Einstein’s Science and Religion
Benjamin Ogles (Vanderbilt University)
Quid est deus? Mens universi.
Quid est deus? Quod vides totum et quod non vides totum?
Seneca, Natural Questions
“How strange is the lot of us mortals,” Albert Einstein exclaims in his essay “The World As I See It.” Einstein based this assessment upon his interpretation of the universe, of man’s placement in it, and of god’s role and power over it. Though Einstein’s fame rests upon his reputation as a scientist, he often explained how his scientific desire was motivated by a profound, unorthodox religiosity. The relationships between his scientific pursuits and his religious beliefs are interesting; the knowledge of the ways these forces interacted is also fundamental for understanding his approach to the world. Einstein often gave lectures in which he outlined clear definitions of both science and religion and then proceeded to explain how the two fields could be reconciled without one superceding or transgressing upon the other. Inherent in these philosophies is Einstein’s conception of god as an inactive, divine system of order. Einstein’s god demanded no faithfulness, but Einstein himself continued to assert that morality should guide the decisions of mankind. Though the response to these beliefs was both enthusiastic and unaccepting, the latter view has prevailed in stripping Einstein of the religion which molded his intellect. The study of Einstein’s religiosity remains important, however, because his beliefs convey his perception of the world, reveal his personal reaction to the often atheistic forces of science, confirm his hope in humanity, and amplify his legacy.
Einstein’s definition of science reflects the popular perception of the pursuit of knowledge but more subtly reveals his emphasis on imagination, complete comprehension, and the necessity of religion.
Science is the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thorough-going an association as possible. To put it boldly, it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization. (“Religion” 47)
Einstein was confident in science’s ability to afford new information and knowledge, even to the extent of producing a “reconstruction of existence.” Interestingly, the majority of his definitions focus on logical thought rather than the trial-and-error process of experiment as the proper vehicle of science. This focus recalls Einstein’s own theoretical approach to science and accords with his avowal that the simplest explanations are usually the most valid. However, Einstein concludes his definitions by emphasizing the shortcomings of the scientific process. Though “it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction,” science can never succeed in such an aim unless it is guided by judgments beyond science. Einstein expressed this failing as the inability to provide
“the independent and fundamental definitions regarding goals and values” (54). Though Einstein revolutionized science and the conception of nature, his estimations of science itself depict it as merely a means of gathering facts and suggest religion as a means of interpreting that knowledge.
Einstein defines religion as the philosophical ordering and application of science so that it accords with the interests of humanity; this broader conception, or cosmic religion, is the highest of Einstein’s three types of religion. Once knowledge and thinking have suggested intermediate courses of action, then to
make clear these fundamental ends and valuations, and to set them fast in the emotional life of the individual, seems to [Einstein] precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man. (45)
For Einstein, though his discoveries possessed inherent value, the organization applied by religion had more enduring value. Moreover, the mystery of religion is the motivation for science; it “is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science” (11). Religion in this sense is the primogenitor and shaper of all science; however, as scientific knowledge grows, it in turn changes religions of fear into “cosmic” religions. Before science was born, the lack of knowledge could only be organized into a religion of fear in which events were controlled by supernatural forces. Then, Einstein believed, as men collected themselves into societies, the bonds of love were deified to ensure a permanent source of comfort. This second step is “the social or moral conception of god” (40). As science progresses further, the new understanding results in what Einstein considered the apex of religiosity. He characterized the follower of his cosmic religion as one who “feels the futility of human desires” and “wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole” (41). The liberation from selfish desires and the interest in community and world relates to science through the progress of discovery and interpretation. Moreover, the tenets of cosmic religion are analogous with Einstein’s theoretical practices; he shunned traditional experiments in favor of more comprehensive Gedanken experiments just as his religion transcends the individual to reach a supernatural unity. The interpretative abilities of religion work together with scientific processes to continually reform man’s relation to himself and to the universe, and this interrelation is the union of science and religion.
