There are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.This story was published in 1968, which was 13 years after Einstein’s death, when he could not comment on the veracity of the quote. Löwenstein was a Catholic activist, decorated by the Pope for his services to the Church, and the autobiography’s title “Towards the further shore” indicates its apologetic intent. Was Löwenstein accurately reporting Einstein? We don’t know, though he is hardly a disinterested party and the quote is thus suspect. What we do know is that many people, as shown by this example, want to deny that Einstein was an atheist.
Such claims also circulated when Einstein was alive. In 1945 Einstein received a letter from Guy Raner, saying that a Jesuit priest had claimed to have persuaded Einstein to abandon atheism. Einstein replied (letter to Guy Raner, 2nd July 1945):
I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.Another example comes from 1954, the year before Einstein’s death. A correspondent had read an article about Einstein’s supposed religious views, and wrote to Einstein asking whether the article was accurate. Einstein answered:
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. [letter 24th March 1954, from "Albert Einstein: The Human Side", edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann, Princeton University Press. Hereafter "AE:THS"]Despite the above, many people point to Einstein as a rebuke to atheists, a supposed example of a preeminent scientist flatly rejecting atheism. People who are prepared to accept that Einstein lacked belief in a personal god, nevertheless insist that he was not an atheist, and that he did believe in a god of some sort.
This position is expounded by Max Jammer in his book Einstein and Religion. At the end of a chapter aiming to show that Einstein believed in God, Jammer maintains that “Einstein always protested against being regarded as an atheist”, giving Löwenstein’s supposed quote as evidence, and states that: “Einstein renounced atheism because he never considered his denial of a personal God as a denial of God. This subtle but decisive distinction has long been ignored”.
Jammer continues, quoting Einstein’s phrase “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”, which Jammer regards as a “statement that summarizes [Einstein's] religious credo”, and adds somewhat sarcastically that in saying it Einstein “did not use the term ‘religion’ to mean ‘atheism’”.
Didn’t he? Well, actually, we have a very good idea of what Einstein meant by “religion” in that phrase, since he had explicitly stated it just before:
Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts. [...] science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. [Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, 1954, reproduced here]Thus Einstein’s word “religion” had a very non-standard meaning that was nothing to do with any god, and thus has no bearing on whether he was an atheist. Indeed by “religion” he explicitly meant only “aspiration toward truth and understanding” and “faith in the possibility” that the world is “comprehensible to reason”. I have never met an atheist who would not subscribe to those!
Few people who quote that “science without religion is lame” snippet mention what follows immediately afterwards:
I must nevertheless qualify this assertion once again on an essential point [...] This qualification has to do with the concept of God. During the youthful period of mankind’s spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man’s own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favour by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfilment of their wishes. …
This points to a problem in interpreting Einstein’s words. He often used religious language and metaphors, but what did he mean by them? Did they signify a belief in God, or not?
… teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God.
To answer that we need to consider what qualities an entity needs in order to qualify as a “god”. These surely need to be god-like qualities. That includes intelligence and purpose, and great capability to pursue such purposes. An apophatic god that lacks such qualities (and whose actual properties are left unspecified) hardly qualifies as a “god”.
In particular, an apersonal, amoral universe that follows the regularities of the laws of physics but has no awareness, purpose, oversight, or capacity for caring, is not a “god”. To claim that it is — in anything other than a weak and inapt metaphorical sense — is simply an abuse of language, a desire to believe in God, any god, sufficiently strong that one is willing to slap the label on anything.
So what did Einstein believe about “God”? Was his language purely metaphorical or not? We can answer this question fairly straightforwardly, provided we look below the surface metaphor and ask what qualities Einstein believed the universe to have, since on that he was quite straightforward and explicit.
