were often marked by generosity and altruism in contrast to their previous lives of unbelief.

For Nicholi, this reflects the experience of Freud and Lewis as they each approached death: Freud’s decline was riddled with anxiety and obsession; ultimately, his pain and depression led him to embrace euthanasia. Lewis, by contrast, died full of peace. He was calm and even cheerful as he left this world. What’s clear from the movie (and Nicholi’s writing) is that while good arguments can be made on either side of faith and unbelief, this contest involves more than science and rationality. It encompasses all aspects of our humanity and is vindicated in the quality of our lives.

Finally, as we bring together faith and science, perhaps Freud’s Last Session would have us ask: how might the God revealed in both the book of nature and the Book of Scripture call us to respond with our whole selves to the offer of life in Jesus Christ?

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