Einstein’s God

Max Jammer valiantly tried to make sense of Einstein’s religious notions in his book Einstein and Religion, but few of his readers would contest the view that Einstein’s seemingly contradictory thoughts on religion prove difficult to fathom in a coherent way. As various scholars have noted, Einstein’s genius as a physicist did not carry over to philosophy and theology. In his infamous 1930 essay titled “Religion and Science,” Einstein disparaged the idea of a personal God. He never recanted this view, but atheists have persistently used this essay to falsely show that he was an atheist.

      Einstein did not possess the extravagant genius of Isaac Newton, who was so confident about probing the mysteries of both nature and the supernatural that by the end of his life he had written more words on theology than on physics. Yet, as is often the case with men of scientific genius, Einstein was not reluctant to promote his personal philosophy to a world awed by his genius and eagerly anticipating every word from his pen. We cannot measure the influence of his religious views on the budding young intellectuals of his day or ours, mostly because those views are often obscurely stated and scattered helter-skelter throughout his writings. Einstein simply never thought through his ideas about God, but he also successfully resisted all attempts to place him in any camp of religion or irreligion other than the unique one he had created for himself.

      According to his own account, by the age of twelve Einstein had lost his belief in the biblical approach to God. This resulted from his conviction that science was the only path to truth, and that the biblical stories were decidedly unscientific. Miracles, for example, contradicted the laws of physics, and therefore could not be true. There was also, no doubt, parental influence on Einstein’s break with the ancient God of the Jews. According to one source, his parents were not considered religious; they did not celebrate Jewish rituals and regarded them as decidedly primitive superstitions.

      Yet in later life Einstein was able to make the following remark: “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 minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” Such remarks as these make it possible to see why Einstein compared his idea of God with that of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who likewise attributed to God the primary traits of infinite intelligence and iron will. But Einstein could as well have compared his view of God to Isaac Newton who said, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

      Now it is small comfort for atheists to hear Einstein repudiate formal religion and a personal God only to hear him utter the following: I’m not an atheist and I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangements of the books, but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.” And again, on a later occasion, Einstein said “… everyone 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.”

      Einstein agreed with Spinoza that other human attributes besides intelligence cannot exist in the mind of God, as he made abundantly clear in his rejection of a personal God. “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own – a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.” Though Einstein could see God possessing supreme intelligence, he could not see God reflecting any aspect of supreme love or justice or mercy. Why he could see the one human trait in God but not the others seems a type of special pleading typical of deists. Possibly this was because, reflecting on the supremacy of intellect in his own person, Einstein saw intellect as the human trait that really matters, that dominates all other traits. Thus Einstein’s God reflects Einstein’s own image and likeness. Perhaps now we can understand the comment by Einstein’s wife Elsa on Einstein’s powers of observation: “You cannot analyze him, otherwise you will misjudge him. Such a genius should be irreproachable in every respect. But no, nature doesn’t behave like this. Where she gives extravagantly, she takes away extravagantly.”

      Einstein summarized his relationship with God in the following famous remark. “I want to know how God created this world. I’m not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know his thoughts, the rest are details.” From this we can detect a certain coldness of temperament in Einstein. As he once remarked in a personal essay, he was something of a loner detached from close relations with others, withdrawn into himself, and preferring his solitude to the company of friends and family. Careless of whom he might offend, he was even willing to insult anyone who did not agree with him, as when he revealed in an essay on his personal creed: “Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism.” Given this contempt for the notion of immortality, Einstein would have had to view Jesus, Socrates, Descartes, Newton, Kant and so many other deep thinkers as “feeble souls” wracked by the “fear or ridiculous egotism” that Einstein presumably had overcome. Of all the world’s religions, Einstein thought Buddhism the best and most suited to his own temperament, because Buddhism rejected a personal God and elevated in his place the attainment of Nirvana, or Enlightenment. Again we see here Einstein fixed obsessively on the supremacy of the principle of intellect over feeling.

      Philosophical inconsistencies abound in Einstein’s thought. Though his Buddhist bias made him desirous of being viewed as a pacifist profoundly repulsed by the horrors of war, he was, ironically, eager to advise President Roosevelt to build a new bomb that would bring more horror into the world than the world had ever seen. Was Einstein being honestly introspective when he uttered these words? “The world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.”

Einstein as physicist was the complete determinist. Nature had her laws and they could not be altered or ignored. According to one remark attributed to him, God does not play dice with the universe. So the question of free will was settled by the laws of physics. Nature’s God was not only pure Intellect, but pure intellect with an iron will. As Einstein remarked in his famous telegram to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein, “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.”

      Monsignor (later Archbishop) Fulton Sheen answered Einstein’s frontal attack on free will. “An omnipotent God, Professor Einstein says, would make man irresponsible. It is just the contrary, for how can there be responsibility without personality. The moral order assumes law, and law is based on Mind, and Mind is personal. If God is only Space-Time, there is no moral order; then Hitler is not responsible for driving Professor Einstein out of Germany. It was only a bad collocation of space-time conglomerations which made him act that way.”

      Such a philosophy, if seriously followed, abandons all pretense of guidance from above. God leaves us to survive by our own wits and our own innate propensity for good or evil. That evil might triumph over good in the long haul of history is a possibility Einstein entertained with an air of gloom about the state of the world following World War II. “In Europe to the east of the Rhine free exercise of the intellect exists no longer, the population is terrorized by gangsters who have seized power, and youth is poisoned by systematic lies. The pseudo-success of political adventurers has dazzled the rest of the world; it becomes apparent everywhere that this generation lacks the strength and force which enabled previous generations to win, in painful struggle and at great sacrifice, the political and individual freedom of man.”