Einstein on GodLet’s start with Einstein’s own autobiographical account:
As the first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine. Thus I came — though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. [Autobiographical Notes, 1979]As a result of this loss of faith, at age 13 Einstein declined to undergo the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, a break from tradition even for secular Jews. And when it came to the education of his own children, and the religious education they would receive at elementary school, Einstein stated:
I dislike very much that my children should be taught something that is contrary to all scientific thinking. [Einstein, his life and times, P. Frank, p.280]In the last year of his life Einstein wrote to the philosopher Erik Gutkind:
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but yet quite primitive legends. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. [...] For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.Other quotes include:
I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. [The World as I See It, 1949, Philosophical Library, New York]
There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. [The World as I See It, 1949, Philosophical Library, New York]
“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. [...] Morality is of the highest importance—but for us, not for God.” [Einstein Archives, letter 5th Aug 1927 from a Colorado banker]And in an interview with Professor William Hermanns, Einstein said:
I cannot accept any concept of God based on the fear of life or the fear of death or blind faith. I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar. [Einstein: the life and times, by Ronald W. Clark, World Pub. Co., NY, 1971, p.622]In a letter to a Christian woman who had asked about souls, Einstein wrote:
Since our inner experiences consist of reproductions and combinations of sensory impressions, the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning. [...]
The mystical trend of our time, which shows itself particularly in the rampant growth of the so-called Theosophy and Spiritualism, is for me no more than a symptom of weakness and confusion. [1921 letter, AE:THS]
Einstein on the nature of the universeThe preceding quotes clearly demonstrate Einstein’s rejection of the personal god of the traditional Abrahamic religions. But we should also ask about Einstein’s view of nature; did it include some other type of “god”? And what did Einstein mean by “religion”?
Einstein explicitly rejected life after death and any moral agency beyond humans.
I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it. [1953 letter, AE:THS]How about a “purpose” or “goal” or “meaning” behind the universe? These, also, Einstein explicitly rejected. Here Einstein clarifies a mistranslation:
The misunderstanding here is due to a faulty translation of a German text, in particular the use of the word “mystical”. 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. [1955/55 letter, AE:THS]Here is a letter from 1950 to a 19-year-old in despair at seeing no purpose to life. Einstein argues that purposes derive from the desires of people. It is therefore a conceptual error to think of mankind as a whole, or nature as a whole, as having a “purpose”. That could only be the case if some god or nature as a whole had desires, feelings and thought, a concept that Einstein rejected:
I was impressed by the earnestness of your struggle to find a purpose for the life of the individual and of mankind as a whole. In my opinion there can be no reasonable answer if the question is put this way. If we speak of the purpose and goal of an action we mean simply the question: which kind of desire should we fulfill by the action or its consequences or which undesired consequences should be prevented? We can, of course, also speak in a clear way of the goal of an action from the standpoint of a community to which the individual belongs. In such cases the goal of the action has also to do at least indirectly with fulfillment of desires of the individuals which constitute a society.
If you ask for the purpose or goal of society as a whole or of an individual taken as a whole the question loses its meaning. This is, of course, even more so if you ask the purpose or meaning of nature in general. For in those cases it seems quite arbitrary if not unreasonable to assume somebody whose desires are connected with the happenings. [letter, Dec 1950, AE:THS]Running through Einstein’s thought is a thorough-going determinism, an acceptance that human actions and choices are determined by physical laws, and a consequent rejection of the notions of dualistic “free will” that underpin much theology. For example:
“A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. [``Religion and Science", New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930]And
The more a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of human nor the rule of divine will exists as an independent cause of natural events. [Ideas and Opinions, Einstein, 1954, pp.41--49]And in his 1932 “My Credo” speech he says:
I do not believe in freedom of the will. Schopenhauer’s words: “Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills” accompany me in all situations throughout my life … ["My Credo", 1932]This is also seen in the above-quoted letter to the religious Jew Erik Gutkind, where Einstein refers to the notion of free-will as “self-deception” and an “intellectual prop”:
As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision [...] With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception [...] What separates us are only intellectual “props” and “rationalization” in Freud’s language.In a letter to a colleague, Einstein wrote:
I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of His children for their numerous stupidities, for which only He Himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only His nonexistence could excuse Him. [letter to Edgar Meyer, 2nd Jan 1915, Einstein Archives]About his own attitude Einstein wrote:
I began with a skeptical empiricism more or less like that of Mach. But the problem of gravitation converted me into a believing rationalist, that is, into someone who searches for the only reliable source of truth in mathematical simplicity. [letter to C. Lanczos, 24 Jan 1938, Einstein Archives, 15-267]Einstein also insisted on an external reality, entirely independent of humans, rejecting the solipsistic notion of reality or truth being human constructions. This is seen, for example, in Einstein’s dialogue with the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. They are discussing whether truth and beauty are independent of man:
EINSTEIN: If there were no human beings any more, the Apollo Belvedere no longer would be beautiful?Another revealing piece is Einstein’s 1936 letter to an 11-yr-old, who had been encouraged by her sunday-school teacher to ask Einstein whether scientists pray. Einstein replied that they didn’t, though he softened the message with some sympathetic language:
EINSTEIN: I agree with this conception of beauty, but not with regard to truth.
