The religion of Einstein

July 15, 2008

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. 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.

The Case for Christ

June 26, 2008

I promised a couple of weeks ago that as soon as I finished reading The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel, I’d post a full review. Well I’ve found a couple of reviews that are much more extensive than I could ever be bothered writing, so instead of writing a full review here, I’m just going to Book Coverlink to those, and pick out maybe a couple of things I took from it.

There’s one tiny thing that I did find a little convincing. I’ve already said how it’s pointless trying to compare evidence for the gospels with evidence for secular documents, because they deal with very different issues, but one thing that was repeatedly said was that if the gospels weren’t true and Jesus genuinely hadn’t risen from the dead, then the apostles and the early Christians wouldn’t have claimed so for the rest of their lives, leading them eventually to rather gruesome deaths at the hands of the Romans. This was a problem for me whilst reading; I could dismiss a lot of the other things, but this kind of stuck. So I’ve thought about it myself, I’ve been reading around a little bit, and I think I’m past it.

The review I linked to above has a section on this assertion (the first part of “The Circumstantial Evidence”, near the bottom, page 246), which makes the assertion that plenty of people have died for their faith in the past, Mormons and Muslims for example, which doesn’t prove that what they’re saying is true. This only partly answers my problem. The objection in the text is that although plenty of people have died for something they believe is true, none would die for something they know is false, which if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, the disciples would know, since they were the witnesses of it.

Book cover 2Since finishing this book I’ve started on ‘The Portable Atheist’, a collection of exerpts by various authors, put together by Christopher Hitchens. There are a number of chapters by or about David Hume, the famous Edinburgh philosopher, which half addresses this problem. Hume says that miracles are miracles because they go against the human experience, they’re not what we normally see. This amounts to as great a proof as any human experience can provide. Therefore, if there is human testimony which supports the occurrence of a miracle, you have to weigh that testimony against your own, subtract the difference of strength between them, and then you will naturally incline on the stronger side, albeit with a diminution of certainty.

He goes on to state that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.” In simpler terms, is it more likely that the testimony come from someone who was deceived, or trying to deceive, or is it more likely that it’s true and the miracle took place? I think that in all cases I can think of, it’s more likely to be untrue.

Even the miracle of the sun at Fatima, where 70,000 people were reported to have seen the sun move and dive down towards the earth, can be explained using this logic, as Richard Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow. Would it be more likely that these 70,000 people were deceived into thinking the sun moved, or that the rest of the world were deceived into thinking it didn’t move whilst it actually did? That the people wouldn’t have been burnt up by the sun? That the physical effects of the sun’s nearness would be felt by the whole planet and would likely still be measurable? (In reality apparently there is some inconsistency in the reports of the crowd; Wikipedia says that some saw it dive down whilst others saw it zigzag. There are also no photographs of the event, despite photographers and reporters being in the crowd.)