Mathematics of XP

Einstein & God

Einst1946 Albert Einstein was the iconic scientist of the twentieth century, and is generally recognised as one of the most intelligent and exceptional people ever to have lived. Einstein was not only gifted with a powerful intuitive grasp of physics, leading to not one but two astonishing advances in the field, but a vibrant comprehension of key philosophical issues. In his philosophy of religion, Einstein contends that religion must give up the notion of a ‘personal God’ – but what did he mean by this, and how valid is this viewpoint? 

At the start of his 1934 book The World as I See It, Einstein laid out the following proposition which provides a concise introduction to his philosophical position on religion:

What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life. 

Untangling Einstein’s position on God and religion can be a tricky process, as opportunistic atheists quote short excerpts from Einstein’s early positions to clumsily prop up their rhetoric, while nervous theists quote short excerpts from Einstein’s later philosophy of religion to prop up their own rhetoric, while conveniently overlooking the central challenge at the heart of Einstein’s position.

For convenience, we will dispose of the atheists first as they are of little consequence to the matter at hand. In a letter from 1941, Einstein expresses his frustrations at the intolerance of fanatics, regardless of the belief that informs this zeal:

I was barked at by numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it. Then there are the fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics and comes from the same source. They are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who—in their grudge against the traditional "opium of the people"—cannot bear the music of the spheres. The Wonder of nature does not become smaller because one cannot measure it by the standards of human moral and human aims.

A quote in Robert Goldman’s book, Einstein’s God, summarizes this position, which accords neatly with my own:

The bigotry of the nonbeliever is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer.

But one should not conclude from this that Einstein was against religion. Far from it! In Ideas and Opinions (1954), he explains the role of religion as he sees it:

Religion is concerned with man's attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship. 

And further:

When we consider the various existing religions as to their essential substance, that is, divested of their myths, they do not seem to me to differ… And this is by no means surprising. For the moral attitudes of a people that is supported by religion need always aim at preserving and promoting the sanity and vitality of the community and its individuals, since otherwise this community is bound to perish. A people that were to honour falsehood, defamation, fraud, and murder would be unable, indeed, to subsist for very long.

It goes without saying that Einstein was in full support of scientific endeavours; his position with respect to science and religion (as is common in those who have studied the situation) was that the two uniquely human activities belong in different spheres: 

For the scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other. The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capable, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations. Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source.

It is this which leads to his most famous quote on the relationship between science and religion: 

Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other, nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies. Though religion may be that which determines the goal, it has, nevertheless, learned from science, in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up…The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

Before proceeding to the crux of this discussion, it is useful to clarify Einstein’s own religious beliefs. They are set out concisely in a response to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the International Synagogue in New York, who sent Einstein a cablegram which bluntly demanded: “Do you believe in God?” Einstein replied (apparently after advice from his wife): 

I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.

But who or what is “Spinoza’s God”?  

Spinoza Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish philosopher from Amsterdam, considered a key figure in the development of ethical philosophy. He also set forth a position on God which was later termed pantheism. In brief, this philosophy equates God with the order of nature, or the universe itself. (This, incidentally, is broadly equivalent to the overarching Hindu theological position, and also of many indigenous religions). Spinoza’s God is therefore the ultimate creative force, beyond comprehension or proof. Some pantheists have summarised their position by saying that in their belief system the Earth is sacred and the universe is divine. Furthermore, it is the view of pantheists that there is no personal divinity, only the universe itself.

This is the point we connect with Einstein’s position on a ‘personal god’. Ideas and Opinions contains this passage which serves as an introduction to the point: 

During the youthful period of mankind's spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man's own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favour by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfilment of their wishes.

A concise summary of Einstein’s position can be found in Albert Einstein: The Human Side (Dukas and Hoffman, 1979): 

I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. 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.

Returning to Ideas and Opinions:

To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science, for this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.  

But I am persuaded that such behaviour on the part of the representatives of religion would not only be unworthy but also fatal. For a doctrine which is able to maintain itself not in clear light but only in the dark, will of necessity lose its effect on mankind, with incalculable harm to human progress. In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task. 

This, then, is the root of Einstein’s problem with a personal God: in his view, it is this which has afforded the priesthood the capacity to exert such irresistible influence on people, although he notes (in a letter to Sigmund Freud in 1930) that it is the ruling class which tend to abuse this power:

The minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and make its tool of them.

Einstein’s position on religion is thus twofold: that humanity requires religion as a mechanism for securing appropriate moral goals in the populace and holding up ideals for life, but that the belief in a personal God must ultimately be abandoned in favour of a more expansive approach: 

The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both natural and spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.

I feel that Einstein is in error to single out Buddhism at this point, as Hinduism is more than capable of absorbing the same position, as is Sufi Islam, but we will return to this point at a more convenient juncture. One can be clear at this point that Einstein has serious concerns about the monotheistic religions (principally Judaism, Christianity and Islam). But his issues lie principally with how they are taught, and not with the religions themselves, as is indicated in this quote from The World as I See It:

If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus taught it of all subsequent additions, especially those of the priests, one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity. It is the duty of every man of good will to strive steadfastly in his own little world to make this teaching of pure humanity a living force, so far as he can. If he makes an honest attempt in this direction without being crushed and trampled under foot by his contemporaries, he may consider himself and the community to which he belongs lucky.