TAGORE: Why not? Truth is realized through men.
EINSTEIN: I cannot prove my conception is right, but that is my religion. [...] I cannot prove, but I believe in the Pythagorean argument, that the truth is independent of human beings.
TAGORE: In any case, if there be any truth absolutely unrelated to humanity, then for us it is absolutely non-existing.
EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!
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 these 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, 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. 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 naive. [letter, 1936, AE:THS]
So was Einstein an atheist?Einstein explicitly rejected belief in a personal God. He regarded these as anthropomorphic, saying that “human fantasy created gods in man’s own image”, and that: “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses”. He regarded the Jewish Bible stories as “childish superstitions”, and the teaching of religion (as he himself had received on being sent to a Catholic school) as “youth [being] intentionally deceived by the state through lies”.
Einstein thoroughly embraced materialism and determinism. He insisted that reality existed entirely independently of humans. He rejected the idea of an immaterial soul and the idea that an individual would live on after death (saying that such notions were “absurd egoism” for “feeble” people). He rejected notions of “purpose” or “will” beyond the animal and human domain. He said that he had “never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal”. He rejected the idea that human life had any purpose or goal.
He said that he could not conceive of a god who had “a will”, he rejected the idea of prayer, and that there was any god who could answer prayers, or who could “reward or punish his creatures”. He considered that “there is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair”. He said that notions of gods, free will, and purpose to life, were “only intellectual `props’ and `rationalization’”.
So, yes, Einstein was an atheist. The above amounts to a thorough-going atheism in line with that of the most “strident” of New Atheists. Did Einstein ever declare belief (in explicit, clearly non-metaphorical language) in some property of the universe that was incompatible with atheism? Not as far as I’m aware.
Max Jammer’s claim that Einstein was not an atheist seems to rest (in his first two chapters) on a superficial reading of a few sound-bites, and making interpretations motivated by a desire to reconcile Einstein with Jewish theology. This is followed (in his third chapter) by projecting his own theological ideas onto Einstein. I suspect that Einstein would have rolled his eyes at the suggestion, for example, that the age of the universe can be reconciled with a literal Genesis by appealing to relativistic time dilation.
If Einstein was supposedly a deist, believing in some sort of “non personal” god, what actual properties of the universe does such a stance entail that are incompatible with atheism? If the answer is some sort of universal awareness or intelligence with purpose and goals, then Einstein explicitly denied any such thing.
Believing in an atheistic universe but choosing to call that universe “god” does not negate the fact that you are still an atheist. After all, atheism is about how one envisages the world actually to be, not about mere choice of words.
Yes, Einstein did declare himself to be “religious”, but he also told us explicitly what he meant by that. By religion he meant: “unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it” and “aspiration toward truth and understanding” and “faith in the possibility” that the world is “comprehensible to reason”, and “humility” that we can comprehend nature only “very imperfectly”, coupled with the belief that an external world and truth about that world exist independently of human conceptions of it. By that terminology Richard Dawkins is also highly religious!
As Einstein wrote to a friend about how he used the word “religion”:
I can understand your aversion to the use of the term “religion” to describe an emotional and psychological attitude which shows itself most clearly in Spinoza, [...] [But] I have found no better expression than “religious” for confidence in the rational nature of reality, insofar as it is accessible to human reason. Whenever this feeling is absent, science degenerates into uninspired empiricism. [Letter to Maurice Solovine, 1 Jan 1951; Einstein Archive 21-274]And:
My feeling is religious insofar as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand more deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as “laws of nature”. [Letter to Beatrice Frohlich, December 17, 1952; Einstein Archive 59-797]And:
I am a deeply religious nonbeliever…. This is a somewhat new kind of religion. [Letter to Hans Muehsam March 30, 1954; Einstein Archive 38-434]Yes Einstein saw value in what he referred to as “religion”, saying for example:
Religion is concerned with man’s attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship. [Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers, New York, 1954]Such concerns are indeed of the highest value to us, but in the absence of any divine foundation (which Einstein explicitly rejected), they can just as aptly be referred to as “humanism” instead of “religion”.
