The first post on Einstein highlighted his beliefs about science and religion: science can tell us about what is, while religion “make(s) clear” the goals and aspirations of human existence and sets “them fast in the emotional life of the individual.” In this post, we will turn the searchlight on whether Einstein believed in God.
Einstein and God
Einstein’s view of God is a tangle, partly because his words are often taken out of the multiple contexts in which he spoke about it. His comments can appear quite contradictory on the surface:
“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.” -from the “God letter” (see below)
"[Quantum mechanics] says a lot, but does not really bring us closer to the secret of the 'Old One.' I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice." -Letter to Max Born, 1926
"I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind." -Response to Rabbi Goldstein, 1929, as quoted in “Einstein: His Life and Universe.” (Also reported by The New York Times on Apr. 25, 1929 under the headline "Einstein believes in 'Spinoza's God'")
“Mere unbelief in a personal God is no philosophy at all.” -Letter to V.T. Aaltonen, May 7, 1952, in “The Quotable Einstein”
The numerous interpretations of the above quotes often attempt to cage Einstein in a Deist or Atheist box. But as we will see, his views are complex and appear to change depending on his interlocutors.
Did Einstein Believe in the God of the Bible?
The first quote above is from Einstein’s now famous “God letter” written in 1954 to Eric Gutkind (the author of a book that Einstein did not particularly like: “Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt”). The sentiment against a “primitive” or “naive” notion of God is consistently found in other remarks made throughout his life but is articulated clearly in his 1936 response to a letter from a young school girl. She asked, “Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?”
His response contains the essential form of his belief in God. The answer he gives to her direct question is in the negative:
“Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.”
He has the humility, however, to admit that human understanding of these “forces” is limited and that widespread belief in an “ultimate spirit” persists in spite of scientific achievements.
Einstein concludes with this revealing caveat, that scientists are lead by science to a “religious feeling”:
“But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.”
It is interesting to note that Einstein does not deny the validity of this “religious feeling.” As mentioned previously, his view of science and a “purely rational conception of existence,” cannot explain why humans care for truth and knowledge or tell a person how to live. Religion is the source for such motivation.
Einstein was not an atheist
It would be a stretch then to call Einstein an atheist, even though definitions of atheism can range from simple doubt in the supernatural to disbelief in God/gods. Einstein’s multiple references to spirit/Reason and his conviction that science leads to a “religious feeling,” make it difficult to make the atheist label stick. It is equally clear, however, that Einstein did not believe in the existence of a “personal” God, one interested in human beings. As noted in his response to Rabbi Goldstein, Einstein claims to believe in “Spinoza’s God.”
Did Einstein Believe in the God of Spinoza?
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, essentially Baruch Spinoza believed that nature and the Cause of nature are one and the same:
“Outside of Nature, there is nothing, and everything that exists is a part of Nature and is brought into being by Nature with a deterministic necessity. This unified, unique, productive, necessary being just is what is meant by ‘God.’”
After a lengthy examination of Spinoza’s philosophy there is this critical statement:
“Spinoza does not believe that worshipful awe or religious reverence is an appropriate attitude to take before God or Nature. There is nothing holy or sacred about Nature, and it is certainly not the object of a religious experience.”
Obviously Einstein’s attitude to this “God,” whose existence is encountered throughout the order found in the universe, is decidedly not that of Spinoza. The following explanation, written only a few years before Einstein died, captures the heart of his attitude:
"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." -“The World As I See It”
True religious feeling? The numinous experience
The religious feeling described by Einstein has many of the characteristics of the “numinous experience” described by Rudolph Otto. Fr. Spitzer includes this sense of the numinous as one of the interior senses of God’s presence in the human soul. A short summary can be found here. The key characteristics of this “sense of the mysterious” include a sense of an incomprehensible power that is beyond us that is both inviting and somewhat daunting. Its effect on us, however, is to provoke a response:
"This mysterious, fascinating, uncontrollable, and inviting presence within us and outside of us seems to hold the key to our ultimate purpose in life, and to our ultimate dignity and destiny. We don’t know how, but it feels like it has the power to do this, and this makes us search for the spiritual and the religious in the world around us."
Einstein’s God: Reason manifested in a mysterious, marvelous universe. But is that all?
It is clear that Einstein experienced the numinous, which left him with no doubt about the existence of Something beyond the observable world: “Reason that manifests itself in nature,” as he tells us at the end of the passage quoted above from “The World As I See It.”
A more nuanced picture can be drawn after considering other sources of information. Consider this additional tidbit from the testimony of someone who knew him well:
“Peter Bucky—the son of one of his few intimate friends, grew up knowing Einstein and often chauffeured him—writes that Einstein ‘composed a number of songs to honor God, which I heard him sing to himself many times. I also heard him say that anybody who loves nature must love God. He also told me once that ideas, as such, stemmed from God.’” -Robert Goldman, “Einstein’s God”
A 1929 interview published in the Saturday Evening Post also contains several astonishing statements concerning his admiration for Jesus and even St. Thomas Aquinas. His views may have changed over the years, but here is a sampling of his appreciation for and belief in the existence of Jesus.
“I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”
“No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”
“Even if some of [Jesus’s sayings] have been said before, no one has expressed them so divinely as he.”
When told that Chesterton thought Einstein’s theory of relativity confirmed Aquinas’s cosmology:
“… I am delighted if I have reached the same conclusions as the comprehensive mind of that great Catholic thinker.”
To believe or not to believe
To be satisfied with the existence of this mystery is indeed where a believer would part company with Einstein. For many religious believers, this profound sense of the sacred, the wonder, beauty and mystery found in creation, is at the heart of their belief in the God of the Bible. It is meant to be the driving force behind a believer’s free response: prayer and worship that springs forth from a deep sense of love and gratitude for all that is given and received.
Believers can stand with Einstein in worshipful awe at the marvels and mysteries of the universe so magnificently revealed through the discoveries of science. But God’s Son leapt down from heaven and “dwelt among us,” to reveal the deeply personal nature of God. We do not anthropomorphize God: it is He who chose to reveal Himself as our Father, in a way that our finite minds can understand Him.
As St. Henry Newman reflects on Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, he reminds us of this profound truth.
When, then, our Savior weeps from sympathy at Mary’s tears… It is the love of God, the bowels of compassion of the Almighty and Eternal, condescending to show it as we are capable of receiving it, in the form of human nature.
"Jesus wept… from spontaneous tenderness, from the gentleness and mercy, the encompassing loving-kindness and exuberant affection of the Son of God for his own work, the race of man." -St. John Henry Newman, “The Tears of Christ”
Faith is a gift and must be freely chosen. As Walter Farrell, O.P. reminds us, in order to live fully, each of us must choose to “walk into the arms of God on a road that nature could never build.”