Einstein resolved the conflicts between religion and science by explaining the two fields’ precise interaction. This reconciliation functions by exploiting the inabilities of each field and using the one to complete the other. Science only addresses facts and their relations to other facts; religion only addresses “evaluations of human thought and action” (48). With these boundaries defined, Einstein explains his understanding of their interaction. Religion “determines the goal” but learns “what means will contribute to the attainment” from science. Moreover, scientists are “inbred with the aspiration toward truth and understanding,” which results from religion. Einstein summarizes this coexistence by writing that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” (49). Einstein’s idea of religion is iconoclastic because it focuses solely on the feelings of mystery and human concerns and eliminates divine interaction. Yet, the religious innovations become more comprehensible when one realizes their scientific sources. The allure of mystery continually motivated Einstein’s efforts: his childhood compass was enchanting, he rejected the rigidity of his education because it quelled exploration, and his mature efforts focused on revolutionizing physics rather than perfecting the understanding of subjects already well explained. The effects of human concerns on Einstein are equally obvious in his vociferous anti-war efforts. Even his suggestion of the atomic bomb is rationalized by these doctrines because Einstein must have felt that America’s development of such a weapon would prevent it from being created by scientists without such feelings of religion. Einstein’s religion consisted of an admiration for the unknown and, in that sense, inspired his science; moreover, as his work progressed, religion functioned to provide moral guidelines for his decisions.
Despite this harmony, Einstein imposed clear boundaries on science and religion, which further describe his beliefs and their unconventionality. Having explained the relations between these fields, Einstein states that any conflicts are the result of infringement. He believed that science cannot explain what should be and religion cannot explain what is. Conflict results from a clash between the science of an advanced but materialistic age and a religion maintaining its mythical beliefs. Einstein supports making science moral and divesting religion of its mythos. He supports his idea by explaining that the moral nature of the major religions is essentially the same and that the discarded myths can be replaced by the factual knowledge of science. The evidence that Einstein himself followed these doctrines of separation is less obvious, but they do exist and affirm the idea that the balance between science and religion was the guiding force in Einstein’s life. Einstein never practiced any formal religious worship. When he was offered the presidency of Israel, he declined because among other reasons, he did not wish to join Jewish tradition with his cosmic religion. Finally, after the acceptance of relativity and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, many groups attempted to use these scientific principles to form moral standards for new lifestyles or to prove the possibility of miracles (Jammer 88-9). In each case, Einstein rejected the claims because they blurred his separation of religion and science. This differentiation further reveals that Einstein was unwilling to base morality on science but that he used science to refine his religious beliefs.
Einstein’s conception of god further elucidates the manner in which he viewed the world and the way in which he deified the ordered manifestation of science. Understanding Einstein’s god begins with his belief that the aforementioned religion does not rely on an attempt “to unite this content with a divine Being” (“Religion” 48). Indeed, Einstein says, “I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves” (12). In order to express his understanding, Einstein unites science and religion and says, “I am satisfied with . . . the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion . . . of the reason that manifests itself in nature” (12). Waxing philosophical, he asserts that an omnipotent god would eliminate free will, and therefore his judgments would be passed against himself (50). Before explaining the explicitly scientific facets of Einstein’s god, it is already apparent that Einstein perceives the world as a closed system and knowledge of god as understanding of the inherent order. The focus of science is a “rational unification of the manifold”; this oneness is then explained as the “grandeur of reason incarnate in existence” (52-3). Movement in this direction, Einstein believes, results from purification of religion through science. In addressing a Japanese scholar, Einstein elaborated, “This firm belief . . . in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God” (“Scientific” 286). Understanding this conception provides a powerful point of view for interpreting Einstein’s approach to science. He felt a profound admiration toward the unknown, but he was unable to believe in anything beyond science; therefore, he sublimated his religious wonder into awe at the universe itself and allowed that awe to motivate his work. Einstein often wrote that all great science results from religiosity like his own, which was to say that profound science results from a profound love of science; nevertheless, Einstein always emphasized the need for an ethical system because he wanted mankind to attain an order like the universe’s.