In this context, it seems most reasonable to regard Einstein’s references to “God”, such as in the following quotes, to be metaphorical, referring to the ultimate nature of the universe, but not referring to any agency with intelligence, awareness and purpose:
“I cannot believe that God would choose to play dice with the universe.”This interpretation is supported by the several times in which he stated something in both metaphorical and non-metaphorical language, to make the meaning explicit. For example:
“I want to know God’s thoughts… The rest are details.”
“When the solution is simple, God is answering.”
What I am really interested in is whether God could have created the world in a different way; in other words, whether the requirement for logical simplicity admits a margin of freedom. [to Ernst Gabor Straus, quoted by Jammer, Einstein and Religion, p.124]
But didn’t Einstein call himself an agnostic?Yes he did, for example:
My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment. [Letter to M. Berkowitz, October 25, 1950; Einstein Archive 59-215]And:
I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervour is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being. [Letter to Guy Raner, 28th Sept 1949.]
Of course agnosticism and atheism are not incompatible, and most atheists are also agnostics (suggestions that they are mutually exclusive rest on misunderstanding the terms). Einstein seems to have adopted the term “agnostic” because it was less “strident”, less confrontational to believers. He didn’t share the “crusading spirit” sometimes associated with the term “atheism”.
This desire not to cause unnecessary offence is seen throughout Einstein’s writing on the subject, particularly in the letters to children and other believers quoted above, and should be borne in mind when interpreting his meaning.
The article from which the “science without religion is lame” snippet comes is a long argument that religions should abandon belief in god and become atheistic, but it is phrased in a diplomatic and conciliatory way. This non-confrontational style means that it is possible to cherry-pick quotes from Einstein as being very sympathetic to traditional religion, when reading more fully shows the opposite.
But wasn’t Einstein sometimes very critical of atheists?Yes! Einstein did at times criticise atheists who attacked religion. He disassociated himself from that attitude, saying (quote just above) “I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervour is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth”.
Perhaps his most critical statement is in a 1941 letter quoted by Max Jammer, about the response to his articles (more about this below). In his first sentence he attacks defenders of religion, then he attacks “fanatical atheists”.
I was barked at by numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it. Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source. They 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 the traditional “opium of the people”—cannot bear the music of the spheres. The Wonder of nature does not become smaller because one cannot measure it by the standards of human moral and human aims. [letter to unknown person, 7th Aug 1941, quoted by Jammer, p97, as Einstein Archive 54-927]Similarly, in a letter to Maurice Solovine he is quoted as saying:
There lies the weakness of positivists and professional atheists who are elated because they feel that they have not only successfully rid the world of gods but “bared the miracles.”And he didn’t like the term “Freethinker” because he associated it with opposition to religion.
The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive. However, I am also not a “Freethinker” in the usual sense of the word because I find that this is in the main an attitude nourished exclusively by an opposition against naive superstition. My feeling is insofar religious as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as “laws of nature.” It is this consciousness and humility I miss in the Freethinker mentality. [letter 23rd Feb 1954, to A. Chapple. Einstein Archive 59-405]Einstein also refused to attack popular religion. Despite the fact that he himself rejected a personal God, Einstein considered that “the majority of mankind” needed such belief. To Eduard Büsching, who had written a book attacking religion, Einstein wrote:
It is a different question whether belief in a personal God should be contested … I myself would never engage in such a task. For such a belief seems to me preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook on life, and I wonder whether one can ever successfully render to the majority of mankind a more sublime means in order to satisfy its metaphysical needs. [letter to E. Büsching, 25 Oct 1929, Einstein Archive, 33-275]Does this criticism mean that Einstein was not an atheist? No it doesn’t. Notice that Einstein disassociates himself from the “professional atheist” and the “fanatical atheists” who attacked religion. Einstein insisted on humility and recognition of human limitations in trying to discover reality, and he rejected claims to certainty.
