Religious views of Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein's religious views have been studied extensively. He said he believed in the "pantheistic" God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, while disassociating himself from the label atheist, preferring, he said an "attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being."
Einstein was raised by secular Jewish parents. In his Autobiographical Notes, Einstein wrote that he had gradually lost his faith early in childhood:
. . . I came—though the child of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents—to a deep religiousness, which, however, reached an abrupt end at the age of twelve. 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. It is quite clear to me that the religious paradise of youth, which was thus lost, was a first attempt to free myself from the chains of the 'merely personal,' from an existence dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in its pursuit. The mental grasp of this extra-personal world within the frame of our capabilities presented itself to my mind, half consciously, half unconsciously, as a supreme goal. Similarly motivated men of the present and of the past, as well as the insights they had achieved, were the friends who could not be lost. The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it.
Personal God and the afterlife
Einstein expressed his skepticism regarding an anthropomorphic deity, often describing it as "naïve" and "childlike". He stated, "It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously. I feel also not able to imagine some will or goal outside the human sphere. My views are near those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly. I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem—the most important of all human problems."
On 22 March 1954 Einstein received a letter from Joseph Dispentiere, an Italian immigrant who had worked as an experimental machinist in New Jersey. Dispentiere had declared himself an atheist and was disappointed by a news report which had cast Einstein as conventionally religious. Einstein replied on 24 March 1954:
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.
In a letter to Beatrice Frohlich, 17 December 1952 Einstein stated, "The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve." Eric Gutkind sent a copy of his book "Choose Life: The Biblical Call To Revolt" to Einstein in 1954. Einstein sent Gutkind a letter in response and wrote, "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. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text."
On 24 April 1929, Einstein cabled Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein in German: "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind." He expanded on this in written answers he gave to a Japanese scholar on his views on science and religion, which appeared as a limited edition publication, on the occasion of Einstein's 50th birthday:
Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and view things in terms of cause and effect. Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order... This firm belief, a belief bound up with a deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as "pantheistic" (Spinoza).
On the question of an afterlife Einstein stated to a Baptist pastor, "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." This sentiment was also expressed in Einstein's The World as I See It, stating: "I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature."
Agnosticism and atheism
Einstein rejected the label atheist. Einstein stated: "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." According to Prince Hubertus, Einstein said, "In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views."
Einstein had previously explored the belief that man could not understand the nature of God. In an interview published in 1930 in G. S. Viereck's book Glimpses of the Great, Einstein, in response to a question about whether or not he believed in God, explained:
Your question [about God] is the most difficult in the world. It is not a question I can answer simply with yes or no. I am not an Atheist. I do not know if I can define myself as a Pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. May I not reply with a parable? The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza's Pantheism. I admire even more his contributions to modern thought. Spinoza is the greatest of modern philosophers, because he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.
In a 1950 letter to M. Berkowitz, Einstein stated that "My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment."
According to biographer Walter Isaacson, Einstein was more inclined to denigrate disbelievers than the faithful. Einstein said in correspondence, "[T]he 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 the traditional 'opium of the people'—cannot bear the music of the spheres." Although he did not believe in a personal God, he indicated that he would never seek to combat such belief because "such a belief seems to me preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook."
In 1945 Guy Raner, Jr. wrote a letter to Einstein, asking him if it was true that a Jesuit priest had caused Einstein to convert from atheism. Einstein replied, "I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. ... It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility and beautiful harmony of the structure of this world—as far as we can grasp it. And that is all."
Like Spinoza, Einstein was a strict determinist who believed that human behavior was completely determined by causal laws. For that reason, he refused the chance aspect of quantum theory, rejecting the concept of a god playing dice with the universe. In letters sent to physicist Max Born, Einstein revealed his devout belief in causal relationships:
You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists, and which I in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way, or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find. Even the great initial success of the quantum theory does not make me believe in the fundamental dice game, although I am well aware that some of our younger colleagues interpret this as a consequence of senility.
Einstein's emphasis on 'belief' and how it connected with determinism was illustrated in a letter of condolence responding to news of the death of one of his lifelong friends. Einstein wrote to the family: "Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
Einstein had admitted to a fascination with philosopher Spinoza's deterministic version of pantheism. American philosopher Charles Hartshorne, in seeking to distinguish deterministic views with his own belief of free will panentheism, coined the distinct typology "Classical pantheism" to distinguish the views of those who hold similar positions to Spinoza's deterministic version of pantheism.
Einstein was a Humanist and a supporter of the Ethical Culture movement. He served on the advisory board of the First Humanist Society of New York. For the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, he stated that the idea of Ethical Culture embodied his personal conception of what is most valuable and enduring in religious idealism. He observed, "Without 'ethical culture' there is no salvation for humanity." He was an honorary associate of the British Humanist organization, the Rationalist Press Association and its journal was among the items present on his desk at his death.
With regard to Divine command theory, Einstein stated, "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms." "A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man's actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God's eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore 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 hopes of reward after death. It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees."
