Friday, April 06, 2007

Einstein and Faith

In the ongoing culture wars between science and faith, Albert Einstein has been claimed by both sides. The science side holds him up as the paragon of the quest for scientific truth, even using him (much to Einstein's regret) as a support for atheist ideals. The faith side point to his statements about God and the universe as proof that scientists can still be people of faith.

One of the frequently cited quotes from the faith side is this: "God does not play dice with the universe." This quote is often taken to mean that Einstein believed in a creator God and a created universe. However, there is little support for this view other than that quote (which was actually meant to suggest that the universe operates on specific, non-random laws, not that there is a personal God who is concerned with human fate).

Time magazine has an exclusive excerpt from Walter Isaacson's new biography of Einstein, Einstein: His Life and Universe. They've chosen to highlight a section that deals with Einstein and his faith.
Einstein did, however, retain from his childhood religious phase a profound faith in, and reverence for, the harmony and beauty of what he called the mind of God as it was expressed in the creation of the universe and its laws. Around the time he turned 50, he began to articulate more clearly--in various essays, interviews and letters--his deepening appreciation of his belief in God, although a rather impersonal version of one. One particular evening in 1929, the year he turned 50, captures Einstein's middle-age deistic faith. He and his wife were at a dinner party in Berlin when a guest expressed a belief in astrology. Einstein ridiculed the notion as pure superstition. Another guest stepped in and similarly disparaged religion. Belief in God, he insisted, was likewise a superstition.

At this point the host tried to silence him by invoking the fact that even Einstein harbored religious beliefs. "It isn't possible!" the skeptical guest said, turning to Einstein to ask if he was, in fact, religious. "Yes, you can call it that," Einstein replied calmly. "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 that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious."

Shortly after his 50th birthday, Einstein also gave a remarkable interview in which he was more revealing than he had ever been about his religious sensibility. It was with George Sylvester Viereck, who had been born in Germany, moved to America as a child and then spent his life writing gaudily erotic poetry, interviewing great men and expressing his complex love for his fatherland. Einstein assumed Viereck was Jewish. In fact, Viereck proudly traced his lineage to the family of the Kaiser, and he would later become a Nazi sympathizer who was jailed in America during World War II for being a German propagandist.

Viereck began by asking Einstein whether he considered himself a German or a Jew. "It's possible to be both," replied Einstein. "Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind."

Should Jews try to assimilate? "We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform."

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? "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."

You accept 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."

Do you believe in God? "I'm 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 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 marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws."

Is this a Jewish concept of God? "I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will. Jews believe in free will. They believe that man shapes his own life. I reject that doctrine. In that respect I am not a Jew."

Is this Spinoza's God? "I am fascinated by Spinoza's pantheism, but I admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things."

Do you believe in immortality? "No. And one life is enough for me."

Einstein tried to express these feelings clearly, both for himself and all of those who wanted a simple answer from him about his faith. So in the summer of 1930, amid his sailing and ruminations in Caputh, he composed a credo, "What I Believe," that he recorded for a human-rights group and later published. It concluded with an explanation of what he meant when he called himself religious: "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 and 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."

Here is one more quote that I think summarizes Einstein's position most clearly, while at the same addressing the current interest in the atheist movements spearheaded by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. "There are people who say there is no God," he told a friend. "But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views." And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos," he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. "The fanatical atheists," he wrote in a letter, "are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after 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."

The whole article is quite interesting, and I highly recommend it. The book is going on my list of things to read.

I am most drawn to Big Al's statements about awe, what the historian of religion Mircea Eliade has termed (following Rudolf Otto), the mysterium tremendum -- the awe-inspiring mystery.

The atheists claim there is no proof for God, so therefore belief is irrational. Certainly, I do not believe in the God of mainstream religion -- especially not an anthropomorphized deity. And yet I do not agree with Einstein on the absence of free will.

But I do believe in the mysterium tremendum. I feel awed by the vast mystery of a universe that, at present, we can not fully grasp. Is that a belief in God? I don't know. Somehow, I can't buy into the belief that the universe -- and all life -- is the result of random chance and random mutations.

I have no idea what to call it, but there is some kind of hidden intelligence at work that animates the material universe. Does it care about human beings? Not in the slightest. Can it answer prayers? No. But it does, it seems to me, have a purpose.

Whatever it is that lies behind the veil of flesh and stone and light has one discernible purpose -- its own evolution toward awareness.


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