There is nothing inconsistent in both being an atheist and being critical of those who criticize religion. Such attitudes are widespread today. It is common to hear “I am an atheist but …”, followed by criticism of the “militancy” of the “strident” New Atheists who want to attack religion without seeing any good in it. Whether these criticisms are fair is a topic for another article, but holding such views is not a declaration of belief in a god, and does not disqualify someone as an atheist.
Martin Rees is just one example in the Einstein tradition, an eminent scientist who is an atheist himself but who is sympathetic towards religion and who deplores the tone of the “New Atheists”. Were Einstein alive today, he’d be a shoo-in for the Templeton Prize.
But didn’t Einstein believe in the God of Spinoza?Einstein’s non-confrontational attitude to religion is shown clearly in one of his best-known remarks: “I believe in the God of Spinoza”. The context is worth analysing.
Einstein was, of course, one of the world’s most famous Jews, achieving near totemic status, for example being offered the Presidency of the nascent state of Israel. Many people took note of his opinions. And, throughout Einstein’s lifetime the status of Jews, even their very existence, was under dire threat, leading to the Holocaust in Einstein’s homeland Europe and, later on, threats to the existence of Israel.
In those times the Western world was still predominantly Christian and atheists were at best regarded with suspicion. The communist USSR was identified with atheism. In Mein Kampf Hitler had associated Jews with atheism. In highly religiose America atheists were seen as unworthy of citizenship.
In 1940 the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell was denied a teaching position at City College in New York City, after a law suit asserting that, since he was an atheist, he was immoral and an unacceptable influence on youth. “Atheist” was a pejorative word.
In this climate for Einstein to have pronounced himself as an atheist would have hampered his own acceptance in his adopted America, and would have been politically problematic for Jews.
Even the much milder statements that Einstein did make caused a backlash. In 1940, after Einstein had written his Science and Religion article, with the suggestion that “teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God”, the Detroit Free Press wrote in a leader:
[Einstein] does his own people a grave injury by making public such a statement. By doing so, he is giving the religious bigots, especially the followers of Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, fuel for their fanatical fires. They will charge that he is presenting the Jewish faith when, as a matter of fact, what he is presenting is an utter denial of the whole Jewish concept of God. [Detroit Free Press, 14 Sept 1940, as quoted by Jammer]Such responses were typical. A Catholic wrote to Einstein expressing:
Deep regret that you … ridicule the concept of a personal God. In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement. Conceding your right to free speech, I still say that your statement constitutes you as one of the foremost sources of discord in America. [letter, 19 Sept 1940, Einstein Archive, 40-330]Another correspondent said:
You are among those adding fuel to the fire, and believe me Doctor Einstein, fuel is being added to the fire, and there is definitely a growing spirit of anti-Semitism in the United States. [letter, 3 Oct 1940, Einstein Archive, 40-343]While a Christian declared:
Professor Einstein, I believe that every Christian in America will answer you … you come along and with one statement from your blasphemous tongue do more to hurt the cause of your people … if you do not believe in the God of the people of this Nation go back where you came from. [letter, 12 Sept 1940, Einstein Archive, 40-372]The following interview reveals how Einstein regarded himself. He’d been asked whether he saw any “discrepancy between your previous somewhat anti-religious statements and your willingness to be identified publicly as a Jew?” and he answered:
Not necessarily. Actually it is a very difficult thing to even define a Jew. The closest that I can come to describing it is to ask you to visualize a snail. A snail that you see at the ocean consists of the body that is snuggled inside of the house which it always carries around with it. But let’s picture what would happen if we lifted the shell off of the snail. Would we not still describe the unprotected body as a snail? In just the same way, a Jew who sheds his faith along the way, or who even picks up a different one, is still a Jew. [conversation with Peter A. Bucky]Earlier, in April 1929, the Catholic Cardinal O’Connell of Boston had made a public attack on Einstein and his science as dangerous to religion, saying:
“Now, I have my own ideas about the so-called theories of Einstein, with his relativity and his utterly befogged notions about space and time. It seems nothing short of an attempt at muddying the waters so that without perceiving the drift innocent students are led away into a realm of speculative thought, the sole basis of which, so far as I can see, is to produce a universal doubt about God and His creation.