On the importance of ethics he wrote, "The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education. The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action." "I do not believe that a man should be restrained in his daily actions by being afraid of punishment after death or that he should do things only because in this way he will be rewarded after he dies. This does not make sense. The proper guidance during the life of a man should be the weight that he puts upon ethics and the amount of consideration that he has for others." "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."
In his 1949 book The World as I See It, he wrote: "A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations 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 referred to his belief system as "cosmic religion" and authored an eponymous article on the subject in 1954, which later became his book Ideas and Opinions in 1955. The belief system recognized a "miraculous order which manifests itself in all of nature as well as in the world of ideas," devoid of a personal God who rewards and punishes individuals based on their behavior. It rejected a conflict between science and religion, and held that cosmic religion was necessary for science. He told William Hermanns in an interview that "God is a mystery. But a comprehensible mystery. I have nothing but awe when I observe the laws of nature. There are not laws without a lawgiver, but how does this lawgiver look? Certainly not like a man magnified." He added with a smile "some centuries ago I would have been burned or hanged. Nonetheless, I would have been in good company."
In a 1930 New York Times article, Einstein distinguished three human impulses which develop religious belief: fear, social morality, and a cosmic religious feeling. A primitive understanding of causality causes fear, and the fearful invent supernatural beings analogous to themselves. The desire for love and support create a social and moral need for a supreme being; both these styles have an anthropomorphic concept of God. The third style, which Einstein deemed most mature, originates in a deep sense of awe and mystery. He said, the individual feels "the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves in nature ... and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole." Einstein saw science as an antagonist of the first two styles of religious belief, but as a partner in the third. He maintained, "even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other" there are "strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies" as aspirations for truth derive from the religious sphere. For Einstein, "science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." He continued:
a person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value. It seems to me that what is important is the force of this superpersonal content ... regardless of whether any attempt is made to unite this content with a Divine Being, for otherwise it would not be possible to count Buddha and Spinoza as religious personalities. Accordingly a religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance of those super-personal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation ... In this sense religion is the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effect. If one conceives of religion and science according to these definitions then a conflict between them appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be...
An understanding of causality was fundamental to Einstein's ethical beliefs. In Einstein's view, "the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted, in the real sense, by science," for religion can always take refuge in areas that science can not yet explain. It was Einstein's belief that in the "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" and cultivate the "Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself."
In a letter to Eric Gutkind dated 3 January 1954, Einstein wrote in German, "For me the unaltered Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most primitive 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 also 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." In an interview published by Time magazine with George Sylvester Viereck, Einstein spoke of his feelings about Christianity. Viereck was a German born Nazi sympathizer who was jailed in America during World War II for being a German propagandist. At the time of the interview Einstein had been under the impression that Viereck was Jewish. Viereck began by asking Einstein if he considered himself a German or a Jew, to which Einstein responded, "It's possible to be both." Viereck moved along in the interview to ask Einstein if Jews should try to assimilate, to which Einstein replied "We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform." Einstein was then asked to what extent he was influenced by Christianity. "As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene." Einstein was then asked if he accepted the historical existence of Jesus, to which he replied, "Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life."
He stressed however in a conversation with William Hermanns that, "I seriously doubt that Jesus himself said that he was God, for he was too much a Jew to violate that great commandment: Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God and He is one!' and not two or three." Einstein lamented, "Sometimes I think it would have been better if Jesus had never lived. No name was so abused for the sake of power!"
The only Jewish school in Munich had been closed in 1872 for want of students, and in the absence of an alternative Einstein attended Catholic elementary school. He also received Jewish religious education at home, but he did not see a cleave between the two faiths, as he perceived the "sameness of all religions." Einstein was equally impressed by the stories of the Hebrew Bible and the Passion of Jesus. According to biographer Walter Isaacson, Einstein immensely enjoyed the Catholic religion courses which he received at the school. The teachers at his school were liberal and generally made no distinction between student's religions, although some harbored an innate but mild antisemitism. Einstein later recalled an incident involving a teacher who particularly liked him, "One day that teacher brought a long nail to the lesson and told the students that with such nails Christ had been nailed to the Cross by the Jews" and that "Among the children at the elementary school anti-Semitism was prevalent...Physical attacks and insults on the way home from school were frequent, but for the most part not too vicious." Einstein noted, "That was at a Catholic school; how much worse the antisemitism must be in other Prussian schools, one can only imagine." He would later in life recall that "The religion of the fathers, as I encountered it in Munich during religious instruction and in the synagogue, repelled rather than attracted me."
Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.
The quotation has since been repeatedly cited by defenders of Pope Pius XII. An investigation of the quotation by mathematician William C. Waterhouse and Barbara Wolff of the Einstein Archives in Jerusalem found that the statement was mentioned in an unpublished letter from 1947. In the letter to Count Montgelas, Einstein explained that the original comment was a casual one made to a journalist regarding the support of "a few churchmen" for individual rights and intellectual freedom during the early rule of Hitler and that, according to Einstein, the comment had been drastically exaggerated.
