I’m tired of hearing people cherry-pick quotes from intelligent historical figures to make their points, especially this one Albert Einstein said about god: “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.” I imagine if Einstein was alive today, he may have regretted making that statement, considering how often it has been used to support proponents of “faith” – which Einstein would never subscribe to. Einstein was a man of science, and lived his life like a true skeptic. He allowed evidence to influence his opinion, which is how science should always be conducted. The unfortunate thing about Einstein’s legacy of brilliant quotes is that they are sometimes ambiguous, as the most poetic of statements often are (which is part of the reason they’re remembered so long afterwards). This post is intended to be a reference for whenever I see someone erroneously making a statement about Einstein’s quotes on God and religion.
There are some who have taken to fabricating quotes or stories about Einstein which suggest that he was a religious believer, but the most common things the truly religiously devout do is spin his actual words to make their points. For example, the quote above has no context, but the following elaboration paints a different picture.
“The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.”
Einstein seems not exactly to be praising religion, so much as the mysteriousness that religion entails. This is kind of like when I say that I like studying. I actually hate the act of studying, but I love to learn, which is the benefit of studying. Here are some other quotes attributed to him, vaguely suggesting – completely out of any context whatsoever – that he regards God as some specific entity.
- God is subtle but he is not malicious.
- I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details.
- God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically.
It sounds pretty clear that Einstein is talking about a God, but the problem is that Einstein did not always mean the same things everyone else did when they used these words. Consider this quote in which he describes his struggle with the word “religious:”
“I can understand your aversion to the use of the term ‘religion’ to describe an emotional and psychological attitude which shows itself most clearly in Spinoza… I have found no better expression than “religious” for confidence in the rational nature of reality, insofar as it is accessible to human reason. Whenever this feeling is absent, science degenerates into uninspired empiricism.”
Holier than Thou
Einstein grew to be scientifically skeptical, taking an approach that science-minded people today greatly respect. He did not regard anyone who was certain of God’s existence or nonexistence with high esteem. “The bigotry of the nonbeliever is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer,” he once said. In fact, he wanted to distance himself from “atheists” as much as possible.
“I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”
In the secular community, there are a lot of semantics that get thrown around with words like “atheist” and “agnostic,” and it would be best to provide some context. Richard Dawkins famously included a scale in his book “The God Delusion,” in which he rated his conviction of the notion that God does not exist. It was something to the effect of… one a Likert-style scale of 1-7, where 1 is “certain there is no god” and 7 is “certain there is a god,” he would be a 2. He is essentially saying that he cannot be 100% certain, as no one can, that God does not exist, but for all intents and purposes, he is an atheist. Therefore, Einstein would actually have been referring to people who rated themselves on a “1” on that scale. In fact, he was perhaps more critical of atheists with a lack of humility than the faithful with a lack of critical thinking – but keep in mind that he’s referring in the next quote to people who self-identify as a “1.”
“The fanatical atheists 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 traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’– cannot hear the music of the spheres.”
Regardless, Einstein was a science-minded critical thinker, and he viewed the pursuit of proving God’s existence or absence was a fruitless one. In fact, I see that skeptics in the growing skeptical movement today are repeating the same arguments about religion since his generation. Consider this statement he made about the certainty of God.
“To be sure, the doctrine of a personal God interfering with the 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 behavior 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 short, he’s saying “You cannot prove whether God exists or not, which is what believers say to support God’s existence, as if it were a strength. It’s not.” I often see the faulty reasoning he refers to in debates with amateur religion-defenders. It seems that Einstein believed that certainty exemplified man’s stubbornness, which is why he appreciated the humility that people take in considering such important questions.
“I’m absolutely not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. 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 arrangement 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. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.”
