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.
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
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”?
Baruch Spinoza was a 17th
century Jewish philosopher from
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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.