In 2008 the Antiques Roadshow television program aired a manuscript expert, Catherine Williamson, authenticating a letter from Einstein in which he confirms that he "made a statement which corresponds approximately" to Time magazine's quotation of him, however "I made this statement during the first years of the Nazi regime—much earlier than 1940—and my expressions were a little more moderate."
On 11 November 1950 the Rev. Cornelius Greenway of Brooklyn wrote a letter to Einstein which had also quoted his alleged remarks about the Church. Einstein responded, "I am, however, a little embarrassed. The wording of the statement you have quoted is not my own. Shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany I had an oral conversation with a newspaper man about these matters. Since then my remarks have been elaborated and exaggerated nearly beyond recognition. I cannot in good conscience write down the statement you sent me as my own. The matter is all the more embarrassing to me because I, like yourself, I am predominantly critical concerning the activities, and especially the political activities, through history of the official clergy. Thus, my former statement, even if reduced to my actual words (which I do not remember in detail) gives a wrong impression of my general attitude."
Catholic Cardinal William Henry O'Connell spoke about Einstein's perceived lack of belief, "The outcome of this doubt and befogged speculation about time and space is a cloak beneath which hides the ghastly apparition of atheism." A Bronx Rabbi criticized both the Cardinal and Einstein for opining on matters outside their expertise: "Einstein would have done better had he not proclaimed his nonbelief in a God who is concerned with fates and actions of individuals. Both have handed down dicta outside their jurisdiction." The Catholic priest and broadcaster Fulton Sheen—whose intellect Einstein admired, even calling him "one of the most intelligent people in today's world"—described Einstein's New York Times article "the sheerest kind of stupidity and nonsense."
William Hermanns conversations
Einstein's conversations with William Hermanns were recorded over a 34-year correspondence. In the conversations Einstein makes various statements about the Christian Churches in general and the Catholic Church in particular: "When you learn the history of the Catholic Church, you wouldn't trust the Center Party. Hasn't Hitler promised to smash the Bolsheviks in Russia? The Church will bless its Catholic soldiers to march alongside the Nazis" (March 1930). "I predict that the Vatican will support Hitler if he comes to power. The Church since Constantine has always favoured the authoritarian State, as long as the State allows the Church to baptize and instruct the masses" (March 1930). "So often in history the Jews have been the instigators of justice and reform whether in Spain, Germany or Russia. But no sooner have they done their job than their 'friends', often blessed by the Church, spit in their faces" (August 1943).
"But what makes me shudder is that the Catholic Church is silent. One doesn't need to be a prophet to say, 'The Catholic Church will pay for this silence...I do not say that the unspeakable crimes of the Church for 2,000 years had always the blessing of the Vatican, but it vaccinated its believers with the idea: We have the true God, and the Jews have crucified Him.' The Church sowed hate instead of love, though the ten commandments state: Thou shalt not kill" (August 1943). "With a few exceptions, the Roman Catholic Church has stressed the value of dogma and ritual, conveying the idea theirs is the only way to reach heaven. I don't need to go to Church to hear if I'm good or bad; my heart tells me this" (August 1943). "I don't like to implant in youth the Church's doctrine of a personal God, because that Church has behaved so inhumanly in the past 2,000 years... Consider the hate the Church manifested against the Jews and then against the Muslims, the Crusades with their crimes, the burning stakes of the inquisition, the tacit consent of Hitler's actions while the Jews and the Poles dug their own graves and were slaughtered. And Hitler is said to have been an altar boy!" (August 1943).
"Yes" Einstein replied vehemently, "It is indeed human, as proved by Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII), who was behind the Concordat with Hitler. Since when can one make a pact with Christ and Satan at the same time?" (August 1943). "The Church has always sold itself to those in power, and agreed to any bargain in return for immunity." (August 1943) "If I were allowed to give advice to the Churches," Einstein continued, "I would tell them to begin with a conversion among themselves, and to stop playing power politics. Consider what mass misery they have produced in Spain, South America and Russia." (September 1948).
In response to a Catholic convert who asked "Didn't you state that the Church was the only opponent of Communism?" Einstein replied, "I don't have to emphasise that the Church at last became a strong opponent of National Socialism, as well." Einstein's secretary Helen Dukas added, "Dr. Einstein didn't mean only the Catholic church, but all churches." When the convert mentioned that family members had been gassed by the Nazis, Einstein replied that "he also felt guilty—adding that the whole Church, beginning with the Vatican, should feel guilt." (September 1948)
"About God, I cannot accept any concept based on the authority of the Church... As long as I can remember. I have resented mass indoctrination. I cannot prove to you there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him, I would be a liar. I do not believe in the God of theology who rewards good and punishes evil. His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking, but by immutable laws" (1954). William Miller of Life Magazine who was present at this meeting described Einstein as looking like a "living saint" and speaking with "angelic indifference."
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- Einstein's God: Conversations About Science - FORA.tv
- Einstein's God - talk by Walter Isaacson, FORA.tv
- Einstein & Faith - by Walter Isaacson, Time