If you couldn’t tell from the mentions above, Einstein was clearly influenced by Baruch Spinoza, who believed that god was not personal, but abstract. He once remarked “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” It’s these kinds of statements that causes confusion for people who use him to defend their faith. It’s coming into the territory of people like Allister McGrath – the well-educated author of The Dawkins Delusion, a counter-attack to Dawkin’s book – who wrote “To say that God is like a person is to affirm the divine ability and willingness to relate to others. This does not imply that God is human, or located at a specific point in the universe.” But Einstein lived long enough to respond to the rumors about himself.
YHWH or the highway
Just how faithful was Einstein?
The most clear dismissal of rumors was his response to allegations of being a believer:
“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
He also wrote unapologetically about the foolishness of specific religions:
- The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.
- For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.
- To take those fools in clerical garb seriously is to show them too much honor.
As I mentioned above, he was also a skeptic. Becoming a skeptic is not always a linear path, and not everyone gets there; but Einstein learned critical thinking through science.
“Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude toward the convictions that were alive in any specific social environment – an attitude that has never again left me, even though, later on, it has been tempered by a better insight into the causal connections.”
I personally stopped believing in God when I was much younger, not by a single incident or event, but by a gradual realization about free will which Einstein incidentally also discussed. It’s the same reason why I’m bothered whenever someone attributes someone else’s behaviour to God, as if they are all characters in a predetermined movie.
“[If] this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him? The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God.”
Einstein also wrote at length about morality, mortality and responsibility, once saying “I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.” Religious belief is therefore not only a critical thinking dead-end, but sometimes just a bad thing. Christopher Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” has plentiful amounts of such criticisms of religion.
Modern-day Einstein critiques
Whereas some people lied about his beliefs when he was alive, there are others who try to minimize Einstein by suggesting possible flaws in his reasoning. The author at GodandScience.org says “Albert Einstein was not a Christian or even a theist (one who believes in a personal God), probably because he failed to understand why evil existed. […] If you are an agnostic or atheist, my goal for you would be to recognize what Albert Einstein understood about the universe – that its amazing design demands the existence of a creator God. Then, go beyond Einstein’s faulty understanding of the purpose of the universe and consider the Christian explanation for the purpose of human life and why evil must exist in this world.”
In case you’re wondering, his argument for why evil must exist boils down to this: Evil must exist so that people have the choice to join God (which is good) or reject him (which is evil). Otherwise there would be no free will! And then how would we know who to banish to eternal damnation or bring into heaven? The author gives an example to make his point. “If God had created the universe with no possibility of evil or sin, then the created beings would have had no free will, and, as such, would essentially be programmed computers. […] For example, I can program my computer to say ‘I love you’ when it starts up. Does this mean that the computer really loves me? Of course not!” But Einstein has already addressed this before, when he defended the morals involved in science.
“Science has been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”
A further elaboration on the ethics of man and immortality can be found in this quote:
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed. The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.
Immortality? There are two kinds. The first lives in the imagination of the people, and is thus an illusion. There is a relative immortality which may conserve the memory of an individual for some generations. But there is only one true immortality, on a cosmic scale, and that is the immortality of the cosmos itself. There is no other.”
It’s clear that Einstein had a lot to say about religion and God, and most of it was with a high degree of skepticism, and even much contempt. But that does not mean that he rallied with atheists and tried to bring religion down. He despised anyone who lacked the humility to say “I’m not sure, but this is what I believe,” including the most arrogant atheists as well as the stubborn believers. Furthermore, he held the mysterious nature involved in religion with high regard.
Regardless, no random quote Einstein – or anyone for that matter – utters is a make-or-break statement that somehow provides any real evidence for anything. He could have said “God personally spoke to me,” and it still wouldn’t matter. He was just one man, albeit an extremely bright man who is well-deservedly one of the most recognizable names in the world. His contributions were astronomically substantial, but we should never look at his quotes to use against or for supporting the existence of God. Instead, we should defend his good name against people who try to manipulate history for their benefits. He clearly did not want to be identified as an atheist or a faitheist.
Now, I would never try to one-up Einstein, but I offer this statement as a corollary to the very famous quote which I emboldened in the first paragraph of this post:
Religion without science is natural. Science without religion is free.