EINSTEIN AND GOD
A CHRONOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF HIS BELIEFS ON GOD, RELIGION AND THE BIBLE
Albert Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius, and a genius indeed he was. Einstein is most famous for conceiving the general theory of relativity. He also contributed a mathematical description of Brownian movement and to the quantum theory. Because of his
outstanding contributions to physics, he was awarded the Nobel Prize 1921. His scientific contributions are recognized as the most important of the twentieth century and towers as a giant in science, together with Galileo and Newton.
Einstein was born in Germany in 1889 in a non-practicing Jewish family. His father was a businessman who was never able to achieve any lasting economic success. Religion was discouraged in the Einstein home and, therefore, Albert never received any instruction in the Jewish faith by his immediate family. Furthermore, he did not become Bar Mitzvah and never mastered Hebrew.[i]
Albert attended a Bavarian public school where he received a Catholic education. At the same time, he was given a Hebrew religious education from a distant relative who taught him “the elements of Judaism.”[ii] When he was eleven, he entered a very intense religious phase, and became quite committed to keeping the Jewish precepts he had learned. He also “composed several songs in honour of God which he sang enthusiastically on the way to school.”[iii]
This phase came to an end when in high school he transferred his passion to a love for science, though he never lost his fascination for God as Creator, and remained “by his own definition…a deeply religious man.”[iv]
By age eighteen, he confirmed the presence of a spiritual side to his life and a certainty that it would accompany him to the end of his life: “Strenuous labour and the contemplation of God’s nature are the angels which, reconciling, fortifying, and yet mercilessly severe, will guide me through the tumults of life.”[v] Einstein was faithful to this statement and indeed framed his whole professional life with much labour and an obsessive determination to understand the Force that was behind existence. In his mid-twenties he “…felt compelled to comprehend what might have been intended for our universe by The Old One (As he referred to his notion of God).”[vi]
Like his great predecessors, Galileo and Newton, Einstein had no doubt in the fact that a Greater Power had created and maintained the universe. Unlike them, though, his views were not Bible based. In fact, though he faithfully read the Bible throughout his life, he did not accept the miraculous events described therein, though he greatly valued its moral precepts. At the age of fifty, he wrote to his former religious teacher the following: “I often read the Bible, but its original text has remained inaccessible to me.”[vii]
Nevertheless Einstein kept God at the centre of his scientific endeavours throughout his life. He shared this ongoing passion one day with a young physics student: “I am not a family man. I want my peace. I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.”[viii]
As the Theory of Relativity was being scrutinized in America, some erroneously concluded that Einstein was an atheist. Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of New York cabled him and asked him whether or not he believed in God. Einstein cabled back: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.”[ix]
This statement from Einstein himself summarizes the essence of Einstein’s belief in the Divinity, but it has been misunderstood by some to mean that Einstein’s God simply stood for “…an orderly system obeying rules…,”[x] that is a God who is the universe and manifests Himself within it, rather than an intelligent mind that created the universe and whose brilliance could be deduced by the intricacies and the laws found therein as Einstein appears to imply.
Through the years, Einstein took the opportunity to clarify his theological views on various occasions. We will now proceed to summarize them based on some of his well-known writings and speeches.
In 1931 Einstein published an article in the magazine Forum and Century titled, “The World as I See It.” After summarizing his ideas on scientific and social issues, he proceeds to address his views on true religiosity:
“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man.”[xi]
Einstein clarifies that he does not believe in a God who rewards and punishes humans. Furthermore, he expresses certainty in the view that there is no afterlife for humans, and that people who believe in such a hope do so either because of “fear or absurd egoism.”[xii] He instead was satisfied with the opportunity to exist and to marvel at the wonders of creation: “I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness of and a glimpse of the marvellous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.” [xiii]
In 1930 Einstein wrote another article titled, “About Religion,” for the New York Times Magazine. In this article he first of all asserts three stages in the development of religion. Firstly, the “primitive stage” which is the result of fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death. Humans at this stage create illusory gods that they can turn to for their various needs. Various sacrifices are offered to appease them and get favours from.[xiv]
The next stage is the creation of the “God of morality.” According to Einstein, “This is the God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who…loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead.”[xv]
Interestingly, Einstein sees in the Bible an evolution from a religion of Fear, in the Old Testament, to a religion of morals, in the New Testament. The religions of civilized areas of the world are predominantly moral religions, though all are a blending of both fear and moral religions.[xvi] What is common to most such religions is the “anthropomorphic” view of God, that is a God with human features and qualities.
But there is one more stage that only people “of exceptional endowments and exceptionally high-minded communities” that are able to rise to any considerable extent above the second stage to the third and highest stage: the “cosmic religion” stage, “which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image.” Democritus, Francis of Assisi and Spinoza are some of the few that reached such a stage and of course, though unstated, people like himself.[xvii]
The individual who embraces such a religion “has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion.”[xviii] A god who rewards and punishes is unthinkable to him for the simple reason that man’s action are dictated by internal or external necessity, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be held responsible.[xix] Thus human ethics should be based on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs only, without any religious base.
It is this “cosmic religious feeling” that is the “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”[xx] In fact, Einstein went a step further by declaring that in our materialistic world “…the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.”[xxi]
In this sense, he thus belonged to this category of the “profoundly religious” who studied the universe to understand the mind of its Creator.
The “religious” scientist was further described in another article written in 1934 in which he is described as an individual fascinated by the “sense of universal causation” and who’s religious feeling “takes the form of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”[xxii]
By 1939 Einstein became quite confident in propagating his views against anthropomorphic religion. In a speech at the Princeton Theological Seminary he forcefully proposed that the time had come for them to take the lead in dismantling religions based on the view of a “personal” God: “In the struggle for ethical good teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast powers in the hands of priests.”[xxiii] They also should avail themselves of “the forces that are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, in humanity itself.”[xxiv] These “forces” are provided by scientific reasoning and research that can help the human condition.
