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Einstein on God and Religion

By: on April 22, 2010
Genius yes, but theist?
Einstein is an interesting figure in the religion/atheism debate. Atheists want to claim him for their cause saying that he rejected the idea of God and was against religion, while theists claim that he believed in God. Being the quintessential genius and possibly the most recognizable intellectual of recent history, it is no surprise that people want to lay claim on him for their side.

Richard Dawkins, in his best selling book "The God Delusion," spends a good deal of time trying to prove that Einstein didn't really believe in God. In his book, Dawkins contrasts what he calls "Einsteinian religion" with "supernatural religion."

Although Einstein didn't believe in the standard Judeo-Christian God of revelation and although there are a number of quotes where he does disparage a personal conception of God and certain types of religion, he definitely was not an atheist.

There is an almost infinite difference between some type deism or pantheism and atheism, which denies everything supernatural. Dawkins uses a few quotes that prove that Einstein didn't believe in the Judeo-Christian God to dismiss the fact that Einstein did believe in something transcendent, something ineffable, something beyond the mundane prism of our sensory reality.

Dawkins uses this quote by Einstein to summarize his religious beliefs, "To sense that behind anything that can be experience there is something that our mind cannot grasp whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious."

Dawkins tries to say that Einstein's God is nothing more than the totality of the physical laws of the universe, but an honest look at the way he used the word God shows that he didn't just think that God was the totality of all the physical laws but that God was the intelligence behind the physical laws.

Anyhow, It seems that there are basically three types of quotes by Einstein related to religion and God: The first are sort of off the cuff remarks where he makes use of the word God. Probably the most famous of these is when he said "God doesn't play dice" in commenting on Heisenberg's uncertainty theory.

Dawkins claims that these quotes don't really imply that Einstein believed in God, but just that he used the word as an expression, not in the literal sense.

That's possible, but I don't think it's likely when we consider many other quotes. He said, for example, "What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world."

One other interesting one is where Einstein mentions the Bhagavad-gita, saying "When I read the Bhagavad-Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous."

Then there are a category of statements by Einstein where he rejects the notion of a personal God, rejects religion as childish, and rejects the idea that morality requires some kind of divine providence. These of course are the ones that people like Richard Dawkins like to point out. Here are some of those:

I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own -- a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms.

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.

I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest
importance -- but for us, not for God.

And the third type of quotes by Einstein are simply expressions of awe and wonder at the beautiful mystery of creation and the supreme divine intelligence behind the creation.

Like when he said, "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." I really like the phrase illimitable superior spirit.

He also expresses this same sentiment in response to a little girl named Phyllis who asked him if scientists pray.

Here is his response:

Dear Phyllis,

I have tried to respond to your question as simply as I could. Here is my answer

Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the actions of people.

For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e., by a wish addressed to a supernatural being.

However, it must be admitted that our actual knowledge of thee laws is only imperfect and fragmentary, so that, actually, the belief in the existence of basic all-embracing laws in Nature also rests on a sort of faith.

All the same this faith has been largely justified so far by the success of scientific research.

But, on the other hand, everyone one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naïve.

I hope this answers your question.

Best wishes,
Albert Einstein

Although he didn't believe in a personal conception of God, he definitely believed in God and he certainly was not a pure naturalist or materialist like Dawkins. He believed there was a divine intelligence behind the laws of nature and he believed the most important thing was for human beings to be kind and compassionate towards one another, and even towards animals.

We all know that Richard Dawkins is a terrible philosopher, but we can't even consider him to "be seriously involved in the pursuit of science" because according to Einstein, "Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble."

I wonder if Richard ever saw that one.

Here is a little collection of some more loosely related quotes:

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.

Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.

The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.

The scientists’ religious feeling takes the form of a 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.

There is no logical way to the discovery of elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; It is the source of all true art and science.

We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.

When the solution is simple, God is answering.

God is subtle but he is not malicious.

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty.

Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.

The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.

Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.

Only a life lived for others is a life worth while.

The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books—-a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

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.

The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable 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.

The real problem is in the hearts and minds of men. It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.

True religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness.

Intelligence makes clear to us the interrelationship of means and ends. But mere thinking cannot give us a sense of the ultimate and fundamental ends. To make clear these fundamental ends and valuations and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to me precisely the most important function which religion has to form in the social life of man.

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