Einstein on God and Religion

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

A recent issue of TIME magazine carried a series of excerpts from the diaries of Albert Einstein that give us an insight into how he felt about God and religion. There is a lot of disagreement as to whether he was an atheist or a believer. These excerpts let him speak for himself.

What exactly did he believe about God and religion? Here are some of his comments:

Asked at a dinner party as to whether he was religious, he replied: “Yes, you can call it that. Try and penetrate with our 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 we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.”

He was Jewish, but his parents were agnostic about Judaism and sent him to a Catholic school as a boy. There he studied both the Catholic catechism and the Jewish scriptures with some enthusiasm. Asked to what extent Christianity influenced his life, he answered: “As a child I received religious instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarenen ... 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.”

Asked whether or not he believed in God: “I am not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled 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 towards God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws.”

At one point, he composed a personal creed. Here’s one of its tenets: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly : this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

As well, he was always harder on atheists than on believers in his criticisms: “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility towards the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.” Doctrinaire atheists, he suggested, are unconsciously and unhealthily reacting to their past: “Fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after a hard struggle. They are creatures who - in their grudge against traditional religion as ‘the opium of the masses’ - cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

But, despite these insights,, his faith was not traditional. He doubted that God was personal and he didn’t believe in personal immortality.

So where does he really land in terms of God and religion?

He didn’t get some things right, but then who does? As Christians we believe that the first thing we need to affirm is that God is ineffable. God escapes our thought.. That means that, while we can know God, we can’t imagine God, can’t conceptualize God, and can’t speak with any accuracy about God. God is infinite being and that, by definition, is beyond the categories of our thought and imagination. Trying to imagine God is like trying to imagine the highest number possible, an impossibility because numbers have no limit, you can always count one more.

That God cannot be imagined with any accuracy is, in fact, a Christian dogma. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) taught dogmatically that any words we use about God are more inaccurate than accurate, suggesting that Einstein’s “feeling of utter humility towards the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos” is perhaps closer to the truth of faith than is the concept of God of his critics.

Personally, I find his insights healthy and refreshing - and a valuable apologetic for belief in God. When the person who is perhaps the greatest scientific mind in history tells us that there is an unimaginable, benign, awe-inspiring, ordering presence beyond us that is undergirding everything and that we should live in wonder and humility in the face of that, then the arguments of lesser minds that faith is naive and superstitious become considerably less compelling.