And from Goldman:

Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and the technical application of those insights. Who would not be cheered by this? But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. Humanity has every reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses, and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the enquiring and constructive mind. What these blessed men have given us we must guard and try to keep alive with all our strength if humanity is not to lose its dignity, the security of its existence, and its joy in living.

We can see here that Einstein is fully in support of the central messages of all religions, at least in general terms. Einstein’s position of rejecting a personal God rests on the assumption that the primary manifestation of this belief will be in organized religions manipulating the common man through fear of punishment or promise of reward. While I agree that this manipulation is counterproductive and not in the spirit upon which the great religions were founded, I disagree with Einstein’s conclusion that a personal God must be rejected to resolve the essential problem.

When Einstein looks at a personal God, he appears to have seen only the potential for manipulation by the priesthood. But if one shares in an individual’s spiritual experiences, through a patient discussion bereft of prior assumptions, one finds that a significant volume of individual experiences of a personal God represent a relationship between the individual and God (or an intermediary entity such as angels or spirits in some cases). There is no room in these relationships for manipulation by a hypothetical malevolent priesthood. One may turn to a priest for guidance, but no religious figure can interpose themselves between an individual and their God – this relationship is personal to the individual.

I therefore suggest that there is no need to reject the notion of a personal God – once spiritual relationships are correctly positioned at the level of the individual, and the individual is personally empowered in this belief, there is no possibility of external intercession. It does require of religious leaders the capacity to give up the notion of an authoritative priesthood, that is, for the abolition of a religious chain of command that connects an individual through a priesthood (and perhaps through an archpriest) to God. The relationship is always of the individual to God – no-one can usurp this legitimately.

74vatican_museum Lest I seem to have left Roman Catholics with an intractable position, it should be understood that the Pope is still just a man. The notion of “Papal infallibility” (dating back to the First Vatican Council of 1870) is  still a human concept – one may choose to believe in this, but it must be the individual’s belief. It cannot be forced upon them. And either way, the Pope is still just a man, and subject to all the failings that implies (Vatican I is very clear on this point). In other words, a Catholic may act on the basis of their own faith and this calling supercedes any hierarchical factor in place. The individual Catholic may choose to alter their morality and beliefs to reflect that of the Vatican – but they may also choose not to. Indeed, if their personal relationship with God dictates otherwise, they must do so, or else they betray their own beliefs.

Having stated that there’s no need to reject the idea of a personal God, it should also be noted that there is no problem for those that wish to do so – it is, for instance, a more mature stance than the blind atheism that positions itself solely in opposition of religion with no attempt at eliciting positive behaviour or morality of any kind. In effect, it presents another alternative for an individual’s relationship with God: that of no relationship.

I frequently turn to Hindu philosophy in dealing with religious matters, because in many respects it is one of the most complete religions currently practiced. (What I mean by ‘complete’ in this context will have to wait for a future juncture). It is the third most popular religion in the world today, and also the oldest extant religion. Perhaps this extra time has served to complete its philosophical constructs, while other religions still require some development or refinement.

At the risk of oversimplification, Hindus encourage individuals to find the right path for themselves with regards to religion and spirituality. For many people, and for the majority of practitioners focussed on the concrete matters of living, individual gods and goddesses may be chosen and venerated in a personal shrine. But for those who travel deeper down the Hindu paths of spirituality, these gods are seen as mere shadows and symbols – simple manifestations of a vaster theological concept, that of Brahman, or God, a concept compatible with infinite religious positions. To the Hindu, “Truth is One, but sages call it by many names” (Rig Veda 1:164:46). Travel down this path results in a belief quite similar to Einstein’s pantheism (although he never called his belief thus), but coupled with an expansive tolerance for the individual’s right to relate to gods or God in their own way. 

This tolerance is perhaps all that is needed to repair modern religions; the recognition that all religions reveal a facet of God (a central tenet in Sufi Islam), and the empowerment of the individual as the architect of their relationship with that God, however such an concept is conceived. There is no need to reject a personal God, as Einstein proposed, provided we can all achieve this tolerance – whether or not we choose to believe in a God, and regardless of what model of God we choose to believe (or disbelieve). From Out of My Later Years (1950), Einstein says:

Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man present his views without penalty there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population. 

Harvey Even if, as individuals, we find someone's personal relationship with God incomprehensible or even insane, we can still respect this experience when it inspires the individual to great deeds. It is much as with the relationship between Elwood P. Dowd and the “imaginary” six foot rabbit in the magnificent Pulitzer prize winning play Harvey, by Mary Chase – perfectly played by James Stewart in the film adaptation. In the story, various characters are concerned for Elwood's sanity, but as the tale progresses the audience gains increasing sympathy for Elwood's position - regardless of whether or not Harvey is "real".  The essence of Elwood's philosophy is expressed in the following line:

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In this world, Elwood… you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant." Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. And you may quote me.


