April 8, 2020

A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 8, Chapter 6- A “Firm Belief in a Superior Mind”: Einstein on Religion

A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 8, Chapter 6- A “Firm Belief in a Superior Mind”: Einstein on Religion

We are reviewing Alister McGrath’s new book, “A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God”.  Chapter 6- A “Firm Belief in a Superior Mind”: Einstein on Religion. McGrath begins the chapter by noting that Einstein uses the word religion in his own idiosyncratic way.  A way that is not going to map easily onto what many people assume is the obvious meaning.  Einstein was not religious in the conventional sense of the word.  Though his Jewish identity became more important to him during the 1930’s, he never attended any religious services.  He asked for his remains to be cremated and spread on the Delaware River but no religious ceremony marked his passing.

Yet Einstein talked a lot about God.  McGrath says:

In his published works, Einstein repeatedly and explicitly refers to an “intelligence”, “mind”, or “force” that lies behind or beyond the universe and identifies this with God.  “This firm belief… in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God” (Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, p. 262)

Einstein was explicit, however, that he did not believe in a “personal God”.  Although some read this to mean he did not believe in any kind of God (Jammer, Einstein and Religion, p. 150), Einstein was affirming his belief in some transcendent reality, which he was happy to designate “God”, while making it clear that he did not understand this God as “personal”.

While Einstein’s God is impersonal, framed primarily in terms of the order and beauty of the universe, his concept of God cannot be reduced to a subjective feeling of awe, wonder, and mystery that Einstein sometimes described as “cosmic religious feeling” and that he considered to the “strongest and noblest motive for scientific research” (Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, p. 38-39).

Baruch Spinoza 1632-1677

Einstein specifically affirms his adherence to the concept of God as put forth by Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza.  Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings” (Jammer, Einstein and Religion, p. 49).  This is Einstein’s famous 1929 response to Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, who asked him whether he believed in God.  Einstein was, no doubt, drawn to Spinoza by their shared Jewish roots and culture.  Spinoza is usually included on the list of people called pantheists .  Einstein became an adviser to the First Humanist Society of New York in 1929.  But in that day humanist did not mean atheist, as it has come to mean in the 21st Century.  According to McGrath, Einstein would have had an appeal to being labeled a religious humanist, as it echoed his positive views about religiosity and his more critical view of specific religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity.

So what does Einstein mean by religion?  McGrath notes that Einstein made many statements at many different times about religion.  Which means that a reader who employs highly selected quotations (i.e. “quote mining”) can present Einstein in three quite different ways:

  1. As a traditional religious thinker,
  2. As an atheist who had no place for religion,
  3. Or as someone who was so confused on the matter that he is not worth taking seriously.

The publicly common definition of religion, assumed in practice by most in North America or Europe is “believing in the supernatural”.  But that definition hardly does justice to Buddhism and other Eastern religions which are actually philosophies of life and more akin to classical Stoicism than what is normally understood by religion.  McGrath believes that Einstein’s use of the term can be summed up in four main points.

  1. Einstein repeatedly refused to believe in a “personal God”. He said, “We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists”. Einstein suggests that belief in a personal God is the “main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and science.”  The doctrine of a personal God interfering in events is not consistent with the “ordered regularity” of natural processes.  According to Einstein, God does not break the laws of nature.  He saw such a God as an anthropomorphic projection.  He was particularly critical of the Christian Bible for its use of stories.  In his famous “God letter” of 1954 (written to German philosopher Eric Gutkind) he speaks of the bible as “a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends.”
  2. Second, Einstein sees religion as a response to something that ultimately lies beyond nature rather than a feeling of awe that arises in response to the vastness of the natural world. Einstein did remark, in a letter to Karl Eddi, that despite his misgivings about belief in a personal God, that was “preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook”.  He said, “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable.  Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.” (Kessler, The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1937, p.322)  Einstein’s point is that this subjective response to the universe is not improperly invented by the observer but is properly grounded in something that lies beyond the observer.
  3. Third, McGrath says Einstein’s view of God is not to be identified with that of Spinoza, particularly in the latter’s pantheism, which seems a strange thing to say. McGrath justifies this by noting significant divergences in their thoughts.  In an article in the New York Times in April 1929, Einstein declared that he was “fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism”, while making it clear that he didn’t think he could call himself a pantheist.  Spinoza, reflecting the Renaissance thinking of his times, thought that eventually the rational comprehension of the universe would eliminate any sense of mystery in the face of nature.  Einstein knew better; he was clear that a sense of the mysterious was the source of all true art and science, just as an “experience of mysteriousness” lay at the heart of religion.
  4. Fourth, Einstein’s understanding of religion does not involve devotional practices or rituals. Einstein objected to forms of religious education that focused on religious ceremonies or rituals rather than on ethical values.

McGrath says:

So how can we make sense of these four broad characteristics of Einstein’s view of religion throughout his writings?  My own view is that Einstein’s general concept of religion, especially his notion of a “cosmic religious feeling” that is not tethered to any “anthropomorphic conception of God”, is best understood as a philosophy of religion – that is to say, a set of ideas concerning a transcendent basis to the universe and the question of how we can know and represent it adequately without losing sight of its wonder and mystery.