Einstein’s conception of god leads to a largely existential situation, and his solution is to cultivate the ethical elements inherent in humanity into sympathetic reactions. Religion’s role becomes an effort to define a system of morality that does not depend on a personal god. The removal of god as a supreme being immediately conveys the rigorous, unbending science of Einstein’s ethical system. For the kind of doubt that leads to unbelief is that which refuses to grant anything beyond the human, the reasonable, and the comprehensible. Consequently, Einstein’s belief that the universe is comprehensible forced him to doubt the existence of a deity. Logically, the procedure for defining Einstein’s morality then begins with understanding humanity scientifically and holistically. The concept of humanity in some sense replaces a divine being because unsuperstitious religion bases its ethics upon a “sympathetic feeling in joy and in sorrow” (“Religion” 58). Such a foundation reflects the scientific emphases because it requires that mankind react to events in a predictable and generalized manner. Einstein believed that the unison of feeling would be guided by “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself” (52). Then, rather than working to spread a religious doctrine, religion functions to cultivate and implement this shared, instinctual morality. This system seems feasible for interaction, but, since Einstein has removed the personal god as a source of hope and fear, it hardly recognizes individuality. The relegation of case to rule fits with a scientific process and reflects Einstein’s own interest in humanity rather than in human beings. Indeed, to offer salvation to humanity through “ethical culture” was Einstein’s only concern; the loss of individual faith ought to be replaced by science and a realization of common humanity. Einstein’s ethical system of morality without faith developed from his scientific ideals and offers the ability to implement a set of shared emotions and dogmas, but it neglects the importance of personal faith in divinity.
The purely cosmic and universal content of Einstein’s publications on religion elicited much attention but are hardly included in the mythos that has evolved around the scientist. Many not only rejected the aforementioned diminution of the individual but also accused Einstein of completely eliminating any concept of personal sin in favor of this ethical culture (Jammer 81). The conception of god as some pantheistic force evoked much response too. Dr. Fulton Sheen mocked Einstein by asking if anyone would ever “lay down his life for the Milky Way, and concluded, ‘There is only one fault with his cosmical religion: he put an extra letter in the word – the letter “s”’” (82). Despite these heated protests and controversies, Einstein’s religious ideas are seldom associated with the image of this scientist. Though he attempted to unite science and religion, the public’s ignorance of his efforts seems to establish their essential incompatibility, especially when a person tries to mold one to fit the other. The supreme irony, however, rests in Einstein’s own metamorphosis into a public demigod or muse of science. Einstein’s strong beliefs have maintained little momentum because they were primarily the outgrowth of his science rather than original thought, and, though untraditional like his science, they offered no evidence of truth and eventually fell away.
Einstein, nevertheless, always felt the need to explore religion because he felt so profoundly moved by science. He defined science and religion as complementary fields, and he proposed a cooperative union in which science offered facts for religious interpretation. Within this system order manifested itself in everything, and its majesty became Einstein’s god. However, without the personal aspects of faith, his religion, though providing guidance for humanity, was rejected by individuals and finally by posterity. Nevertheless, the intense religious fervor with which Einstein approached science explains much of his success and confirms his position as one who deeply loved the world and the order thereof.
Einstein, Albert. “About Religion.” Ideas and Opinions. Ed. Carl Seelig. New York:
Modern Library, 1994. 39-57.
- - -. “On Scientific Truth.” Ideas and Opinions. Ed. Carl Seelig. New York:
Modern Library, 1994. 286.
Jammer, Max. “Einstein’s Philosophy of Religion.” Einstein and Religion. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1999. 65-151.
Seneca. Natural Questions. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970.