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Back with a bang :-). Thanks for an even-more-than-usually edifying tour round the subject.

One interesting point based on second-hand experience and first-hand observation: "no religious figure can interpose themselves between an individual and their God – this relationship is personal to the individual." What if the notion of the personal God is, of itself, a handing down of an idea originally conceived by a psychotic individual or set of individuals? And what if the incidence of belief in regular communication with a personal God were shown to have a correlation with (say) the incidence of people who experience auditory hallucinations unrelated to their experience of a personal God?

First, I believe you may have something against atheists. The idea that atheists are more likely to be morally bankrupt or make "no attempt at eliciting positive behaviour or morality of any kind" is pure invention.

Declared atheists are no more or less likely than religious people to be good or bad. It seems like athiests are often more acerbic, but that may come from the fact that in order to become atheists, we had to overcome an organised religion's idea of "positive behaviour" in favor of one which doesn't include so much bullshit.

Secondly, I believe you are totally misreading what Einstein is saying. Remember, Einstein's first language was German, and he was living in a religiously-charged time. Einstein often seemed to use the word "religion" interchangeably with "philosophy" - perhaps on purpose, to avoid alienating oversensitive zealots, perhaps by linguistic accident.

"Pantheism" is not a religion any more than the new age craze is a religion. There are some religions that are pantheist - such as Hindu - but pantheism itself is a PHILOSOPHY.

Pantheism doesn't automatically contain rituals, divine truths, or holy anything. Pantheism doesn't insist you act in a specific way, or forgive in a certain way.

Patheism's only real goal is to get you to think bigger. All patheism really says is "everything is connected: everything is part of everything. 'God' is the rules and connections everything follows."

Hell, most atheists believe that, in some way or another. Saying you're pantheist means you prefer a more connected, holistic version of the universe... WITHOUT A GOD.

I'm an atheist. And a pantheist. I believe that the rules of the universe are simple, yet cause deeply complex results. I believe they are beautiful and we are intrinsically linked with them - as is everything else. I believe that what most people explain with "god" is actually explained by these rules and connections.

Albert wasn't espousing religion: he was espousing philosophy. Atheists aren't automatically immoral and, in fact, most of them spend more time thinking about the nature of morality than casually religious people.

You believe that man needs God's guidance to act in a moral way. Or, at least, belief in God's guidance.

That's incorrect. Demonstrably incorrect. Monstrously incorrect. It's nothing less than slander against those of us who don't believe.

As another atheist, Craig, can I just ask three questions?

1) In paragraph 2, how do you define "good" and "bad"? Are you a moral relativist, or absolutist? If absolutist, what gives the absolutes? How, in fact, do you define morals?*

2) You clearly have a razor you're using to discriminate religion and philosophy. What is it?

3) Where does Chris state that man needs God's guidance to act in a moral way? Crying 'slander' when you have chosen the words yourself is perhaps unsporting.

* Morals are conventionally defined in terms of right and wrong. With no religious framework to [guide/confine**] me, I have real problems with using those terms as I've never been able to work out what meaning they hold for me. Therefore I consider myself amoral. This doesn't seem to stop me donating to charity, helping old ladies across the road, running the annual barn dance for the local church...

** Delete as you feel appropriate

1) I'm an absolutist, but not an absolute absolutist, heh. I believe that so long as someone has SOME rational philosophy behind their moral code, it will serve. At the very least, it will allow reliable relationships (personal, business, and otherwise). My personal moral code is irrelevant, but just as strong as any religion-inspired morality.

I think that some kind of morality is not simply a necessity: it is automatic. A person will develop a new moral code, or adopt an existing one, in the absence of religion.

I think you might be defining "moral" somewhat differently than I am, but aside from linguistic jumping jacks...

2) Religion implies worship. Philosophy implies conduct. Worship implies blind adherence and groupthink. Conduct does not, although it can result in such under specific circumstances. Usually, when religion gets ahold of it.

3) Sorry, I'm reading into the text. His choice of quotations leans heavily in that direction and he also states:

"Einstein’s position on religion is [...] that humanity requires religion as a mechanism for securing appropriate moral goals in the populace and holding up ideals for life"

"Having stated that there’s no need to reject the idea of a personal God, it should also be noted that there is no problem for those that wish to do so – it is, for instance, a more mature stance than the blind atheism that positions itself solely in opposition of religion with no attempt at eliciting positive behaviour or morality of any kind."

These statements imply - not state, but imply - that atheism is, at least predominantly, an immoral choice. He's hiding behind a shield of indirect analysis rather than standing up and saying so as himself, but I don't think that flies.

If I read too much into it, I'd be surprised, but a clear statement either way would clear the fog. :)

How does ethics follow from metaphysics? Does there exist some mechanism that links the two?

In other words: is Einstein's concern the teaching of "religion" or of ethical behavior?

Oh and by the way, comparing buddhism to judo-christo-muslim monotheism is comparing apples to oranges.

