Psychoanalyzing faith and doubt in ‘Freud’s Last Session’

Psychoanalyzing faith and doubt in ‘Freud’s Last Session’

Martin Rayner, left, and Mark H. Dodd portray Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, respectively, in Freud’s Last Session. Photo courtesy
Martin Rayner, left, and Mark H. Dodd portray Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, respectively, in Freud’s Last Session. Photo courtesy

Since Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion sold over two million copies in 2006, the so-called New Atheists — led by Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens — have sought to portray the world as divided between a scientific rejection of God on the one hand, and a fanatical religious dispensation on the other.

But Freud’s Last Session — a play about an imagined encounter between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, whose successful run at the Marjorie Little Theater in Manhattan was recently extended — helps dispel this stereotype and others, while making for great entertainment.

Although the play never moves from the confines of Freud’s flat — Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, this is not — the crackling dialogue and convincing portrayal of both of these complex personalities by playwright Mark St. Germain and actors Martin Rayner (Freud) and Mark H. Dold (Lewis) not only moves the play along but even keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.

People do not generally think of Freud as a principled nonbeliever; he is far better known for his outspoken views on sex, dreams, and the eponymous “slips.” But as the play shows, the founder of psychoanalysis assailed religion just as vehemently as he did society’s other cherished notions of innocence.

And he was not always polite about it. Indeed, the play — which is inspired by Harvard professor Armand Nicholi’s book The Question of God — starts with Freud inviting Lewis to his home in London for the sole purpose of interrogating him on the question of how he could “embrace an insidious lie” like religion.

An Oxford professor in 1939, when the play is set, Lewis has recently converted to theism — becoming what today might be called a “person of faith” — though he has not yet written his famous Christian allegory, the Chronicles of Narnia. He therefore makes for a striking contrast to Freud’s atheism, matching its intensity and audacity by taking the opportunity to proselytize.

Importantly, the play should make both the New Atheist crowd and the hard-core religionists, like Glenn Beck, a little uneasy.

For starters, the fact that the father of psychoanalysis was an avowed atheist is not a source of unmitigated pride for the New Atheists. In fact, Freud is hardly mentioned in Dawkins’ or Harris’ work — and for good reason. Those writers stake their rejection of God chiefly on science, a posture that is supported by their impeccable credentials in evolutionary biology and neuroscience, respectively.

Freud, however, is anything but a model of scientific accuracy.

To the extent Freud is mentioned in modern scientific textbooks, it is to debunk his “theories” as failed hypotheses at best and pseudoscience at worst. Freud is still recognized as a fantastic writer and a creative thinker — albeit mostly by the Humanities and Social Science crowd that Dawkins and Harris look upon with suspicion — but he falsified his evidence, admittedly engaged in rank speculation to support his ideas, and banished people like Carl Jung and Alfred Adler from his circle because they dared to disagree with him. Viewed in this light, Freud’s attempt to prove that religion was a collective “neurosis” appears more like a junk-science crusade than a dispassionate, empirical inquiry.

But the religionists cannot take too much comfort in this; the portrayal of their champion, C.S. Lewis, is even more problematic.

Despite his reputation in many quarters — both Jewish and Christian — as the preeminent defender of the Western religious worldview, Lewis’s lines in the play actually undermine the traditional notion of God in some ways. For instance, when faced with the problem of evil, Lewis quickly concedes that “God lacks either goodness, or power, or both,” given all the bad things that happen to good people every day.

Further, Lewis’s comeback — attempting to extract a confession from Freud by presenting him the Hobson’s choice of declaring Jesus Christ to be a lunatic, the Devil, or the son of God, as if no other conclusion were possible — smacks of insensitivity, to say the least. Given Freud’s strong identification with the Jewish community (despite his avowed atheism) and the fact that he had recently escaped the Nazis in Austria, Freud must not have taken kindly to this remark.

And yet, the fact that both men, despite their strong disagreement, resist the urge to dismiss the other is a testament to their greatness. Lewis, a 41-year-old bachelor who has just “seen the light,” certainly brings something different to the table than Freud, who at the age of 83, has undergone a series of seemingly endless (and unsuccessful) operations to address his mouth cancer.

Nevertheless, the two listen intently to each other, even as they clash on issues that range beyond God to sex, morality, and human nature.

We can only hope that the likes of Dawkins and Beck will follow their example.

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