I mean that while I do not wish to accuse Einstein at present of deliberately wishing to destroy the Christian faith and the Christian basis of life, I half suspect that if we wait a little longer we will find he unquestionably will ultimately reveal himself in this attitude. In a word, the outcome of this doubt and befogged speculation about time and space is a cloak beneath which lies the ghastly apparition of atheism.In response, and trying to defend Jews from this charge, Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of New York cabled Einstein to ask: “Do you believe in God? Answer paid 50 words”.
Einstein replied, famously,
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.At one level this can be read as “Yes I believe in God”, rebutting Cardinal O’Connell’s charge. Rabbi Goldstein took it that way, writing in the New York Times (25 April 1929) that Einstein’s reply “very clearly disproves … the charge of atheism made against Einstein”.
However, Baruch Spinoza’s “god” was really just a synonym for nature, the “orderly harmony of what exists”. Spinoza had declared that “neither intellect nor will appertain to God’s nature”, that the universe contained only material, that it was deterministic, and that morals were a concern only of humans. Einstein wrote:
We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists … [letter to E. Büsching, 25 Oct 1920, Einstein Archive, 33-275]Spinoza himself had been excommunicated for atheism. The writ of cherem issued by Amsterdam’s Jewish community ordered that owing to his “abominable heresies” that “no one should communicate with him orally or in writing … or read anything composed or written by him”.
Was Spinoza’s 17th-century pantheism much different from today’s atheism? Or was it, like many deistic notions, more an intellectual precursor of today’s atheism, a term used by those who had got most of the way there but were not quite ready to go the whole hog, especially in nations were outright atheism was socially unacceptable and often outright illegal? Certainly it is not at all clear what property of the universe either Spinoza or Einstein believed in that would disqualify them as atheists.
Einstein’s ambiguous language was politically astute. If people wanted to regard him as religious then they could do so, cherry-picking his words, picking out phrases such as “science without religion is lame”, while ignoring the surrounding context.
Often this desire to paint him as a supporter of religion led to Christians embellishing his words. An example occurred in December 1940, when Time magazine quoted Einstein as saying:
Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.This statement was later broadcast nationally in full by the Catholic Fulton John Sheen, later Archbishop of Newport (and now on the path to sainthood!).
Unfortunately for the Catholics, this is another quote that Einstein didn’t say. In 1950 Rev. Cornelius Greenway of Brooklyn asked Einstein to write out the statement in his own hand, and Einstein replied:
I am, however, a little embarrassed. The wording of the statement you have quoted is not my own. Shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany I had an oral conversation with a newspaper man about these matters. Since then my remarks have been elaborated and exaggerated nearly beyond recognition. I cannot in good conscience write down the statement you sent me as my own. The matter is all the more embarrassing to me because I, like yourself, I am predominantly critical concerning the activities, and especially the political activities, through history of the official clergy. Thus, my former statement, even if reduced to my actual words (which I do not remember in detail) gives a wrong impression of my general attitude. [letter, 14th Nov 1950, AE:THS]Of course this doesn’t stop the quote still being regularly repeated, along with Prince Löwenstein’s unverified quote, and the totally out of context “science without religion is lame”.
As we’ve seen, a lot of stories have circulated about Einstein’s attitude to religion, and not all of them are accurate. Einstein did use religious language and wrote about these topics in a non-confrontational style that could, when read superficially, be taken as comforting to believers in the traditional religions. He also criticised and disassociated himself from “professional” atheists who were out to attack religion.
But Einstein did not believe in God. He explicitly disclaimed all of the attributes such a being would have to have to qualify as a god. Nowhere did he state a belief in any intelligent, aware or purposeful god-like being, certainly not one that would care at all about humans, or that would even have the capability to care about anything. Any claim about Einstein believing in some sort of “god” needs to resort to an unspecified apophatic god of utter vacuity.
Albert Einstein: Autobiographical Notes, Translated and edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp, 1979, Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago.
Albert Einstein, Ideas And Opinions, 1954, Crown Publishers, New York
Albert Einstein: The Human Side, Edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman. 1981, Princeton University Press (abbreviated to AE:THS above)
Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology, Max Jammer. 2002, Princeton University Press