Buddhism is more similar to a philosophical system based on non-materialistic, non-(western)-scientific axioms. Try to compare to those axioms of philosophy of mathematics that are hard to grasp in commosense language.

Hi everyone! Let me start with a clear statement for once:

I am in full support of everyone's right to believe anything they like, be it theist, atheist, non-theist, agnostic or anything else. I am, however, in opposition of intolerance, especially religious intolerance, whether between theist religions as in the Middle East, or between Christians and atheists as in the USA, or wherever else it may raise its ugly head.

It is unfortunate, however, that [atheist bigots] generally identify themselves solely as "atheists", which makes it hard for me to be clear when I am addressing this *subset* of atheists. I tried in this piece to refer to them as "the blind atheism that positions itself *solely* in opposition of religion with no attempt at eliciting positive behaviour or morality of any kind"; I apologise if this was not as clear as I hoped.

I have friends from all belief systems, including atheism, and I support to the death people's right to choose their own belief systems. But I will also oppose in writing and action as required any form of intolerance and bigotry when I encounter it.


Secondly, I cut this quote from the piece for brevity, but I feel I may need to put it back in now. It's from Einstein's "Ideas and Opinions":

"What complicates the solution, however, is the fact that while most people readily agree on what is meant by "science," they are likely to differ on the meaning of "religion."


"As regards religion, on the other hand, one is generally agreed that it deals with goals and evaluations and, in general, with the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting, as far as these are not predetermined by the inalterable hereditary disposition of the human species. Religion is concerned with man's attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship. These ideals religion attempts to attain by exerting an educational influence on tradition and through the development and promulgation of certain easily accessible thoughts and narratives (epics and myths) which are apt to influence evaluation and action along the lines of the accepted ideals"


Peter: you ask a tricky question, of course. :) I think the risk here is irrespective of gods - look at the horrors of Stalin's Russia, for instance. Hopefully, intelligent and open discussion will serve to work against the kind of nightmares your scenario embodies. The more mature our cultures become, hopefully the less risk of this kind of thing happening, but it may well be a very long road indeed.

Craig: Firstly, my unreserved apologies if it seemed this piece was anti-atheist, as this was surely not my intent. I thought I had qualified this adequately, but apparently not. (I actually worried that it would seem too anti-*theist* - how wrong was I!)

Secondly, you have to be careful to remember that words don't have definite, absolute meanings. The line you draw between religion and philosophy is drawn in very different places by different people. It's a linguistic mess!

I don't agree with your assessment that I have misread Einstein; in fact, Einstein's position on the meaning of the word religion (included above) corresponds so neatly with my own that I feel quite intrigued at the places our beliefs differ, if you see what I mean!

I freely accept that many people do not consider pantheism a religion, but I don't consider this objection to be especially valid. Many Christians (Hindus, etc.) consider their religion to be a "way of life" and not a religion, yet we still consider their belief systems to qualify as religion. I will return to this point soon, so let's discuss this then, if you like.

Neither do I personally consider the issue of 'worship' to be very pertinent to the definition of religion, despite the lexicographal nonsense that has occured therein over the last few decades; surely another problem caused by excessive focus on the big three mono-theistic religions in the Western view of religion (another point I hope to return to in the future).

Indeed, a key problem in philosophy of religion is the very issue of what consitutes a religion. My position sets the bar very wide, and therefore wildly disagrees with many other people's ideolectual positions on the word. Still, as long as you understand how Einstein and I are using the words, it should be possible to understand what we each mean, and the problems of differences in ideolect never fully goes away, after all.

And I do not believe that man needs God's guidance to act in a moral way, nor am I clear on where you got this idea from. I do believe that belief systems that define a morality qualify as religions of a kind (in my and certain other ideolects) - this is probably the cause of the miscommunication, since you and I use the word 'religion' in very different ways.

Hope this sets things out more clearly, and once again, my apologies if it seems I was attacking atheism in toto.

translucy: I do not believe that ethics follows necessarily from metaphysics, but I do believe that belief system components that specify both ethics and metaphysics qualify as religions, at least in my ideolect. Einstein's concern is ethical behaviour, but he is specifically interested in the relationship between religion and ethics, since the former generally provides a mechanism for the later.

And why should I not compare apples and oranges? They're both fruit. :) Now true, this comparison is not of the same kind as comparing different apples with each other, but it's all fair game. I can compare squids and quarks, if I like! Everything has some basis for comparison.

Take care, and thanks for your comments!

Chris - I try to specialise in tricky questions :-).

The example here is that of my wife (http://www.reeve.me.uk), a devout Christian with bipolar disorder. She has a very personal relationship with her God, talking to [Hh]im on a regular basis. She also suffers from unrelated auditory and visual hallucinations under some circumstances...

I guess I read in too much - sorry. These days, more than half of the things I read about atheists are written by religious folk who literally believe that atheist == evil. Then I made the mistake of reading up on the conflict in the middle east...