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Einstein was generally invited to discuss the relation of science and religion in the light of the prevailing assumption that these two aspects of human culture were at least in tension with each other; if not outright war.  Religious fundamentalism was rising in the United States during the 1920’s, which often led to science being presented as the enemy of religion.  The famous Scopes Trial of 1925 confirmed the growing popular impression that science and religion were incompatible.  McGrath notes the hostility existed on both sides: there were some scientists who considered religion to be irrational and outdated, and some religious people who considered science to be intellectually and morally corrupting.

Einstein’s approach was to treat science and religion as two distinct and different areas of human reflection, focusing on different aspects of our attitude to our universe.  In a lecture given at Princeton in May 1939, Einstein considered the limits of rationalism in dealing with the big questions of life.  His core aim was to consider the relation of two different realms of human thought: science (facts) and religion (values).  In a paper of 1941 (Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, p. 42) Einstein dealt more explicitly with the relation of science and religion.  Science he says is an attempt to “bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thorough-going association as possible.”  The goal of science is to discover rules that permit facts to be interconnected, while aiming to reduce “the connections discovered to the smallest possible number.”

Einstein suggests there can be no conflict between science and religion because science cannot establish values and religion cannot deal with facts and their relationships.  Einstein said, “Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be.” Tensions arise, in his view, when religion intervenes “into the sphere of science” – for example in treating the Bible as a scientific text – or when science attempts to establish human “values and ends”.

Einstein seems to endorse a view similar to Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria).  Gould said science and religion occupy their own mutually exclusive cultural silo or intellectual ghetto.  No meaningful or productive conversation is possible.  Einstein isn’t quite so absolute; realms of science and religion are “clearly marked off from each other”, nevertheless, “there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies.”

Einstein certainly was critical of those who made “dogmatically fixed statements on subjects which belong in the domain of science”: for example, those who are seeing religion as providing information on the mechanisms or chronology of the origins of the universe.  He was certainly no Young Earth Creationist, to say the least!

Einstein’s understanding of the relationship of science and religion can be seen as an attempt to integrate the objective and subjective aspects of human existence, recognizing that both are important parts of a larger account of life.

Comments

  1. anonymous says

    “Einstein’s understanding of the relationship of science and religion can be seen as an attempt to integrate the objective and subjective aspects of human existence, recognizing that both are important parts of a larger account of life.”

    ““I saw Eternity the other night,
    Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
    All calm, as it was bright;
    And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
    Driv’n by the spheres
    Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
    And all her train were hurl’d.””

    (Henry Vaughan, circa 1650 )

    It was always the poets and the artists of the world who made peace with beauty as a sign of the Creator, never the fundamentalists whose cold and harsh literalism took hold of the sacred Scriptures and attempted to exclude ‘the Word’ from ‘the Spirit’. To observe, to ponder, to question, to examine . . . too fearful a venture for the religious fundamentalist who seeks safety in an exclusiveness that wards off that which threatens what they cannot control.
    Science has more in common with the poets and artists of this world than with a strictly literal ‘religious’ fundamentalism.

  2. Thank you Mike–very enlightening. The last sentence/paragraph gives me an even greater appreciation of Einstein.

    • Norma Cenva says

      I concur. And I also see a study in extremes; from a school of thought which rejects the supernatural altogether, to one in which the supernatural is the rule rather than the exception, all presided over by a personal God who wants to micro-manage your every move.

  3. I think what we’re dealing with here is God as a Metaphor. The problem of course is that the word “God” has so many pre-existent associations that, even though he was explicit in his private communications, Einstein’s public pronouncements were bound to be misunderstood. Will we be accused of cynicism if we offer the suggestion that perhaps this ambiguity was not entirely unintentional? After all we must remember the times in which Einstein lived. And Einstein wasn’t alone in using freighted words so that his audience could hear what they wanted to hear. I would suggest the Founders of this country engaged in a similar practice. Americans have traditionally required a certain amount of piety from its public figures and the savvy orator knew just what he could not say out loud.

    For those like me interested in such historical minutiae, the famous graphic “The Descent of the Modernists” was drawn by an artist named E. J. Pace for a book entitled ‘Christian Cartoons’ published in 1922. It was later reproduced in a book by William Jennings Bryan and has been used ever since. I hope Pace would be gratified at its long career! One thing has always bothered me about it though. Shouldn’t NO ATONEMENT and NO RESURRECTION come before NO DEITY in the descent?

    • It certainly gets semi-regular use on Patheos…

    • David Greene says

      It does not seem to matter which order the stairs are in just so long as it is a scary graphic, the target audience was not intended to think about it logically. Ironic that the first step down the descent is labeled CHRISTIANITY, probably not much thought went into the cartoon.

  4. Christiane says

    ““Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.” . . . . .
    . . . . . Einstein’s point is that this subjective response to the universe is not improperly invented by the observer but is properly grounded in something that lies beyond the observer.””

    “Who gave you the ability to contemplate the beauty of the skies, the course of the sun, the round moon, the millions of stars, the harmony and rhythm that issue from the world as from a lyre, the return of the seasons, the alternation of the months, the demarcation of day and night, the fruits of the earth, the vastness of the air, the ceaseless motion of the waves, the sound of the wind?”
    — Gregory of Nazianzus