Great scientists of our time who sound religious usually turn out not to be so when you examine their beliefs more deeply. This is certainly true of Einstein and Hawking. The present Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, told me that he goes to church as an ‘unbelieving Anglican . . . out of loyalty to the tribe’. He has no theistic beliefs, but shares the poetic naturalism that the cosmos provokes in the other scientists I have mentioned. In the course of a recently televised conversation, I challenged my friend the obstetrician Robert Winston, a respected pillar of British Jewry, to admit that his Judaism was of exactly this character and that he didn’t really believe in anything supernatural. He came close to admitting it but shied at the last fence (to be fair, he was supposed to be interviewing me, not the other way around). When I pressed him, he said he found that Judaism provided a good discipline to help him structure his life and lead a good one. Perhaps it does; but that, of course, has not the smallest bearing on the truth value of any of its supernatural claims. There are many intellectual atheists who proudly call themselves Jews and observe Jewish rites, perhaps out of loyalty to an ancient tradition or to murdered relatives, but also because of a confused and confusing willingness to label as ‘religion’ the pantheistic reverence which many of us share with its most distinguished exponent, Albert Einstein. They may not believe but, to borrow Dan Dennett’s phrase, they ‘believe in belief’.
One of Einstein’s most eagerly quoted remarks is ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’ But Einstein also said,
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.
Does it seem that Einstein contradicted himself? That his words can be cherry-picked for quotes to support both sides of an argument? No. By ‘religion’ Einstein meant something entirely different from what is conventionally meant. As I continue to clarify the distinction between supernatural religion on the one hand and Einsteinian religion on the other, bear in mind that I am calling only supernatural gods delusional. Here are some more quotations from Einstein, to give a flavour of Einsteinian religion.
I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion.
I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism.
The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive.
In greater numbers since his death, religious apologists understandably try to claim Einstein as one of their own. Some of his religious contemporaries saw him very differently. In 1940 Einstein
wrote a famous paper justifying his statement ‘I do not believe in a personal God.’ This and similar statements provoked a storm of letters from the religiously orthodox, many of them alluding to Einstein’s Jewish origins. The extracts that follow are taken from Max Jammer’s book Einstein and Religion (which is also my main source of quotations from Einstein himself on religious matters). The Roman Catholic Bishop of Kansas City said: ‘It is sad to see a man, who comes from the race of the Old Testament and its teaching, deny the great tradition of that race.’ Other Catholic clergymen chimed in: ‘There is no other God but a personal God . . . Einstein does not know what he is talking about. He is all wrong. Some men think that because they have achieved a high degree of learning in some field, they are qualified to express opinions in all.’ The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned. That clergyman presumably would not have deferred to the expertise of a claimed ‘fairyologist’ on the exact shape and colour of fairy wings. Both he and the bishop thought that Einstein, being theologically untrained, had misunderstood the nature of God. On the contrary, Einstein
understood very well exactly what he was denying.
An American Roman Catholic lawyer, working on behalf of an ecumenical coalition, wrote to Einstein:
We deeply regret that you made your statement . . . in which you ridicule the idea of a personal God. In the past ten years nothing has been so calculated to make people think that Hitler had some reason to expel the Jews from Germany as your statement. Conceding your right to free speech, I still say that your statement constitutes you as one of the greatest sources of discord in America.
A New York rabbi said: ‘Einstein is unquestionably a great scientist, but his religious views are diametrically opposed to Judaism.’ ‘But’? ‘But’? Why not ‘and’?
The president of a historical society in New Jersey wrote a letter that so damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind, it is worth reading twice:
We respect your learning, Dr Einstein; but there is one thing you do not seem to have learned: that God is a spirit and cannot be found through the telescope or microscope, no more than human thought or emotion can be found by analyzing the brain. As everyone knows, religion is based on Faith, not knowledge. Every thinking person, perhaps, is assailed at times with religious doubt. My own faith has wavered many a time. But I never told anyone of my spiritual aberrations for two reasons: (1) I feared that I might, by mere suggestion, disturb and damage the life and hopes of some fellow being; (2) because I agree with the writer who said, ‘There is a mean streak in anyone who will destroy another’s faith.’ . . . I hope, Dr Einstein, that you were misquoted and that you will yet say something more pleasing to the vast number of the American people who delight to do you honor.
What a devastatingly revealing letter! Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice. Less abject but more shocking was the letter from the Founder of the Calvary Tabernacle Association in Oklahoma:
Professor Einstein, I believe that every Christian in America will answer you, ‘We will not give up our belief in our God and his son Jesus Christ, but we invite you, if you do not believe in the God of the people of this nation, to go back where you came from.’ I have done everything in my power to be a blessing to Israel, and then you come along and with one statement from your blasphemous tongue, do more to hurt the cause of your people than all the efforts of the Christians who love Israel can do to stamp out anti-Semitism in our land. Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, ‘Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from, or stop trying to break down the faith of a people who gave you a welcome when you were forced to flee your native land.’
The one thing all his theistic critics got right was that Einstein was not one of them. He was repeatedly indignant at the suggestion that he was a theist. So, was he a deist, like Voltaire and Diderot? Or a pantheist, like Spinoza, whose philosophy he admired: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings’?
Let’s remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation. In many theistic belief systems, the deity is intimately involved in human affairs. He answers prayers; forgives or punishes sins; intervenes in the world by performing miracles; frets about good and bad deeds, and knows when we do them (or even think of doing them). A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place. The deist God never intervenes thereafter, and certainly has no specific interest in human affairs. Pantheists don’t believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a nonsupernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings. Deists differ from theists in that their God does not answer prayers, is not interested in sins or confessions, does not read our thoughts and does not intervene with capricious miracles. Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist’s metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down
‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ means ‘Could the universe have begun in any other way?’
There is every reason to think that famous Einsteinisms like ‘God is subtle but he is not malicious’ or ‘He does not play dice’ or ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ are pantheistic, not deistic, and certainly not theistic. ‘God does not play dice’ should be translated as ‘Randomness does not lie at the heart of all things.’ ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ means ‘Could the universe have begun in any other way?’ Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. So is Stephen Hawking, and so are most of those physicists who occasionally slip into the language of religious metaphor. Paul Davies’s The Mind of God seems to hover somewhere between Einsteinian pantheism and an obscure form of deism – for which he was rewarded with the Templeton Prize (a very large sum of money given annually by the Templeton Foundation, usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion).
Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: ‘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.’ In this sense I too am religious, with the reservation that ‘cannot grasp’ does not have to mean ‘forever ungraspable’. But I prefer not to call myself religious because it is misleading. It is destructively misleading because, for the vast majority of people, ‘religion’ implies ‘supernatural’. Carl Sagan put it well: ‘. . . if by “God” one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying . . . it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.’
Amusingly, Sagan’s last point was foreshadowed by the Reverend Dr Fulton J. Sheen, a professor at the Catholic University of America, as part of a fierce attack upon Einstein’s 1940 disavowal of a personal God. Sheen sarcastically asked whether anyone would be prepared to lay down his life for the Milky Way. He seemed to think he was making a point against Einstein, rather than for him, for he added: ‘There is only one fault with his cosmical religion: he put an extra letter in the word – the letter “s”.’ There is nothing comical about Einstein’s beliefs. Nevertheless, I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense. The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miraclewreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason.
From the book The God Delusion