Anyhow, if you define religion to mean "anything vaguely related to spirituality", then, sure, everything fits. That's what Einstein defined it to mean, at least at that moment, because it made it palatable to the majority of the world. It sure is easy to put pegs in round holes when you redefine all the square pegs as round.

Except that that definition is not one I am willing to accept. Period.

Religions have philosophies... but not all philosophies have religion. I do not worship the laws of nature, I do not have holy writs, and I am not going to be rewarded for adhering to them. If proven wrong adequately, my "beliefs" (which aren't beliefs at all) will change to fit the new facts.

The word "religion" carries with it connotations which simply do not apply to me - or most other atheists. Atheism is not a religion.

*shrug* Every person on Earth disbelieves in 99% of all religions - believes they are utterly false, entirely without merit, untrue. Athiests also disbelieve in the last 1% of religions.

Occasionally religious people try to take refuge in the idea that this or that "smart person" wasn't an athiest. Generally these smart people are so entirely beyond the average everyday intelligence that their concept of religion or a supernatural force has no overlap with "normal" concepts of same. When one examines the entire universe and wonders, "How did this complex creation happen?" this is an entirely legitimate and philosophical examination of the possibility that beings vastly superior to us made us.

When one, as almost all Americans do, reads a book and believes it is the literal word of God, that's an entirely different thing. You cannot use the first to justify the second. The fact that Einstein wondered about the origins of the universe has nothing to do with the belief that many Americans have in an interventionist, book-writing God.

Ah, Spinoza.

I remember reading Bertrand Russell's "A History of Western Philosophy," which pretty much went like so:

"Hi I'm Bertrand Russell. This is Socrates. He was wrong. This is Plato. He was wrong. This is Aristotle. He was wrong. This is... [400 pages later] ... is Spinoza. Uh, well, I think he was right. This is Hobbes. He was wrong. This is..."

Peter: I think it's magnificent that you married a devout Christian despite your own atheist beliefs. The hope of the world might lie in such inter-faith marriages! :D

Anon: thanks for your comment! I'm disappointed you felt you needed to post anonymously, though. All viewpoints are welcome here, provided they are expressed with a modicum of politeness. I think you are much too harsh on the US Christian, though. I find that intelligent, philosophically capable Christians do exist in the US, and in greater numbers than most expect, but they are often afraid to express their own viewpoint for fear of attack by either side in the current religious cold war which grips US culture (i.e. either by Christian bigots or atheist bigots). It is easy to mistake the vocal minority as expressing the views of the majority in any realm (religious, political or otherwise); the situation is rarely as clear cut as it seems at first glance.

Craig: Perhaps when I write 'religion' you might consider reading it as 'lifestance'? (You may legitimately ask why I don't just write 'lifestance', of course, but perhaps you can imagine why this is not a linguistic move I can fully respect at this time).

I agree with you that 'atheism' is not a religion, though; neither is 'theism'. They are just stances on the notion of God or gods.

"The word 'religion' carries with it connotations which simply do not apply to me - or most other atheists."

This made me chuckle! :) You're right, of course: the word 'religion' carries with it a vast raft of connotations... Many of these connotations absolutely do not apply to atheists in any manner at all - while others apply all too well to certain atheists! :) And, of course, the same is true for a vast variety of religious/philosophical positions in respect of the word 'religion'. It's a very problematic word - as indicated by the severe reluctance of all manner of people (theist and atheist) to want to apply this word to themselves.

And hence my decision to push for for a new philosophy of religion (especially one not based wholly on Christian theology, since 20th century philosophy of religion was weighed down to incapacity by this problem). However, to resolve this one we'll have to go back to philosophy of language for a bit. I hope you'll stay tuned! :)

Darius: Ha ha! I know what you mean! :) Russell was a very influential figure, but I believe he is best appreciated by the philosopers he paved the way for (such as Wittgenstein) and not his own work, which was, well... let's just say that Russell was to 20th century philosophy what Elvis was to 20th century music and leave him with some dignity. :)

"The hope of the world might lie in such inter-faith marriages!"

Opinion 1: Ultimately, the hope of the world lies in unbiased teaching, teaching of critical evaluation of received information, and reasonable discussion between individuals. Gangs, tribes, nation states and other entities capable of oppression and waging war are collective entities that emerge from the shared identities and ideals of individuals. The most effective (and insidious) way of dealing with them is to encourage the free flow of information and personal evaluation of that information. Chris, your blog does this very well.

Opinion 2: Given that education is controlled by nation states and/or religious groups in most areas (school and Sunday school or equivalent), unbiased teaching is unlikely.

Opinion 3: Judging from the roasting you're getting by (some of) the atheists in these comments, reasonable discussion doesn't look too likely either...

