I’m currently enwrapped in the shameless pleasure of reading Albert Einstein’s biography by Walter Isaacson. This book has basically destroyed my shallow assumptions about Einstein by introducing me to the man (as opposed to the idea of the man). And one area of interest that people eighty years ago had a hard time wrapping their minds around was Einstein’s religion.
Did he believe in the Jewish God of Abraham? Or what about the Christian God of the Apostle Paul? Or was he an agnostic? Perhaps an atheist? Did Einstein even have a religion or was he religionless?
According to Einstein’s own confession, he was religious. But confusion came into play when he tried to explain his religion.
“Try and penetrate with out limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.” (p.384)
Finally Einstein was asked pointblank: Do you believe in a God? To which he replied: “I’m not an atheist.” Einstein went on to say:
“The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvellously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.” (p.386)
So Einstein did believed in a God. Or did he believe in a “god”? Or is he talking about a force of nature yet to be discovered? Was science his religion? Or was he suggesting that this “force” was the Christian God? Or perhaps the Jewish God? (For Christians, those are one and the same.)
According to Isaacson, “As a child, Einstein had gone through an ecstatic religious phrase, then rebelled against it.” Around the age of 50 Einstein began to talk more about his views of God. At what point he “came” to believe in a God, if any, cannot be known. It may be that he always believed that a god of some sort existed. But it was his science – the very same science that novice people today use to proclaim atheism – that led him directly into belief in a God.
See, Einstein was a strict determinist. He “displayed a profound faith in the orderliness of the universe.” This faith led him to resist quantum mechanics (today we know that Einstein was wrong to do so). It was also this conviction of orderliness that formed the backbone of his scientific outlook as well as his religious.
According to Isaacson, Einstein wrote,
“The highest satisfaction of a scientific person is to come to the realization that God Himself could not have arranged these connections any other way than that which does exist, any more than it would have been in His power to make four a prime number.” (p.385)
Here Einstein is appealing to the medieval philosophy broadly accepted today that God cannot do that which is locally impossible. Just as God cannot hear silence, smell nothing, or make four a prime number, he also cannot create a universe with different orderly laws than the one we live in. (Of course Einstein’s ideas are not new, and they have long before Einstein been debated by theologians.)
But what kind of God did Einstein believe in?
Einstein was a deist. He believed that a god of some sort must exist, but he, she, it is not a personal being. “I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.”
I find this emphatic position strange since Einstein appeals to our “limited minds” when accepting a god, yet seems to exhibit such confidence in knowing what kind of God he is not. In any case, the question was then put to him: what about Christianity? His answer here is what interests me greatly:
“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.”
His interviewer asked, so you accepted the historical existence of Jesus?
“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.”
I find those statements by Einstein to be some of the most powerful made about Jesus I’ve ever read, by Christian or otherwise. In fact, if I were not a believer already, Einstein may have just made a convert of me.
Question: What do you think of Einstein’s view of God and Jesus? You can leave a comment by clicking here.