The religion of Einstein

I have often heard it said that even Einstein, one of the fathers of modern science, was himself religious in spite of his vast scientific knowledge. This is often used by religious campaigners as some sort of proof that science leads to religious belief. I think what someone says should be taken on its own merits rather than the merits of who says it, but nevertheless this point could do with putting down. Now you may know that I’ve recently been reading “The Portable Atheist” in what little spare time I have, and one particular section has me enthralled. It’s a selection of writings on religion by Albert Einstein, mostly in letters either to friends or in reply to people who ask his opinion. In any case I intend to try and address this question of whether Einstein was ‘religious’ or not.

At first glance, you could be excused for saying immediately that there’s no doubt Einstein was not religious. The first exctract is from a letter dated March 24th, 1954:

“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

This seems clear, but the use of the word “personal” God, muddies the water a little. What many people claim is that he was a Pantheist, in that he saw Spinoza’s God in nature and the universe.

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings”

Now the issue is muddied further because Einstein uses the word religious in odd ways. The word “spiritual” or “awe” would probably be better placed in the following:

“The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is of a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious.”

“To know that what is inpenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling… that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men”

So why is the word religion used here? It’s daft. Dictionary.com defines the word religious as:

1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.

Each of these definitions make certain to include the elements of both belief and practice. As far as I can tell, Einstein’s religion concerns no practice, no ritual observance, and only a belief which has more to do with the laws of nature (a scientific belief) than with any kind of God. Fortunately he clears the issue up a little in this next readng, from a letter in 1954 or 55:

“I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything else that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.”

Again he insists on using the word religious even though he says almost as clearly as you can that he ascribes no sort of consciousness to this thing he calls Nature. He is genuinely just an admirer of the universe and of science. We would not call that religious today. This is merely the kind of agnosticism that leans towards atheism, in that even if some kind of superior spirit exists, it doesn’t matter because it wouldn’t concern itself with the fates and actions of human beings. As Hitchens says in his introduction, “Einstein always insisted that the miraculous thing about the natural order was that there were no miracles, and that it operated according to astonishing regularities.”

In a way, Einsteins beliefs as I’m interpreting them from his writings are fairly similar to my own. I’ve often said whilst debating online that I have no problem with the idea that there was a First Cause that we may as well call God. But the odds of this God still existing, being a conscious ‘anthropomorphic’ entity, being able to control the universe as it wishes (indeed our experience tells us that the universe works according to strict principles than by the whims of a superiour being), having intended to create in the most roundabout way possible a race of beings out in the sticks of the universe, giving a damn about our planet or the living things on it (least of all specifically humans over all the others), and coincidentally being one of the same anthropomorphic Gods that human beings have created out of the mystery of the unknown world and universe are so astronomically small that you may as well live your life as though no God exists.

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2 Responses to The religion of Einstein

  1. DB says:

    Hitchens did a great job compiling various thoughts on the subject in that book. You may have seen the news not too long ago concerning a letter Einstein wrote that regarded religion as childish superstitions. http://richarddawkins.net/article,2568,n,n

  2. […] WordPress link from this post led me to the ‘Not-So-Friendly Humanist’, who last year tackled this same question, evidently beginning with a desire to show Einstein as an atheist.  A read through his article on […]

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