This is a long-winded comment in reply to Mike Smith’s recent blog post (and comments therein), Steven Weinberg’s new book on the history of science. We got to discussing a personal letter written by Albert Einstein about a year before his death in 1955. The letter — which seems to present religion as “childish” — surfaced in the public eye when it was sold at an auction in 2008. Given Einstein’s generally expressed views about religion, the letter appears to undercut those views.
Or does it? Atheists and theists alike have tried to claim Einstein as their own, but his views are complex enough to resist a clear victory by either side. The letter seems a point in favor of atheism, but that may be an over-simplification.
In any event, my reply ran long (and was getting kind of off-topic), so I decided to use it as an excuse to try to get back into blogging again…
One question: Where do you get that “it was in remarks prepared for a conference on science and religion”? I don’t find that reference in your linked article or in the one I link below.
I’m certainly no expert in Einstein’s heartfelt opinions, but there are some interesting (to me, anyway) data points I think are worthy of consideration:
A single letter written by a 74-year-old man versus a body of work that expresses a fairly positive view on the idea of spirituality (but which consistently expresses a negative view of organized religion and superstition).
The letter seems, in large part, to be countering the assertion that the Jews are “chosen” people (which apparently the book asserted). That would be very much in line with his generally expressed views. (As far back as 1920: “But I am a Jew and glad to belong to the Jewish people, though I do not regard it in any way as chosen.”)
In this Guardian article about the letter, Einstein expert John Brooke says ‘that Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism. He was offended by their lack of humility and once wrote. “The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.”‘
Make of this what you will, but his Wikiquote page uses the word “childish” exactly five times. All five in service of that quote. Twice in the quote itself and three times in naming the Guardian article linked above. That same Wikiquote page uses the word “religion” 156 times.
John Brooke also writes: “Like many other great scientists he does not fit the boxes in which popular polemicists like to pigeonhole him. … It is clear for example that he had respect for the religious values enshrined within Judaic and Christian traditions … but what he understood by religion was something far more subtle than what is usually meant by the word in popular discussion.”
In Religion and Science (1930) he wrote: “I assert that the cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest driving force behind scientific research.” (The article appeared again with some re-wording in 1954. That quote there appeared as: “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.”)
It’s in Science and Religion (1941) we find the quote about religion and science being lame without each other. Just prior to that quote is: “But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion.”
Therein he also wrote: “Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just, and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord man solace, help, and guidance; also, by virtue of its simplicity it is accessible to the most undeveloped mind. But, on the other hand, there are decisive weaknesses attached to this idea in itself, which have been painfully felt since the beginning of history. […] The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God.”
In Religion and Science: Irreconcilable? (1948): “Does there truly exist an insuperable contradiction between religion and science? Can religion be superseded by science? The answers to these questions have, for centuries, given rise to considerable dispute and, indeed, bitter fighting. Yet, in my own mind there can be no doubt that in both cases a dispassionate consideration can only lead to a negative answer.”
In Einstein’s God (Robert Goldman, 1997) he’s quoted: “The bigotry of the nonbeliever is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer.”
He had a very high regard for Spinoza and his ideas. Even in the letter we’re discussing he writes, “our wonderful Spinoza” and in 1920 he penned a short poem expressing his love for the man.
Taken as a whole, there seems a clear picture of the man and his views, and those views don’t seem — to me, anyway — to smell of accommodation but to express a genuine, if complex and difficult to categorize, view.
Einstein clearly never believed in a personal god or in the superstitions of organized religion, but neither did he seem to believe in a godless, empty universe. In a 1929 letter he wrote: “We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul (“Beseeltheit”) as it reveals itself in man and animal.”