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Did Einstein Believe in God?

Raymond D. Bradley

When Einstein, famously, said that "God does not play dice," did that mean that he believed in God?

On the face of it, the answer is "Yes." Hence it is not surprising that many people who say they believe in God like to appeal to Einstein's authority in defense of their own beliefs. It gives them comfort to be able to say that such a great man shared their religious beliefs.

But appeals to authority are fraught with peril. What if it turns out that the god that Einstein was referring to is nothing like the god of the believer? Will the believer change his or her religion so as to bring it in line with that of Einstein?

When someone says, "I believe in God," the first question we need to ask is "Which God?"

Einstein, of course, was the son of Jewish parents. Was he, therefore, referring to the Jewish God whose chief prophet was Moses? Or, since he spent a good deal of his life in a "Christian" country, the United States of America, was he referring to the Christian God whose chief prophet was Jesus? Or could he have been referring to some other god? After all, experts in comparative religion can list well over 240 gods in whom people have believed.

Gods and religions

In order to plot Einstein's location on the spectrum of religious belief and disbelief it will be helpful to distinguish between the following:

Polytheism

Some people have believed in the existence of many gods. They conceive of their gods as supernatural beings who intervene in the natural world from time to time, performing so-called miracles and interacting with human beings, usually in person.

They are called polytheists. The traditional religions of the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, were polytheistic religions. So are hinduism and mahayana buddhism (as distinct from therevada buddhism).

Criticisms of polytheistic religions usually take the form of allegations that gods like Mars (god of war), Venus (goddess of love), and Pluto (god of death) were simply imagined projections of human attributes and experiences, and have no real existence outside the human mind.

Clearly, Einstein wasn't a polytheist, since he used the singular term "God" rather than the plural "gods."

Monotheism

Sometime around 1350 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), certain religious thinkers abandoned the polytheism of their ancestors and came to believe in the existence of just one god. According to the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, an Egyptian pharaoh by the name of Akhenaten (husband of the well-known Queen Nefertiti and, possibly, father of the even more famous "King Tut," Tutankhamen) was the founder of monotheism, with the Hebrew leader, Moses, following closely in his footsteps.

But the monotheistic religion that Akhenaten established was soon abandoned. The main monotheistic religions that survived are widely known as "Abrahamic" religions. These are:

  • Judaism (whose god, Yaweh, chose Moses as his chief prophet).
  • Christianity (whose god, the Christian God, chose his son Jesus as his chief prophet)
  • Islam (whose god, Allah, chose Mohammed as his chief prophet).

Clearly, each of these religions conceives of their God as being different from the God of each of the others, since each attributes different properties to its own "God" (properties that are incompatible with those attributed to the other gods). Because of the doctrinal differences between them, they have become logical rivals to one another: at best only one of them could be true. And sadly, history shows that they have become bitter rivals of one another on the battlefield as well.

What all theists hold in common, however, are three main beliefs:

  1. that there exists only one supremely intelligent personal being who, by virtue of being the designer and creator of the natural world, has a supernatural mode of existence
  2. that this supreme being performs miracles from time to time
  3. that this supreme being has revealed himself in sacred texts like the Jewish Torah (Old Testament), the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments), and the Muslim Koran.

Each of these theistic religions has been criticized, not only by followers of rival religions, but also by thinkers who reject them all. It has been argued, for instance, that:

  • since they are logically incompatible, at best only one of them can be true;
  • the alleged evidences--such as miracles--cited in support of any one of them are negated by the evidences cited in support of its rivals;
  • each is torn apart by rival sects each one of which claims to be the only true religion;
  • since the sacred scriptures of each religion contain logical inconsistencies and factual errors about matters of history and science, they should be recognized as man-made, not the inerrant word of the God they supposedly reveal;
  • the existence of a supreme being--supreme in intelligence and moral virtue--can't be reconciled with the evil nature of the world he has allegedly designed and created; and that
  • the moral viewpoints of all three are primitive and out of tune with the needs and aspirations of modern humans.

For reasons like these, many liberal theologians have rejected the certitudes of their fundamentalist brethren. Within the ranks of Christian bishops and theologians, for example, there are some--such as Bishop John A. Robinson--who claim that it is a mistake to think of God as a supernatural being "out there." Rejecting all three of the defining characteristics of theism--supernaturalism, miracles, and revelation--they define "God" in terms of the "inner world" of human psychology as "that which concerns us ultimately," or "what you take seriously without any reservation."[1] Some critics--such as Bishop Spong--have even gone so far as to question whether Moses and Jesus were genuine historical figures since, outside the Bible, there seems not to be any reliable evidence that either actually existed. Not surprisingly, these defectors from orthodoxy have been labeled "atheists" by those of a more-conservative leaning.

How many of these criticisms Einstein himself would have wanted to make is unclear. But he has stated unequivocally that, by the age of twelve, he had rejected any sort of theistic religion.[2] He could no longer bring himself to believe in any sort of miracle-performing God of the sort that was supposedly revealed in the Torah, the Bible, or the Koran.

But the ideas of a supernatural being performing miracles and revealing himself to us, are definitionally required of theism. So it follows that when Einstein used the expressions "God," or "the Lord," or "the Old One," he must have been referring to the god of some nontheistic religion. But which?

Deism

Deists don't go as far as the liberal theologians mentioned above. They still believe in the existence of a supernatural being who created the universe and set it in motion. But in their view, this being has declined thereafter to intervene in its affairs or to reveal himself/herself to us. They believe in a Supreme Being, but decline to identify this god with the "God" of Judaism, or of Christianity, or of Islam. In short, of the three main beliefs shared by all theistic religions, they retain only:

  1. that there exists only one supremely intelligent personal being who, by virtue of being the designer and creator of the natural world, has a supernatural mode of existence

while rejecting both:

  1. that this supreme being performs miracles from time to time
  2. that this supreme being has revealed himself in sacred texts like the Jewish Torah (Old Testament), the Christian Bible (Old and New Testaments), and the Muslim Koran.

Not surprisingly, since deists reject all orthodox forms of theistic religion, they are often called atheists. And in one sense of the word, they are. So it is not surprising that, in the history of religion, many deists have been lumped together with self-professed atheists and persecuted accordingly. Yet deists share with theists a belief in the existence of a supreme Creator-god whereas in a stricter sense of the word, atheists don't believe in any sort of god whatever.

According to deists, most of the arguments for theism are residues of superstition. The main argument that they think carries some weight is that from the need to explain why the universe exists in the first place. Surely, they would say, it must have been caused to exist by some preexisting being, namely God. Yet this argument, too, has its critics. Some liberal Christian theologians, for example, would point out that to try explaining why the natural world exists by postulating a being in a supernatural world is to embark on an endless quest. For then the question arises, "Who caused God to exist?" There seems to be no escape from the dilemma: Either something can exist without having been caused to exist by something else (in which case there is no reason why the natural world should not be that thing) or there must be a cause for God, and for the being that caused him, and so on, ad infinitum.

Was Einstein a deist? It seems not. Indeed, as we shall see, he rejected the concept of any sort of supernatural being or god distinct from nature. His god is to be identified with nature itself.

Pantheism

Pantheists believe that nature itself deserves to be called "God" since nature itself deserves our feelings of reverence and awe. For the pantheist, nothing is more worthy of reverence, or even worship, than the awesome power and beauty of the cosmos itself.

Pantheism caters to the emotional need that many people feel for so-called "spiritual values" (as opposed to materialistic values), a need to value something beyond themselves or even the human race.

Pantheism has a long and distinguished history. (Certain versions of Taoism are pantheistic. So is Therevada Buddhism.) And it has included several noted philosophers, such as the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

Einstein himself, it turns out, was a pantheist whose views, he himself said, were "close to those of Spinoza":

It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropomorphic 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 to those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly.[3]

He revealed his pantheistic leanings again when he wrote:

My feeling is insofar religious as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as "laws of nature."[4]

Moreover, Einstein strongly resented having his religious convictions misrepresented:

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.[5]

Clearly, Einstein's "God" is not at all like the God that most people think of when they hear the word. Neither is the "God" of the famous cosmologist and mathematician, Stephen Hawking, whose talk of "the mind of God" has given comfort to many religious believers. Hawking also is a pantheist. When asked by CNN's Larry King whether he believed in God, Hawking answered:

Yes, if by God is meant the embodiment of the laws of the universe.

We began by asking "Did Einstein believe in God?" The answer, as Hawking pointed out, depends on what you mean by "God." In one sense (the Pantheist sense), Einstein did believe in God. But in another sense he didn't. Indeed, except for his deciding to use the term "God" in a way that is unfamiliar to most people, his views are indistinguishable from those of someone who is an unabashed atheist. Deism, some critics have said, is nothing but soft-sell atheism.

Atheism

The term "atheist" is usually reserved for someone who doesn't believe in any supernatural God or gods whatever, and who--in order to avoid being misunderstood--doesn't use the word "God" to refer to anything at all.

Although the term "atheist" has negative connotations for many people, it is worth remembering that in that sense of the word in which one is an atheist if one denies any of the defining characteristics of theism--(1), (2), or (3) above--the term applies to many of the most thoughtful and highly moral people throughout history. As we have seen, it applies to many liberal so-called Christians;[6] it applies to Deists; and it applies to Pantheists such as Einstein.

It is worth remembering, too, that atheists are not alone in their disbelief. Theists don't believe in the existence of any God other than their own. A Christian, for example, no more believes in the existence of any of the pagan gods such as Mars, Venus, or Pluto, than he or she believes in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. An atheist just adds the theist's God to the list of those in whom he or she sees no good reason to believe. All, an atheist would say, are products of superstition.

Notes

[1] See Alistair MacIntyre "God and the Theologians" in The Honest to God Debate, ed. John A. Robinson and David L. Edwards, (SCM Press Ltd., London, 1963), p.215.

[2] Albert Einstein, "Autobiographical Notes," in Albert Einstein, Philosopher-Scientist, ed. Paul Schilpp, (Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1959), Volume 1, pp. 4-5.

[3] Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion (Princeton University Press, 1999), p.138-9.

[4] Letter to A. Chapple, Australia, February 23, 1954; Einstein Archive 59-405; also quoted in Nathan and Norden, Einstein on Peace (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1960), p. 510

[5] From a letter Einstein wrote in English, dated 24 March 1954. It is included in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, ed. Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman (Princeton University Press, 1981).

[6] Thus in "God and the Theologians" (op. cit.) Alistair MacIntyre began his review of Bishop Robinson's Honest to God (SCM Paperbacks, London, 1963) by asserting: "What is striking about Dr. Robinson's book is first and foremost that he is an atheist." And he ended his review with the sardonic comment: "The creed of the English [the likes of Robinson, that is] is that there is no God and that it is wise to pray to him from time to time."




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Published:
  2007-02-19

Categories:
  Freethought, Biography, Secularism

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