Einstein, therefore, invites religion to join forces with science so as to work together to become positive forces in improving the lot of humanity. They, in fact, “need” each other in this quest as “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”[xxv] But to do so religion must first of all free itself from the “dross” of anthropomorphism and embrace and teach a religiosity that is free of fear and hope in the afterlife and focus instead on liberating humanity from fears and egocentric cravings and desires.
In January 1951, Einstein stressed the importance of religion in a letter to the Ethical Culture Society. Ethics, according to Einstein, need to be given special emphasis, as science alone cannot save us. (xxvi) He then proceeds to condemn society’s focus on developing an “intellectual attitude often solely to the practical and factual” which has produced an “impairment of ethical values.” (xxvii) And which has “come to lie like a killing frost upon human relations.” [xxviii] The cultivation of this very important element is not to be left to science but to religion that is free of superstition. Religion should therefore be an important part of education, though it, unfortunately, according to Einstein, is receiving “too little consideration” [xxix] Einstein refers to this reality as a “sin of omission” and concludes with the warning that without a religion-based “’ethical culture’ “...there is no salvation for humanity.”(xxx)
Perhaps the ethical system that he supported may have been that which he had proposed in 1934: “If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions, especially those of the priests, one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity.”(xxxi)
In spite of his great admiration for the ethical principles found in the Bible, to the end of his days Einstein rejected the view of a “personal God” in the Judeo-Christian tradition and continued to embrace the view of that God is a creative mind that manifests Itself in the wonders of nature. There was no change in this view as he approached his sunset years, and he died holding on to it to the very end.
POST SCRIPTUM (MAY 30, 2008)
DID EINSTEIN CHANGE HIS MIND ABOUT GOD'S EXISTENCE?
Recently a British newspaper announced that a letter by Einstein had been sold which contained “new revelations” about Einstein’s views on God, the Bible and the Jews. In this letter the famous physicist reportedly wrote to the Jewish philosopher, Eric Gutkind the following: “... The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish)(xxxii)
The conclusion of some is that this statement unequivocally proves that Einstein concluded his life as an atheist. It is the view of this author that this conclusion is premature.
In trying to understand Einstein’s statements, we must keep in mind the following:
1. 1. Einstein, for decades had been clear and unequivocal about believing in “Spinoza’s God," and that he did not believe in the “personal” God of the Bible, or that the Bible was divine in origin.
2. 2. His views were consistent over many years, and there no other evidence of any departure from such views.
3. 3. The context of the letter appears to be Gutkind’s elevation of Jewish "Monotheism," that is a personal God.
4. 4. It appears reasonable to conclude, therefore, that in using the word “God” Einstein may have simply referred to the concept of a Monotheistic Personal God, which he had already repudiated.
5. Unless something drastic happened in his thinking at the end of his life, it is the view of this author that Einstein’s pantheism may have remained, therefore, intact.
It is conceivable that more material may come forth in the future that might further elucidate if there really was any evolution in Einstein’s theological thinking. Until then, it is the view of this author that the above-mentioned “revelation” may not be a revelation at all, but a confirmation of views that Einstein had asserted and been faithful to for decades.
Copyright, 1995, Michael Caputo. All rights reserved.
Recommended free booklet by ucg.org.
(No follow up)
[i] Pais, Abraham, Subtle is the Lord… The Science and Life of Albert Einstein. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982, 38.
[ii] Ibid, 38.
[iii] Ibid, 38.
[vi] Bodanis, David, E=mc2. A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation. Doubleday, Canada, 2000, 74.
[vii] Pais, op. cit., 38.
9 Schillp, Paul, Arthur, Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Volume One. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969, 103.
[viii] Clarck, Ronald, W. The life and Times of Einstein. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1971, p. 18-19.
[x] Ibid, 19.
[xi] Einstein, Albert, “The World As I See It.” In Seelig, Cal (Ed.) Albert Einstein: Ideas and Opinions. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1982, p. 11.
[xii] Ibid, 11.
[xiii] Ibid, 11.
[xiv] Einstein, Albert, “Religion and Science.” In Seelig, Cal (Ed.) Albert Einstein: Ideas and Opinions. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1982, 36-37.
[xv] Ibid, 37.
[xvi] Ibid, 37-38.
[xvii] Ibid, 38.
[xviii] Ibid, 39.
[xix] Ibid, 39.
[xx] Ibid, 39.
[xxi] Ibid, 40.
[xxii] Einstein, Albert, “The Religious Spirit of Science.” In Seelig, Cal (Ed.) Albert Einstein: Ideas and Opinions. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1982, 40.
[xxiii] Einstein, op. cit., 48.
[xxiv] Ibid, 48
[xxv] Ibid, 46
(xxvi) Einstein, Albert, “The Need for Ethical Culture.” In Seelig, Cal (Ed.) Albert Einstein: Ideas and Opinions. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1982, 53.
(xxvii) Ibid, 53.
(xxviii) Ibid, 53.
(xxix) Ibid, 54.
(xxxi) Einstein, Albert, “Christianity and Judaism.” In Seelig, Cal (Ed.) Albert Einstein: Ideas and Opinions. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1982, 184-185.
(XXXii) Letter to Eric Gutkind (partial), Albert Einstein (1954), Translated from the German by Joan Stambaugh (http://www.relativitybook.com/resources/Einstein_religion.html).