I think postulates between existent vs. non-existent gods and personal vs. impersonal gods can either cancle out or entangle into an Epimenides paradox-esque self-supporting construct. To me these dichotomies are interesting as an introduction to deeper notions. For instance, pantheism synchs nicely with the patternist view of the universe, which synchs nicely with the ludic (rules, game, ect) understanding of the universe, though from there you can make a more dangerous leap to various teleologies and the rest is craters. But stepping beyond that, to panentheism, you include both the known pattenrs and rules of the measurable universe, and the systems that transcend the knowable. This leaves open the potential for the mind, in dialogue with a divinity which may or may not exist outside that mind's substrate, to transcend itself iteravely, and in that transistatis embrace the continual becoming that for subjective purposes, may deserve the term "God".


excellent transition to the foundations of game play which to me also seem by far more interesting than fighting age-old battles...;-)

But again the question is: if you accept some form of pantheism (as an hypothesis that may or may not be disproved) and the ludic mode as (at least one important) fundamental mode of cognitive and social (inter)action how do you derive a system of ethical axioms and (moral) rules from this basis?

Patrick: I can see why you would view these issues as gateways to deeper points given your position (and fair enough too!) I presume you can also see that to a person from a specific religious background the issue of the validity of a personal God might be a significantly more pertinent matter.

I wanted to write this piece because I needed to finally untangle in my own head this issue of Einstein's which I've always found slightly troubling. I wanted to know why Einstein, who agrees with me that you don't make social progress by abandoning the moral/ethical systems that already exist, would feel the need to deny so vociferously a personal God - but the more I dug into it, the more apparent it became that he proposed this solely as a mechanism to cut the power of organised religion.

My feeling - undoubtedly rose-tinted by my idealism - is that people still form the heart of religions as they are practiced and therefore a more mature philosophy of religion might have the same effect without having to be unduly unkind to those lucky enough to enjoy a personal relationship with their God. Or to put it another way, we don't have to sacrifice Mother Teresa to end war in the Middle East. :)

translucy: surely if one accepts pantheism with the premise that "the universe is divine and the Earth is sacred", that provides a basis from which some kind of ethical system can be derived?

Peter: thank you for the hidden praise! :) It's true I recieve a lot of flames from those prone to atheism in my comments, but I really feel after a year that the atheists and I are somewhat closer to a breakthrough in communication than it might first seem - at least, the atheists that matter i.e. those that read me regularly. Random flamers are just background noise. :)

(The problem anyway is doubtless not the atheism, which is by itself harmless, but the dominant temperament of the people prone to it i.e. the Rational temperament, which draws confidence from its certainty - at least that's how it seems according to that particular model).

As for unbiased teaching, we probably won't get unbiased teaching because people always have their biases. Perhaps we should just make better teachers? :)


Take care everyone! Fresh posts begin tomorrow, as usual... should be more gamey this week, but we'll see where my head is when the time comes. :)

Ah, now the comment about Rationals is interesting - over ten years of various tests show me as being bang on the boundary of Rational and Idealist. It's sometimes uncomfortable sitting on that particular fence.

I accept that we won't get unbiased teaching. This is unfortunate given that I still regard it as being where the hope of the world lies, as it means I also accept that there is little hope for the world and those of us in it!

With a few exceptions, teachers are products of their environment. Better teachers are products of a better environment. If 'better' is taken to mean 'better at imparting critical thinking and fewer biases to their charges', the teachers need an environment where they are encouraged to do exactly that. Compare this with the National Curriculum (UK), for example.


ok, accepting these premises, what ethical system do you think of that uses game play as major operator?

You could see belief in a personal god as a strategy to the same ends. Of course, its not a strategy that includes consideration of other strategies, unfortunately, but having a running conversation with a deity in your skull has the implication ;)

I found a ways back that when I speak to god I'm really talking to myself, therefore I'm god.

Peter: you're too hard on the world, I think. We still have a few tricks left. :)

translucy: I have barely scratched the surface on ethics since my focus has been elsewhere. I expect to be digging into this more directly soon, though. If you have any books you'd recommend, let me know!

Patrick: Or perhaps God isn't ready to talk to you directly and has thus let you trick yourself into this assumption. :D

Wait a second... I`m all for keeping this thread as light as possible ;-))
but maybe Patrick touched on something here...

What if believing in a personal God, the "big You" who "is with the faithful during all his/her life"...is like playing single-player mode vs the AI (the "other" whose motivations and inherent mechanisms of "reasoning" remain obscure to the player?

What is multi-player mode like then? And which of the two gives which ethical/moral rules and maybe outcomes under what kind of conditions?

What about building a game that explores multiplayer interaction under different (axiomatic, ethically oriented) belief systems?


one book I do recommend indeed... Since you mentioned somewhere that you are fond of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: Did you ever think of how Austen in her book tries to motivate reasoning about ethical principles? And how Elizabeth and Darcy derive moral guidelines in order to cope with the personal (emotional, sexual), social as well as moral challenges they are confronted with? What do you think of Austen's pretty apparent "mockery" about bigotry?

Peter: I forgot to mention that I also sit on the boundary between Rational and Idealist - and yes, it's a tricky place to be! :) I believe we both generally embody the former more than the latter, though. That said, someone recently said I was somewhat credulous which is a classic idealist trait - it made me smile! :)

translucy: so short of time now... You ask all sorts of great questions, but you also tend to ask questions that would require hours to answer! :) I'm going to have to let you down because I have to get to work. Sorry about that, but needs must...

