May 16 2008

Einstein’s Religion

I am currently reading Einstein, His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. It’s a great read – especially interesting are Einstein’s early years. it is difficult to look past Einstein’s iconic greatness, the transformative impact he had on physics, and his obvious genius to see the humble man he was at the dawn of his career. This section of the book is filled with the constant irony of those people around Einstein who did not recognize what he would become.

What Albert Einstein would become is an icon of scientific genius. With this he has also become the ultimate authority figure – the prime target for anyone wishing to commit the argument from authority logical fallacy, and the obsession of all cranks. Recognizing this in his later years, Einstein wrote:

In the past it never occurred to me that every casual remark of mine would be snatched up and recorded. Otherwise I would have crept further into my shell.

The following quote is also attributed to Einstein:

Astrology is a science in itself and contains an illuminating body of knowledge. It taught me many things, and I am greatly indebted to it. Geophysical evidence reveals the power of the stars and the planets in relation to the terrestrial. In turn, astrology reinforces this power to some extent. This is why astrology is like a life-giving elixir to mankind.

Einstein the astrologer? Not quite. While some were content to look through actual quotes from Einstein in order to cherry pick those they could take out of context to support their beliefs, others simply made up quotes. The above quote is not from Einstein, it’s a hoax. (It’s a rather clumsy hoax, given how effusive and poetic it is in support of astrology.)

Likewise, over the years many people have speculated as to what Einstein’s specific religious beliefs were, usually in an attempt to claim his great name in support of their faith (or lack thereof). From a purely logical point of view, it should not matter. Because Einstein was a brilliant theoretical physicist this does not mean his opinions on all intellectual matters must be looked upon with reverence. Such reverence for the ideas of Aristotle contributed greatly to the 1500 years of European dark ages.

But it is legitimately interesting to hear what great thinkers think – even outside the field of their greatness.

Einstein certainly referred to “God” often in his musings about the universe. He most famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe,” referring to his queasiness over the field of quantum mechanics he helped found. Einstein scholars, however, pointed out that to Einstein “God” was the impersonal natural order that lies behind the universe, not the personal God of Judeo-Christianity.

Recently a letter has surfaced that serves to clarify Einstein’s opinions about religion – at least his opinions in his later years. In a letter to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, dated January 3 1954, Einstein wrote:

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

This is consistent with what was previously known about Einstein’s attitude. As is painstakingly documented in Isaacson’s excellent book, which draws from the numerous surviving letters written by Einstien, he did not profess any religion. Although he considered himself ethnically a Jew, he did not subscribe to the Jewish faith. On applications he often recorded his religion as “none.” He made an exception when applying for a job (before his fame kicked in) at the state-run University of Praque at a time when all government employees had to profess some faith. On that application he recorded his religion as “Mosaic.”

I do not think this recent revelation regarding Einstein’s attitudes toward religion change anything. Scholars already had a pretty solid grasp on Einstein’s attitudes from his other writings, although it is nice to have such an unequivocal statement to put to bed any debate. Even though everyone would love to have support for their beliefs from the man whose name has become synonymous with genius, I don’t think this new information will change anyone’s opinions or inform the current debates on the matter.

However, even if just from the point of view of history, it is nice to have closure on this one question. But it remains to be seen if this will end all speculation about Einstein’s religious beliefs. There are too many people who do not let a simple thing like the facts get in the way of a good argument.

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