Theology for the Masses

November 15, 2006

Einstein and a Personal God

Filed under: Nature of God,Philosophy,Religion and Science — Henry Imler @ 11:39 pm

I came across a very interesting article on Physics Web[1] the other day. It was entitled Subtle are Einstein’s Thoughts[2] and it was on the personal religion of Einstein. Yes, that was a pun and read on to find out why.

There are many quotes on religion from Einstein. Here is a sampling[3] :

  • Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
  • The Lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not
  • I am convinced that He [God] does not play dice

Perhaps the best quote of his that really captures his views on God and religion are

A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist[4].

and

Common to all these types [religion of fear and religion of morality] is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it. [5]

The article from Physics Web makes it clear that Einstein disavowed in the strongest terms the idea that there is a personal god. It also gives a short history of his religious development:

  1. He had a secular Jewish upbringing
  2. Had a very intense religious phase at the age of 12 that lasted about a year.
  3. Then he found “rational” Euclidean Geometry”
  4. This geometry offered a level of certainty that religion could not
  5. This certanity freed him from the “merely personal”

This idea of the “merely personal” was an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Instead of the personal god, Einstein maintained a “cosmic religion” that was rooted in the awe in the ability to understand the universe. He said that there were hints of it in the Old Testament, Islam, and Buddhism. The rationalization of God in its purest form, one rooted in Rational Science. It is suggested that Einstein thought a personal god was too small a deity to respect. He describes the cosmic religion in his essay “The World as I See It”[6]

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man… I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence — as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

Religion absent of the idea of a personal god is very reminiscent of Pantheism[7] This has lead many to brand Einstein as a follower of the “God of Spinoza”. However, he was asked once if he did in fact believe in such a pantheistic god. He said that he was not an atheist and did not know if he could define himself as a pantheist. The main difference was that while Pantheists maintained that nature was God and not created, Einstein thought the two were separate as nature was created and God was not.

As a personal note, while I am a Christian, I very much respect his thoughts on religion. The awe that captured him draws me to science and religion at the same time. The awe found in understanding what we are not a part of – moves my heart. I do disagree with the idea of a non-personal God. However, I do agree with that we should not anthropomorphize God. It may be that our tendency to do that is rooted in his non-human nature. We have a disadvantage because we lack words that truly describe God in an accurate way. This may be, as the Physics Web article suggests, why Einstein himself used personal words to describe his god, such as “malicious” and “rational”. We simply lack the language to easily describe such a being without using ourselves a frame of reference.

Linknotes:

  1. Physics Web
  2. Physics Web – Subtle are Einstein’s Thoughts
  3. Stanford.edu – Einstein Quotes
  4. Quotes on Religion and Science
  5. Positive Atheism – Albert Einstein on: Religion and Science
  6. The World as I See It – Albert Einstein
  7. Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Pantheism
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