Hard on the world? Ah, but I am also a pessimist. This means that I am usually *pleasantly* surprised by the actual outcome. It is questionable whether this is preferable to the alternative points of view.

Chris said: "Einstein’s position of rejecting a personal God rests on the assumption that the primary manifestation of this belief will be in organized religions manipulating the common man..."

To me, Einstein did not seem to disagree with a personal god because of observable abuses by clergy, but he disagreed with a personal god because he was a determinist, like many others scientists of his time, and also very much like Spinoza, which came to the same conclusion in rejecting a personal guiding force through a rational exploration of determinism.

Einstein seemed to believe in a deterministic Universe, which was evident in his arguments against the non-deterministic direction of quantum mechanics late in his career. Einstein seemed to consider determinism and a personal god as a contradiction. "I cannot conceive of a personal God... I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. "

His experience on abuses of the clergy were very acute in his lifetime, and Einstein seemed to use that to defend his determinist views. Much in the Spinoza manner, Einstein tested his views on the observable world, and may have asked, "Is a personal god a good thing?" Einstein verified it was not, by observing the way such a viewpoint can be manipulated by power. In Einstein's world, his mathematics, and basis of his views, are logically transparent and testable. He contrasted that with the untestability of the basis of religious power, which he seemed to view that power as rooted in a personal god, and considered the danger of that relationship. His determinist views considered that power basis a lie, and he thus equated it as a chain of slavery. Einstein did have an exception in that he seemed to believe that religion had a clear value in providing a socially stabilizing system of values, and consequently, morals, as his own religion provided.

Although I agree with you in the sense that belief in a personal god is not detrimental in all cases, Einstein seemed to view it as detrimental enough without providing a redeeming value. Interestingly enough, there are many more dynamics of power wielded by intermediating clergy than the existence of a personal god. It provides further value to Einstein defending his determinist viewpoint in focusing specifically upon rejecting the existence of a personal god.

Just some thoughts...

Eric: many thanks for this commentary! I completely agree with what you say here; the issue of Einstein's personal struggle with determinism was something I omitted for clarity in this piece.

Reading your account of it convinces me that in doing so I left out a part of the story, but I think perhaps this piece was already pretty long and I would have struggled to get this additional topic into play - even though it meant I had to leave out the God and dice quotes, which always amuse me. :)

Thanks again!

Thank you for your response, as I find your selection of topics, and viewpoint, fascinating. I would like to continue...

Chris said, "I feel that Einstein is in error to single out Buddhism at this point, as Hinduism is more than capable of absorbing the same position, as is Sufi Islam, but we will return to this point at a more convenient juncture."

One of the reasons Einstein singled out Buddhism specifically, I imagine, is that Siddhartha took Hinduism and stripped it of its power for personal gods and social orders. Salvation from the Hindu birth/death cycle, Enlightenment, the cessation of suffering, is within the immediate power of the individual. In a manner of speaking, Siddhartha, to Einstein, was a prophet that successfully stripped a religion down to a single goal devoid of divine dynamics.

Einstein said: "If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus taught it of all subsequent additions, especially those of the priests, one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity."

Siddhartha, himself, said that was the nature of his teaching, "suffering and the end of suffering."

Interestingly, though, there are aspects of Hinduism, in its many facets, that completely parallel and are highly similar to Buddhism in practice, one example (of many) is in the belief structure of Jnana and Raja Yoga sutras. Buddhism borrows heavily from Hinduism as its basis and is described in Hindu terms, but in order to effectively strip away Hindu cosmogony, Siddhartha teaches on the nature of the unexplainables, ie. those questions in which one is unable to effectively spiritually profit from the answers. This belief structure boundary effectively allows the division of science and religion that Einstein seems to be espousing.

Further, there are other value structures that may meet Einstein's (and Spinoza's) criteria of ethic systems, such as those written by Laozi (Tao Te Ching) and K'ung-fu-tzu (Analects of Confucius), which, oddly enough, arrived around the same time as Siddhartha. Why did Einstein choose Buddhism? Perhaps because of its singular goal devoid of divine dynamics, clearly established boundary between cosmogony and moral cures, as well as its ability to be popular despite a clear rejection of the strongly established religious structure that gave rise to it.

Just some thoughts...

"religion" - metaphysics + daily practice
= ethical principles and moral rules

Eric: comments of this clarity are all but wasted more than two dozen comments deep! :) Do you not have a blog you can post your commentary to, and then trackback to this post? If you don't, consider starting one! Another awesome comment - many thanks and best wishes!

translucy: I just want you to know that I can only find my copy of 'Sense and Sensibility', but you piqued my interest with your Austen reference. Expect me to follow this up over the next month or so, as soon as I find some spare time and a copy of 'Pride and Prejudice'!

Peronally, I (currently) see religion as: mythology (or central narrative) + metaphysics + ethics; not all religions express all elements of this pattern, of course, but then, see today's post about family resemblance. We will most certainly return to this issue in the near future! :)

May I ask, do you have a religion, and if so, of what flavour is it?

what's lizzy bennets religion?

