Einstein’s God

April 8, 2007 | By | 14 Replies More

At Dangerous Intersection, we have often encountered definitional issues when we’ve cnsidered whether someone believes in “God.”  During a recent vigorous exchange several of us invoked the “Einstein” version of God.  Although I had read a few quotes of Einstein regarding his beliefs, I had not comprehensively read Einstein’s own words describing his “God.”

The April 16, 2007 edition of Time Magazine features a new biography about Albert Einstein (Einstein, by Walter Isaacson).  For that reason, I jumped at the chance to read this Time article, which focused on what Einstein actually meant when he said he believed in “God.”  The bottom line? 

[Einstein] settled into a deism based on what he called the’ spirit manifest in the laws of the universe’ and a sincere belief in a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists.

Einstein was born to two parents who were Jewish “by cultural designation and kindred instinct, [though] they had little interest in the religion itself.”  Young Albert ended up attending a large Catholic school in his neighborhood.  While there, he “developed a passionate zeal for Judaism.” At the age of 12, however, he gave this up, concluding that “much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  From that time on, he articulated (through many essays and interviews) a “deepening appreciation of his belief in God, although a rather impersonal version of one.” 

At a dinner party in Berlin, one of the guests publicly expressed amazement that the 50-year old Einstein might in fact be religious.  Here’s what Einstein replied:

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable.  Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.  To that extent I am, in fact, religious.

In another interview he gave while in his 50s, Einstein indicated:

As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the telnet.  I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene. . . . no one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.  His personality pulsates in every word.  No myth is filled with such life.

In that same interview, however, Einstein reiterated that much of the world is beyond our limited capacity to understand it:

We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages.  The child knows someone must have written those books.  It does not know how.  It does not understand the languages in which they are written.  The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is.  That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.  We see the universe marvelously arranged in obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.

There is certainly enough in Einstein’s letters and interviews to tantalize people on both sides of the aisle.  For instance, Einstein made it clear that he did not believe in free will.  Nor did he consider the lack of free will to be incompatible with an ethical life (“I am compelled to act as if free will existed because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly”).  Nor did Einstein believe in immortality (“One life is enough for me”).

Einstein repeatedly made it clear that he was annoyed by people who lacked a sense of awe:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious.  It is a fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science.  He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, it is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.  To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness.  In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

The above interview provoked Rabbi Herbert S.  Goldstein to send a telegram to Einstein: “Do you believe in God?  Stop.  Answer paid.  50 words.”  Einstein’s famous answer:

I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.

Einstein did not want to be quoted as though he were an atheist, according to the new Einstein biography.  “What makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.”  But, perhaps, Einstein really resented only a particular type of nonbeliever:

What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.

Einstein made it clear that those who were religious in his sense could believe fully in the scientific method, because God did not meddle in the world:

The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God.

[Emphasis added]. Regarding contentious disputes, everyone likes to have a really smart guy on their side.  That is why Einstein is so often invoked in such disputes.   This Time article did a good job of drawing a nuanced portrait of Einstein, the theist.  It is clear that Einstein had no use for prayer.  It is equally true that he worked hard to promote world peace and other benevolent causes, in spite of his lack of a belief in an afterlife.  Through his words and deeds, then, Einstein muddled the traditional divide between theists and atheists.  His was a belief system that had no use for a religious power-structure or a religious bureacracy.   Then again, there would not have been any way to pry Einstein away from the physical regularities he considered proof for the existence of a God, regularities that ran throughout the universe. 

Thus was Einstein presented us with another form of relativity: a definition of God in terms of elegant and stable physical laws.  For Einstein, belief in either of these is commensurate with belief in the other. This article ends with an ironic conclusion. For Einstein, “it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine Providence.”

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Category: Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (14)

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  1. Boelf says:

    Not knowing Einstein personally I have obviously no way to know where he was coming from. But certainly being palatable to religous was probably more of an imperative in his day than it is now.

    I have one specific issue. God is a very vague concept which leaves a lot of room to make all kinds of claims about your beliefs. But surely one property of a god must be that it is sentient, i.e. self aware. But I see nowhere that Einstein even suggests that the natural universe has this quality.

  2. Ebonmuse says:

    Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion has an extensive discussion of Einstein's views on religion. There's one essential quote that should be brought up in all discussions on this topic:

    "It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. 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."

    (See here for more quotes.)

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here are two more of Einstein's quotes on God (from the Dawkins site mentioned by Ebonmuse (immediately above):

    I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.

    I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything 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.

  4. Zen says:

    Come see the 200 comments and counting at netscape for this article… all I did was link the Dawkins article from *wikipedia*. It's the second most popular article at netscape today. Amazing and a bit disconcerting. Some of the fundamentalists showed up. But there are some rationals, moderates too, the whole spectrum… come join the fray!

    http://religion.netscape.com/story/2007/05/10/daw

    "A failure? He's the 'Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science' at Oxford University. He is the head of evolutionary biology at Oxford; I have heard many lectures he has given, exclusively about science, and they were pretty damn good." -Deadhead13

    "my opinion, God, Yahweh, Mohammed, Jesus,Buddah,Great Spirit, this is a force we are talking about, something that knows right and wrong and good and evil. We are becoming lost sheep again. God in my eyes is both good and evil, as is thunder and lightning generated from one force. This is my belief of God, part of the cosmos, part of nature,part of all livings and non living things. Everything." -SitNlook

    "Morality has nothing to do with religion. Ideology will always cause humans to kill each other, quite often over minor differences in doctrine, with or without religion. That's what humans do. That comment made, religion does do a lot of harm, Dawkins is mainly right, only wrong in a few small details. Einsteinian religion is the only kind of religion that merits respect. "

    -Samsara15

    "*sighs* I'm tired of people saying Atheism is not a religion or belief system or anything of the sort. A, when being used as a prefix means "No" or "An absence of." Theism or it's many forms means "God or gods." Thus, combine the two together and you come up with "An absence of God or gods." There are several religions that happen to be Atheistic. Among them are Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Taoism." -JNP8907

    "Well, maybe its because we can't understand the violent murderous response the religious people have towards just about everything, but expecially toward atheists. Hypocrite. And, we require proof of idiotic claims, like the existance of a imaginary invisible father in the sky what knows your name and will decide whether you will "go to heaven or hell". If you make some insane claim such as that, you better have proof. But you don't, do you?" -Espse

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.

    Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    "A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."

    Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    In 2007, Walter Isaacson wrote a detailed article regarding Einstein's thoughts regarding religion and atheism. Here are a few excerpts from the article, but I'd recommend the entire article at Time Magazine:

    "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos," he explained.

    In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. "The fanatical atheists," he wrote in a letter, "are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who–in their grudge against traditional religion as the 'opium of the masses'– cannot hear the music of the spheres."

    See the full article here.

  8. Mindy Carney says:

    I knew I loved that shaggy man. I share his "utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos."

    And I hope I never lose sight of that, even more, probably, than I hope I am never sucked into organized religion as my opiate.

  9. Karl says:

    Erich,

    Please provide your take on the phrase "illimitable superior spirit" which you seem to assign as an important quote form Einstein

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl: I'll define Einstein's "God" by what it is NOT: It is not sentient. It doesn't not love. It does not think. It does not care. It also seems to be co-extensive with the orderliness of the universe.

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