      Apparently it did not occur to Einstein that belief in a personal God was what had “enabled previous generation to win.” That God had raised up the “feeble souls” that had called on Him for their strength. The very loss of human freedoms that Einstein said dominated the world “east of the Rhine” was rooted in the rise of Soviet atheistic communism. We have seen that same loss of freedom and rise of atheism prevail everywhere in the world, in North Korea, in China and everywhere that the State becomes God and controls all aspects of our lives with an iron will comparable to Einstein’s deterministic God.

      This raises another important gap in Einstein’s religion. What is the ultimate source and ground of all moral values if not the command of a personal God? Is that source to be found only in the multiplicity of moral values that will change from person to person? If so, then what value is preferable to any contrary value? Who decides this? What is the criteria for deciding this, and who is responsible for transmitting these moral values so that they pervade and unite society in a coherent way? The essential “oughts” of morality cannot be rooted in science by Einstein’s own admission. As Einstein declared, “What we call science has the sole purpose of determining what is. The determining of what ought to be is unrelated to it and cannot be accomplished methodically.” Thus, by doubting the existence of an objective natural law morality that can be detected by the methodical power of reason, as Thomas Aquinas would have insisted, Einstein opened the door to a universal moral relativism.

      Einstein’s religion thus offers no grasp of a coherent moral system. Nor does Einstein ever argue that the great mass of mankind could rise to the task of fathoming by their own wits the complexities of moral philosophy. It follows that Einstein’s religion is hopelessly inadequate as a source of moral guidance, and is apparently only of a limited use to anyone who, possessed of analytic reasoning powers and mental discipline, is able to rationally act in a righteous way.

      Most people with religious convictions try to nurture their religion and seek the wisdom of ever deeper religious insights. Whether this happened to Einstein is problematic. He never seemed to waver in his conviction that God is not a person but rather a kind of infinite Mind. Some of his later remarks, it is true, suggest a softening tone toward religion, as when he said: “The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

      Apparently Einstein could not bring himself to think of his views as mere philosophy, but rather as true religion. Perhaps he even hoped to placate his more religious critics by saying that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” But it’s important to keep in mind that religion without a personal God is mere natural theology, not religion. This explains why Einstein openly favored non-theistic Buddhism over all others as the inevitable religion of the future. Yet Einstein, on that premise, cannot explain why modern science evolved out of Christian culture rather than a Buddhist one.

      As to Einstein’s belief that religion without science is blind, the great irony in the falsehood of this statement is that the personal God he chose to dismiss was the very God who, if Einstein had believed in the Genesis account of Him, would have protected him from his own blindness as a scientist.

      Case in point: the Big Bang theory. When Einstein developed his theories of relativity he chose to assume that the universe was eternal. That, after all, would have to be the case if his God was the great Mind governing an eternal universe but nothing more. In order to protect the eternity of his God, Einstein introduced into the theory of relativity a mathematical device called the cosmological constant. This device, however, was artificial and a construct not of mathematical necessity but rather of Einstein’s own preference for an eternal universe.

      Along comes Georges Lemaitre, a brilliant Belgian priest and mathematician, who examines Einstein’s theory and discovers that if the artificial cosmological constant Einstein supplied in his theory was removed, the history of the universe becomes quite different than Einstein had supposed. It now appears that the present universe is not static but expanding like a balloon. Tracing the history of the universe backward in time it would appear to have begun as a tiny singularity. But this is the precise point at which we see that Lemaitre’s religion was not blind without science. In fact it was Einstein’s science that had become blind without the religion of Genesis opening his eyes to the possibility of a created universe.

      Confronted by Lemaitre’s analysis, all Einstein could remark was that he disagreed with Lemaitre’s philosophy, namely Lemaitre’s openness to the possibility of a created universe. Subsequently, Edward Hubble’s famed telescope along with George Gamow and later generations of astronomers verified Lemaitre’s insight of an expanding universe and today the Big Bang notion still rules as the dominant explanation for the origin and history of the universe.

      As Monsignor Sheen smartly remarked, there is no reason to believe that religion is blind if it does not know Einstein’s physics. Sheen sums up Einstein’s dismissal of traditional theism: “If, therefore, Professor Einstein enunciates a dogma about [traditional] religion, it is of no more value for religion than the statement of a home-run king about home-brew.” Einstein had fallen victim to scientism as an epistemology that tolerates only a “religion” built on scientific pretensions and a “God” limited by Einstein’s definition as little more than the Mind of the universe, whatever that means.

      To the large mass of mankind this impersonal God of Einstein is more unfathomable than his theory of relativity. But, just as people everywhere understand that Einstein’s discoveries are awesome, they are naturally inclined to believe Einstein’s God must be as significantly true as his physics. Yet if these people were knowledgeable about what has gone on in the world of physics since Einstein, they would know that Einstein is by no means the last and ultimate word on the nature of physical reality. The quantum mechanics of Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schroedinger have effectively challenged Einstein’s view of the microcosm.

      The atheist astronomer Carl Sagan commented in his book Cosmos that the early universe was filled with light. Now in the book of Genesis the first words out of God’s mouth are, “Let there be light.” Coincidentally, the very thing in nature that most fascinated Einstein was the nature of light. Had he studied Genesis more carefully, or more dutifully remembered it from the days of his youth, he would have noticed that the God of Genesis shared with Einstein the same fascination, since light was the fundamental thing in nature that God first chose to create. Indeed, from that same original light all the universe has evolved and is lit up with ongoing starlight until this very day.

      Finally, we should not deny to Einstein his own modest concession and tribute to religion, well and poetically expressed. “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.”


Carl Sundell is Professor Emeritus of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas.