By Steve Beard
When Albert Einstein first introduced his theory of relativity dealing with space and time, it was widely joked that there were only three people in the world who comprehended it. During a question and answer time after a lecture, the acclaimed British scientist Sir Arthur Eddington was asked if he was one of the three. After a lengthy pause, Eddington replied, “I’m trying to think who the third person is.”
Although the story may be apocryphal, it still grants a sigh of relief to all those who struggled with science in school. It is not as though most of us sit around and chat about energy equaling mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, more commonly known as E=mc2.
As a cultural icon, Einstein was the ultimate caricature of an absentminded professor. When he was young, the family maid referred to him as the “dopey one.” As an adult, his moustache was too bushy, his hair untamable, and his clothing unfashionable. His most famous portrait is of him sticking out his tongue. You gotta love a physicist who knows the pose that even makes a kid laugh.
Walter Isaacson’s book, Einstein: His Life and Universe, intrigued me because of its lengthy chapter on faith. I had wrongly assumed that Einstein was an atheist. What I discovered was quite the opposite. In addition to wanting to know why the sky is blue and the quantum theory of radiation, this man of unsurpassed genius and unquenchable curiosity was enamored with figuring out the most profound of mysteries. “I want to know how God created this world…I want to know his thoughts; the rest are details,” he said.
Einstein was raised in a secular Jewish home and attended a large Catholic school at the age of six. He was the only Jew among the seventy students in his class. As was expected, he studied Catholicism; as wasn’t expected, it turned out that he enjoyed it.
As an early manifestation of youthful rebellion toward his non-observant parents, young Albert became a devout Jew. “He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail,” his sister recalled. He followed the rules of the Sabbath, ate no pork, and kept kosher. “He even composed his own hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school,” reports Isaacson.
At age twelve, prior to preparing for his bar mitzvah, he suddenly gave up his zealous faith. Although he gave up his observant Judaism, he was still perplexed and curious about the harmony and beauty of creation that he would later call the “mind of God.” He settled into a deistic faith that embraced a non-intervening Creator.
As he grew older, Einstein became more outspoken about his beliefs. At the age of fifty, he granted an interview that delved into his Jewish upbringing and religious beliefs:
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.”
Einstein’s comments address the pervasive myth that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. It is also mistakenly assumed that all scientists are non-believers. Despite the arguments from some of the more vocal atheist scientists—“I am attacking God, all gods, and everything supernatural,” writes Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion—it is not true today, and it certainly was not true for Einstein.
Quoted in Isaacson’s book, Einstein said, “There are people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” The famous atheists of his day such as George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, and Sigmund Freud had a keen taste for denigrating those who believed in God. Einstein, on the other hand, was not shy about expressing his feelings about non-believers. “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.
“The fanatical atheists,” he once 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.”
What is so striking about Einstein’s writing is his humility and poetic sense of creation. Not even eloquent theologians use such refreshing phrases as the “music of the spheres.”
In 1929, Einstein and his wife were at a dinner party and the discussion turned to astrology. Einstein denounced it as superstition. One of the other guests likewise derided religion as mere superstition. When pressed to explain his own views, Einstein said, “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.”
Later, he further articulated his viewpoints in his essay “What I Believe.” “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,” wrote Einstein. “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.”
The mop-top genius who captivated the affection of the world with his quirky brilliance was insatiably curious as a child about why the compass always pointed north. He knew there must have been a reason. As a mature scientist, his desire to know true north led him on his quest to grasp the mind of God.
At a conference on science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Einstein said, “Science can be created only by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion.”
The lecture garnered major press coverage and his conclusion became widely quoted: “The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” If anyone earned the right to make such an authoritative statement about science and religion, Albert Einstein would be the one.