Einstein’s Religiosity
Posted on December 2nd, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

(This is the third of my quintuplet of essays on the subject of religion. I am only expressing a personal point of view as an interested layman who claims no academic knowledge of the subject. Readers need not buy my opinions offhand without examining them for themselves. Many educated religious people try to justify their belief in religion by claiming that certain prominent scientists are also religious. Einstein is a favourite for such claims because of his undisputed eminence among his kind. But when he was living, he made it very clear that he did not at all accept the concept of a personal god who created the universe.)  

 I’d like to start with a few Einstein quotes about his idea of religion before trying to explain (for what it is worth) my understanding of the attitude of the great scientist (perhaps the greatest of the last century) towards creator-god based religion. But he says apparently contradictory things about the subject, the reason for which I will explain as best I could:

 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.”

This statement recurs in a number of slightly different and sometimes more elaborate forms in Einstein literature, with its basic meaning unchanged, nevertheless. For example:

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. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God”.

The most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the  sensation of the mystical and this mysticality is the power of all true science.”

I don’t try to imagine a God; it suffices to stand in awe of the structure of the world insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it.”

 But the following two quotes seem to contradict each other:

 “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. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”

 Mere unbelief in a personal god is no philosophy at all.”

There were many more instances where Einstein felt it necessary to explain to ordinary people what he thought, as the celebrated scientist he was (though unaffected by the fact), about religion, god, science morality etc, and the relationships between them. Now we must remember that the world he lived in was very different from the one where we are living today. Those were comparatively less liberal times. During his lifetime two World Wars (WW I,1914-18 and WW II, 1939-1945) were fought; the fact that he, as a member of the Jewish race so inhumanely persecuted by the Nazis, was a potential victim of that persecution. The infamous pogrom of the Jews was masterminded by Hitler who took care to advertise his Christian credentials. Einstein’s discoveries were used in making the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during the genocidal World War II, killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children. However, Einstein was not a willing perpetrator of violence against fellow humans. He later regretted having contributed to the making of the atomic bombs (I’ve created a monster!” he said about it). All his work and words as a scientist leave us in no doubt that he was a man of peace and possessed a genuine moral sense.

Ordinary unenlightened common people could not think of morality without a belief in religion. So, how could he be stridently critical of such beliefs (as the equally sincere Richard Dawkins, for example, is today)? But at the same time, as an honest and cultured person and a scientist with a deep sense of moral responsibility to the society, he didn’t want to tell lies to please people; he modulated his language as best he could to express himself sincerely so that those of his audience who were intelligent enough were able to sift through his words and get at what he really meant while the others  were left in their comfortable ignorance with their accustomed religious convictions unchallenged and undisturbed, but perhaps propped up a little, instead. It should be remembered that he was known to pepper his speech with religious flourishes with tongue in cheek.

My impression about Einstein’s ‘religiosity’ is this: Einstein’s ‘religiosity’ has nothing to do with any blind belief in a personal god which he has very explicitly and repeatedly rejected all the time. It is the ‘religious’ emotion, the awe and the wonder that he experienced when he gazed on or meditated on the amazing structure, order, the breathtaking beauty, majesty, inscrutability of the universe that he really meant. Einstein says that this sense of wonder, this ‘mysticality’ as he calls it is the power of all true science” (see above). Well known American astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson occasionally articulates the same sort of spiritual emotion about the universe.  Most probably it was this sense of the numinous that he meant by the word ‘religion’ in his oft-quoted aphorism: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”. But he did not ridiculously trivialize the mysterious power that ought to be there behind the magnificent spectacle that surrounds us and that we are an organic part of by anthropomorphizing it as a rewarding and punishing   superman deity. He rejected such religion as ‘childish superstition’.

The quote before the last one above (The word God is for me …”) is from Einstein’s letter dated January 3, 1954 to philosopher Eric Gutkind who had sent him his book ”Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt”. In the same letter, he also wrote about his attitude to the Jewish religion he was born to:

“For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”

Generally, Einstein’s expression of his agnosticism was guarded, and cluttered with reservations and ambiguities. He won’t have described himself as an atheist as clear in his statement: Mere unbelief in a personal god is no philosophy at all”. When he communicated with people of  his own level of understanding, he was more open, and less inhibited as in his letter to Gutkind.

While repudiating the existence of a personal creator- god, Einstein did not deny the reality of the natural  ‘religious’ emotions which the unimaginable immensity and wonderful structure of the universe excite in all normal human beings and which he articulated in his own way; neither was he unconcerned with morals. But he believed that  morality is a human phenomenon,  not a matter for an anthropomorphic supreme being to decide.

The difference between traditional religion and Einstein’s humbling emotion of owe and wonder at the mystery and majesty of the universe is that the former is an enslaving superstition while the latter is a  liberating inspiration for our species. It is this kind of ‘spirituality’ in human consciousness that inspires great art and also the insatiable desire for scientific knowledge about the universe.

2 Responses to “Einstein’s Religiosity”

  1. AnuD Says:

    The belief of a creator god as well as asking help from god is human weakness.

  2. Nimal Says:

    I would treat religions with a pinch of salt which is the basis of conflicts in the world.

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