Albert Einstein is the quintessential scientist, at least in the eyes of most scientific laymen. We continue to be impressed with the sheer brilliance and originality of his work, while at the same time reminding ourselves that in the end he was just another guy who could care less about his reflection in the mirror. For those of us outside scientific circles, we remember him primarily for his famous equation, E=mc2, but the deeper we dig, we realize that this is only a glimpse at the depth of his thought, and not even the labor of love that won him his Nobel Prize in Physics. And for all these reasons (and others) we feel drawn to him both as an individual and as a thinker.
Of particular interest to many of Einstein’s students are his views on God, religion, and the relationship these maintain with the natural world and our study of it. Unfortunately, as with most treatments of another’s faith, specific interpretations reveal as much about us as they do about the thinker in question. More often than not, Einstein is painted as a militant atheist who disdained faith and preferred instead the certainty of cold, hard facts, and many would prefer us to maintain this view. As one writer points out, Einstein referred to the idea of a personal God as “an anthropomorphic concept which I cannot take seriously” (quoted in Brooke 946). And in a letter Einstein wrote a year before his death, he “described belief in God as ‘childish superstition,’ and ridiculed the belief that Jews are ‘the chosen people,’” a claim that as an ethnic Jew he had heard throughout his life (quoted in Natarajan 661).
So, according to this view, while some have sought to prove Einstein’s belief, “Nothing could be further from the truth; indeed, Einstein can be described more accurately as an outright atheist” (Natarajan 655). So while Einstein used the words ‘God’ and ‘religion’ frequently, he did so as a conventional way to express the orderliness of nature. So when he says things like, “God does not play dice” or “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” we should not read these as confessions of faith.
Yet Einstein’s own statements concerning atheism and revealed religion seem to militate against this dominant narrative. In his writings he refers to “fanatical atheists” as “slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle . . . who—in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’—cannot hear the music of the spheres” (Einstein, quoted in Rose). Though Einstein certainly had reservations about what he viewed as the mythical elements in revealed religion, it was not a wholesale rejection. So while he could never bring himself to see revelation as the antidote to “intellectual ignorance” (Bussey 20), he was not unimpressed with biblical ethics, as he himself pointed out: “If one purges the Judaism of the Prophets and Christianity as Jesus Christ taught it of all subsequent additions . . . one is left with a teaching which is capable of curing all the social ills of humanity” (Einstein, quoted in Brooke 952).
Thus while it is important to remember his “dismissal of religion and of a belief in a personal God,” we should also recognize that this is not the whole story (Jaki 31). In fact, though Einstein did not refer to himself as a theist, he did think of himself as religious in his own way, identifying with the views of Spinoza: “admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly” (Brooke 947). He even described this admiration as a “cosmic religious feeling,” which served as the primary inspiration and motivation for doing good science (Brooke 948).
Einstein began working this out in what became the special theory of relativity, which taught him to look for the order behind the seemingly random phenomena he studied. Taken together, these efforts taught him to see the universe as a unified whole accessible through theories that connected as many ‘dots’ in our understanding as possible, and which led ultimately to his work in unified field theory (Brooke 950). And so, as he expanded relativity to the more general form we recognize today, he developed a vision of the cosmos, “fully coherent, unified and simple, existing independently of the observer, that is, not relative to him, and yielding its secrets in the measure in which the mathematical formulae through which it was investigated, embodied unifying power and simplicity” (Jaki 33). In other words, though our perceptions of nature are relative, nature itself is not, and is accessible through sound reasoning and good math.
To Einstein, then, science was more than pure rationalism; his childlike sense of awe led him to value “the role of aesthetic judgment in the evaluation of scientific theories”—quite simply, if a view seemed ugly or quirky, it didn’t pass muster (Brooke 950). As even his more dogmatic disciples concur, then, Einstein “saw the hand of God in the precise nature of physical laws, in their mathematical beauty and elegance, and in their simplicity” and took our recognition of such laws as “evidence of a God, not a God who superseded these laws but one who created them” (Natarajan 656).
And in this regard, Einstein found himself in good company, following in the footsteps of others, “such as Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, and Newton, who were devoutly religious and saw themselves as uncovering these ordinances of divine reason” (though Einstein and Newton were by no means orthodox Christians; Barr, “God”). Einstein, then, was not an atheist (God certainly exists), a theist (he did not see Him as a personal being), or an agnostic (His laws imply His existence), but a deist (witnessing design but denying revelation and divine intervention). To Einstein religion was not ruled out, but was interpreted as a sense of awe in the face of the natural order rather than a personal relationship with a personal deity.
Understanding Einstein’s deistic views raises two important questions. First, can religious faith coexist with rational science? And, if so, how does a faith in God inform our efforts to seek natural causes for natural phenomenon—what scientists refer to as methodological naturalism? Einstein’s example is instructive in both cases, and relies on an appreciation of the concept of mystery. In an age dominated by various forms of rationalism, this is not a word that we use frequently, much less take seriously. To our modern minds, mystery is merely a synonym for ignorance, stupidity or irrationality. We live in a world that denies any “reliance on intuition, tradition, faith, authority or mystery,” and especially when these are informed by religion (Bussey 8). Thus mystery is viewed as manifestly ridiculous. But this may say more about the modern conception of reason than anything else.
Our modern view of things misses an important distinction: ignorance “is an absence of knowledge where knowledge can in principle be obtained,” while mystery (rightly understood) refers to “something that is not amenable to intellectual knowledge or is inexpressible in words” (Bussey 3). This means that one is ignorant when one doesn’t know but can, while a mystery is not merely unknown but unknowable. Mystery affects us in two very similar but nonetheless distinct ways. In the course of our everyday lives we are forever experiencing new things, and though they occasionally amaze us, we do not seek to understand them. This weaker, ordinary sense of mystery may interest us for a time, but our mind soon moves on to other things.
Yet the strong (one may even say transcendent) sense of mystery is much more than this. It is not merely interested in a new phenomenon, but brings us to question how it works. “Overall, one might say that strong mystery tends to lie ‘beyond’ our rational understandings, while everyday mystery lies in and around them, although the two categories are not completely separate” (Bussey 7). It is not what we know that motivates us, but what we don’t. “Mystery is not opposed to reason and should not be despised as ‘unreason’. It extends beyond and around human reason” (Bussey 10). So while the realm of ignorance shrinks by increases in knowledge, each new discovery poses as many questions as it answers. Discovery does not destroy mystery; discovery requires it and deepens it.
Even more surprising, perhaps, is that it is this ‘strong’ sense in which Einstein understood and employed the word:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science . . . . A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. (Einstein in Bussey 4)
Natural beauty and understanding are therefore integrally connected both with one another and the personal wonder we experience as participants in them. “Like all other aspects of the created order, laws of nature are capable of evoking wonder and a sense of mystery, while being at the same time supremely rational” (Bussey 20).
While this in and of itself is probably not difficult to accept, Einstein goes further: human thought (including science itself) is impossible without this strong sense of mystery. So while our potential for knowledge is ever-increasing due to progress in both technology and observation, the likelihood of figuring it all it out remains slim. We simply don’t know what we don’t know; and the more we discover, the more we realize how much we don’t know. Even more discomfiting for many, is that Einstein identifies this as “the truly religious attitude,” and claims it as his own.