And suppose you've figured out what Lizzy Bennet's "religion" is like my next question would be:
Which elements in this "religion" (specifically in her self-reflection and her reasoning about ethics) set her apart from Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil in "Dangerous liaisons" (not exactly the same epoch or social context but close...).

I swear you delight in being cryptic. :) It's quite entertaining to chew over your riddles, though. :)


i am not trying to be difficult though, at least not on purpose ;-) I simply can't tell you the answer to any of the above questions myself.Let's say there are no words in my current "idiolect". I would say i have a feeling that the answer is "in those stories" (those two books among several others), especially in the detailed descriptions of process and habits of the actors in addition to the mere language.

This "performance" aspect ties descriptions like these closely to the theory of games not just in terms of narrative, mythology, archetypes or ideas but rather in conveying a very detailed description of a whole "world" (inside and outside the minds of the actors) you can re-enact in your own mind while reading.

One important aspect about these two stories is of course that they provide us with (literary) first hand accounts of people who were confronted with the (then novel) universal atheistic doubt as a fundamental challenge during their actual life time (and acted on it very differently indeed).

translucy: I didn't mean to sound as if I was accusing you of being purposefully obscure! I have no problem with the method you're using to communicate - it makes sense to me, it will just take longer to process than a more directly verbal exchange. For me, that only makes it all the more valuable! :)

Take care!

I prefer Laplace's response to Napoleon upon being chided because the Mechanique Celeste contained no mention of God: "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis."

I think it would have served for Einstein as well.

"*shrug* Every person on Earth disbelieves in 99% of all religions - believes they are utterly false, entirely without merit, untrue. "

Hmmm. I am a person on earth and I do not disbelieve in 99% of all religions, that they are utterly false, entirely without meric, untrue.

I suspect that means that your statement is false. . .

Albert Einstein once stated the biggest problem in science is ego- And we all know how large of an ego man has....

Interesting. I'm not as widely read as the rest of you but I read what I can when I can. As far as my religious stance .... hmm I basically turned my back on organized religion at 10 after I had completed bible school and have never looked back. Is there a God? what is God? What is religion for that matter? Morals? The problem in discussion of these concepts in my humble opinion is NOT the individual views on the topics but the diverse definition of the words under discussion. For instance lets take Moral: Merriam- Websters dicionary defines it thus:
Main Entry: 2mor·al
Pronunciation: 'mor-&l, 'mär-; 3 is m&-'ral
Function: noun
1 a : the moral significance or practical lesson (as of a story) b : a passage pointing out usually in conclusion the lesson to be drawn from a story
2 plural a : moral practices or teachings : modes of conduct b : ETHICS
Now with this definition in mind what is Moral/immoral actions,views,opinions,activities etc. in your view? Every individual in the world has their own definition of this concept and they apply it to their every day life. I'm will to bet however that no 2 people in the world include the same things in their view of what is and isn't moral(morale if you prefer ;) ). Therein lies the problem with any discussion of beliefs, without all parties in a discussion working from the same "agreed" upon definition of just what they are discussing no meaningful conclusion can be arrived at. My personal belief system is somewhat (to most VERY) abstract. Is there a God? Give me your definition of the word god as you understand it and I'll tell you if I believe in your definition of the term. Not whether or not I believe in god but whether or not I believe in your definition of the term. God is a personal decision whether or not you believe in any organized religion. No 2 people view their god quite the same nor do any 2 peoples beliefs exactly mirror each other. I've heard devoutly religious people say "How can anyone look at the beauty of nature and the complexity of the cosmos and not believe in God!" and still others have said "How can anyone look at the beauty of nature and the complexity of the cosmos and believe in God!" Depends on your definition of God.

Mike: thanks for your comment! I agree very much with what you say here - our language underpins our reality. I wrote about this in this post, actually. Worth a read if you haven't seen it already.

On the subject of trying to define God, one of the things that amuses me about modern theology is that theists often struggle to agree as to the nature of God, but despite this have no difficulty believing, whilst atheists do not believe in expending time on defining the nature of God, but have no difficulty in disbelieving! Each side seems irrational to the other - the atheist accuses the theist of being irrational for holding belief without proof, while the theist accuses the atheist of being irrational for rejecting something without first understanding it. In such a theological landscape, I contend that only agnosticism may lay fair claim to being a rational belief system, but that rationality is grossly overrated anyway. ;)

Regarding the diversity of moral beliefs, and the problems therein, we shall be looking into this in a little over a month's time when the Ethics Campaign begins.

Thanks for sharing your view!


Apparently the "Personal God" of the psychological method is yours. Your wife's "God" is different - and as someone who knows about the psy method you should understand me.

If your "god" and by that i mean the objective and method to cure your wife, or whathaveyou, cannot do what needs to be done, then your (and perhaps her) "personal god" is, in a sense impotent - in a Freudian sense of course ...:)

Best wishes, I understand though!!!!

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